Serbs and Their Enlightened National Interests

SERBIA IN THE 21st CENTURY: THE PROBLEM OF KOSOVO-METOHIJA

Dusan T. Batakovic

 

The Burden of History

Kosovo-Metohija is the southernmost province of Serbia bordering on Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Both Kosovo and Metohija were central to the empire of the Nemanjici rulers in the 13th and 14th century, but became part of the Ottoman empire in the 15th century. In the famous battle between Serbs and Ottoman Turks at the Kosovo Field in 1389, both rulers, the Serbian prince and the Turkish emir, died in battle. Foreshadowing other conquests made by the Ottomans, this battle became part of an enduring legend, and as such the most compelling source for Serbian yearning for liberation, during the time of Ottoman domination. The two provinces, divided up into particular administrative units during Turkish rule, were part of Old Serbia, but also included the province of Sandzak and the north-western part of Macedonia. After the First Balkan War in 1912, Kosovo fell to Serbia and Metohija to Montenegro, as was ratified by the London Conferenc! e in 1913. At the end of World War One, the Kosovo-Metohija region, together with Montenegro, became integrated into Serbia. The new Serbia, together with Croatia and Slovenia, then established the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, and in 1929 this state became known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The Kosovo-Metohija, maintaining the old administrative divisions of Ottoman times, did not constitute a unified district until 1929, when it was integrated into three large administrative areas, the "banates" of Zeta, Vardar, and Morava.

 

The distinctive characteristics of the Kosovo-Metohija territory and population, having been under Ottoman occupation for 500 years, are economic backwardness and a variety of nationalities and confessions. Aside from the Orthodox Christian Serbs, the ethnic Albanians were the most important group, with a population that amounted to almost one half of the total population already by 1912. Since the end of the 17th century, the Ottoman administration had pursued a systematic policy of settling ethnic Albanians in this area. The predominantly Muslim Albanians, accustomed to dominating the Christian population, remained throughout this time quite hostile to the Christian Serbs. This attitude did not change in the modern Yugoslav state.

 

In the 1920, the Kosovo-Metohija region was repopulated with Serbs, mostly the families of World War One soldiers, who settled by and large in areas that were not cultivated or belonged to Turkish feudal overlords. This settlement policy had two goals. One was to establish a balance in the distribution of the populations with the purpose of lending greater protection to the zone along the Albanian border, which was prone to periodic unrest and disorder. The other was to modernize a generally backward agrarian region. Although their minority rights were not guaranteed by international accord, the ethnic Albanians did not suffer any deprivations except insofar as they supported the Italian sponsored revisionist demands of Tirana. Most of the families working the land became property owners, and the absence of schools in the Albanian language was made up to some degree by religious schools which the local Albanian elite favored. The stabiliziation of the region was hamper! ed by terrorist attacks from Alban ia, which, together with the assaults from the side of the Bulgarian revisionists in Macedonia, were coordinated from Rome.

 

In the Second World War, Yugoslavia was dismembered and divided among the Third Reich, Italy, and their satellite states. Kosovo and Methohija were annexed in 1941 to form "Greater Albania" as an Italian protectorate. Most of the Serbian settlers, altogether about 100,000 were expelled, a large part of them were murdered and their houses were burned down. From 1941 to 1944 there was an influx of about 75,000 Albanians from Albania into Kosovo and Metohija. After the fall of Mussolini's Italy, Kosovo-Metohija came under the direct control of the German Nazis, who pressed on the Albanians to continue expelling the Serbs from that region. Wave after wave of Serbs moved into central Serbia.

