The Kosovo War, 25 Years Later: The Serbian Ascendancy

by Doug Muir on January 8, 2024

Okay, so we’ve talked about Bosnia and how that set things up for the Kosovo War. Now, what happened in Kosovo that made NATO want to get involved there?

Back when Serbia was part of Yugoslavia, Kosovo was a “special autonomous province” of Serbia. This meant that it had limited self-rule and its own regional legislature. Since the majority of Kosovars were ethnic Albanians, this means that under Communist Yugoslavia, Kosovo’s politics and its economy came to be dominated by Albanians. The Serbs — who were a majority in Serbia as a whole, but a minority in Kosovo — came to resent this.

The situation got steadily worse through the 1970s and 1980s, because the Albanian majority kept growing. In broad numbers, in the years after WWII Kosovo was about 65 t0 70% Albanian, 25 to 30% Serbs, and 5% others. By the 1980s those numbers were more like 80% Albanian, 15% Serbs, and 5% others. Partly this was because the socially conservative Albanians had larger families. Partly it was because of differential emigration, with Serbs easily able to move to Serbia proper in search of better jobs and opportunities, while Albanians were more likely to stay in Kosovo. In any event, as the Serbs within Kosovo became more outnumbered, Kosovo became more and more of a rallying cry for Serb nationalism.

— Really, “rallying cry” doesn’t quite cover it.  The Serbs convinced themselves, not just that Serbs in Kosovo were losing political and economic power, but that they were being oppressed and persecuted by the Albanians.  As Yugoslavia collapsed, late 1980s Serbia went into an orgy of nationalist outrage and anti-Albanian hatred.  Every incident between Serbs and Albanians, however minor, was blown up and distorted into proof that the Serbs were “being beaten” by Albanian criminals and rapists.  It was this wave of outrage and hatred that Milosevic first rode to power.

This all came to a head in 1989, when Serbia revoked Kosovo’s autonomous status and took over direct rule from Belgrade.  I mentioned that Kosovo had an autonomous regional legislature; this was annulled by the simple expedient of surrounding the building with the Army and pointing guns and tank barrels at it until they voted to surrender all their powers to the Serbian national legislature in Belgrade.

Now, from 1988 to 2000, the utterly dominant figure in Serbia was Slobodan Milosevic.  He wasn’t a dictator, quite.  Rather, he was a relentlessly illiberal ethno-nationalist populist of a sort that seemed quite odd in the end-of-civilization 1990s, and has become depressingly more familiar since.

Milosevic’s government was generally corrupt and kleptocratic. However, for Albanians in Kosovo, it was also brutally oppressive.  From 1989 onwards, the Milosevic government embarked on a program of “re-Serbianization”.  Albanians were dismissed from all management positions in state-owned enterprises (which is to say, all businesses of any significance) and replaced with Serbs. Albanians were completely purged from the police, the judiciary, and the upper ranks of the civil service. The University of Pristina, which had been the center of Kosovar Albanian intellectual society, was turned into a Serbian university, with Serbian professors, administrators, and students replacing the Albanians.   All major media were under Serbian control; the public use of the Albanian language was dramatically curtailed.  Albanian towns ceased to receive money for things like road maintenance and fixing utilities, while Serbian towns got new community centers.  Protests and strikes were brutally suppressed, and strikers and union members were fired.

Unsurprisingly, all of this caused Kosovo’s economy to crash hard: unemployment surged and household income collapsed.  But almost all of this pain was felt by the Albanians, so it didn’t matter.

Two points about all this.  The first is that there was a strong element of performative cruelty to Serbian policy.  Milosevic’s government could — in theory — have established Serb dominance in Kosovo with a much gentler hand.  Having centralized political power out of the province, there wasn’t an overwhelming need for firing and purges.  But the goal was not just to “protect” the “threatened” Serb minority in Kosovo; it was to punish the Albanians.

