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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 29:121–140.


Serb–Albanian Conflict on the Territory of Present-day Kosovo

A.D. 7th century to 1914


Kosovo is one of the continuous and characteristic foci of conflict on the Balkans of our days, where two rival nations are facing each other in every respect. The idea that the nations living there are hostilely opposed to each other often by irrational and overheated emotions truly difficult to understand can be associated with the history of the Peninsula just as well as with the history of Eastern Europe as a whole. The Kosovo conflict, currently reaching a turning point, is just one of these confrontations with its characteristic ethnic background since the late 19th century. The two opposing sides have been using every possible argument, ideology, historical source, etc. to justify their own national objectives, hence a rather confusing image has emerged to those who are interested in the events of the world that is filled with myths and elements that cannot be linked to reality. The following essay attempts to survey some major problems of the history of Albanian–Serb coexistence with the eyes of a historian, in the light of the historiography of the two peoples, and to contribute to creating a more balanced image of Kosovo to those who are interested in it.

The first issue to be clarified is the definition of Kosovo itself. Both historiographies write about the territory (and it has spread uncritically in the domestic and international media) as if that ‘province’ had been a historical-geographical entity existing for several centuries. Whereas Kosovo, or Kosovo Polje (Rigómező in Hungarian) was only the geographical name of a smaller plain up to 1875, which became known as the remembrance of a medieval battle between Serbs and the Ottomans all over Europe. The first administrative unit called Kosovo was organised by the Ottoman Empire between 1875 and 1878, but that does not correspond to the territory of the present Kosovo, since it included today’s Central and Eastern Kosovo that is currently the north-eastern part of Macedonia with headquarters in Skopje (Üsküb); and the area became autonomous as a Vilayet from the Vilayet of Monastir. It survived with minor modifications until the fall of the Empire. Today’s Kosovo only acquired its present territory in the post-1945 Yugoslavia. Therefore one should take the historical arguments of Serb and Albanian historians speaking about centuries-old conflicts in the case of Kosovo with a grain of salt.

The second question to be clarified in advance is how the Serb and the Albanian historiography views the history of the province1. No historical work on Kosovo has been published to this day which would have been produced jointly by the Serb and the Albanian scholarly world. It is common in both historiographies that they primarily write about their own national history: they do not only diminish the role of the other party but pay no attention to the presence of peoples that used to live on the same territory, such as the Greeks, Wallachs, Saxons, Latins (of Ragusa), the Roma, the Cherkes, etc. Historiography has been over-politicised by both parties, therefore it can be stated that two competing national historiographies are also confronted in the case of Kosovo. The logic of the historical works primarily communicating and mediating (current) political messages (i.e. not necessarily every Serb and Albanian historical writing dealing with the history of the area) can be mostly linked to the following scheme of thought: 1. we were here first; 2. we have been in majority ever since; 3. Kosovo is the price of our sufferings. An important difference, however, between the two historiographies is that there has been no Serbian historian to this day who has learned Albanian or tried to understand Albanian historical thinking, or would have sought for some value in Albanians, whereas there are examples fir this on the opposite side.


The Middle Ages

Serb (political) historiography suggests that the current ethnic conditions of Kosovo have emerged only during the past decades as a result of violent interferences. And this is precisely where the main issue of research of the confronting historiographies is hidden: namely how the ethnic history of the area has developed? “Who was there first? Who are in majority and since when?” (And consequently: “who has more right to live there today?”).

According to the most widespread Serb historical stand the Kosovo of today had been a central territory of medieval Serbia ever since Slav occupation, moreover, it was the cradle of Serb culture itself. Later on it was the centre of the Balkan Empire of Tsar Dušan (1331–1355) (see the headquarters of the Tsar’s Court at Prizren). It was an area of Serb (Slav) majority during the entire course of the Middle Ages and Albanians occurred only accidentally (in fact Serb historians dealing with the Middle Ages try to ignore their presence). The experience of constituting a state, however, cannot only be linked to the Nemanja dynasty for in the first part of the 15th century (up to the fall of Novo Brdo in 1455) an autonomous Serb state was also established by Vuk and Đurađ Branković (the latter one known as György Brankovics in Hungarian history).

On the other hand Albanian historiography considers the Albanians of Kosovo as descendants of the Dardan tribe of Illyrians who had even fought against Alexander the Great and see Kosovo as the successor of Dardania (see one of the banners often used by the Albanians of Kosovo). In other words, the Albanians consider themselves as autochthonous and acknowledge the presence of Serbs only from the Slav conquest on. It can be definitely stated that the descent from the Dardani is one of the key elements of the identity of the Kosovo Albanians, and getting acquainted with the history of the Dardani represents a prominent field of research for Albanian historiography as well as archaeology (to this see the Albanian historical annals entitled Gjurmime albanologjike published in Kosovo since 1966).

Today non-Serb and non-Albanian historiography accepts that Serbian presence had been continuous on the territory of today’s Kosovo since the 7th century. As far as I know, there has been no consensus (and none could be reached) among historians concerning the exact historical moment/period from which a Slav ethnic community can be regarded as Serb, Croat, Pole, etc. For the time being the only thing that we know is that the first historical source mentioning ‘Serbs’ is De administrando imperio written/collected by Constantinus Porphyrogenetus2 which locates the first Serb polities (zhupas) on the territory of present-day Herzegovina, the Sandžak and Montenegro (Hum/ Zahumlje/Humska Zemlja, Trebinje/Travunia, Dioklea/Duklja, etc.) Chapter 32 of that work mentions that the border city between Serbs and Bulgarians (on the Bulgarian side) was ‘Rascia’ (Raš) to be found in today’s Western Serbia, which became the name of the Zhupanate of Raška (Rascia in Latin) formed later on (and was the core of the Medieval Orthodox Serb state)3. It can be stated, accordingly, that ever since there is a written source available on Serb history, according to our present knowledge Kosovo could not be the cradle of Serb culture.