 

In the fall of 1944, the attempt of Tito's Partisan units to liberate Kosovo and introduce a state of emergency was met with the rebellious resistance of the Albanians. In the following year, the local communist assembly decided that Kosovo and Metohija should become a part of the federal republic of Serbia which belonged to the Yugoslav communist federation. This was the first time that the boundaries of Kosovo and Metohija emerged in the form they have today, although they correspond neither to historical reality (Metohija had previously belonged to Montenegro) nor to economic criteria. Kosovo was combined with Metohija into one administrative unit by fiat of the regional communist party committee for Kosovo and Metohija. As a concession to the "brotherly" communist movement in Albania, the return of Serbian settlers was prohibited. Informally, Albania was also promised the annexation of Kosovo in a wider Balkan federation. Furthermore, instead of sending fo! rmer Albanian immigrants to the re gion back to Albania, the Yugoslav government encouraged the continued immigration from Albania into the region. The purpose of such a policy was to prepare the ground for a Balkan federation that would consist of three members, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Albania. This, however, was ultimately prevented by Stalin.

 

National Communism and Ethnic Communism

Under the communists, Kosovo-Metohija started as an autonomous district (Kos-Met) and then became an autonomous province. For about two decades after World War Two, Kosovo and Metohija, subject to a form of administrative centralism, experienced a number of clashes with Albania. Between 1948 and 1961, Albania, which had joined the block of communist states denouncing the Yugoslav "schism," saw to it that tension in the border area was maintained at a high level. The Yugoslav government intensified its police controls and increased its repressive methods, for example, in the constant search for hidden caches of weapons. It applied repression not only against the ethnic Albanians, but also the Serbs, particularly, the leaders of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The period between constitutional reforms (1968 to 1971) and the final adoption of yet another Yugoslav Constitution in 1974 was marked by sharply rising ethnic tensions, which were generated by the Tito's top leadership in the federal gover nment as well as the regional nomenklatura. With the introduction of national communism through the Constitution of 1974, the power of federal jurisdiction came to reside in the ruling oligarchies of the republics. Thus the Party nomenklatura, sovereign in their own republics, came to represent the majority nation. As the only republic with provinces, Serbia was the exception, since, according to the Constitution, the provinces could use their veto powers against central Serbia. National communism thus introduced majority rule for the leading nationality in each republic and province of the federation, with the result that there continued to be--to a greater or lesser extent--discrimination against national minorities residing in each republic or province.

In Kosovo-Metohija, Serbia's southern province, the holder of national power became the Communist Party notables. The granting of a majority vote to the ethnic Albanians led to the systematic discrimination of Serbs, which was possible, because even though they were a majority in their own republic, in the province they were a minority. As a result, they began to leave the province in large numbers, emigrating to central Serbia. The ruling communist oligarchy of ethnic Albanians continued to use the constitutional prerogatives of 1974 as an opportunity to establish ethnic homogeneity through persecution and repression. The Serbs, of course, found themselves in the paradoxical--and hopeless--situation of being a discriminated minority in their own republic and age-old homelands. In the course of the years, the Serbian population in Kosovo and Methohija was reduced by almost half, from 23.6 percent in 1948 to 13.2 percent in 1981, the relatively high birth rate during Tito's rule notwithstanding. The Monte negrin population in Kosovo-Metohija fell from 3.9 percent in 1948 to 1.7 percent in 1981. This downward trend was further intensified in the wake of normalized relations with Albania in 1971, where the Albanian ruler Enver Hoxha's ethnic communism of the Stalinist kind, under the motto "Albanianism is our religion," was widely propagated. The high birth rate of ethnic Albanians, resulting in a 164-percent population increase in the period of 1948 to 1981, was totally out of proportion with the economic potential and productivity of the province. It is important to point out that central Serbia, by the order of the federal government in Belgrade, invested a lion's share of the republic's funds and resources in these two provinces. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, these enormous investments on the part of Serbia became a major obstacle to the economic progress and development of Serbia itself. In the 1980s, Serbia was pouring a million dollars a day into the region! , without getting any results sinc e the ethnic Albanian authorities spent this money primarily on offices buildings and cultural monuments, both symbols of ethnic Albanian prestige and grandeur. The economic frustration of the large agrarian Albanian population was largely diverted into the huge propaganda campaigns of national dissatisfaction. Thus, the Tirana's theory that the Albanians were the descendants of the ancient Illyrians was used as "proof" of the Albanians' historical right to the Kosovo-Metohija region, while the Serbs, having arrived there many centuries after the Illyrians, were stigmatized as the unlawful intruders into "Albanian country."

