The Next Bosnia?






Jim Knapp, Jr.





April 7, 1998

Russian/ East European Studies 396







" 'Lazar, glorious emperor,

which is the empire of your choice?

Is it the empire of heaven?

Is it the empire of the earth?

If it is the empire of the earth,

saddle horses and tighten girth-straps,

and, fighting-men, buckle on swords,

attack the Turks, and all the Turkish army shall die.

But if the empire of heaven

weave a church on Kosovo,

build its foundation not with marble stones,

build it with pure silk and with crimson cloth,

take the sacrament, marshal the men,

they shall all die,

and you shall die among them as they die.

...heaven is everlasting.’

And the emperor chose the empire of heaven above the empire of the earth."


...from "The Downfall of the Serbian Empire" 1


"I want to tell you, comrades, that you should stay here. This is your country, these are your houses,...your memories. You are not going to abandon your lands because life is hard, because you are oppressed by injustice and humiliation. It has never been a characteristic of the Serbian...people to retreat in the face of obstacles, to demobilize when they should fight. You should stay here, both for your ancestors and your descendants... But I do not suggest that you stay here suffering and enduring a situation with which you are not satisfied. On the contrary! It should be changed...Yugoslavia does not exist without Kosovo! Yugoslavia and Serbia are not going to give up Kosovo!"

Slobodan Milosevic,

at Kosovo Polje, 24 April 1987 2


The province of Kosovo is forever tied into Serbian history and psyche. On June 28, 1389, the Serbian prince Lazar was defeated by the Ottoman Sultan Murad, plunging the Serbs into a period of servitude and struggle for statehood that would last into the twentieth century. Why the Serbs celebrate this day as the greatest day in their history is a mystery to the rest of Europe, but the simple fact is that they do. The Field of Blackbirds (the English translation of "Kosovo Polje"), in the minds of most Serbs, is perhaps the most sacred nationalist sight in all of the Slavic lands. Because it is an important part of their history, the Serbs are unwilling to recognize the claims of any other people or nation on their sacred ground. However, present conditions in Kosovo significantly muddy the waters of Serbia’s historical claim over this area. At the moment, of the two million inhabitants of the province of Kosovo, over 90 per cent are ethnic Albanians. 3 Serbs only number about 100,000. Because of the great disparity in numbers in the province, ethnic troubles between Serbs and Albanians have been common since World War I. But, since the end of the Yugoslav civil war, ethnic tensions have escalated into all-out violence in the province, and it appears that the violence might only get worse.

Many of the forces at work against the Albanians can be categorized under the generic term "Serbian nationalism". Since the breakup of the former Yugoslavia earlier in the decade, the remaining confederation of Serbia, Vojvodina, Kosovo, and Montenegro has become increasingly Serb-dominated, with a Serbian agenda. Before the breakup, the balance of power was precariously perched on post-Titoist ideals of a weak Serbia at the expense of the autonomous republics. However, Serb politicians had a strong showing in nearly all of the provinces. According to Misha Glenny, "...the system could only function with two absolute political taboos: overt nationalism and the active participation of the masses in politics." 4 The man who smashed both of these taboos and set Yugoslavia on its course of destruction was Slobodan Milosevic.

Milosevic began his meteoric rise to power by stirring up the pot of Serbian nationalism in 1987. But while Milosevic may have provided the initial spark, the nationalist seeds have long been planted in the collective Serbian psyche. The first passage of this paper details the "choice" of Prince Lazar before Kosovo Polje. Careful examination of the myth of Lazar reveals an uncanny marriage of Serbian history on Christian iconography. Lazar, as seen in the passage, becomes a Serbian Christ. The story also includes a Judas, another Serbian leader named Vuk Brankovic, whose treachery was blamed for the loss to the Ottomans (it should be noted for the record, however, that he did not fall the accused of this treachery in legend until some 200 years after the battle, and he has since been exonerated by historians 5). This poem exhibits the quintessential epic them that it is far better to die honorably than live in servitude. However, keeping with the Christian them, it provides a link to another tenet of Christian doctrine- the resurrection. Essentially, Lazar chooses the empire of heaven so that the state of Serbia can someday be resurrected. "An earthly kingdom was rejected in favor of nobler ideals- victimhood and sacrifice- and this choice is to be compared to the temptations of Christ." 6 According to one professor of psychology at Belgrade University, "What it tells the Serbs is that ‘we are going to make a state again’. Just as Jesus is ‘coming back’, so is Lazar. It means that because we opted for the kingdom of heaven we cannot lose, and that is what people mean when they talk about Serbs as a ‘heavenly people’." 7 Clearly, the seeds of nationalism (at least of the variety of Serbian superiority) were just waiting for the ample fertilizer of Milosevic’s words (pun intended) to get them into full bloom.