The territory of Kosovo was acquired by the Serbian state in the wake of the weakening of the first Bulgarian Empire and the growing strength of the great Zhupan known by Hungarians as Stephen Nemanja, the lord of Raška after the battle of Pantin (northwest of Priština/Prishtina) in 1168 between the Byzantines and Serbs. From then on it was part of Serbia up to the Ottoman conquest; and from the 1200s onwards the focus of the state was truly shifted to this place since, in contrast with the first known ethnic Serb territories, there were significantly fortified (Byzantine) towns here that could even function as royal seats from 1217 on.

As to the ethnic side of the question, that much can be learned from the researches of Konstantin Jireček4 that the Serb ethnic core territory started to expand towards Rivers Morava and Danube from the above-mentioned first known zhupanates. It turned to southeast when the authority of the Serb rulers was increasingly approaching the borders of Byzantine Macedonia from the middle of the 13th century, but the main thrust of expansion continued to be the Danube according to Jireček. The 14th-century conquests reached their peak at the time of Tsar Dušan when the borders of the country stretched as far as the Peloponnesian Peninsula. It is important, however, to note about this empire that it was not Serb, but a Serb–Byzantine empire even on the basis of the Tsar’s titles and diplomas issued. He gave the Serb ethnic core regions up to the borders of present-day Kosovo and Macedonia to his son and heir apparent, the later Tsar Uroš I (1355–1371) for governance, while he himself reigned on the Byzantine territories annexed with the help of the majority of the Serb aristocracy and army, retaining Byzantine public administration and governance along the pattern of the ruler of Constantinople as “ in Christ, the God faithful Emperor of Greeks and Serbs”, as ”Emperor of all Serb and Greek lands and seacoasts, of Albania and of the great West” and “as the Emperor of Serbs, Greeks, Bulgarians and Albanians” (sic!). In other words, he was heading a multinational state organised half along Serb and half along Byzantine pattern.

As far as the Albanians are concerned, there is no unambiguous proof that they are truly the descendants of Illyrians. International (non-Albanian) literature, however, does not have any better theory. It is sure that they are an Indo-European people, Romanised between the 2nd and 6th centuries A.D. and affected by Christianisation, similarly to the Serbs(!) from Rome for the first time. The first written sources about them survived from the 11th century (written by Michael Attaleiates and Anna Komnena), who reported on the existence of a principality called ‘Arbanum/Arbanon’ somewhere in the vicinity of present-day Kruja (this is where the currently used international name of Albanians comes from). The Croat historian Milan Šufflay’s views still considered as well-founded5 hold that Albanians started to spread out from the quadrangle of Bar–Prizren–Ohrid–Vlora at first towards the east and next to the south in the 13th–14th centuries. Based on the researches of Šufflay and Jireček it can be validated by archive sources that the Albanians were present in the western part of Kosovo from the early 13th century on (i.e. from the time when the territory came into possession of the Serbian state!), and that too in significant proportions. Archive sources support the fact that settlement in that territory could only be partly attributed to the spontaneous expansion of Albanians, because the Serb rulers themselves were interested in filling up areas left vacant by withdrawing Romanised/Graecised elements moving with the retreating Byzantine public administration. In fact Catholic as well as Orthodox Albanians also participated in the resettlements. This process lasted up to the middle of the 14th century and affected not only the territory of today’s Kosovo, but also those of present-day Macedonia and Northern Greece, in other words the spread of Albanians on the Balkans was greatly promoted by Serbian rulers in the Middle Ages. For instance, when the Saint Archangels monastery was founded by Tsar Dušan in Prizren he also founded sixty villages to cater for the monastery, six of which were Albanian6. At the same time it is also important to note that the Albanians living on the territory of present-day Kosovo and Macedonia were on the verge of total assimilation in the middle of the 15th century, as it is held by the Kosovo Albanian historian Hasan Kaleshi, and this tendency was reversed by the Ottoman conquest7.


The First Battle of Kosovo Polje (28 June 1389)

The first battle of Kosovo Polje between the Serb baronial coalition headed by Prince Lazar (Lazar Hrebeljanović) and the Ottoman ruler Murad I has become an event of primary significance in the Middle Ages from the angle of Serbs. The battle enormously reverberated in Serb historical memory and its impact on the development of Serbian mentality is beyond doubt. Very little is known about the battle itself, yet the Serbian tradition of Kosovo and of the Morava banks has preserved a relatively detailed history of events (a conflict among the Serb lords on the eve of the battle, the treachery of Vuk Branković on the battlefield, the successful attempt of Miloš Obilić against Murad, the martyrdom of Prince Lazar and his associates, etc.). What seems to be sure on the basis of archival sources, of Ottoman chronicles (Neşri) and Byzantine notes, etc., is that the Serb army was defeated, Murad died, and that Vuk Branković was not a traitor8. It is also certain that Serb statehood did not fail here in the long term but at the battle fought at the bank of River Maritsa in 1371. The lost battle of the Ottomans against Timur Lenk at Ankara in 1402, however, gave a lease of life for some decades to the Serb successor states. (It should be noted that Albanian troops also fought in the battle of Kosovo Polje on the side of Serbs.)

