A conflict created by chauvinist intellectuals

Wednesday, June 30, 1999


A conflict created by chauvinist intellectuals

Kosovo: A Short History
By Noel Malcolm
PaperMac, 1998

Review by Michael Cooke

This book provides historical background to current events in the Balkans. Malcolm's work is even-handed, judicious and very informative, full of colourful detail, and contains interesting pen portraits of some of the main historical figures.

Malcolm examines the minutiae of the Serbian and Albanian claims to Kosova. While critical of some of Albania's claims, he is more critical of those made by Serbia.

Kosova has the greatest concentration of mineral wealth in south-eastern Europe. In the 1960s, a mine was discovered which contained around 56% of Yugoslavia's reserves of zinc and lead, supplied all of Yugoslavia's nickel and 50% of its magnesium. There are also large deposits of coal, bauxite and chrome and some copper and iron ore.

Malcolm examines the linguistic roots, architectural traces, clans and manuscripts of the population to show that both Serbs and Albanians have a long historical presence in the area. He points out that identities "continue to develop over time: 'Serb' was a tribal label in the sixth century but not in the sixteenth so that to treat 'the Serbs' as an unchanging category is ... foolish".

For most of its medieval history, Kosova was ruled by Bulgarian khans and tsars. Only in the 250 years before the Ottoman conquest was rule by Serbian kings.

Turkish invasion

The Serbs were not united in their response to the Turkish invasion. The conquest of the Balkans would not have been possible without the wholehearted cooperation of Serbian Christian nobility, who were prepared to do business with the "infidels" to perpetuate their privileges.

The key Turkish victory over Serb forces occurred in Bulgaria in 1371, but the Serbian state survived another 70 years, with only a limited Ottoman interference.

However, the less significant Battle of Kosovo (1389) has a central place in Serbian mythology. It has become "a totem or talisman of Serbian identity, so that this event has a status unlike that of anything else in the history of the Serbs". Modern Serb chauvinists, in creating the myth of the battle, draw upon the ancient oral tradition of the ballad-singers, storytellers, popular entertainers of the day, archetypes, legend and hearsay.

Like all imperialist powers, the Ottomans could be brutal and rapacious, but for the Balkan people their rule was preferable (especially in the early centuries) to anything found elsewhere. They were taxed less and governed more efficiently; in terms of slavery and torture, they were no worse off and frequently better off, than under local Christian rulers; and there is no evidence of mass colonisation in Kosova.

Only when the empire came under sustained attack from other powers was there a noticeable increase in brutality and corruption.

A persistent myth holds that there would be a substantial population of Serbs in Kosova if 500,000 of them had not been forced to migrate in 1689-90 (the Great Exodus) because of the Austrian-Ottoman War.

Malcolm demolishes this myth, using Albanian, Serb, Ottoman and Austrian records. A large number of Serbs were forced to move, but only a quarter came from the Kosova region, and over time many trickled back.

Amongst the Kosovars, popular sentiment favoured the clan chiefs' desire to preserve autonomy within the Ottoman empire. The Kosovars demanded the right to their own language, schools, culture and Islamic law, with a vague affiliation to the sultan in Istanbul, for they feared they would be worse off under the neighbouring Christian kingdoms.


With the decline of the Ottoman empire, there were a number of revolts, culminating in the successful rebellion of 1912, when the Ottomans were forced to negotiate autonomy for the Albanians. An English traveller at the time, Aubrey Herbert, wrote: "It was the Albanians and not the Serbs or Bulgars or Greeks who defeated the Turks".

Serbia, having "lost" Kosova, now reconquered it. To Serbian chauvinist myth-makers, this was the "resurrection" after the battle of 1389 and the Great Exodus. The reality was much more sordid.

Serbia, now independent, made a secret treaty with Bulgaria to divide the spoils of the Ottoman collapse. Greece and Montenegro joined the cabal. A huge Serbian force devastated Kosova. Leon Trotsky, reporting for a Ukrainian newspaper, was shocked at the brutality of the Serbian forces "engaged quite simply in systematic extermination of the Muslim population".

The economic and cultural oppression of Kosova's Albanians caused a number of uprisings. These failed for various reasons: a lack of unity, the reactionary nature of the chiefs and the hostility of the Albanian armed forces led by King Zog.

In the second world war the area was occupied by the Axis powers. Compared to other parts of the Yugoslavia and Albania, support for the partisans was low. Malcolm thinks this is because the Albanian Communist Party, under the control of Tito and Moscow, did not promise either autonomy or incorporation into Albania.


Tito had a complex relationship with the Kosova's Albanians. After the war, there were a number of rebellions against the Communists. After conciliatory gestures, things improved, then deteriorated in the mid-1950s and improved again in the late 1960s and 1970s.

As a result, Malcolm notes, "Tito is still remembered with genuine affection by many Albanians in the former Yugoslavia; the man who halted or reversed the most objectionable policies of the previous Yugoslav regime — the colonisation program and the suppression of the Albanian language — and who gave the territory of Kosovo a form of autonomy which came close to attaining equal status with the other federal units of the Yugoslav state".

Pivotal to the cultural and political life of the Kosova Albanians was the University of Pristina. More than 200 teachers from the University of Tirana were brought in and within 10 years of the formation of the university, there were around 30,000 students, 72% Albanian. Many more state jobs now went to Albanians, though other communities still monopolised most sectors of the economy.

Kosova Albanians were mainly engaged in agriculture and relied on the extended family for labour; thus they had a higher birth rate than the Serbs. The latter tended to be attracted to richer regions, as Kosova was the least developed area in Yugoslavia. Malcolm notes that when ordinary Serbs have been given the chance to settle in the "sacred" soil of Kosova, they have not accepted. In fact, they left in droves because Kosova was a hard a place to make a living.

1981 was a momentous year in the political maturity of the Albanian Kosovars. It started at the university, where a student complained about a cockroach in his soup. He was joined by about 500 students demanding better conditions and food. The police arrested some of the protesters, but by this time the crowd had grown to around 4000.

The protesters were joined by high school students and several thousand construction workers, and met increasing violence from the police. Eventually a state of emergency was declared.

Kosova's semi-autonomy irritated Serb chauvinists, a resentment astutely exploited by Slobodan Milosevic, the former Communist official who had found new opportunities in resurgent Serb national chauvinism.

The centre of opposition to Serb chauvinism was the Democratic League of Kosova, led by university intellectuals and Albanian party functionaries. Their campaign to "internationalise" the struggle was a failure, and the Dayton Agreement made no mention of the rights of the Kosova Albanians. By the summer of 1997, a much more militant voice was heard: that of the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA).

Malcolm shows that the conflicts between Serbs and Kosova Albanians have not been eternal but were largely "created" by the national chauvinist intellectuals in Serbia in the last 100 years or so. This served the interests of the Serbian political and economic elite who have exploited it to their own ends.