Milosevic essentially committed an act of political cannibalism when he emerged on the scene. By embracing, rather than transcending, nationalism, he reinvigorated the League of Communists in Serbia and a great number of Serbs gathered around him- communist, non-communists, and anti-Communist- determined to protect the Serbian minority in Kosovo while simultaneously suppressing Albanian rights and turning Albanians into second-class citizens. 8

Milosevic demonstrated his hold over the Serbs (and struck fear into the hearts of others) on Vidovdan, 1989, the 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo Polje. The Field of Blackbirds, the site of the death of one Serbian nation, provided a rather ironic place for the birth of a new Serbian power. Over one million Serbs gathered that day to hear Milosevic warn "Six centuries [after the Battle of Kosovo Polje], we are again engaged in battles and quarrels. They are not armed battles, but this cannot be excluded yet." 9 His message to the Albanians, Serbs, Croats, and the rest of Yugoslavia was clear: not only could the most popular Serbian political figure of the century summon over a million of his people, but they also seemed willing to follow whatever rhetoric and propaganda he instructed them in. The two cardinal rules- nationalism and demonstration of the masses- were now just a part of history.

Kosovar Albanian opposition to the Serbs has been fomenting strongly, as mentioned earlier, since the birth of the nation of Yugoslavia at the end of World War I. In Kosovo, the Yugoslav army used great force to put down uprisings of ethnic Albanians. The Albanians were quite unhappy at the thought of being reunited politically with Serbs. Albanian nationalism had been encouraged in Kosovo when the region was a part of the Austrian Empire, so the squelching of Albanian ideas and ideals was obviously not well received. Some 800 Albanians were massacred Djakovica in November of 1918. 10 A group of anti-Serb insurgents called kaçaks developed, and were widely supported, though harshly repressed. They supported were by a group called the Kosovo Committee, exiled patriots working out of Albania proper. They continued to support the kaçaks until the return of King Zog to Albania in 1924. Because of all of the discontent and violence in Kosovo, Serbian administrators, police, and other officials were shipped to Kosovo en masse to try and keep order. Serbian officials have been more or less on top ever since, despite the huge population difference between Serbs and Albanians.

In World War II, after the collapse of Yugoslavia, Kosovo was split among Germany, Bulgaria, and Italy, with the bulk of the region going to the later. Italy incorporated it into its Greater Albania, and Albanians began exterminating Serbs almost immediately. Nearly 100,000 Serbs fled, while some reports indicate that as many as 10,000 were killed by ethnic Albanians. 11 Indeed, Albanians wanted no part of their former countrymen. According to one of Tito’s representatives, "The Albanian Population is suspicious of all those who struggle for Yugoslavia".12 Some who were recruited for the Yugoslav Partisans were told that Kosovo would remain a part of Albania after the war; when this turned out not to be the case, violence again erupted. Ethnic Albanians didn’t take part in the Jajce meeting in 1943, the meeting which set the foundations for a new Yugoslavia. As a result of all of the above, Albanians felt (understandably) that they had gotten a raw deal, and relations between Albanians and other Yugoslavs (especially Serbs) continued to be rough after the imposition of Communist rule. Differences in numbers between the nationalities were only exacerbated in the post-war period. From 1953-1988, the Kosovo population increased from 4.8 to 8 per cent of the total Yugoslav population thanks to the increasing number of ethnic Albanians (who became 9 per cent of Yugoslavia’s total populace). Albanians had made up nearly two-thirds of Kosovo’s population since the mid 1800’s, but that number jumped to 78 per cent in 1981 and then to 90 per cent by 1991. In fact, that birthrate for ethnic Albanians from 1981 was 27 per 1,000, while the Serb average was only 2.2 per 1,000. Total Serb emigration from the region reached 100,000 by 1987; the gap between the two peoples was growing at an alarming rate.13 A problem for the Albanians at this time was the rising level of higher education vs. the decreasing number of jobs available. The university in Pristina was producing far more graduates than the industrial sectors could absorb. Serbs who emigrated from Kosovo tended to have higher education levels as well, so those Serbs that stayed behind tended to face very severe competition in the job market. These factors all tended to create paranoia in the minds of Serbs (however justified it may have been) that they were at the mercy of their Albanian oppressors. By acting in accord with this paranoia, the Serbs may have produced for themselves a self-fulfilling prophecy about their Albanian neighbors.