Why has the battle become a turning point in the history of ideology for Serbian people? In the early 13th century a curious and unique literary genre emerged in Serbia: it was the so-called “Old Serbian biographies of rulers”9. Originally the genre preserved historical biographies of the Nemanjids densely loaded with religious elements: the family was recorded as a dynasty, having miraculous features, chosen by God to rule over the Serbs (in this context see the Árpáds, a “clan of holy kings”). After the extinction of the dynasty (in 1371) the topoi so far applicable only to them (divine commission, charisma, creators of peace and quiet, role models of faith/ religiousness, charitable behaviour, founding churches/monasteries, armed defence of territories given in custody by God, regaining lost Serb territories, etc.) were inherited by Prince Lazar, more precisely the Serb Prince martyred was invested with these qualities by the Serb monastic communities creating the cult of Prince Lazar along the River Morava, receiving the political support of Prince Lazar’s son Stefan Latarević who nurtured all-Serb political ambitions (he is also known in Hungarian history as Stephen Lazarevich, a pillar of King Sigismund’s authority, having the young János Hunyadi as one of his pages).

The cult of Prince Saint Lazar developed after 1389 in a specific historical moment10. As a consequence of the catastrophic Serb defeat the Orthodox monks living in Serbian monasteries, learning from the history of the Jewish people of the Old Testament and from the example of Bulgarian statehood that had fallen victim of the Ottoman conquest, decided not to leave the survival of the Serb people, culture and writing to chance, but to consciously wait for dispersion (life without an autonomous state) and even prepare the people for that condition. So far only members of the Nemanja dynasty, the nobility and the monks had known about the rulers’ biographies mentioned above, since originally they were the targeted audience of that literary genre (the people as such had never been mentioned by the authors when presenting the life of different rulers), therefore its impact on shaping identity could be felt only among them. After the extinction of the dynasty and the lost battle an opportunity opened up for changing this tendency. The cult of Saint Lazar seemed to be suitable for refreshing historical consciousness among the nobles and the monks and to make it present among the people in general. In fact the respect of a holy monarch makes it possible for a society to identify with the cult figure and the projected values. The cult unfolding among the monks along River Morava could squeeze out any other competing trend; in this case the ecclesiastic communities did not only play the role of transmitting, but also of creating tradition. In addition to religious elements they preserved the ideas and norms of the monarchist Serb society at a moment, when Serbia fell and the Ottoman conquest took place. The lost battle of Ankara provided useful decades in the early 15th century to the unique development and spreading of the cult.

The monastic communities evoking the memory of Lazar did not follow the schemes of the Old Serb biographies of rulers in every respect. This time the biographers themselves were not members of the ruling dynasty, neither the monks of monasteries founded by the ruling dynasty. The new-type biographies this time were not primarily addressed to the religious and secular elite but to lay society in general. Thus they created and confirmed the bases of collective memory at the moment of dispersion. In the cult Prince Lazar, following the biographies of the Nemanjids, represented the heroes of the Old Testament in the modern age: he was Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, etc. Thus his personality became part of a mythic unity with “his people”. It is a novelty, however, that parallels from the New Testament are also added to him: he dies as a holy warrior and a martyr ruler. Similarly to Christ he sacrifices his life for the country, for Serbia; he suffers death as a human being, a man, a father, a husband, a commander, a ruler and protector. His death, however, does not mean the victory of descent but that of faith. It derives from the mythic unity between Prince Lazar and the people that the people themselves, who are just as important actors in the new cult as the Prince, are also martyred for the Christian faith. Hence the history of Serbia obtains a new sense: since everything happened according to God’s will, the history of the Serbs became a history of salvation. The Serb people became the new Israel, the chosen people and they had to endure those scourges of destiny so that they may once experience redemption in keeping with the parallels in the Old and New Testaments. This is why the battle of Kosovo Polje became important in the life of the people: remembrance and the cult of the heroic Prince helped endure and cope with the loss of the state and the Ottoman conquest, and at the same time it also offered hope as to the future. And hope had simultaneously become a political and religious expectation.

The Serb Orthodox Church itself is linked by several other threads to the territory of the present-day Kosovo besides what was mentioned above. In the heyday of the medieval state (13th–14th centuries) the centre of the sate was on that territory, the Nemanjids founded the most beautiful and largest monasteries in Dečan, Gračanica, Prizren, Pećen, etc. It was in Kosovo that the Church had acquired the highest ecclesiastic status: the Metropolitan of Peć became Patriarch in 1346. It is a less known fact, however, that it was not in a legitimate way: the appointment in fact did not come from Constantinople but from Dušan who was totally unwarranted and possessed at that time only the title of King under the name Uroš IV (originally the Serb royal crown did not come from the Byzantine capital, but from Rome in 1217, and the first coronation took place in keeping with the Latin rite). The reason was simple: the Serb monarch could only take the title of an Emperor that is of a Tsar from the hands of a Patriarch, but neither the Emperor, nor the ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople was inclined to give his blessing for it. Therefore the King at first created a Patriarch and next had himself crowned as Tsar in Skopje. As a result the entire Serb Orthodox Church was excommunicated in the Byzantine capital, and a schism took place. It was terminated by the political wisdom and diplomatic skills of Prince Lazar in 1375; this is also a reason why the Serb fraternity, thankful for the withdrawal of excommunication, gladly cultivated the memory of Prince Lazar. In summary it can be stated that the transfer of the remembrance of the battle as well as of the medieval Serb statehood was undertaken by the Serb Orthodox Church which preserved it up to the creation of the nation-state in the 19th century, when the myth was somewhat transformed and obtained new vigour.

