Sometimes you just need to approach the elephant in the room, tap it on the trunk and politely ask it to move on. There is no more volatile subject in Serbia than that of Kosovo, the independent state/secessionist province (depending on who you ask) to the south. Why is Kosovo so important to many Serbs?
In truth, the subject isn’t really as complicated as many outside of the region believe it to be. There are plenty of contradictions and tangents, but it simply boils down to a mix of history, religious significance, tradition, national identity and no small amount of international hypocrisy.
The Romans took control of the area in the first century, but the arrival of the Slavs in the sixth saw the territory become a disputed border area. Serbia didn’t take complete control of Kosovo until the early 12th century, but it quickly became a hugely important slice of real estate within the Serbian Empire. The rulers of the empire took Kosovo as its heart, and built many churches and monasteries there. Everything was going swimmingly, but there was trouble at the door.
The Battle of Kosovo in 1389 is one of the most important events in the history of Serbia. The battle itself, one between a Serbian-led coalition of forces and the marauding Ottoman Empire (which included many Serbs already), was technically a draw as both leaders were killed during the fight. A national consciousness can’t be built on a draw however, and the myth of the heroic Serbian defeat was born. The story went that Lazar (the leader of the Serbs) was given the choice between death and a lifetime of subjugation for his people, and decided to plump for the former.
The Ottoman Empire ruled Kosovo for the next five centuries, a period that saw huge numbers of Serbs leave the territory in favour of an easier life to the north. Albanians were the main beneficiaries of this, and huge numbers were moved into the area by the Ottoman in an effort to repopulate the land. Many Serbs stayed and chose to convert to Islam, but more followed Lazar’s lead and chose death.
The Ottoman tenure came to an end with the Balkan War of 1912, and Kosovo was incorporated into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918. It stayed a part of the Yugoslav state until the collapse of the country in the early ‘90s, save for a period under Italian occupation during World War II.
Kosovo was a province of Serbia in post-war Yugoslavia, but it had all of the autonomy of a republic without the option of seceding. Rather than allow Kosovo to be repopulated by Serbs, Tito instead allowed the Albanisation of the province, putting on a serious charm offensive with a plan to eventually occupy Albania in mind.
Albanian-language newspapers, schools and cultural centres were set up, and Kosovo became an immensely attractive place for Albanians to live. The opposite was the case for the Serbs, who grew more and more marginalised and continued to leave as a result. The 1974 Yugoslav constitution all but made Kosovo a separate republic, and riots in 1981 demanded that be made official.
Yugoslavia fell apart in flames and blood at the beginning of the 1990s, but Kosovo was surprisingly quiet at the time. Slobodan Milošević took control of the province, and the local Kosovo Albanians were unable to join in the parade of nations breaking away from Yugoslavia. Ethnic tensions continued to rise throughout the late ‘90s, and the Kosovo Albanians grew more violent in their methods.
The period saw the rise of the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army), a militant terrorist organisation that began a campaign of violence in the hope of inciting a heavy-handed response from the Serbian police – a response that was depressingly predictable. The world had watched Serbia dominate the violence in Bosnia and Croatia, and standing by as Kosovo went up in flames wasn’t an option. NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days at the beginning of 1999, and Kosovo was as good as independent from that point on.
Complete independence came in February 2008, although it hasn’t been plain sailing ever since. The nascent state has been rocked by frequent claims of corruption and organised crime, and international recognition has been slow in coming. As of writing, only 111 states officially recognise the independence of Kosovo. You don’t need us to tell you that Serbia isn’t among them.
So why is Kosovo still so important for Serbs? The simple answer is that it was in Kosovo that the Serbian national consciousness came alive, through epic poems and songs that were told around fires during the miserable Ottoman occupation. Some claim that Kosovo is the cradle of Serbian history, but this isn’t entirely correct. Serbian history begins around the 6th or 7th century, centuries before Kosovo was conquered.
The monasteries and churches on the territory tell a better tale. Many of the greatest examples of Serbian religious architecture are found in Kosovo, including the Vysok Dečani monastery and its counterpart in Gračanica. These buildings hold immense significance for the Serbs, and there are great fears of cultural destruction in the region.
Despite all the bluster and noise, most Serbs will accept in their heart of hearts that Kosovo is no longer a part of Serbia. The Albanians have made up the majority of the population for centuries after all. Much of the anger comes not at the issue of Kosovo itself, but of the general hypocrisy on show from the international community.
Much of the violence in Yugoslavia came from the issue of secession. If the Croats could secede from Yugoslavia, could the Serbs of Croatia not secede from Croatia? The question of secession in Bosnia & Herzegovina is still a hot topic today, and the independence of Kosovo has added volume to similar hopes of the Serbs in Bosnia. The recent trials and tribulations of Catalonia added extra fuel to that fire.
So how should one approach the subject of Kosovo when visiting Serbia? Quite simply, don’t. If someone wants to talk about it then by all means listen, but wading in with vague opinions isn’t a good idea at all. Sometimes it is best to leave the elephant alone.