Reasons and causes of Serbian migration from Kosovo

The reasons for migrations were manifold, but public opinion believed them to be fear, pressure, inequality, and the failure of legislation to protect people and their possessions. This public opinion was shaped by Yugoslav and, especially, Serbian press reports about harassment of, violence (especially rape) against, and general mistreatment of Kosovo’s Serbs.

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By Momčilo Pavlović

Serbian migration from Kosovo was a permanent process since the early 1960s. The reasons for migrations were manifold, but public opinion believed them to be fear, pressure, inequality, and the failure of legislation to protect people and their possessions. This public opinion was shaped by Yugoslav and, especially, Serbian press reports about harassment of, violence (especially rape) against, and general mistreatment of Kosovo’s Serbs. The press reported violations against private and state property, such as sabotage, fires, disturbances of rail communications, explosions, and attacks on police and provincial authorities.(29) In addition, the Serbian population in Kosovo, especially after the political changes in the 1960s, considered themselves to be discriminated against in the labor market and before the provincial courts and police. Although little investigation was ever done to verify many of these reports,(30) a controversy broke out concerning the reasons for this continuous emigration of Serbs and Montenegrins from Kosovo. The 1981 Yugoslav census listed approximately 110,000 Serbs from Kosovo living in other parts of Yugoslavia, 85,000 of whom had left the province between 1961 and 1981. Emigration continued into the 1980s. As a result, nearly a third of Kosovo Serbs had moved out of the autonomous province since 1961.(31)

The 1960s mix of politics, demographic decline, and steady migration out of Kosovo resulted in mounting grievances among Kosovo Serbs. The idea that Serbian emigration from Kosovo was a problem was brought out for the first time by Dobrica Ćosić in 1968, but this was censored by the Communist authorities. In the early 1970s, a number of Kosovo Serb officials raised the issue in Kosovo’s party organs of the province’s growing Albanization and the problems this posed for the non-Albanian population. Miloš Sekulović and Jovo Šotra pointed to growing pressure on Serbs, especially those living in the countryside, to emigrate from the province as well as their inadequate protection by the law enforcement agencies, their problems in education, and their obstacles to finding employment.(32) Kadri Reufi, an ethnic Turk, demanded that the leadership investigate the causes of the deteriorating position of this minority and claimed that the number of Turks in Kosovo was significantly reduced in the 1971 census because they were labelled Albanians. All three individuals were removed from the Provincial Committee and public life, the effect of which was to silence other non-Albanian politicians. The appeals of party members and ordinary people to local authorities and the provincial leadership were either ignored or rejected and the appellants harassed.

The major consequence of the 1981 events in Kosovo was the aggravation of already fragile ethnic relations. During the early 1980s, the majority of Yugoslav citizens who were arrested under Article 136 of the federal criminal code for “association for purposes of hostile activity” were Albanians. Modest improvements in Albanian access to state jobs and managerial positions during the 1970s and the outbreak of the demonstrations in 1981 led to complaints by Serbs in the region about “Albanianization.” Despite the perceived reversal of fortunes, Serbs still held 52 percent of managerial positions and 20 percent of jobs in state positions. But perceptions are believed to have played a role in intensifying the migration of Serbs and Montenegrins from Kosovo.

Although the migration of the Serbs from Kosovo had been fairly constant since the end of World War II, it was only after 1981 that it was discussed in public. The leadership was driven to action by public opinion. The issue was discusssed at the eleventh conference of the Central Committee of the Yugoslav League of Communists, held on 20 December 1983. Beginning in 1985, Serbs and Montenegrins from Kosovo organized protests in the form of petitions and visits to party and state officials in Belgrade. In addition, Serbian intellectuals fixed upon this question and believed that Kosovo Albanians were winning the demographic battle. Although a 1986 memorandum by leading intellectuals of the Serbian National Academy of Arts and Sciences alleged systematic discrimination against Serbs and Serbia in the SFRY, it argued that the most egregious acts were taking place in Kosovo, where the Serbs of Kosovo were being subjected to “physical, political, legal, and cultural genocide.”(33) Reflecting on the centuries-long struggle for independence by Serbia, the memorandum argued that all of Serbia’s sacrifices had been ignored and its independence usurped by the legal dismemberment of Serbia under the 1974 constitution. It stated:

A nation [Serbia] that has regained statehood after a long and bloody struggle, that has achieved civil democracy, and that lost two and a half million kinsmen in two world wars underwent the experience of having a bureaucratically constructed party commission determine that after four decades in the new Yugoslavia it alone was condemned to be without its own state. A more bitter historic defeat in peacetime cannot be imagined.(34)

The defeat was not only a legal and political one but also a demographic one.