The image of the ‘Crucified Kosovo’, or the basis of the Serbian image of Kosovo that may be known from the news of today, emerged only in the second half of the 19th century. As a result of the major Eastern crisis that broke out in 1878, Serbia gained its sovereignty as a state. The new independent state had, for decades, nurtured the dream of uniting the territories inhabited by Serbs (to this see: Ilija Garašanin: Načertanije. 1844)11: the most important aim within this endeavour would have been to acquire Bosnia and Herzegovina. I said ”it would have been because the Austro– Hungarian Monarchy obtained the consent of Great Powers to occupy that Ottoman province. And this led to the final confrontation between Vienna and Belgrade in the long run. Expansion in the Balkans had become a vital issue for the Serb state, because it did not want to lose in the competition of modern nationalisms unfolding on the Peninsula. Serbs outside the borders of the independent Serbia basically lived on the territory of the Monarchy and of the dying Ottoman Empire: Belgrade saw the weaker enemy in the latter one and after the ‘loss’ of Bosnia and Herzegovina its attention and interest turned towards the south, towards today’s Kosovo kept on record as ‘Old Serbia‘ and towards Macedonia.

Naturally the demand for the acquisition of Old Serbia was not entirely new, for it also figured in the above-mentioned work of Ilija Garašanin among the desired aims as part of the erstwhile Nemanjid Empire though not at all with the same weight as Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1844 the former Serb minister of home affairs did not even make it clear what he had meant under the concept of Old Serbia and he did not outline its borders. After 1878, however, that was also done and as a result of historical arguments and due to the former statehood it was not the country of the early Nemanja rulers that was taken as a basis of reference but rather the empire of Tsar Dušan12. In 1889 an eminent opportunity offered itself for commemorating the 500th anniversary of the first battle of Kosovo Polje with a series of official celebrations (cf. with the Hungarian millenary celebrations). In addition to the historical memory of the battle religious memory linked to Kosovo Polje also gained new impetus with the support of the Church and of political will. The issue of the acquisition of the Kosovo Vilayet, organised only a few years earlier, by force became a key issue of Serbian (historical) salvation and redemption. In this issue the Belgrade government could also rely on the support of Russia, another major Orthodox power. In 1875 the Russian consul of Prizren said the following to the Serb historian Pantelija Srećković: “The Serbs lost their empire in the land of Kosovo, and the destiny of the Balkan Peninsula as well as of the Serb people will once be decided upon in a battle in Kosovo.”13

The government of the independent Serbia used the available decades well: several generations were brought up in the state school network built up under the spell of Kosovo Polje14. The state, the army, and the Serb society itself were deliberately preparing for the “reoccupation of the ancient Serb lands”. Eminent opportunities to this were offered by the first and second Balkan wars (1912–1913)15. It is clear on the basis of surviving archive sources and Serb soldiers’ diaries that the Serb politicians as well as every single member of the Serbian army fought through the two wars to take revenge also for the battle of Kosovo Polje16. The endpoint of this historical line was a draft memorandum left incomplete by the Serb Academy of Science and Art written in 1986 and the commemoration held on 28 June 1989 at Kosovo Polje.


The Early Modern Age (16th–18th Centuries)

One of the most lasting results of the Ottoman conquest was that the merger of Albanians into the Serb and Greek peoples did not only halt, but took a reverse turn. In 1455 the conquerors conducted a census of the population of the new Sanjaks formed on the former Branković estates. The defter took account of about 600–650 villages with the names of the male residents and sometimes their ethnicity. The imminent assimilation could be assumed on the basis of several thousand surviving names after some philological argumentation, moreover, historians could outline a hazy image by the arrangement of data concerning the ethnic proportions on the territory of present-day Kosovo in the 15th century17. Though Albanian and Serb historiography assess the data of the defters differently (and there had been a difference of opinion even among Albanian historians, because the pro-Turkish attitude of Kaleshi, coming from an Ottoman family did not receive unanimous acclaim), it can be stated for sure that one could see a stable Albanian presence in about eighty villages in the middle of the 15th century on the territory of the present province. Albanians living in those villages followed the Orthodox faith and based on their names (such as Đorđe Izić, a family name from the Albanian ‘i zi’ meaning ‘black [man]) they were in an advanced state of assimilation. According to Kaleshi, if the conquest was delayed by only 50–100 years, the Albanians would have totally merged into the Serb population living in that area (this logic has not been seriously accepted either by Albanian or Serbian historiography). This way, however, the situation of Albanian presence and of the language was changed, but those Albanian historical works that speak about Albanian majority in Kosovo already in the 16th century are strongly exaggerating.

The major question of the early modern age, however, should not be linked to the moment of Ottoman conquest and not even to the 16th century, but to 1690 and to 1737. During the course of the Habsburg–Ottoman wars Western Christian armies penetrated as far as to the territory of today’s Macedonia, the presence of which provoked the general uprising of Serbs. After the withdrawal of those armies Serbs fearing reprisals fled in big crowds to the territory of the Habsburg Empire according to Serb historiography, under the leadership of Patriarch Arsenije Crnojević III in 1690. The huge exodus, led by the Patriarch, is considered as the flight of several hundred thousand people (30 to 40 thousand families) (veliki seoba). It is part of the myth that crowds of Muslim Albanians from Albania moved into territories of Old Serbia thus depopulated, partly with the help of the Ottoman authorities, and kept on persecuting and harassing the Serbs who remained there. From then on the majority of Serb historical works speak about violent Islamisation and Albanisation to the detriment of Orthodox Serbs. Actually every Serb historical concept related to Kosovo is based on this assumption18.

During those two years mentioned above Habsburg armies really went deep into the heart of the Balkans and it had indeed provoked uprisings of the local Christian population. Nevertheless, Noel Malcolm has found four important counter-arguments during his archival researches to the notion of considering the years 1690 and 1737 as turning points by the views represented by Serb historiography19, namely:

– 1. There must have remained some written traces of such a huge mass of people fleeing away from the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries. Malcolm, however only found reference to the Patriarch escaping with a handful of his followers after the withdrawal of the Habsburg army.

