Ancient discontent between Serbs and Albanians - why real and imagined stories matter today

Ancient discontent between Serbs and Albanians – why real and imagined stories matter today

Balkan history is the telling and remembering of stories passed down through generations. Whether these stories are true or imagined, they are what construct Albanian and Serbian understandings of themselves, enemies, friends and modern-day resentments. Improved Serb-Albanian relations will only come about when both sides partake in honest dialogue over such historical narratives and encourage their respective populations to move forward regardless of them.

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By Sidita Kushi

As should be expected, the violent military crises unfolding in the Middle East have taken the media spotlight in the past years. But recent events have rekindled public attention to the long-muted Western Balkans, with a European qualifying football match between Serbia and Albania turning into a nationalist battleground. The match – featuring Serbian fans chanting “kill, kill the Shqiptar (Albanian),” a drone carrying a Greater Albania flag, and a full-blown physical fight between Albanians and Serbs – was a sobering reminder that Balkan resentments are alive and well today.

After years of perceived stability, the Balkan powder-keg was back in the headlines. In the wake of the abandoned football game, angry Serbian supporters burned and stoned Albanian-owned businesses in Vojvodina, fomenting an atmosphere reminiscent of the 1999 war and the post-Kosovo independence protests. In attempts to tame the flames, many have assured us that the hostilities between the Serbs and Albanians are truly not very old in their origins. In other words, there is no reason to panic. If the hatred between these ethnic groups spans only a few decades or a mere hundred years, there is hope for change – for improved relations and tolerance between Serbs and Albanians in the Balkan Peninsula. It’s really nothing that some good policy-making and diplomacy can’t solve. This is, of course, what we all want to hear.

What these optimistic accounts forget, however, is that history in the Balkans does not merely consist of the most verifiable events that unfold between two nations – Balkan history is the telling and remembering of stories passed down through generations. Whether these stories are true or imagined, they are what construct Albanian and Serbian understandings of themselves, enemies, friends, and modern-day resentments. Improved Serb-Albanian relations will only come about when both sides partake in honest dialogue over such historical narratives and encourage their respective populations to move forward regardless of them. What will not help is to perpetuate the denial of such ancient discontents in the minds of Serbs and Albanians.

The remainder of this article offers historical examples of this discontent. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Serbs and Albanians have battled over Kosovo, with ethnic Albanian guerilla forces and civilian protests consistently threatening a predominantly Serbian government. These protests, whether violent or peaceful, were met with harsh repression. Revenge attacks were common on both sides. These more modern hostilities, however, find their support in ancient perceptions of the groups as intruders, invaders, and enemies of a collective identity.

Ancient perceptions of Serb-Albanian hostilities – opposing realities

In Serb and Albanian collective identities, the history of hostility spans centuries, not decades. It transcends the existence of nation-states and the modern-day citizens of Albania, Kosovo, and Serbia. Both sides often present contradictory accounts of their historical origins, with each side viewing the other as an intruder in the Balkan narrative. Without attempts at understanding and resolution, these perceptions will only further exacerbate contemporary conflict.

The Albanians, claiming origins from the Albanoi Illyrian tribe, see themselves as an indigenous people who lived in the Balkans alongside the Hellenic and Roman Empires. Their Illyrian kingdoms, including the Dardanian tribe in present-day Kosovo, whose name is said to derive from the Albanian word “dardha” or “pear,” stretched from present-day South Albania to Croatia. Thus, in the Albanian historical narrative, Kosovo permeates ethnic identity since ancient times, claimed long before the 6th century Slavic “intrusions” in the Balkans. Albanians even claim a dominant role in the Serbian-led medieval kingdom of Tsar Dushan (from 1346 to 1355), a time period monopolized by the Serbian narrative. As Tsar Dushan called himself the “Tsar of the Serbs, Albanians and Greeks,” Albanians argue that Serbia did not have a unique hold on Medieval Kosovo. Indeed, to the Albanian, the Serbian historical interpretation often further confirms Serbian imperialist ambitions.

This Albanian historical narrative promotes themes of intrusion, betrayal and violence upon Serbia’s Balkan existence. For instance, in 1448, Albanian national hero Skanderbeg and his troops moved to join the Hungarian coalition at the Second Battle of Kosovo to fight the Ottomans, but the Ottoman vassal Durad Branković of Serbia prevented their advance. In this historical interpretation along with many others, not only are the Serbs the invaders upon an indigenous population, they are shown to consistently hinder the Albanian cause in favor of the enemy’s.