According to the memorandum Kosovo Albanians were not only intimidating and driving out Serbs from Kosovo but they were outpacing Serbs in their birthrates. Thus, the memorandum proclaimed, “The expulsion of the Serbian nation from Kosovo bears spectacular witness to its historic defeat.” By pointing out the declining birthrates among Serbs and suggesting that the Serbian nation in Kosovo faced “biological extinction,” two highly charged sexual and gendered images came to represent the viewpoint of the Serbian intellectuals. Serbian women in this nationalist project had to resume their natural roles as mothers and bearers of the national citizens. Serbian men also had to be rejuvenated and protect the nation and Serbian women from a virile Albanian movement and its men. In the mid-1980s, rumors and unfounded accusations circulated that Albanian men were preying upon and raping Serbian women in Kosovo. Such rumors soon became embedded in Serbian popular culture with the production of both a play and a movie that featured the rapes of Serbian women by Albanian men.(35)

Many of the sentiments expressed in the memorandum and public discussions about Kosovo in Serbia were the backdrop for a 1985–1986 survey of Serbs who had left Kosovo titled “The Migration of Serbs and Montenegrins from Kosovo.” This study was commissioned by the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences and conducted by Ruža Petrović and Marina Blagojević in the highly politicized environment of the 1980s. The authors’ findings indicate that more than three quarters of the emigration originated from noneconomic factors, mainly verbal pressure, damage to property, or seizure of crops and land, violence (assaults, fights, stoning, attacks on children and women, serious injury, attempted and committed rape), trouble at work, and inequities in the public sector. What also emerged from the survey was that there was a clear territorial pattern of emigration largely resulting from the level of pressure and inequalities. The latter was inversely related to the proportion of Serbs in a settlement, and the critical point for a major increase in the pressure was if their numbers dropped below 20–30 percent. This finding was compatible with evidence from the official census that there was a strong trend toward emigration of Serbs from settlements where they accounted for less than 30 percent of the population.(36) Therefore, the decreasing proportion of Serbs in a settlement led to a sharp increase in pressure and inequities, which in turn resulted in emigration.

Petrović and Blagojević analyzed the migrations based on two different interpretations of why the migrations occurred. The first thesis was that the Serbian migrations were “normal migrations” motivated by “economic reasons” and that other ethnic groups in Kosovo migrated out as well during the same period. The migrations were ascribed to the process of “overall economic growth” and the “relative lag in economic development.” The lack of economic opportunities also prompted a large number of Kosovo Albanians to migrate to other parts of Yugoslavia and to western Europe, with 45,000 Albanians leaving the province between 1971 and 1981. The second interpretation was that the Kosovo Serbs were being driven out by Albanian separatists and by the policies of the Albanian authorities who ruled Kosovo when it achieved de facto republic status. Petrović and Blagojević concluded that the “pull factors” for migration were “mostly of a non-economic nature, not the kind of contemporary migrations prompted by the desire to improve one’s economic and social position.”(37)

They concluded further that although some left for economic reasons most emigrated out of the Kosovo province due to noneconomic reasons, such as threats to personal safety or property, ethnic discrimination, institutionalized discrimination by Albanian authorities, and a policy of “ethnic homogenization” by Albanian nationalists-separatists. According to some experts, “this study must be treated with some caution, not only because the Serbian Academy was at the forefront of national mobilization at the time, but also because of the survey’s timing.”(38) Analyzing the results, Helfant Budding notes that about two-fifths of the 500 families interviewed had emigrated before 1975.(39) Given the time lag, the intensity of news reports about intimidation and violence in Kosovo, and heightened Serb-Albanian tensions at the time of the survey, there may well have been some retrospective bias among the respondents. Nevertheless, interethnic tensions, especially among those Serbs whose presence in a community dropped below 30 percent, played a role in many emigration decisions according to the conclusions of the report.

Kosovo under autonomy is a component of the larger Scholars’ Initiative ‘Confronting Yugoslav Controversies’ (Second Edition), the extracts of which will be published on every Friday.


29) Nin, 2 November 1986, 23, cited in Magnusson, 8.

30) Ivan Janković, “Krivično pravno represije politički nenasilnih ponašanja na Kosovu: 1979–1988,” in Kosovski čvor: Drešiti ili seći?, 63, cited in Vesna Pešić, Serbian Nationalism and the Origins of the Yugoslav Crisis (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 1996).

31) Srdjan Bogosavljević, “A Statistical Picture of Serbian–Albanian Relations,” in Conflict or Dialogue: Serbian-Albanian Relations and the Integration of the Balkans, ed. Dušan Janjić and Shkelzen Maliqi (Subotica: Open University, European Civic Centre for Conflict Resolution, 1994), 17–29.

32) Miloš Sekulović, interview by N. Vladisavljević, Belgrade, 18 August 2000. For details see Zejnel Zejneli, Ko je izdao revoluciju (Priština: Jedinstvo, 1988), 74–105.

33) Memorandum (1986), Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences (SANU), cited in Gale Stokes, From Stalinism to Pluralism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

34) Ibid.

35) Wendy Bracewell, “Rape in Kosovo: Masculinity and Serbian Nationalism,” Nations and Nationalism 6, no. 4 (2000): 563–90. Bracewell gives an excellent summary of these issues, as does Julie Mertus in her chapter about the alleged rape of a Kosovo Serbian by Albanians in the late 1980s. See Mertus, Kosovo, especially the chapter “‘Impaled with a Bottle’: The Martinovic Case, 1985.”

36) See Srdjan Bogosavljević, “A Statistical Picture of Serbian-Albanian Relations,” in Janjić and Shkelzen Maliqi, Conflict or Dialogue, 23, and Ruža Petrović and Marina Blagojević, The Migrations of Serbs and Montenegrins, 82–92, 100–04, 111–73.

37) Petrović and Blagojević, 82–92, 100–04, 111–73.

38) Audrey Budding, “Serbian Nationalism in the Twentieth Century,” Expert Report Submitted to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, 29 May 2002, 52., accessed 15 September 2007.

39) Ibid.

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