– 2. The Habsburg troops fighting in the heart of the Balkans were massacring on large scale the (urban) Muslim population of the area which did provoke a wave of escape of Muslims as well. The devastations of the Ottoman–Tartar repressive army arriving after the withdrawal of the Christian forces did provoke a secondary wave of flights, in other words it is not only the majority of the Christian inhabitants of the province who had fled but also the Muslims. (It should be noted that during the time of the attacks of the Western troops the Orthodox families deciding to flight did not necessarily go towards the north which was the direction of the frontline.)

– 3. It is an undisputable fact that the settlement area of the Serb ethnic group moved vigorously towards the north in the early modern age, and reached and stayed in the area of present-day Vojvodina by the first part of the 18th century. According to researches done by Malcolm, Serbs did flee in both war years but this trend was not decisive. According to the British historian we can witness an emigration and expatriation lasting for several decades in several waves which was of all-Serbian nature but not specific of Kosovo. The Orthodox population mostly fled from the territory of present Montenegro, the Sandžak and Northeastern Kosovo.

– 4. In 1690 as well as in 1737 major anti-Ottoman uprisings broke out on the territory of the present-day Kosovo and Macedonia, but they were not purely Serb ones because numerous Catholic Albanian tribes also participated in them. Already in 1689 the warriors of the big North Albanian Këlmendi tribe joined the troops of General Piccolomini, and in 1737 members of the Hoti and Gruda tribes also revolted besides the Këlmendis which were also hit by the Ottoman reprisals. After the defeat of the Habsburgs part of the revolted Catholic Albanians fled together with the Serbs towards the north. Moreover, they were also admitted and settled by the administration in Vienna at the newly created Border Guard Region and among the Serbs organised into regiments [!], more exactly in the villages of Hrtkovci, Nikinci and Jarak in Syrmia, and Albanians settling down here retained their Catholic religion20.

It is almost impossible to trace the ethnic relations of the early modern age even in broader outline. The reason is that few Western sources have survived, and the Ottoman sources have not been studied by historians in this respect, at least no serious study has been done on the basis of archival sources. A further difficulty is that the terminology of Western sources (papal visitations, diaries of military officers, etc.) is rather confusing: for instance the word ‘Slav’ usually means Christian (whereas several hundreds of thousands of Muslims lived in the heart of the Balkans), the word ‘Turci’ usually means Muslim, but occasionally it denotes ethnicity, etc. A further difficulty is represented by the fact that a significant part of Albanians was so-called crypto-Christian in order to mislead the Ottoman authorities well into the middle of the 19th century (they converted to Islam only superficially and kept on exercising also the rites of the Catholic or Orthodox religion), and that a significant part of Serbs living on the territory of Kosovo wore the plis, the white cap characteristic of Albanians in order to mislead the authorities (or to avoid harassment). For this reason a foreign traveller could justly regard them as Muslims.

It seems to be sure that Albanians were continuously expanding on the territory of Kosovo since the end of the 16th century. Handling explanations with due criticism one may say on the basis of the surveys of Jovan Cvijić and the anthropo-geographic school founded by him21 that there had been huge waves of migration on the territory under survey in the 17th and 18th centuries. The continuity of the Serb and Albanian ethnic groups was maintained but not in the majority of individual families: the majority of the population of the region was replaced. During the course of those migrations every ethnic group (Serb, Albanian, Turkish, Aruman, Roma, etc.) and every social stratum (city-dwellers, village people, highlanders, shepherds, merchants, craftsmen, etc.) moved. Part of the migrations took place within the Monastir Vilayet, and another part was manifest in immigration and emigration. It is difficult to validate or criticise the statements of the two historiographies due to the lack of relevant sources.

The Serb statement, however, according to which Albanians arrived to the territory of Kosovo in big crowds during the 18th century, can be accepted. In fact the relative majority of Albanians (not of Muslims) did emerge by the turn of the century, but it only stabilised lastingly in the second half of the 19th century. Albanian immigration began from the tribal regions of Northern Albania and it had several reasons. The most important reason was economic: fertile plains offered better livelihood than the slowly overpopulated mountainous regions. Fear from unexpected vendettas could also be a reason of resettlements. Conquerors were also participants in altering ethnic relations who saw a political tool in resettlement for checking inhabitants engaged in robbery, for the repopulation of deserted areas or for punishing insurrections22. For instance, the part of the Këlmendis, mentioned earlier in relation to the events of 1690 and 1737, that remained in their place of residence were resettled out of reprisal. Albanians moving to the territory of Kosovo this way were not followed by the Catholic priests of the ‘old homeland’, they had become mostly Muslims by the wake of the Balkan wars though the mountainous territories in the western parts have retained their Catholic majority to this day.

There is yet another concept one should get acquainted with in relation to the early modern age and it is the meaning of ‘arnautaš’. This word appeared in Serb historical and political thinking in the late 19th century. The word arnautaš was practically used to denote Serbs who were forcefully converted to Islam and subsequently became Albanians (forced to take over the Albanian language). According to Serb scholarly life this stratum made up about 30% of the Albanians of Old Serbia (more or less the territory of the present Kosovo and Macedonia) at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries; they were regarded as potential Serbs who would gladly return to the ethnic family also after their return to the motherland23. In fact the concept of arnautaš proved to be a good tool for face-lifting statistical tables created to support Serb historical and ethnic arguments. The prolific writer and historian Spiridion Gopčević24 was a master of producing such tables besides Serb diplomacy as well as the Orthodox Church. A good example of the latter ones is the series of data collected by the Serb consulate in Priština in 1905 about the sanjaks of Priština, Prizren and Ipek25. From this see its first specific categories:

The Long 19th Century

The relative Albanian majority for the time being could emerge and stabilise only towards the second part of the 19th century on the territory of the present-day Kosovo26. According to an Austrian diplomat the minor population movement in the beginning of the century was followed by another one in the middle of the century from the direction of today’s Northern Albania27. This, however, does not automatically mean that the northern part of the Monastir Vilayet became a Muslim-majority one as a result of the arrival of fragmentary tribes moving towards the east. In fact the population of the mountains around the line between Ipek and Prizren was solidly Catholic, and all in all Christians could remain in relative majority in these sanjaks of the Empire up to the 1870s.

