Source: Syri Ramadani, Creative Commons
Source: Syri Ramadani, Creative Commons

Kosovo, one of the mysteries of the world to most of today’s Americans. This small, “newborn nation” in South Eastern Europe presents an interesting case when looking at self-determination, ethnic conflict, and human rights.
To allow us better insight into this complex case, the Reiff Center hosted the Former Ambassador of Kosovo to Japan, and the Former Minister of Economy and Finance of Kosovo, Professor Ahmet Shala. His insight into the history of the state of Kosovo provided a broad understanding of many of the issues found in Kosovo.

Ahmet Shala during his lecture at the Reiff Center
Ahmet Shala during his lecture at the Reiff Center

The issues in the Balkans are considered “ethnic conflicts,” and the ethnic identities are used as markers that guide the groupings in the conflict. Ethnic culture is used as a prediction on how individuals decide on complex matters. Rather than making a personal decision regarding a conflict, a person would align themselves with their ethnic group. We see this in many examples of ethnic conflict, including the Balkan case.

Kosovo is a nation with a long and winding history, one that dates back some 2500 years ago, with the ancient Illyrians, who spoke Illyrian (today’s Albanian) and settled the lands of almost today known as the Balkan Peninsula. Through history, the people of Kosovo have been occupied by several empires, and fell under the rule of the Ottomans from 1398-1912. Albania became independent in 1912, but Kosovo and large portion of Albanian territories quickly were put under Serbian control in 1913. In these Serb-controlled territories, Albanians were targeted in order to create a more ethnically pure Serbian region. Serbian policymakers embraced the “30-30-30” plan, in which 30% of Albanians should be killed, another 30% expelled, and another 30% conquered . Through this, the Serbs would become the dominant ethnic group throughout much of the Balkans.

WWI and WWII proved pivotal for the Balkan Peninsula, and with the support of traditional allies (Russia and some European nations), almost the entire territory was be combined into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and later under the communist leader Tito, known to many as a benevolent dictator. His policies maintained the fragile alliance of the various ethnic groups within Yugoslavia, including Slovenian, Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs, Albanians, Macedonians, Montenegrins and others. Interestingly, Ambassador Shala brings up that even after 30 years post-formation, only 1.3% of the population identified as “Yugoslav” in the 1971 census and a huge majority continued to identify themselves along ethnic lines.

It would seem that the coalition of nations would not be able to form a long lasting state. Tito attempted to rectify this issue by establishing an autonomous Kosovo, giving them some substantial powers within their local government and the federal government. Through this, the region of Kosovo lived in a relatively tolerant world, and found good life compared to other communist countries.

Ethnic composition of the Balkan region. University of Texas at Austin, Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection
Ethnic composition of the Balkan region. University of Texas at Austin, Perry-Castañeda Library
Map Collection

What happened to this successful and tolerant community? The death of Tito precipitated a new wave of leaders attempting to fill his place. In Serbia, a nationalistic Serb rose to power, the infamous Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic’s major goal was to reestablish Serbian nationalism and dominance. He proposed the idea of a “Greater Serbia,” and used Serbian ethnicity to raise nationalism to a feverish pitch, which would result in some of the most egregious human rights violations since WWII.

Through Milosevic’s use of the Serbian military and paramilitary forces, a series of wars, known as the Slavic wars would wreak havoc across the Former Yugoslavia. These wars were fought to resist Serbian nationalism, and Milosevic’s manipulation of the federal government. These bloody wars waged across much of the territory, with the bloodiest of the conflicts taking place against the Bosnians and the Albanians. After this first round of violence, the Former Yugoslavia dissolved into five successor states, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and the FR Yugoslavia.

In the same time frame, Kosovo’s Albanian population found itself in a difficult predicament. The Serbians worked to disenfranchise the Albanians, and they found themselves in an Apartheid-like situation. For almost a decade (1989-1999) the Albanians used peaceful measures to protest the Serbian rule. In response, the Serbs repressed the Albanians, and removed the home rule established by the residents of Kosovo. The Serbs then shut down all public institutions, the Kosovo government, their Constitution, police, central bank, university, the hospitals and schools, even kindergardens, resulting in the establishment of parallel shadow institutions by Kosovo’s citizens.

The Albanians set up schools and clinics to serve the disenfranchised population, and they were originally set to run for three months, and instead ran for over nine years. These were the peaceful measures the Albanians hoped would work against the Serbian oppression. Unfortunately, this was not too last.

In the late 1990s, the situation radicalized, resulting in the violent conflict between the Albanians (the Kosovo Liberation Army) and the Serbs, resulting in 20,000 deaths, around 25.000 raped women and approximately a million refugees fleeing Kosovo. This systematic ethnic cleansing gained the attention of the international community, and with the approval of UNSC Resolution 1244 (1999), NATO forces began an air campaign against strategic Serbian targets.

Refugees from Kosovo crossing into neighboring Albania. Source: Cliff, Creative Commons
Refugees from Kosovo crossing into neighboring Albania. Source: Cliff, Creative Commons

After 78 days, the Serbs signed the Capitulation ending the ethnic conflict, and making Kosovo a UN Protectorate, and established the “UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).” The mission initially was only planned to last a year, but ended up going long past the due date. The slow progress, according to Shala, can be attributed to an incompatible and ineffective administration, no clear vision or goals, and a frustrated citizenry.

After three years of negotiation (2005-2008) and international mediation between Kosovo and Serbia, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia,. Today, Kosovo is recognized by 110 states worldwide. With 193 states in the UN General assembly, it is possible that Kosovo will receive full international recognition in the near future. It is important to note that the International Court of Justice declared in an Advisory Opinion that the secession of Kosovo violated no international laws, and Kosovo’s independence is completely legal.

Inside of Kosovo, there is still a long way to go before the country can be considered free of the carnage left by the wars. Shala argues that it will take some 20 years post-independence to reach high levels of economic development, security, and prosperity.

Shala also hopes that Kosovo will receive full integration into the European Union, but the Balkans have largely been unable to achieve this goal, due to a variety of political and economic concerns. Still, they are moving forward with their EU bid, and hopefully will gain membership within this decade.

Kosovo’s Constitution is interesting, as it contains the world’s most advanced minority rights protections. These minorities include the Serbians, Turks, Bosniaks, Roma, Egyptians, Gorani, Ashkali etc. The constitution provides for power sharing at the local and state level, language and cultural protections, and unique judicial bodies with advancement minority rights issues. Some have argued that the minority rights infrastructure is so vast that Kosovo will not be able to sustain it in perpetuity, and will require international assistance for years to come to maintain justice and peace.

Scuplture commemorating Kosovo's independence on February 17, 2008. Source: Andreas Welch, Creative Commons
Scuplture commemorating Kosovo’s independence on February 17, 2008. Source: Andreas Welch, Creative Commons

Kosovo has come a long way, and no one will argue that the small, but proud state still has a long way to go. Shala ended his talk by mentioning the pride and hope found within the population of Kosovo. These people have gone through great trials and pain, but still they believe in and work for the bright future that is yet to come for Kosovo.

And in the words of Ambassador Shala: “Even though very difficult to do so, we have already extended our hands and hearts of forgiveness and reconciliation,…we still are waiting for, at least, an apology from our Serbian neighbors. I believe this will help them too to heal from their dark and bloody past. We can and must build a brighter future in Balkans”.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.