Albanians refer to this period of Kosovo’s history as “the Serb Occupation”.  Nobody else calls it that, because legally Kosovo was still part of Serbia.  Here I’m calling it the “Serbian Ascendancy” as a deliberate callback to the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, particularly the high Ascendancy of the 18th century.  A province dominated ethnic and religious minority, supported by a much bigger and more powerful neighboring country; the majority locked out of political power and most paths to economic advancement, with limited access to education and de facto second class citizenship; a rubber-stamp Parliament / legislature that could do nothing but approve measures passed in Belgrade / London.  It’s a bit familiar.  Of course, the English were able to keep this going in Ireland for over a century.  The Serb Ascendancy in Kosovo lasted just over a decade, for reasons we’ll shortly discuss.

A second point: then and later, some observers tried to present this as a “clash of civilizations” between Christian Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Albanians. This was, by and large, nonsense. While religion made a comeback in post-Communist Serbia just as it did everywhere else in the Communist world, it wasn’t a significant driver of the Kosovo conflict. Neither group was particularly religious. Even at the time, a common joke was that “Kosovo is a fight between people who never go to church on Sunday and people who never go to mosque on Friday”. It’s also worth noting that a significant minority of Kosovar Albanians were Catholic, not Muslim. It made no difference; the Serbs treated them exactly the same.  It was an ethnic conflict, not a religious one.

Okay, so: it’s possible to divide the Ascendancy into two periods.  For the first few years, 1989-1995, Kosovo was oppressed but not particularly violent.  Bad as things were for the Kosovar Albanians, they could have been much worse. There was no war. The Serb police were notoriously brutal and corrupt, ordinary citizens were subject to arbitrary arrest and harassment, and troublemakers were likely to be beaten or tortured, but there were no mass murders or massacres. The Albanians saw mass unemployment, skyrocketing poverty, and dramatically decreased access to health care, education, and basic services, but there wasn’t mass famine. Albanians were mostly locked out of higher education, elected office, and the civil service, but nobody was being ethnically cleansed.

Through this period, the Albanians mostly relied on peaceful and non-violent resistance, under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova. Rugova is a controversial character, but he probably delayed the eventual spiral of resistance -> violent oppression -> more violent resistance by several years. Whether this was ultimately a good thing… well, as I said, he’s controversial. But anyway, from 1989 to 1995 Kosovo was miserable and oppressed, but relatively peaceful.

After 1995 things began to change. One reason was demographics.  Albanians continued to have more children than Serbs, and Serbs continued to emigrate.  Attempts by the Milosevic government to “correct the demographic imbalance” by encouraging Serbs to move to Kosovo went nowhere.  There’s a story about a busload of Serb refugees from Bosnia, realizing the bus was going to Kosovo: they mutinied, commandeered the bus and took it to Belgrade instead.  The Serb population of Kosovo continued to decline both in absolute and relative terms, leading to the sardonic joke that “The Serbs would do anything for Kosovo, except live there”.  In 1989 Albanians had outnumbered Serbs about five to one; by 1996 this was probably six to one, with eight or ten to one looking likely within another generation.  At some point there would simply not be enough Serbs to make minority rule feasible.  By 1996, the Milosevic government was openly considering the other side of the equation: “correcting the imbalance” by reducing the number of Albanians, either peacefully or otherwise.

Meanwhile, the Dayton Agreement had come and gone. As noted in the previous post, Dayton solved the problem of the war in Bosnia.  But it completely ignored Kosovo. The Kosovar Albanians felt, not unreasonably, that they’d been ignored and abandoned by the West. Rugova’s prestige took a hit; nonviolent resistance had accomplished nothing. Voices favoring more violent methods began to be heard. In 1996, the embryonic Kosovo Liberation Army made its first moves, with a handful of attacks on Serb policemen and particularly oppressive and unpopular Serb officials. These attacks were not particularly well planned or coordinated, but they alarmed the Serbs and provoked a crackdown — which of course gave the KLA even more credibility with ordinary Albanians.

I’ll pause and note here that, in this as in so many other instances, the Serbs had pickled a rod for their own back.  By locking Albanians out of higher education and most non-menial jobs, they had created a huge pool of unemployed and angry young men.  By restricting police jobs to Serbs, they had made sure that large areas of the province were under- or un-policed.  (And most Albanians spoke Serbian, while very few Serbs spoke Albanian, so much of Albanian society was opaque to Serb law enforcement anyway.)  And by their punitive all-stick-no-carrot approach to inter-community relations, they’d prevented the emergence of a class of evolues or collaborators with a vested interested in the status quo.  So the preconditions for a guerrilla movement were there from day one.  In retrospect, it’s mildly surprising that it took six or seven years to emerge.