Naturally, up to that historical moment the coexistence of Albanians and Serbs was not free of conflicts, but it would also be an exaggeration to say that their life consisted of a series of continuous conflicts. Nothing burdened the image created about each other that would have irreversibly confronted the two peoples up to the age of the emergence of nations in the 19th century.

As a result of the currently ongoing conflict the study and presentation of those Serb objectives that aimed at involving Albanians into the plans of a common, all-Balkan resurrection against the Ottomans in the 19th century has been pushed into the background. Data are available already from the time of the uprising led by Karađorđe early in that century (concerning the period between 1804 and 1812) according to which some of the mixed Albanian and Slav as well as purely Albanian-speaking tribes (such as those of Bjelopavlić, Piper, etc.) fought in alliance with Serb insurgents for almost a decade28. It can be proved by archival sources that the rulers and politicians of autonomous Serbia and Montenegro (the Serb Prince Miloš Obilić, the Serb Minister of Home Affairs Ilija Garašanin; Petar Petrović-Njegoš I and II, Princes of Montenegro and Vladika, etc.) cultivated good relations with the Albanian elite living on the present territory of Kosovo, Macedonia and Northern Albania. The aim of keeping in touch was partly to keep up the flow of information (‘monitoring‘ and influencing events in Old Serbia29) and partly to keep the idea alive of getting independent jointly. Initially the Belgrade Court established contacts only with Christians, but from the 1860s onwards it also involved the Muslim elite in the anti-Constantinople plans. The basis of negotiations was the idea of autonomy to be demanded by the Balkan people, possibly (a joint) independence to be acquired, if necessary, even by armed force. Princes Obrenović and Petrović- Njegoš even built up a minor network of agents in regions inhabited by Albanians. On this basis it can be stated that the elites of Belgrade and Cetinje/Podgorica were aware of the significance of Albanians. Russian diplomacy was also favouring rapprochement between Serbs and Albanians and the establishment of a Balkan alliance against the Ottomans. From the second half of the 1860s the Russian Embassy in Constantinople actually participated in preparing talks and supported it even financially30.

In 1875 an uprising broke out in Herzegovina leading to armed conflict even on territories inhabited by Bulgarians. It set out an avalanche on the Balkan Peninsula that affected the further history of the relationship between Albanians and Serbs. Under the impact of the events in Herzegovina and Bulgaria the two Slav principalities of Serbia and Montenegro felt that the time had come for a general uprising, and the time had come for squeezing out the Ottomans from the European continent. In 1876 the Serbian army began its operations for the acquisition of Bosnia and Herzegovina, an aim desired for decades. While the majority of Serb troops were fighting in that Ottoman Vilayet, a smaller army unit was commanded to move in the southern direction to open a diversionary manoeuvre in the Niš sanjak. The sanjak was mostly inhabited by Muslims with the majority speaking a Slav language and the minority being Albanian.

The very first element of the history of conflicts in Kosovo still in progress curiously began here, outside the borders of the province. In 1876 Serbia occupied and annexed the Niš sanjak, and in keeping with the order from Belgrade it started a merciless and targeted cleansing. The attack affected about 600 villages of mixed Slav and Albanian (as well as Muslim) population and 200,000 people31. The Serbian army destroyed the villages and massacred the civilian population. It is difficult to assess the number of those who lost everything as refugees and left the territory of the sanjak for good. Serb historiography knows about 30 to 35 thousand people, the Albanian one speaks about 80 thousand Muslims driven away. The actual figure may be closer to the latter one though presumably the figure of Albanian historiography is exaggerated. A smaller part of the refugees fled towards the south, in the direction of the Aegean Sea, but the majority chose the newly organised Kosovo Vilayet (see p. 1). Their number could be about fifty thousand at the most, men and women, old and young people alike. Ethnically they were mostly Albanians, and a minority were Slavs. They arrived destitute, dispossessed, and their losses were never compensated by anyone. The refugees carried along the news of the massacres, the discriminating policy of the functioning Serb military administration and the panic that was provoked by the nightmare of physical destruction. Even a delegated official of Belgrade reported on the (military) policy in progress in the annexed sanjak in his book32.

Interestingly the population of Serb ethnicity, living in the eastern part of the then Kosovo Vilayet received the refugees with sympathy and solidarity. Nationalist vehemence was not characteristically present either here or on the territory of autonomous Serbia at that time. Yet, with the passage of time the wrath of refugees and the pressure for compensation turned against them. The desire to take revenge, provoked by flight was, however, only partly the reason for this a similar motivation force was the fact that as the state did not look after them they had been pushed into an impossible existential situation. Their families were famished and were destitute, no houses, land or property remained. After the Serb army drove them away their anger turned against the local Serb population totally innocent about the attack. They attacked Serb households and drove away their inhabitants after some time. The expelling of Serb peasant families did not take place directly in the war years because it continued to be characteristic also for the entire period after 1878 (up to 1912). Historians dealing with the period have given the name “minor Serb flight” to commemorate the “major Serb flight” related to the year 1690. During that event about sixty thousand people left the territory of Kosovo33. The Ottoman army itself did not pursue the Serbs and did not control the Albanian gangs either. Thus the ethnic proportions of the province were shifted for good in the direction of Albanians and, as far as religion is concerned, in favour of Muslims.

