What’s Kosovo and Why Does it Matter?

Recently, a family member was asking me about Kosovo and why she was hearing about it in the news so much lately. There are a lot of misconceptions about this autonomous region in the Balkans, which I thought I might as well clear up as best I can. Firstly, I need to emphasize that Kosovo is not a city, it’s a country. Many people don’t know this. The capital (in the Serbian language) is Priština. This is not a region in Bosnia. It doesn’t even touch Bosnia and there are no Bosniaks living there. It’s really amazing how many people think this.

While a small country, at a bit over 4,000 square miles, it is home to over two million people, which is three times bigger than neighboring Montenegro. The vast majority (92%) of these people are Albanians, who are mostly Muslim. The next biggest group are the Serbs (5%) who are Serbian Orthodox in faith.

Geography and statistics aside, Kosovo is a tricky place. It currently is a part of Serbia, which has been the case off and on for many centuries. For half of the 20th century, Kosovo didn’t even really exist and was just a part of Serbia with a growing Albanian population (Albania shares a border with Kosovo).

With Yugoslavia, there was a growing problem in that the Serbs were the majority population. It had been a delicate balance for some time to keep all the national groups (Slovenians, Croatians, Bosniaks, Serbians, Macedonians, and Albanians) relatively happy. In order to maintain this balance, Tito broke up Serbia to create autonomous regions that were Kosovo and Vojvodina (an area in the north of Serbia). These entities had almost all the rights of a full state in Yugoslavia, but were just shy of full statehood unto themselves. Following Tito’s death in 1980, a power grab started happening in the eastern side of Yugoslavia with Slobodan Milošević rising as a new nationalistic leader for the Serb people. Once gaining a tight foothold in office, we worked to strip Kosovo and Vojvodina of their status within Serbia which had been granted to them with some constitutional changes in 1974.

This series of moves is essentially what sparked the whole collapse of the former Yugoslavia, which then led in to the war that lasted until 1995. At the end of the war, Kosovo was still very much a part of Serbia. Yugoslavia’s downfall did little to help the Albanians that lived there. In 1999, Slobodan, who was still in power started to forcefully crush uprisings that were starting again in Kosovo as the Albanians, who hold a 92% majority of the population started to push for independence again. This time, Slobo brought down the wrath of NATO which beat the Serbs out of Kosovo and brought in the UN to administer Kosovo (as the UN Mission in Kosovo) for the last nine years in an entity that is colloquially referred to as UNMIKistan.

So, here we are today with the UN still there, but with the Kosovo Albanians set to declare independence any day now; possibly on February 17th. Beyond the fact that any part of another sovereign nation attempting to break away is a big issue, there are other issues that make Kosovo particularly tricky. One is that almost all of the EU and the US support independence for Kosovo, while Russia is adamantly opposed to it. All through this, I’ve wondered why the US and Russia have any say in the matter as it’s strictly an European matter. But they do and so we have some large powers involved in this. Secondly, this isn’t just some chunk of land for the Serbs. They see it as their birth place; a Mecca for Serbia if you will, due to the Battle of Kosovo. This is a battle which the Serbs actually lost and lost badly (which shows what the Kosovo independence process is up against) but they feel it marks the start of the rise of the Serbian nation. On this note, the Serbs vehemently refuse to cede Kosovo independence, which for them would be like stripping the US of Gettysburg.

So, here we sit and watch at to what will happen. There is no way that Serbia can risk a military confrontation with NATO or losing their bid to join the EU to try and keep Kosovo. Then again, there are many countries involved in the mediation of this. Will it be the catalyst to start up a WWIII like Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo did to start WWI? Most likely not, but don’t be surprised to see a lot of saber rattling throughout all of this as there isn’t a lot of room in the Kosovo pie for all the fingers that want to be there.
Now that I’ve laid all this out, I wanted to close with a tasteless joke I read that fits the matter oh so well:

Four astronauts land on the moon. An American, a German and two Serbs.

The American jumps out and plants a flag on the surface exclaiming that US daring and money made their mission possible so the moon will belong to America.

The German pulled out the American flag and stuck in a German flag proclaiming that it was German scientific knowledge and technological precision that made the landing possible, so the moon was Germany’s.

One of the Serbs reached into his pocket and pulled out a gun and shot the other Serb. Then he proclaimed: “Serbian blood has been spilled here, so the moon will be Serbian forever!”

What's Kosovo and Why Does it Matter?