Confronting the Yugoslav controversies – reflections on ‘Kosovo Under Autonomy’

The sad history of Kosovo under autonomy should be fair enough warning to those who would reignite ethnic hostilities that have fortunately declined markedly from their peak. May they continue to do so, for the sake of both Albanians and Serbs.

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Collaborative Conflict Transformation

Analysis and Insight

By Daniel Serwer

Rereading the Scholarly Initiative’s Confronting Yugoslav Controversies in its second edition on TransConflict is déjà vu all over again. The sections on “Kosovo Under Autonomy” remind us of the growing demographic predominance of Albanians, the province’s declining economy, heightened demands for political equality and republic status, deteriorating interethnic relations, the 1986 Serbian Academy memorandum claiming genocide, Serb migration from and political agitation within Kosovo. In Momcilo Pavlovic’s well-crafted narrative, impeccably written to achieve acceptance on both sides of the ethnic divide, the evolution is clear and the outcome seems all too logical and inevitable – a violent confrontation leading eventually to Kosovo independence.

That is not, however, the Scholarly Initiative’s point. Nor would it be a valid one. It is not difficult to imagine many junctures at which wise politicians in a less stressed environment might have intervened to stop the spiral towards violence and dissolution of the former Yugoslavia.  But the anti-nationalists in power who might have been so inclined were also, for the most part, Communists.  Their autocratic methods were ill-suited to the requirements.  Once the Soviet Union came apart, the nationalists—some like Milosevic recent converts from Communism—were unleashed.  They were far more likely to aggravate the situation than ameliorate it.  What happened in Moscow in 1990 and 1991 was the trigger that enabled what happened in former Yugoslavia in the next decade.

The tragedy that ensued is still playing out, but in ways that offer some hope for the future. The April agreement between Belgrade and Pristina is a striking counterpoint to the prior history Pavlovic recounts so well. The basic Yugoslav question remains “why should I live as a minority in your country when you can live as a minority in mine?” But once minorities really do achieve equal status, with education in their own language, personal security and local control over most of the things that matter in daily life, the question gets reversed – “why should I not live as minority in your country if you don’t want to live as a minority in mine,” especially if doing so will accelerate the day on which I can get one of those nice red passports that makes me a European free to circulate and live freely, even as a minority, in 28 countries other than my own.

Some of my friends who write for TransConflict see an easy fix – exchange of territory between southern Serbia and northern Kosovo, putting the Serbs and Albanians who live in those territories on the “right” side of the border. This seemingly neat and clean solution would be tempting if nothing else were at stake. But the majority of Serbs in Kosovo live not in the north but south of the Ibar. Albanians in Macedonia and Serbs in Bosnia would also like to adjust borders, which is a proposition that has already caused wars in both countries and would once again.

It is these broader regional issues that make partition and territorial exchange not only inadvisable but deadly. Reigniting the Balkans wars would end any country’s hope of entering the European Union. Even if you think EU membership for Serbia is 10 years off and for Kosovo 20 years off – estimates that by my lights are high – it seems to me worth waiting for borders to disappear when accession occurs. The sad history of Kosovo under autonomy should be fair enough warning to those who would reignite ethnic hostilities that have fortunately declined markedly from their peak.  May they continue to do so, for the sake of both Albanians and Serbs.

Daniel Serwer is a Senior Research Professor of Conflict Management and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Serwer is the former vice president for centers of peacebuilding innovation at the United States Institute of Peace (2009-10) and former vice president for peace and stability operations at USIP (1998-2009), where he led its peacebuilding work in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and the Balkans and served as Executive Director of the Hamilton/Baker Iraq Study Group. Serwer has worked on preventing inter-ethnic and sectarian conflict in Iraq and has facilitated dialogue between Serbs and Albanians in the Balkans.