In stark opposition, Serbia denies an old Albanian presence in the Balkans and professes superior historical rights to Kosovo, the cradle of the Serbian people. Certain accounts claim that Albanians settled into the Balkan region after the Serbian arrival in the seventh century and out bred the natives. Serbian history claims Kosovo as Old Serbia, the center of an all-Serbian version of Tsar Dushan’s empire and the country of old Serbian Orthodox churches, lost only after a battle with the Ottoman Turks on Kosovo Field in 1389. At that time, some Serbian historians write that only Serbs inhabited the area. The Turks then brought there the Albanians, who drove the Serbs out of their own land. Authors from the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences argue that this happened only three hundred years ago, when, in 1690 and again in 1739, Austrian armies occupied Kosovo and took Christian Serbs with them on their retreat. Only then, Serbian authors claim, the Albanians replaced the fleeing Serbs. Some even believe that all Albanians in the Balkans represent latecomers who arrived after the Serbs.

And so it continues

The contradictory historical accounts and hostile identities continued in the more recent past – even before the infamous interpretations of the 1980s and 1990s Balkan tragedies. Expectations and policies were, consequently, set in place to reflect the ancient “intruder status” of the other ethnic group.

The 1900s also brought another betrayal to the Albanian consciousness, with the European powers splitting half of the Albanian territories between Greece, Serbia and Montenegro after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. But other tragedies embedded themselves within this narrative. Beginning in the First Balkan War of 1912, the Serbian army, sometimes with the knowledge and orders of its king, is said to have “pacified” Albanian areas it occupied with a cruelty unheard of in centuries within Europe. In the war formally against the Ottoman Empire, but also aimed to keep Kosovo from joining newly-independent Albania, Serbian troops killed at least one tenth of the population in present-day Kosovo and pillaged villages. Later, in July 1919, the French consul in Skopje reported nine massacres with thirty to forty thousand victims in Kosovo.

The Yugoslavian legacy did not fare any better. To the Albanian mind, not only did the Yugoslav government implement violent campaigns to oppress the Kosovars and destroy their villages, it also initiated cultural programs meant to threaten the Albanian population and reduce them to their true “intruder” status. The Federation hoped to discourage Albanians from living in Kosovo when it prohibited the use of the Albanian language in schools, the administration and before the courts. After putting in place such cultural limitations, the Yugoslav government exercised pressure on the Albanians to leave Kosovo for Albania or Turkey. In 1938, Yugoslavia and Turkey even agreed on a draft treaty for the settlement of “Turkish” immigrants from Yugoslavia in Turkey.

As soon as WWII ended, Kosovo fell under a Yugoslav military administration that killed about fifty thousand Albanians in 1945 alone. Military rule ended in the fall of 1945, but police actions such as interrogations under torture, searches, and trials directed against “nationalists,” “separatists” and other “enemies” ensued. Yugoslavia continued using emigration to Turkey as a tool to rid Kosovo of Albanians. This can be seen as the culmination of the ancient “intruder” narrative, in which Serbian identity refutes the right of Albanian existence in certain Balkan regions.

The Serbian perspective is, of course, in complete contradiction to the above “reality.” In brief, Albanians were the true criminals, infringing on a fair social order. Albanians were the ones who aimed to rid the Balkans of the Serbs, such as when they banded with the Austro-Hungarians against innocent Serbs in the WWI aftermath. As the Serbian army retreated through Albanian-populated areas to reach the Allied Powers, ethnic Albanian guerrillas ambushed the many smaller units – killing and mutilating soldiers who were cut off from the main forces. It is claimed that partially due to this Albanian brutality, about half of the 300,000 Serb soldiers on retreat never made it to the target destination.

The Albanians were the ones who threatened the other ethnic groups with violence and fear – especially once they gained a demographic and political majority in Kosovo. In 1941, for example, once fascist Italy occupied Kosovo, gangs of Kosovar Albanians attacked Serb and Montenegrin settlers. It is estimated that between 3,000 and 10,000 Serbs died and 30,000 and 100,000 fled Kosovo in this period. These events further encouraged the Serbian narrative that the Albanians, after all, were to blame for the regional violence and didn’t belong in the Balkans. This is how both ancient and more contemporary perceptions of history created a culture of threat – in which the ethnic groups perceive one another as threats to their respective culture, existence, and legitimacy.

Why should we care?

The Balkans may not be in the international headlines as much as in the nineties, but the underlying tensions and extreme nationalism that helped ignite many regional wars remain. The danger of violence still exists, and it holds back the region by making it less appealing to investors. If the international community and national leaders wish to promote compromise between Serbs and Albanians, they should know what they are working with – instead of taking an optimistic, but unfounded, perspective on Serbian-Albanian relations. The resentments, contradictions, and hostile identities run deep in the consciousness of these Balkan people, even if tangible historical evidence may not. But policymakers must work within the confines of this Balkan consciousness to craft solutions founded on intensive historical dialogue, understanding of the other’s narratives, and ultimate efforts to forgive any version of the distant past and move forward to a pragmatic, successful future. 

Sidita Kushi is a Doctoral Candidate in Political Science at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. She specializes in post-Cold War humanitarian interventions in areas of ethnic conflict, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. She has also previously published on transatlantic relations, Iranian nuclear proliferation, and the functionalities of NATO within the Balkans. 

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