Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 8, 16 August 1999

Sam Vaknin A   B A L K A N   E N C O U N T E R:
The Bad Blood of Kosovo

Dr Sam Vaknin

The old Montenegrins, tall as their mountains, their rocky faces ravaged by an unforgiving weather, define "osveta" in the following way:

"Osveta, means... a kind of spiritual fulfilment. You killed my son, so I killed yours; I have taken revenge for that, so now I sit peacefully in my chair."

Milovan Djilas, who helped Tito become Tito and then was imprisoned for trying to be Djilas, wrote in his book, Land Without Justice (Harcourt, Brace, 1958):

"Vengeance - this a breath of life one shares from the cradle with one's fellow clansmen, in both good fortune and bad, vengeance from eternity. Vengeance was the debt we paid for the love and sacrifice our forebears and fellow clansmen bore for us. It was the defence of our honour and good name, and the guarantee of our maidens. It was our pride before others; our blood was not water that anyone could spill. It was, moreover, our pastures and springs - more beautiful than anyone else's - our family feasts and births. It was the glow in our eyes, the flame in our cheeks, the pounding in our temples, the word that turned to stone in our throats on our hearing that our blood had been shed. It was the sacred task transmitted in the hour of death to those who had just been conceived in our blood. It was centuries of manly pride and heroism, survival, a mother's milk and a sister's vow, bereaved parents and children in black, joy and songs turned into silence and wailing. It was all, all."

And this is what, many years earlier, Margaret Durham had to say in her celebrated ethnography of Albania - Some Tribal Origins of Laws and Customs of the Balkans (Allan and Unwin, 1928):

"A certain family had long been notorious for evil-doing, robbing, shooting, and being a pest to the tribe. A gathering of all the heads condemned all the males of the family to death. Men were appointed to lay in wait for them on a certain day and pick them off; and on that daythe whole seventeen of them were shot. One was but five and another but twelve years old. I protested against thus killing children who must be innocent and was told: 'It was bad blood and must not be further propagated.' Such was the belief in heredity that it was proposed to kill an unfortunate woman who was pregnant, lest she should bear a male and so renew the evil."

In the second century BC, Kosovo was populated by peoples with picturesque names: the Iliyrians, Thracians, the Celts. The whole area was under Roman rule and consequently subjected to the industriousness and meticulousness of the Empire. Roads were paved; cities were built; populations moved; and commerce flourished.

This lasted 200 years until Slav tribes descended from the Carpathian mountains and put an end to it - rounding out this prosperous period with orgies of blood and fire. To this very day, serious Greek politicians invoke this primordial invasion in their effort to convince an incredulous world that the present-day Macedonians are not the true Macedonians. "They are the offspring of invading Slavs," they claim passionately.

It took another two centuries and a brief Byzantine occupation to force the reluctant Slavs to settle along the Sava river and begin forming the poor semblance of a civilization. Roving "saints" of fervent disposition taught them a new alphabet. Cyril and Metodius were succeeded by disciples all over Central and Eastern Europe: Amos Comenius in the Czech lands, Kliment Ohridski in Macedonia and others elsewhere. This new-found ability to cast one's myths on paper, to hand the national memory down to future generations and the new-found Christian religion coagulated into an emerging, distinct culture.

By the 12th century, Kosovo was entirely Slav; or, to be more precise, entirely Serb. The Slavs fractured into three groups: the Croats and Slovenes, baptized by Rome, became ardent Roman Catholics; the Serbs, introduced to their faith via Byzantium, remained Eastern Orthodox. This division was to last 1000 years - as the Croats and the Slovenes came under the influence and rule of the Catholic Habsburgs while the Serbs were subjected to the Ottoman chaos. Geography mirrored a tormented topography of mentalities, religious persuasions and political affiliations. The Serbs occupied today's Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia Herzegovina; the Croats and Slovenes occupied the rest of latter-day Yugoslavia. Within this long history characterised by separation the Tito-generated unity of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes represented but a brief and false note. It could not have lasted and, indeed, it hasn't.