 

Collective Rights and Ethnic Mobilization

The Albanian rebellion in the spring of 1981, barely a year after Tito's death in May 1980, resulted in the demand that the province of Kosovo-Metohija be given the status of a republic within the Yugoslav Federal Republic. This demand was based on the old Leninist principle that republics within a federation have a formal right to secession. The Belgrade government responded with repressive measures, such as arrests and party purges, and also made an attempt to undo the relations established in the Constitution of 1974. But the extent of the ethnic mobilization of the Albanian population, together with the unwillingness of the Yugoslav political leadership to reform the federal government and put a stop to the unabating exodus of Serbs from Kosovo-Metohija, only had the effect of prolonging the political crisis and of intensifying the economic stagnation. The failure of the Federal government to protect the Serbs from ethnic Albanian persecution led to the mobilization o! f the Kosovo Serbs in the second half of the 1980s. This was cleverly exploited by Slobodan Milosevic who imposed himself on the Serbs as their national leader. The support of Slovenia and Croatia to Albanian demands that the status quo of 1974 be maintained only fueled Serbian resentments. The Serbs were determined to stop the secessionist movement in Kosovo and bring about a redistribution of power in the government of the Republic of Serbia by means of a "one-man-one-vote" principle. What followed can be likened to the domino effect: The secessionist aims of the ethnic Albanians triggered the mobilization of the Serbs, who in turn prompted a trend toward ethnic homogenization and ethnic mobilization among all the nationalities in Yugoslavia.

 

In March 1989, the status of the two provinces Vojvodina and Kosovo-Metohija as semi-republics, a prerogative that had been granted 15 years earlier, was overturned and police repression of anti-Serb agitators and demonstrators stepped up. This of course made the Albanians all the more intransigent. The 1989 amendments to the Constitution of 1974 annulled the right of two separate legislatures for the provinces, abolished the veto power held by the provincial legislature over the legislature of the Serbian republic, placed the power over international relations into the hands of the Serbian republic, and limited the right to debate a measure to a period of six months, after which the matter was to be settled by a referendum. The referendum for a new Constitution for Serbia was scheduled to be held in July 1990. The propositions were as follows: Kosovo-Metohija would remain a province, but with territorial autonomy and a statute which would be enacted in accordance with the S! erbian parliament; the legislative authority belonged to the Serbian parliament and the executive authority to the government of Serbia; the highest judicial authority resided in the Supreme Court of Serbia.

 

On July 2, 1990, ethnic Albanians in Pristina responded to these propositions by proclaiming Kosovo as a republic and adopting their own Constitution on September 7 at an assembly in Kacanik. This was regarded as an attempt at secession and provoked harsh police retaliation. Today, ethnic Albanians refuse to have any contact with Serbia; they boycott Serbian parliamentary elections and accuse the regime of colonialism and apartheid policies. Furthermore, ethnic Albanians have introduced their own Albanian administration as well as their own educational and medical systems which run parallel to the Serbian organizations. A majority of ethnic Albanians are planning for the secession of Kosovo-Metohija--between 10 and 15 percent are still loyal to Serbia--though this is not possible under present circumstances. After the war, secession would not be desirable since it would change the balance of power in the Balkans. The most probable victim of a change in the power bala! nce would be Macedonia (FYROM) whe re the Albanian minority--which on a percentage basis is greater than in Serbia--is also determined to secede. Such fragmentation in the former Yugoslavia would eventually draw in the neighboring countries--Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, and even Turkey, which wants to be a regional power--and a Balkan war with unimaginable consequences would result. This would not be a civil war, as the one fought in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina as a result of the breakup of the Yugoslav Federation, but a more generalized war over international borders which have been stable, except for some slight modifications, between 1912 (when first set up) until 1992.