But what are the long-term political aims of the ethnic Albanians? A 1991 referendum organized by the Albanians (without Serbia’s approval) endorsed independence. 14 The Kosovars dream of a union with their Albanian counterparts in Macedonia, but perhaps even more, they dream of a total unification with Albania itself. Before the war with Bosnia, most Western governments feared that Kosovo, not Bosnia, that would erupt. Many Kosovars believed that the secluded Socialist Republic of Albania was a paradise that would provide a safe haven from their Serbian oppressors. Indeed, after the fall of the Stalinist state in Albania in 1991, there was a sense of euphoria in the hearts of many Kosovars that unification into a greater Albania was inevitable. Because the threat for violence seemed at an all-time high, the U.S. got involved in Albanian politics to the point of supporting presidential candidate Sali Berisha. Because Berisha promised to quell the growing nationalist sentiment among Kosovar and Macedonian Albanians, the U.S. gave him full support. 15 Even after Berisha turned Albania into a police state, the U.S. and the rest of Europe held back their criticism, concerned only with the fact that he wasn’t lighting a nationalist fire in the hearts of the Kosovars.

While Albania itself may seem a land of milk and honey for many Kosovars, actual Albanian conditions are far from it. With the collapse of the Hoxha regime, social infrastructure in Albania decayed to a point that living conditions hardly seemed human. With economic conditions so horrible in Albania, nationalism all but disappeared there. Employment and capital became a far more important concern. Conditions actually became so bad that the Albanians began to resent their Kosovar brethren. They regard the Kosovars, with whom they have had few ties in the last seventy years, as naive but well-off outsiders who deserve to be plundered.16 However, Albanian nationalism can not be completely discounted. After the further worsening of the Albanian economy following the collapse of a nationwide pyramid scheme, Albanians responded by rising up and seizing several military weapons stockpiles. Now awash with guns, the instability among Albanians of all citizenships is higher than ever. Albania put her troops on high alert in February following Serbian attacks on members of Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Thus, while Kosovo may count on some physical support from Albania, the road to a "Greater Albania" will not be an easy one, if in fact the situation ever comes to that point. Albania simply has too much work in building a free market democracy of her own to harbor serious designs on Kosovo.

Despite the tensions that have long been building in Kosovo, comparatively little violence has occurred there until recently. The five year Yugoslav civil war seemed to focus Serbian attentions on Croatia and Bosnia, to the point where Kosovo had been placed on the back burner (despite this fact, over 200 ethnic Albanians were killed during that time17). Harassment of ethnic Albanians has been almost constant during that time. According to one Albanian political party leader:

"The pressure is continuous. Police expeditions, raids on villages, armed civilians parading around. They [Serbian officials] always use weapons searches as excuses. They harass families and beat parents in front of their children...They use fiscal controls...to break the Albanian shop owners. They surround one part of the town and search everyone to collect hard currency. No one dares react. There is no contact between the citizens and the government."18

Now that the war is over, it seems as if the collective Serbian belligerence has been shifted towards Kosovo. The rest of the world seems to have finally taken notice of the Kosovo tinderbox back in November. In the small village of Vojnik, some 32 miles from the capital city of Pristina, tensions erupted into a full scale firefight in which the Bahri Krasniqi, the 11 year old grandson of the town’s hoxha (ironically, "religious leader") was shot in the leg. 19 The rebels then drove Serbian officials and their police escorts out of the village. When heavily armed Serbian inevitably returned the next day, they were ambushed before they reached the village and driven back. The Serbs have not returned, and the KLA has flocked into the region and keeps it well patrolled. This area has become the center of an ever-widening sore spot for Serbia, and ever-widening drive for ethnic Albanian independence.

Serbian torture tactics are fairly well documented. The story of Alban Neziri, a 23 year old ethnic Albanian, is fairly typical. He was arrested in February of 1997 for being a suspected member of the KLA, and spent ten months in prison, where he was repeatedly tortured. "At the beginning, they beat me with plastic batons on my feet. That lasted 15-20 minutes. After that, they began to hit my on my kidneys. They do that with the point of the baton. After that, they began on my hands." By the time the two-to-three hour "interrogation" was complete, Serbian police had made their way over most of his body, and finished up by attaching electrodes to his wetted testicles. Here, he passed out, but later agreed to "confess" when the Serbs threatened to torture his father next. 20 It is clear why the ethnic Albanians feel that they are being oppressed.