During the late 12th century the Serbs established a principality in Kosovo, forming the core of what later came to be known as the Serb Golden Age. It was situated in the rustic but magnificent valley of Ibar and controlled most of the Sandzak. Gradually, the whole of hitherto empty Kosovo became a Serb domain. The Sebs felt sufficiently at home to form a Serb Orthodox Church, with its seat in Raska, just north of Kosovo. It took a mere 19 years (1200 to 1219) to complete this feat of independence yet the repercussion were felt for the hundreds of years which followed as Kosovo was fought over by Serbs, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Romans and Byzantines.

For the Serbs, it was a Golden Age. Under the Nemanje dynasty, luck struck thrice in the figures of kings Stephen (1169 to 1189), Milutin (1281 to 1321) and Dusan (1331 to 1355). Workers were brought in from Transylvania to mine the wealth of the land. Ever more prosperous Kosovo became the throbbing heart of Serb land. The splendid royal court, ravishing in gold and red, radiated power north of Kosovo, up to the Adriatic Sea and into today's Slovenia - making Pec the new seat of the Serbian Orthodox church.

When King Dusan died, history held its breath, the nation poised precariously on a precipice of internecine conflict. The stability of the Golden Age turned out to be false. The question of inheritance, translated into the currency of power plays, tore the land apart. The Turks were there to pick up the pieces. Although their official victory came on 28 June 1389, in the still masochistically celebrated battle of Kosovo Polje, the Turks did not exert any real control over this newly gained territory for another 70 years. Besieged by Mongols from the east, the Turks - already the ailing man of Europe - retreated from Kosovo and left the Serbs, powerful and ferocious even in defeat, to their own self-destructive devices. The Turks simply had neither the strength or resources to fight battles on two fronts.

Thus far, no Albanians had appeared in the chronicle of this cursed land. It is, therefore, almost startling to find them there in 1459, sufficiently armed and organized to oppose the Turks. By this time, the Turkish beast, having dealt the Mongols some mortal blows, had shifted its attention to another sore in its by now writhing body, to Kosovo. Turkish armies conquered Prizren, driving the dilapidated and depleted Serb forces before them. In Prizren, it was an Albanian king, Skanderberg, who rebelled against them . At the time, Albanians were Catholic (as many of them are to this day), hence making their war against their future allies was a holy war. It was not until 250 years later that the Turks embarked upon a policy of actively encouraging the (now Muslim) Albanians to emigrate to Kosovo - only after the Serbs had been expelled, following an unsuccessful rebellion in 1690.

Such encouragement on the part of the Turks was nothing extraordinary. Empires throughout history settled "loyal" populations where they displaced restive ones. However, in Kosovo, a confluence of fault lines created especially bitter sediments, which went on to poison the waters of co-existence for centuries to come. Within these contentious waters, converted Muslim Albanians were pitted against Christian Serbs, who continue to characterise the Albanians as collaborators and traitors fighting against Serb mythical heroes - an ascendent nation against a dispersed one

In 1690, Serbs fleeing from Kosovo, from Serbia itself, from Bosnia and Herzegovina and from Macedonia moved north to refugee camps set up by the Habsburg empire. They settled in Vojvodina and Krajina, thus sowing the seeds of future conflicts with Croatia and Hungary. All this time, they carried with them a baggage of hatred and revenge, a lethal, bloodied promise to return and exact the price for betrayal from the Albanians. In 1737, they established a Serb homeland in Vojvodina. In 1738, they rebelled, only to be defeated a second time on the site of their national trauma - Kosovo Polje. Another wave of immigrants followed, and another wave of Albanians took over abandoned Serb property in Metohija. In 1766, the Turks abolished the seat of the Serb church in Pec. It seemed that the Serb nation had been all but eradicated.

This did not turn out to be the case, however. In one of the more magnificent sleights of hand that history is so famous for, the Russians, in the wake of the Crimean War (1853-56), forced the defeated Ottoman empire to grant the Serbs autonomy. It was nothing like the hallowed sovereignty they had had in the past or the glory of the Dusan court, but it was a step that rekindled nationalistic sentiments. Since that time, this flame has remained ablaze and lies at the heart of Milosevic's so-called Wars of Inheritance.

By the mid 19th century, Kosovo was entirely "Alabanized." Pristina was the hub of transport and the seat of the administration. Place names which had resounded in the 14th century - and would later recur at the close of the 20th - resurfaced. In Prizren in 1878, the Albanians established their first national movement.

