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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Conflict Background


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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14 Responses

  1. jj

    “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.’ …But perceptions are believed to have played a role in intensifying the migration of Serbs and Montenegrins from Kosovo.”

    It wasn’t just Serbs and Montenegrins. Sani Rifati, a Rom activist born in Kosovo (and now married to Carol Bloom, an American), said Albanians made it impossible for non-Albanians to get a job once they took control of Kosovo and that’s why he had left:

    But he found he could not get work in either his chemistry field or in professional soccer because of discrimination against Roma. It was heartbreaking when the Albanians took control, as they began separatism and hired any Albanian – even 12 year old children – to do the work, including adult jobs, because of their Albanian nationality. Anyone not Albanian was out of luck.

    In 1988 Sani moved to Croatia. He found work as a seasonal sales clerk at a souvenir shop and diligently saved his earnings aside. Soon he had enough to go to Florence, Italy, later that same year. Sani said he chose Florence in part because of its lovely name, even though he didn’t yet speak Italian…

  2. MP

    You left out that Kosovo was the poorest province in Yugoslavia. This was in part because through poverty Serbia sought to rid itself off Albanians like is the case with any group who is not desired in Europe. The problem was that Serbs started to leave for the same reason too because Serbia was much better economically so they all moved there. Albania was in many ways even poorer than Kosovo so it was not to an advantage for Albanians to leave Kosovo. In the 80s it was very visible with the economic crisis that caught the entire region off guard and that is when opportunistic nationalists in Serbia arose and went on crusade to create Greater Serbia and use a manipulation of the economic problems in the country and especially the migration from Kosovo to push Greater Serbia.

  3. jj

    “this was in part because through poverty Serbia sought to rid itself off Albanians”

    Baloney, Kosovo was given tons of aid and working Serbs in Serbia were especially taxed to send money there. A lot of building and aid was going on.
    Some Albanians, though, were sabotaging equipment and industries to cause problems and get Albanians to become disgruntled and rise up against the government. A Serbian electrical engineer who later lived in California told of how he was often sent to Kosovo to repair the damage by Albanians.

    Also you leave of the Greater Albania ambitions of Albanians which were and are flaunted.