 

In the civil war of the 1990s, which brought the end of communist Yugoslavia, the new states of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and FYROM made their appearance. In 1992, Kosovo-Metohija became part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the two-member federation of Serbia and Montenegro. In this federation, the Albanians are the largest minority, about 16 percent of the total population numbering 10.5 million people, and 17 percent of the total population of Serbia. Because ethnic Albanians refused to participate in the population census of April 1990, the exact number of ethnic Albanians in Serbia is not known. The Demographic Institute of Serbia estimates their number for 1992 to have been 1,956,196 or 81.6 percent while the number of Serbs was 214,455 or 11 percent, in other words, 22,000 less than in 1981.

 

Perspectives on Democracy and Regionalization and a Market Economy

Kosovo-Metohija has special significance for the future of Serbia, particularly with respect to Serbia's transition to democracy. Ending the wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina would help stabilize the situation in Kosovo-Metohija. What is urgently needed there is the abolition of collective rights--the communist legacy--and their replacement with human and civil rights for all citizen regardless of nationality or religion. Unlike the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina who are ethnically, linguistically, and culturally close to the Croats and the Muslims, the ethnic Albanians are in no danger to lose their ethnic identity through assimilation since their culture, language, and religion differ substantially from the Serbs. Serbia should therefore offer the broadest possible status of autonomy to Kosovo-Metohija. Minority rights, such as the right to use one's own language in the government, the courts, schools, and universities as well as freedom of religion and cultural autonomy, would have to conform to international law in every respect. The introduction of a genuine democratic government, upon which the majority ethnic Albanians would become part of the Serbian state system, with full participation in parliamentary elections as well as public institutions such as schools and universities, would help reduce existing ethnic tensions since all economic and political questions would be resolved in the parliament of Serbia.

 

A return to the old type of political organization set forth by the 1974 Constitution would mean a return to the completely outdated concept of administrative decision making by simple majority vote--as was the practice under communist rule--and would inevitably result in the flaring up of ethnic tensions again. But there are other forms of territorial arrangements that would work better than those proposed by the Serbian democratic parties. For these, criteria other than ethnic and ideological ones should be used, most importantly, economic and geographic criteria with a heavy emphasis on a new communications system. In the 1970s and 1980s Kosovo-Metohija was unable to take care of barely 10 percent of its domestic needs with its own production; whatever else was needed came from the federal government and the central part of the Republic of Serbia. The financial investments in these provinces by agencies outside Belgrade in this period exceeded the total amount of funds! used for the development of central Serbia. Reforms are urgently needed to restructure Kosovo-Metohija's basic economic production and whatever infrastructure already exists in the province so as to raise its productive capacities to the level existing in Serbia.

 

A regionalization of Serbia that is based on economic priorities would reduce the risk of a centralized, authoritarian regime fueling particularistic and secessionist aims. Unfortunately, the minorities in autonomous regions are not protected by international law. A region such as Kossovo-Metohija of 1.5 million inhabitants would be able to thrive by means of its own productive capacities without threatening the integrity of the state. This would be desirable in all respects: The denationalization of state property, and the return of property that had been confiscated after the Second World War to their rightful owner, is a basic prerequisite for the favorable economic development in the future. Furthermore, regionalization would relieve the provincial administration of some of the enormous costs through the creation of smaller territorial units that would function as effective economic units. Regional parliaments in territories with ethnically mixed populations would consist of two chambers, the lower chamber, whose members are elected by direct vote, and the upper chamber in which each ethnic group is represented equally. This system would prevent the use of the majority vote, a technique so destructively applied under the communists, while it would guarantee the protection of all ethnic groups.

 

Parliamentary democracy, a market economy, and a system of justice protecting individual rights and liberties are imperative for the peaceful development of Serbia in this and the next century. The task of establishing democratic institutions still lies before us. To succeed, it must be a joint effort on the part of all citizens of Serbia, regardless of what their individual priorities or predilections might be.

Belgrade, July 1995