A second driver of violence came in 1997 when the government of neighboring Albania, just over the border, suddenly collapsed.  “Collapse” here does not mean in the parliamentary sense.  For reasons beyond the scope of this blog post, Albania was thrown into complete anarchy for several weeks. During this period, the local armories were all looted. Albania was full of these armories, because the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha had believed that in the event of invasion, the people would need to be armed quickly. When they were looted, tens of thousands of weapons suddenly came available — rifles, pistols, submachine guns and light machine guns, grenades. For a while, you could walk into any village market in rural northern Albania and buy grenades for a dollar apiece, a pistol for ten dollars or a rifle for twenty. Since the border between Albania and Kosovo was fairly porous, thousands of Kosovars did just that. Suddenly Kosovo was awash in guns.

So the security situation in Kosovo began to slide rapidly downhill. The Serbs became more paranoid and oppressive; human rights violations got worse; the economy slumped; and the Albanians became ever more resentful and more inclined to ignore Rugova and support violent action against Serb rule.

But up to early 1998, two and a half years after Dayton, Kosovo still was /relatively/ peaceful. And — up until early 1998 — the rest of the world wasn’t really paying much attention to Kosovo.

And then in the spring of 1998 the Serbs decided to eliminate a local KLA leader named Adem Jasheri.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Leeman 01.08.24 at 10:47 pm

Dang! I knew Serbian treatment of Albanians was bad but not the entire extent

2

Phil 01.09.24 at 7:38 pm

Regarding the revocation of Kosovo’s autonomous status, it may also be worth mentioning that the federal Presidency of Yugoslavia consisted of one representative from each of the constituent republics, plus one each from the autonomous regions (within Serbia) of Vojvodina and Kosovo: a total of eight, plus a rotating chair’s casting vote. By effectively dissolving the ARs’ governing bodies, Milosevic hadn’t only centralised government in Serbia and imposed a Serb national identity; he’d also gained control of three of the eight votes on the Presidency. (IDK how significant this was in practice.)

3

Aardvark Cheeselog 01.09.24 at 8:30 pm

For reasons beyond the scope of this blog post, Albania was thrown into complete anarchy for several weeks.

Because it never occurred to the galaxy-brained foreign policy establishments of the Free World that people with no experience with market economies would also have no immunity to market-engendered sociopathy(1). Which would result in the immiseration of almost the whole people of Albania.

(1) Or possibly they just didn’t care.

4

Doug Muir 01.10.24 at 8:28 am

Phil @2, it was briefly significant for a year or so — especially since Milosevic could usually get Macedonia and Montenegro on board, giving him either a blocking vote (four) or an outright majority (five). Of course, once Slovenia seceded and Croatia declared independence (June 1991) it became much less of an issue, as Yugoslavia had effectively ceased to exist at that point.

Aardvark @3, meh. Before 1990, Albania had been Europe’s North Korea — repressive, deeply xenophobic, isolated. They were likely to have trouble with the transition no matter what. And it didn’t help matters that Albania’s government was run by Sali Berisha, who combined naive enthusiasm for liberalization and the wonders of the free market with a strong authoritarian streak and a refusal to listen to critics or, really, anyone. Berisha doesn’t bear all the blame for the collapse — that’s complicated — but he definitely made it possible and, once it happened, made it worse.

(Berisha is nearly 80 and, astonishingly, is still around — he was Leader of the Opposition until quite recently. He’s currently under house arrest, accused of corruption, and sanctioned by the US State Department.)

Doug M.