In late February, violence broke out again in the village of Prekaz. Serbian forces began a manhunt for KLA forces and Albanian separatists. Here, the Serbs claim to have "destroyed the core" of the KLA when they killed one of its key leaders, Adem Jasari. Then they rounded up all ten male members of the Ahmeti family, whom they accused of having ties to the KLA. They started by beating the Ahmetis with clubs, and then finished them all off with shotgun blasts. According to human rights workers who later came in to the area, other villagers’ eyes had been gouged out, heads had been blown off from close range, and some young women who hadn’t fled in time were raped. 21 Because the U.S. had, prior to these most recent incidents, had accused the KLA of terrorism, Milosevic thought that he would have international support for the attack. Perhaps the re-imposition of sanctions that had been lifted only recently convinced him of his folly. Says U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright, "We are not going to stand by and watch the Serbian authorities do in Kosovo what they can no longer get away with doing in Bosnia."22 That may be true, but it will take a lot more than sanctions to deter Milosevic, or to stop ethnic Albanian irredentism.

Winston Churchill once remarked that the Balkan region "has a penchant for producing more history than it can consume".23 Events in Kosovo are showing that that statement is still true. There are no clear answers for the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, nor their Serb oppressors. The Serbs would no more think of handing Kosovo over to the Albanian minority than would Jews of yielding Jerusalem to the Palestinians.24 However, with the population of Kosovo over 90 per cent Albanian and still rising, the Albanians have a right to their own autonomy. To what degree that autonomy will stretch, however, remains largely a mystery. Slobodan Milosevic has cemented the Kosovo issue into the hearts of all the Serbs, by cleverly using the issue as a springboard in his opportunistic rise to power. While the ethnic Albanians have much more in common with their Albanian neighbors than with the Serbs, situations in Albania make unification into a "Greater Albania" an incredibly rocky road at best, impossible at worst (though the latter is the far more probable of the two). Further, the violence inflicted on the ethnic Albanians by the Serbs recently makes it clear that deeper violence in soon in coming, if tensions aren’t soon defused. Given the stubbornness of Milosevic, the determination of the ethnic Albanians, and the general history of the Balkan region, the Kosovo bomb is far more likely to explode than to be defused.


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1. Tim Judah, The Serbs: History, Myth, and Destruction of Yugoslavia (New Haven: Yale university Press, 1997), pp. 34-35.

2. Ibid., p. 29.

3. Rod Nordland and Russel Watson, "More ‘Ethnic Cleansing," Newsweek, (March 16, 1998), p. 39.

4. Misha Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), p. 32.

5. Judah, p. 36.

6. Ibid., p. 37.

7. Ibid.

8. Aleksa Djilas, "A Profile of Slobodan Milosevic," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 3 (Summer 1993), p. 83.

9. Glenny, p. 35.

10. Judah, p. 107.

11. Ibid., p. 131.

12. Ibid., p. 132.

13. John R. Lampe, Yugoslavia as History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 331-332.

14. "Albanian Angst," The Economist, (January 24, 1998), p. 15.

15. Stacy Sullivan, "Favorite Son," The New Republic (April 7, 1997), p. 11.

16. Glenny, p. 70.

17. Massimo Calabresi, "The Next Balkan War," Time, (January 19, 1998), p. 42.

18. Judah, p. 305.

19. Calabresi, p. 42.

20. Ibid.

21. Nordland and Watson, p. 39.

22. Ibid.

23. "Europe’s Roughest Neighborhood", The Economist, (January 24, 1998), p. 3.

24. Ibid.







"Albanian Angst." The Economist, (January 24, 1998), p. 15.

Calabresi, Massimo. "The Next Balkan War". Time, (January 19, 1998), p. 42.

Djilas, Aleksa. "A Profile of Slobodan Milosevic." Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 3 (Summer 1993), p. 83.

Glenny, Misha. The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

"Europe’s Roughest Neighborhood." The Economist, (January 24, 1998), p. 3.

Judah, Tim. The Serbs: History, Myth, and Destruction of Yugoslavia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Lampe, John R. Yugoslavia as History. Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1996.

Magas, Branka. The Destruction of Yugoslavia: Tracking the Break-up 1980-92. London: Verso, 1993.

Nordland, Rod and Russel Watson. "More ‘Ethnic Cleansing’?" Newsweek, (March 16, 1998), p. 39.

Pipa, Arshi and Sami Repishti (eds.). Studies on Kosova. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984

Sullivan, Stacy. "Favorite Son." The New Republic (April 7, 1997), p. 11.


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The Term Paper of James C. Knapp, Jr./ jimknapp@umich.edu/ Last modified 6 April 1999