  4. jj

    This is some of an interview with an eyewitness electrical engineer who was involved in repairing damages/sabotage by Albanians. Also points out that Kosovo was given a “free ride” and sucking money out of Serbia – the reverse of a colony:
    Tika Jankovic: Evidence of my own eyes. The secessionists were not only terrorizing Serbs, they were actively sabotaging the economy in Kosovo.
    Jared Israel: You heard this?
    Tika Jankovic: I saw this. From 1972 to 1984 part of my job was to visit electrical power plants to maintain communication and data equipment and transmission links.
    One of the worst places was the power station in the Kosovo town of Obilich. There were constant problems. A coal burning plant should have downtime of no more than 7-8% for routine maintenance jobs. That’s about 1 month out of the year. This particular plant had downtime of over 50%. That’s about half the year.
    And even during the rest of the time, this plant was running at 350 MW when it had a capacity of 700 MW (700,000 kilowatts.) One or more of the three generators was always down due to sabotage by the Albanian personnel.
    Jared Israel: Do you recall examples?
    Tika Jankovic: One time they sabotaged the water storage. There is a huge artificial lake at the plant. It is used to cool the generators. One time I had to go there because a dead bull had been put in the lake blocking the grids that prevent large objects from getting into the water tunnel that leads to the generators. This reduced the flow of water, causing the generators to overheat.
    Jared Israel: This was done by Kosovo Albanians?
    Tika Jankovic: It happened only in Kosovo. Nowhere else in Serbia. And the Albanian personnel made no secret of their animosity to the Serbian State, which owned the plant. Everyone in the plant knew who had done it. But the local authorities, who were sympathetic to the secessionists or intimidated did nothing.
    Another time they raised the crane that was used to transfer heavy objects around the plant. They shoved it into the transmission lines causing short circuits and disruption of transmission.
    A third time, they disabled the electrical supply to the huge magnets that pull metal objects out of the coal so they won’t get into the furnace and plug up the ash grids. This is to give an idea of the imaginative and resourceful character of their sabotage. They were at war.
    This electrical power plant is located about ten miles from the Belacevac coalmines, which supply the plant with coal. These acts of sabotage took place right on the premises of the plant.
    Jared Israel: But that would damage power to the local Albanians.
    Tika Jankovic: That was the level of their destructiveness. They wanted to hurt the economy.
    Petar Makara: Throughout these times 70% of the Kosovo provincial government’s budget came from outside Kosovo. 70%! And this was a state-dominated economy, so do you realize what this meant? It meant that Kosovo was essentially a free ride – the opposite of a colony. [It was] sucking vast resources from outside, especially the rest of Serbia. But this was not enough; the secessionists wanted to destroy Serbia. They had ruled Kosovo in World War II and they wanted to rule it again. So their strategy was rule or ruin. [2]
    Jared Israel: How did the authorities deal with the sabotage?
    Tika Jankovic: They did nothing. For example in the three cases I mentioned there was no investigation, no arrest, so of course no conviction.
    Jared Israel: Did these secessionists include all the Albanians?
    Petar Makara: No. There was a large hard core, and then there were different degrees of sympathy among many Albanians. Others were loyal to the state. But this movement was strong and determined and it had support from elements of the power structure and increasingly coming from the outside, from the US, for its own reasons. And it got worse in the second half of the 1980s when the Americans began to support secession openly. This had a big effect. It gave the secessionists 100 times more prestige.
    Jared Israel: And this was done before 1989? Before Milosevic supposedly suppressed the Albanians?
    Petar Makara: Before and after. The situation was understood in US military-intelligence circles quite early. The US Army puts out books on various countries every year, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses in each society. Looking for “cleavages.” They pointed to Kosovo Albanians as one of the biggest secessionist-minded populations in the world – and this was back in 1982. And secession was openly encouraged by the US Senate as far back as 1987.
    Tika Jankovic: They wanted to damage everything Serbian so they did not care what harm it did, even if Albanians suffered too. I guess they figured the Albanians would get mad at the Serbian government, not at them. Or maybe they didn’t care about ordinary people. This sabotage was a big attack on the economy of the state. And this wasn’t starting in 1989. The terrorist movement has been active since 1941 without stop.
    Jared Israel: …[And] nothing was done?
    Tika Jankovic: It was tolerated.
    Jared Israel: Unbelievable. What about the power company managers?
    Tika Jankovic: They did nothing. These acts were treated as non-events. And there was more than just sabotage. A definite anti-Serbian component existed in Yugoslavia. There were many unfair practices. For example, there was a special tax. It was not publicly mentioned but I found out about it later from former government people.
    All companies in Serbia were required to take 10% of their wage fund and put it in a Kosovo Development fund and this was in addition to very generous funding from the state. So in effect, every Serbian worker was subsidizing Kosovo, without being told – 10% of their money.
    Worse, much of this money ended up in private hands in Kosovo. There is evidence that some went to purchase property sold at bargain prices by Serbs who were forced to leave Kosovo due to terrorist harassment. The Serbs sold cheap; the property was then resold to Albanians at high prices. The authorities in Kosovo did nothing to stop this.
    Jared Israel: It sounds like a nightmare.
    Tika Jankovic: It was racism. And nobody was supposed to talk about it because, you see, there couldn’t be racism in Yugoslavia.

    Let me tell you some examples. Take the University of Pristina in Kosovo. This was mainly Albanian. It enjoyed privileges not given to Belgrade University. For instance the Electrical Engineering Department in Pristina had up-to-date lab equipment, but in Belgrade the equipment came from World War II reparations. Ancient stuff. I used to work with Hungarian generators built in 1939. I saw this equipment when I was a student in Belgrade University in the early 1950s and later I taught there in the 1970s and there it was still, the same equipment.
    Petar Makara: I used those same Hungarian generators!

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