The abject terror brought along with the Muslim refugees had a serious impact on Albanians living here as well. Actually the Serb–Ottoman war escalated with the passage of time and the Russian army also interfered in shaping the military events, in order to defend Serbia and Montenegro facing defeat. Thus the great powers of the age also became participants in the armed conflict. Ultimately the ‘final’ decision on the territorial changes and alterations of international legal regulations was made by them at the Berlin Conference of 1878. It was at that time that permission was given to the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy to occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as the Sanjak of Novi Pazar. As a consequence of Serbia and Montenegro becoming independent and the loss of Bosnia the Albanians living on the Peninsula found themselves in an entirely new situation: all regions inhabited by them became a border province of the Empire. Another major experience of the years 1876–1878 was that the state was unable to protect its territorial integrity by itself, and it could not guarantee for the regions inhabited by Albanians that they would not be occupied by the neighbouring countries. Thus, looking from a historical perspective, the military attack against Serbia and the appearance of the Monarchy troops on the territory of the sanjak coincided with the actual problems of those driven out of the Niš sanjak. The sense of being threatened, enhanced from three directions and the attacks against Serb peasant families provoked a reaction from the Albanians, otherwise divided in innumerable ways primarily the differences in language, dialect, religion, ethnography and also in social terms) which was unprecedented earlier: the Muslim Albanians joined forces with the Catholic Albanians living in Northern Albania and Western Kosovo to protect their ethnic territories. The alliance was concluded in Prizren in June 1878, this is where its historical name derives from (Prizren League). Soon the Prizren League set up an army of its own that fought together with volunteers coming from among warriors of the hill tribes as well as rural and urban ones coming from the plains of Kosovo. The Albanians unable to join forces up to that historical moment organised their own public administration and their troops successfully resisted the attacking armies of Serbia and Montenegro. Initially the Ottoman Empire supported the League with sympathy and secretly with arms and money. In 1881, however, the great powers successfully forced the Constantinople government to ultimately turn against the irregular Albanian troops fighting for imperial interests. The League was defeated; its leaders were executed or exiled.

After the fall of the League a new regime set in. The refugees of the Niš sanjak stayed on the territory of the province and had a lion’s share in the increasingly frequent internal social conflicts mostly because of existential reasons in the next decades. Their presence had made unrest permanent and contributed to keeping alive the sense of being threatened as well. In Kosovo that had become a border Vilayet, the Muslim population carefully watched the foreign political events of the next decades and reacted violently on every grievance suffered by the Empire or the Muslims (among others such an event was the Greek–Ottoman war that broke out in relation to Crete in 1897)34. It is important, however, to stress once again that the followers of Islam living there suffered from a constant sense of being threatened because it was clear to them that the military power of the Empire was already insufficient to protect them and this was the reason of their unrest. It should also be noted that the violent acts becoming regular in the life of the Vilayet between 1878 and 1912 cannot be restricted to an Albanian–Serbian ethnic conflict, or a Muslim–Orthodox religious conflict. These were also existing tensions, but in addition an equal dimension of violent confrontation could be experienced between Catholics and Muslims (the majority of both were of Albanian nationality), between Muslims and Muslims (such as Albanian–Turkish, Albanian–Albanian) and between urban dwellers and rural people, between officials and subjects, etc. In other words there were innumerable cleavages. Towards the end of the 1890s the Albanian–Serb cleavage gradually emerged out of the innumerable other tensions and it also provided the most important characteristic feature of the Kosovo conflict with the passage of time35.

Another consequence of the Eastern crisis of 1878 for the life of Albanians was that the Albanian national movement had set out on its way. The narrow stratum of Albanian intellectuals wanted to give an answer to the modernisation challenge manifest in the territorial claims of the neighbouring peoples, and it envisioned a future for the Muslim majority people in which they could enter into the turbulent community of those living on the Balkans as equal partners.

Thus 1878 brought about a sad change in the Albanian–Serb coexistence. The issue of ethnic affiliation politicised by Serb expansion led, in the long run, to competing Albanian and Serb claims. The 19th century actually ended in 1878 in the life of Kosovo and the ‘long 20th century’ began which has become a strange story of conflicts in the history of the province.

The first and second Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 meant the first major turning point in the history of conflicts (to that see the passage on the battle of Kosovo Polje above). Serbia waging a victorious war against the Ottoman Empire acquired authority over the territory and it was confirmed also by the peace treaties concluding World War I. With the conquest the Serbs of Kosovo were relieved of the threat by Albanians, whereas the Albanians became victims of the Serb military government and armed violence and subsequently of discriminating state policy. I have not found data about Serb civilian victims of the events of war, whereas the number of civilian victims among Albanians could be 20,000 to 25,000 based on the research done by Malcolm and myself up to September 191336. In addition tens of thousands of Muslims fled from the Serb troops towards the Aegean Sea and Albania. According to a Serb source about sixty thousand people fled37 from the territory of present Kosovo and Macedonia, and this figure could be 100-200 thousand according to my own research (and the majority never returned)38. It is important to note, however, that the Serb army, as contrasted to the 1878 practice of Niš, did not drive away all the Muslims or Albanians. Setting out from the earlier mentioned concepts of ‘arnautaši’ Belgrade started an experiment of assimilation in the interwar period, it wished to reshape part of the Albanians to become Serbs which, however, failed. During the last year of World War I, in 1918, the Serb army, once again entering the area, could be made responsible for the death of about 12,000 Albanian civilian inhabitants39. The Serb civilian population also suffered a loss of several thousand people.

