“civic nationalism” ostensibly may prevail inthe United States, but in other parts of theworld—the Balkans are a prime example—religion, kinship, and ethnicity are the defin-ing elements of national and group identity.
In regions like the Balkans, passions, notAmerican notions of “rational choice,” arethe determinants of conflict. Before theUnited States is drawn even more deeply intothe Kosovo war, the conflict’s roots should beunderstood.Deeply rooted ethnic and religious ani-mosities are pervasive in the Balkans. Formore than half a millennium, the region hasbeen a fault line separating EuropeanChristendom from the Islamic world.
Theorigins of the current conflict go back to1389, when the Ottoman Empire defeated anarmy led by Serbian Prince Lazar at KosovoPolje, the Field of Blackbirds.
As a result of their defeat, the Serbs were subjected toOttoman rule until being granted indepen-dence by Europe’s great powers at the 1878Congress of Berlin. (It was not until theBalkan Wars, in 1912–13, that Serbia wrestedKosovo from the Ottoman Empire.) Over theintervening centuries, Kosovo Polje wastransformed into an epic tale of Serbian hero-ism, and the battle became the centerpiece of the national myth that sustained the Serbsduring their long subjugation to Ottomanrule. Kosovo was also seen by the Serbs as thecradle of their civilization and was (andremains) home to churches, monasteries, andother sites of great historical significance tothe Serbian nation.Untangling the grievances of rival Balkanpeoples is no easy task. Who did what towhom, and why, is not always clear, anddepending on the starting point, one arrivesat different answers. In this century, there isno doubt that the Serbs’ pent-up hatred of Muslim ethnic Albanians and Turks inKosovo found violent expression in theBalkan Wars. As one regional expert notes:The Balkan Wars were to set the prece-dent in this century for massive wavesof ethnic cleansing and the forcedmigrations of hundreds of thousandsof people. All the worst evils that werewitnessed in the former Yugoslaviabetween 1991 and 1995 were presentin the Balkan Wars, including large-scale massacres of civilians, thedestruction of whole towns, and thegross manipulation of the media.
After World War I, the new, Serb-dominatedYugoslav government followed a discrimina-tory policy toward Kosovo’s ethnicAlbanians. During World War II, which forYugoslavia was also a bloody civil war, manyethnic Albanians sought revenge against theSerbs by siding with the German and Italianoccupiers, and the Nazi SS was notably suc-cessful in recruiting troops from Kosovo’sethnic Albanian population. (The same wastrue of the Muslim population in Bosnia.)During the post–World War II rule of Marshal Josef Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s latentethnic conflicts were suppressed. Tito, how-ever, tended to tilt against the Serbs when itcame to the distribution of power withinthe Yugoslavian federation. Specifically, inKosovo he largely allowed the ethnicAlbanians to remain in control, much tothe dismay of the Serbian population. In1974 Tito went even further and grantedenhanced autonomy to Kosovo, the popula-tion of which was increasingly comprised of ethnic Albanians.By the late 1980s, when SlobodanMilosevic launched his rise to power by play-ing the “Kosovo card,” an attempt to tapSerbian national sentiment, ethnic Albaniansmade up nearly 90 percent of the province’spopulation. On the eve of World War II, Serbshad accounted for more than 25 percent, andperhaps as much as 40 percent, of the popu-lation. Their declining numbers in Kosovoare explained by three factors. First, duringWorld War II, many Serbs were killed, andothers fled to escape retribution from ethnicAlbanians. Second, during the Tito period,many Serbs left Kosovo because they feltthemselves to be victims of discrimination bythe ethnic Albanian authorities running the
Untangling thegrievances of rivalBalkan peoples isno easy task. Whodid what towhom, and why, isnot always clear.