The Kosovo Quagmire: What Are the Issues? Should We Care?

Article excerpt

BEFORE LATE FEBRUARY OR EARLY MARCH 1998, most Canadians could probably not have located Kosovo (Kosova in Albanian) on a map with any confidence. (It is in the southwest corner of Serbia, also bordering Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro.) Since then, it has been prominent in the news because of the civil war that has developed between Serbian government forces and a Kosovo Albanian (Kosovar) insurgent group loosely identified as the Kosovo Liberation Army. The international community has become involved; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is poised for action; six Canadian aircraft are to take part in pressure by the international community to force the Serbian/Yugoslav authorities to end their repression and the insurgents to join them in negotiations.

Although many people speak of another Bosnia, the two situations are quite different. The war in Bosnia was a by-product of Yugoslavia's collapse; conflict between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo dates back at least to 1912.

The insurgents in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians make up more than 90 per cent of the population, seek independence, which would probably be followed by union with Albania - a traditional goal about which most Kosovars are now reticent but which many certainly espouse. The Yugoslav and Serbian governments wish to maintain the status quo of Serbian domination over Kosovo, but have offered some form of 'cultural' autonomy. They say that they are ready to negotiate; it is the Kosovars who walked away from the table.

The international community has consistently stated its opposition to Kosovo independence on the grounds that it would be destabilizing for the region - particularly for neighbouring Macedonia with its own restive Albanian minority. Publicly, at any rate, even the Albanian government does not support independence for Kosovo, much less its union with Albania, although the issue of policy towards the Kosovo crisis has been contentious in Albanian domestic politics. What Albania professes to favour, and the international community is pushing for, is the broadest possible autonomy for Kosovo, either within Serbia or as a separate constituent republic of Yugoslavia. So far, this is acceptable to neither the Serbs nor the Kosovars.

As usual in the Balkans, there is a lot of history tied up in the dispute. Kosovo is both the Serbian Camelot, and, for the last eighty-six years, a burr under Serbia's saddle. For the Albanians, it is part of their historic territory and the place where, in the late 19th century, aspirations for an independent Albanian state began to take shape.

ANCIENT HISTORY

(both Serbs and Albanians care about this)

The Serbs believe that Kosovo was basically empty before the Slav migrations of the sixth and seventh centuries. The Albanians assert that they have always lived there - at least since Roman times, when it was populated by the Illyrians, from whom Albanians claim to be directly descended. Much academic ink, on both sides, has been spilt in defence of these positions.

MEDIEVAL HISTORY

(Serbs particularly care about this)

Kosovo was the geographical and ecclesiastical centre of the mediaeval Serbian empire. It reached its height under Tsar Stefan Dusan (1331-55), who made Prizren (in Kosovo) one of his major capitals and was buried there. His realm included most of what is now Albania, and there were probably as many Albanians as Serbs in his victorious armies.

What made Kosovo the central point of heroic Serbian mythology, however, was the glorious defeat of Tsar Lazar's army at Kosovo Polje (the Field of Blackbirds) on 28 June 1389 (St Vitus Day, or, in Serbian, Vidovdan) by the invading Ottoman Turks. The Serbs see their role as having valiantly, if unsuccessfully, defended Christendom against the infidel. In fact, there were Serbs on both sides of this battle, and Tsar Lazar's forces included Albanians and a contingent from Bosnia - at the time perhaps the strongest Slav state in the region. …