Kosovo, misunderstood since 1389
12th June 2023
Photo caption: “The Battle of Kosovo”, by Adam Stefanović (c. 1870).
After a pause that lasted a good decade and a half, the name of Kosovo has flashed back into the news after a clash between a group of Serb protesters and NATO peacekeeping forces outside town halls in northern districts. Local Serbs, who are in the majority in the northern belt of Kosovo, boycotted municipal elections, which Albanian candidates went on to win with the votes of the handful of Albanians in those towns.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti then sent military policy to install the mayors, inflaming the situation against advice from his Western backers. Serbia responded by mobilizing its military to the border with Kosovo.
By the historical standards of the region, a municipal dispute is a trifle. Yet there were all the elements for a catastrophic escalation. At least 25 KFOR soldiers and dozens of Serbs were injured. Had any Serb died in the repression, Belgrade would have had a sound casus belli at its disposal, with the Serbian army standing at the ready to defend their brethren.
As usual, mainstream press coverage of the latest episode of the recurring Kosovo conflict is packed with the boilerplates that Western government and interest groups spin into the public conversation. Read the explainer in The Economist and note the adjectives and nouns that go together with Serb, Serbian, or Serbia: “criminal networks”; “parallel administration”, and “shadowy police-cum-security-service”. Adjectives for the other party are omitted in The Economist’s piece.
And as usual, too, this story of heroes and villains is playing out in a history void. At least, during the worst day of the conflict, which in its most current iteration erupted in 1989, the press had come up with a few standardized formulas to mention the superlative place Kosovo occupies in Serbian history and nation-building as a cradle of civilization.
That all came to a slow and agonizing end when in the Kosovo battle of June 15th, 1389, Serbian Tsar Lazar of Serbia and his allies, including Albanian ruler Teodor II of Muzaka, fought off against the invading Ottoman Turkish army of sultan Murad Hüdavendigâr. All three died in the battle, a carnage for all three parties, which could be fairly described as a draw.
Yet with so many men fallen in Kosovo, an exhausted Serbia had no power to resist the Ottoman occupation. It was the beginning of five centuries of obscurantism under Turkish rule, which unlike the rosy pictures painted by biased or distracted historians like Bernard Lewis, was a brutal affair, especially for Christian and generally non-Muslim subjects. Albanians, a proudly Christian nation well into the 17th century, were coopted into Islam by the Turkish occupiers by way of punishing taxes, child levies—the notorious devşirme—and other cruelties perfected by the Turks over the centuries and exacted on their “heathen subjects,” or gâvur, as Christians are still called in the conversational language of some groups in Turkey.
In Serbian lore, the military catastrophe in Kosovo became a moral victory. This is commemorated in a popular song, transcribed by Rebecca West in her classic travel book through prewar Yugoslavia, Black Lamb, Grey Falcon:
If you want an earthly kingdom,
Saddle your horses, tighten your horses' girths,
Gird on your swords,
Then put an end to the Turkish attacks,
And drive out every Turkish soldier.
But if you want a heavenly kingdom
Build you a church on Kossovo;
Build it not with a floor of marble
But lay down silk and scarlet on the ground,
Give the Eucharist and battle orders to your soldiers,
For all your soldiers shall be destroyed,
And you, prince, you shall be destroyed with them."
When the Tsar read the words,
The Tsar pondered, and he pondered thus:
"Dear God, where are these things, and how are they?
What kingdom shall I choose?
Shall I choose a heavenly kingdom?
Shall I choose an earthly kingdom?
If I choose an earthly kingdom,
An earthly kingdom lasts only a little time,
But a heavenly kingdom will last for eternity and its centuries.
The peace of victors was imposed on Serbia, forcing her to accept giving up Kosovo, ceding too to the demographic reality of an overwhelming majority of Albanian population there. And that may be legal for those countries that recognise the independence of Kosovo, proclaimed in 2008. Yet it falls well short of being legitimate, and for an abundance of reasons, for Serbs.
“It was a controversial moment in that it pitted two principles of international law – the territorial integrity of states and peoples’ right to self-determination – against each other,” explains lamely the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But in the end, the basis for Kosovo’s independence was the prevailing view in international law that minorities who suffer systematic discrimination have the right to secede.”
This, which is called remedial secession, is denied simultaneously to another enclave where an entire population is exposed to the well-documented and justified threats of genocide. Armenians of the Republic of Artsakh, or Nagorno-Karabakh, have been under a brutal blockade by Azerbaijan since December. It has cut electricity and natural gas supplies, it threatens its inhabitants with extermination in its official communications and preaches anti-Armenian racism in schools. Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev has called on Armenians to surrender for him to consider an amnesty: “Either they will bend their necks and come themselves or things will develop differently now,” in undisguised threatening language. The reaction from Washington? “We welcome President Aliyev’s recent remarks on consideration of amnesty,” said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.
Oh, and guess which NATO member has agreed to help stabilize the situation in Kosovo? Turkey is sending the commando battalion of the 65th mechanized infantry brigade. As any savvy Western analyst would say, the neo-Ottomanist imperialism preached by recently reelected Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is pour la gallerie.