5

Bojan 01.12.24 at 7:23 am

The article is pretty much correct when it describes the situation and how things were unravelling in those times.
But, I have to mention two, I think very important points, that provide more light to the whole story – maybe even explaining better root causes for the conflict.
1. Albanians living in Kosovo had a long history of separatism, dating way back before 1980s or 1990s. In 1981, as you mentioned, there were mass riots and protests by Albanian students and workers, demanding to upgrade Kosovo’s status from Autonomous province to the sttaus of the Republic, making Yugoslavia go from 6 to 7 Republics. If that would have happened, for sure Kosovo would get independence together with the others in 1991, and it would be all legal. Protests were crushed by security forces, interesting enough, federal police as well – meaning other Republics supported Serbia then… but this was before Milosevic of course. In 1991 or 1992, Albanians organized a independence referendum where, no surprise, 99% of people voted for independent Kosovo. As you said – Rugova promoted peaceful resistance, like Ghandi, ofr example. This meant a full boycott of all institutions – elementary schools, elections, census, army drafting, also majority did not pay water or electricity bills.
Sure, there was oppression and torture on Serbia’s part. But, this was not the only reason – as said – Albanians boycotted all institutions which literrally created Apartheid.
2. There was another important point to mention. Milosevic knew he would have to deal with the Kosovo problem sooner or later. He knew, or hoped, some sort of agreement with Albanians would be reached at the end. Plenty of evidence for that, even in Hague trials.
But, he wanted to delay this as much as possible. Why? Because he needed a status quo on Kosovo as long as possible, to keep his power in Serbia. Milosevic won the majority only in the first elections in 1991. In every elections afterwards, because of the Albanian boycott, he got 30 seats upfront for his party – where handfull of Serbians on Kosovo got seats equal to number of people there, around 30, although 90% of population in that territory did not vote at all. Funny enough, if Albanians chose to show up and vote, most likely they would have been able to bring down Milosevic in 1992 at the earliest, negotiate government participation and start the talks with democratic opposition at the time. They never chose to do so, because they never intended to be part of Serbia and were not interested to participate in the institutions.
Second, even worse, in every elections, if needed, voting fraud occured, where thousands of Albanians all of a sudden voted for Milosevic in 100% Albanian villages where no policemen dared to enter for years. Obviously these were false votes, and this was fraud, but Milosevic used this on Presidential elections in 1998 for example and few other times.

6

Doug Muir 01.12.24 at 10:27 am

“Sure, there was oppression and torture on Serbia’s part. But, this was not the only reason – as said – Albanians boycotted all institutions which literrally created Apartheid.”

The Albanian boycotts came after the suppression of the Kosovar legislature, the mass firings of over 100,000 Albanians, and the imposition of a brutal regime of “Re-Serbianization”. Up to 1989, they were still voting and participating in civic institutions. So I’m not inclined to blame the Albanians for “creating Apartheid” in Kosovo; their mass boycotts were a response to Belgrade’s actions.

“ilosevic knew he would have to deal with the Kosovo problem sooner or later. He knew, or hoped, some sort of agreement with Albanians would be reached at the end. Plenty of evidence for that, even in Hague trials.
But, he wanted to delay this as much as possible. ”

As you note, the Albanian boycotts ironically were helping to keep Milosevic in power. And, of course, Serb dominance of Kosovo was literally the key and heart of his nationalist appeal. So, “delay as much as possible” was effectively “will never happen”. As the saying goes, everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die. Milosevic was never going to be in a position to relax on Kosovo, even if he’d wanted to.

“if Albanians chose to show up and vote, most likely they would have been able to bring down Milosevic in 1992 at the earliest, negotiate government participation and start the talks with democratic opposition at the time.”

Maybe! It’s one of the great what-ifs of the period.

Here’s the counterargument: the democratic opposition in Serbia was just as committed to keeping Kosovo within Serbia. They might disagree with Milosevic’s harsh methods, and they might be willing to make concessions to the Albanians. But ultimately they’d hit the same problem: the Kosovar Albanians just didn’t want to be part of Serbia, especially after the experiences of 1989-92.

Could a sort-of democratic Kosovo have worked in 1992? My personal opinion is… just maybe. But it would have required nearly a miracle. The Albanians were (quite reasonably) enraged at the experiences of 1989-92, and not inclined to trust any Serbian government. A hypothetical opposition Serb government, taking over from Milosevic, would have been fragile — a coalition relying on Albanian support, unpopular with most Serbs — and would have had all sorts of other problems, from economic collapse to the war in Bosnia to nationalist paramilitaries. Would they have been able to make major concessions to the Kosovar Albanians? Could Kosovo have become democratic without the Albanian majority promptly voting themselves into independence?

I don’t think it’s completely impossible — but it would have required everyone to be uncharacteristically reasonable.

Doug M.

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