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11 Responses

  1. Stan

    For Serwer, this a pretty objective piece. One of the great proponents of Kosovo independence and the promoter of the KLA/Drenica gang, he sounds pretty reasonable here for a change. The problem is can Albanian expansionism be controlled, now fools like Serwer have helped to open that box.

  2. It’s nice to see Dan on TransConflict. He and I often disagree but not always. I agree that there was nothing inevitable about the way Yugoslavia ended, in a torrent of blood from conflict between ethnic groups. Nationalist leaders playing for power had the biggest role. But also, the Western powers — especially Germany — played it badly. Berlin’s recognition of the breakup was premature and actually helped encourage the nationalists to make their plays.

    Partition — or exchange of territories — is the object of much worry by Dan and other US/EU “Balkanists” — in government and outside. They note that the borders could not be drawn cleanly. Indeed they cannot. But the Quint drew a very “unclean” border when it detached “independent” Kosovo from Serbia. Many Serbs were left behind the lines of what the leaders of the new “republic” clearly see as an Albanian enterprise. Furthermore, doing the sensible by leaving north Kosovo out of the departing Albanian-majority Kosova would not justify further conflict elsewhere. That the US and EU (and other supporters of Kosovo independence) cite the threat of further conflict in Macedonia and elsewhere if north Kosovo was allowed to remain part of Serbia is to give way to blackmail by terrorists.

    1. Fadil


      Even the very close people to the Serbs, the Montenegrins, did not want being in the same state with Serbia. Nobody wanted to be in the same state with hegemonic Serbia. I should recall you, if you didn’t know, that the Slovenians and Croats had a proposal of confederation, just before the breakup of Yugoslavia. Of course Serbia did not want that concept as “all Serbs must live in one state”. In a such situation, Slovenia and Croatia did not have other choices but declaring unilaterally their independence, which eventually was successful. Kosovo, by Yugoslav Constitution, was constituent of Yugoslavia with VETO POWER (article 5 of Yugoslav Constitution) with all organs as other entities. All former Yugoslav entities declared independence and did not want being in the same state with Serbia. If those entities declared independence and were linguistically and culturally similar with the Serbs, why entity of Kosovo ,comprised manly from totally different people – the Albanians, would be held in the same state with Serbia??!!

      Comparing Kosovo, as an entity of Yugoslav federation, with northern Serbs, as you sometime do, has absolutely no sense.

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  4. PEN

    The dynamics behind the Kosovo independence project are still ongoing.The unadulterated truth with regard to who was responsible for what and why has still to emerge. But at least it’s interesting to note that the usual cheerleaders for the Albanian nationalist cause like Daniel Serwer are changing their tune somewhat. Perhaps the relationship with their thuggish friends in armani suits firmly ensconced in Pristina is turning sour. As they quietly ply their nefarious trade in narcotics and corrupt business ventures, it could be that their gullible Western friends are no longer of use to them. Who knows. One thing is certain though. The damage is done and all the analysis in the world won’t change that Mr Serwer.

    1. Fadil

      “The damage” which is don is the most right thing that happened to one of the most criminal states in the world – Serbia. That state which killed journalist (Slavko Curuvija), just because is not in the line with criminal policy of that state. That state which killed its own, Serbian children (six of them in Peja on 1998). The state which killed even its own prime minister (Zoran Djindjic), because he was “traitor”, doesn’t deserve any better but being harshly damaged.

      Considering what Serbia did in past two decades with other people in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and lastly in Kosovo, the punishment was very low.

      1. PEN

        Be a good boy fadders and leave serious debate to the adults. We all know how easy it is for you to have a tantrum and start throwing your toys out of the pram. Now put a sock in it, and go and play with your friends.

        1. Fadil


          if you thing that killing of journalists, killing of children and killing of prime minister is not a serious debate than obviously you have huge problems with your brain. That is very known fact for you.

          These are just a few crimes that Serbia did to its own people. I just wanted to remind the public on how fantastic thing was to damage Serbia although that damage was not in proper level as deserved.

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