In 1878, under the Treaty of Berlin, Serbia became de jure an independent country. Its anguished delegation, eager and paranoid, gave up Kosovo in behind-the-scenes negotiations. It was a tactical move which the Serbs reversed when they regained Kosovo in the First Balkan War (1912) and Macedonia in the Second Balkan War (1913). In these bloody rehearsals of the two future World Wars, the Serbs succeeded in redefining borders but also in giving birth to Albania. It is an irony of history that Serb bellicosity and nationalistic dreams gave rise to the modern Albanian state. But then, this is the nature of the Balkans - a hazy nightmare in which enemies give birth to one another. An intricate commerce of Christian death and resurrection; the gifts of death and life exchanged among Gregorian chants and the prayer cries of Muezzins.

In 1926, the Serbs and the Albanians drew the border between their sovereign states. It was a bad invention, this line of demarcation. It separated close to 600,000 Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia from Albania proper. The disgruntled populace did not engage in acts of terror or in gestures of nationalist indignation. Instead, they emigrated to Albania and to Turkey - tens of thousands of Albanians, perhaps as many as 300,000, or half the population. The Serbs came in their stead. The wheel had turned, or so it seemed.

But nothing in the Balkans is ever what it seems. Every surface teems with hidden meanings, obscure interpretations and exegetical excesses linger beneath. Those who are up go down, bringing about, through the sheer force of their own fall, the rise of their adversaries. Delicate laws of conservation keep all grudges balanced, all accounts settled and all agony equally distributed. It is an entropy of history itself, slowly decaying into chaotic repetition.

Thus, when Italy (with only the conquest of Ethiopia under its belt (1935-36)) conquered Kosovo during the Second World War, it gave it to Albania (which it had annexed in 1939). Germany, which dominated Yugoslavia at the time, consented. For a brief four years, the Albanian nation was - at least territorially - united.

However, this did not last long. After the Second World War, Yugoslavia re-acquired Kosovo and the Communist regime embarked on a brutal Turkish-like suppression of the Albanian population. For 21 years, secret units of the police hunted, executed and mutilated Albanians all over Kosovo. In many ways, Albanians were the first true dissidents within the Communist bloc. Rather ironic, if one recalls the Albanian Enver Hoxa - the leader of adjacent Albania and the fiercest of all Communist leaders.

In 1968, Albanian students joined their counterparts the world over and demonstrated against Serb repression. These particular outbursts were easily quashed, but in 1974, through constitutional reforms, Kosovo was made an autonomous province of Yugoslavia. Education in Albanian was made legal. During this period, Serbs - especially hardened war veterans - were economically encouraged to migrate to Kosovo. Albanians were encouraged to go the other way, and many did. About 200,000 Albanians left between 1954 and 1957 alone.

By now, these various human waves and military tramplings had left Kosovo a dilapidated backwater - both economically and culturally. People left Kosovo during this time, because it offered no employment and no future prospects. 100,000 Serbs left between 1961 and 1987. Later, many would claim that they had been harassed by the Albanian majority, but this seems to be a re-writing of history. Albanians left as well. Everyone who had a choice chose to leave impoverished Kosovo.

Then Tito died, and nothing was ever the same. A series of riots in Kosovo 1981 led to the imposition of martial law. As students from Pristina University stormed the streets, the government sealed Kosovo off, sent the militia in to restore order (which it did with vehemence and cruelty) and closed down educational institutions. Pristina University had always been a hotbed of nationalism - witness one of its better-known graduates, the Maoist-Marxist head of the KLA and self-appointed Prime Minister of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci. However, the spring of 1981 was exceptional. Public disorder was coupled with grave acts of economic sabotage. The students demanded certain freedoms and an end to discrimination, but really they were demanding jobs commensurate with their training - jobs which they believed were going to the Serbs.

Five years later, a thus far unremarkable Communist leader who had just been elected Serbia's party secretary visited Kosovo. In a chance encounter with angry Serb mobs in the streets of Pristina, he tangentially accused the Albanians of genocide. "No one should do this to you," he said to the Serbs, grim faced and visibly shaken - cunningly, calculatingly.

His name was Milosevic.

Dr Sam Vaknin, 10 August 1999

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He has recently been appointed Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.

Dr Vaknin's website is here.





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