The emergence of the South Slav state placed the Albanian–Serb conflict into an entirely new context. A new period began in the life of the peoples of the Balkans between 1918 and 1921, as the place of the Ottoman Empire was taken up by new nation-states. Though the innumerable new state borders squeezed the minority issue also into altered conditions most minorities had a motherland capable of representing their interests. Albania, acknowledged even by the great powers became the focus of orientation for the Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia.


Lecturer, historian, ELTE University, Department of Eastern European History


To this see: Clewing, Conrad: Mythen und Fakten zur Ethnostruktur in Kosovo – ein geschichtlicher Überblick. In: Der Kosovo-Konflikt. Ursachen-Akteure-Verlauf. Hg. Clewing, Conrad – Peso, Edvin. München, 2000. 19–24. (Henceforward: Clewing 2000.)


De administrando imperio (DAI). The final variant of the work was completed between 948 and 955 A.D. In Hungarian: Bíborbanszületett Konstantin: A birodalom kormányzásáról. The Greek text was edited and translated into Hungarian by: Moravcsik, Gyula. Budapest, 1950, Közoktatásügyi Kiadó. 87–93.


Cf. the Hungarian words “Rácország, rácok”.


Jireček, Konstantin: Staat und Gesellschaft im mittelalterlichen Serbien. Teil I.: Staatsrecht und Staatsverwaltung, Bevölkerung, Der Adlige, Die Kirche, Das Heer. Wien, 1912. 24–42.


Šufflay, Milan: Das mittelalterliche Albanien. In: Thallóczy, Ludwig von (Hrsg.): Illyrisch-albanische Forschungen. Bd. 2. München–Leipzig, 1916, Duncker&Humblot. 283., and generally Šufflay, Milan: Städte und Burgen Albaniens. Wien, 1924, Hölder– Pichler–Tempsky.


Novaković, Stefan: Zakonik Stefana Dušana cara srpskog. Beograd, 1898. and the same: Zakonski spomenici. Beograd, 1912.


Kaleshi, Hasan: Die Albaner in Kosovo im 15. Jahrhundert. In: Akten des internationalen albanologischen Kolloquiums Innsbruck 1972 zum Gedächtnis an Norbert Jokl. Innsbruck, 1977, AMĐ. = Innsbrucker Beiträge zur Kulturwissenschaft. Sonderheft 41. 513–520 (Henceforward: KALESHI 1977.)


Reinert, Stephen W.: From Niš to Kosovo Polje. Reflections on Murad I’s final years. In: Zachariadou, Elisabeth (Ed.): The Ottoman Emirate (1300–1389). Rethymnon, 1993, Crete Univ. Press. 169–211.


Hafner, Stanislaus: Serbisches Mittelalter – Altserbische Herrscherbiographien. Band. 1–2. Graz–Wien–Köln, 1962, Styria.


To the history of the cult see: Kämpfer, Frank: Der Kult des heiligen Serbenfürsten Lazar. In: Südost-Forschungen 31. (1972) 81–139.


Bada, Zoltán: Ilija Garašanin: Načertanije. Az 1844. évi szerb nemzeti memorandum és hatástörténete. (The Serb National Memorandum of 1844 and the History of Its Impact) In: Limes 2005/4. 23–39.


Georgevitsch, Vladan: Die Albanesen und die Großmächte. Leipzig, 1913, Hirzel., and Gersin, Karl (Županić, Niko): Altserbien und die albanische Frage. Wien, 1912, Suschitzky.


Slijepčević, Djoko: Über die serbisch–albanischen Beziehungen im 19. Jahrhundert 1. In: Shêjzat 1973/9-12. 340.


To the relationship between the Serb national sentiment and Orthodoxy see in general: Stefanov, Nenad: Bildungsschichten in Serbien. Zwischen Volksaufklärung und Mythologisierung der Nation. In: JGKS – Jahrbücher für Geschichte und Kultur Südosteuropas 2002/3. 9–37., and Aleksov, Bojan: Die Interpretation des religiösen Bekenntniswechsels bei der Herausbildung des serbischen Nationalbewusstseins. In: JGKS 2002/3. 39–67.


Demeter Gábor: Kisállami törekvések és nagyhatalmi érdekek a Balkán-háborúk idején (1912–1913) (Efforts of Small States and Great Power Interests at the Time of the Balkan Wars /1912–1913/). Budapest, 2007, Hungarovox. 93–118, 303–339.


Such an excerpt of a diary is: Tomić, Jaša: Oslobodjeno Kosovo. In: Tomić, Jaša: Rat na Kosova i Stierig Srbiji 1912 godine. Novi Sad, 1913, Miletić. 118–127. In connection with politicians see: Österreich–Ungarns Aussenpolitik. Von der Bosnischen Krise 1908 bis zum Kriegsausbruch 1914. Diplomatische Aktenstücke des österr.-ungar. Ministeriums des Äußern. Wien–Leipzig, 1930. 841. and Péter szerb király (Petar Karađorđe) kiáltványa a szerb néphez a II. Balkán-háborút követően (The Manifesto of Petar Serb, King to the Serb People after the Second Balkan War). Lončarević, Dušan: Jugoslawiens Enstehen. Zürich–Leipzig–Wien, 1929, Amalthea. 501–503.


See: Kaleshi 1977. 517–520.


Clewing 2000. 22.


Malcolm, Noel: Kosovo: a Short History. London, 1998, Macmillan. 158. (Henceforward: Malcolm 1998.)


Bartl, Peter: Albanien. München, 1995, Pustet. 71–72. (Henceforward: Bartl 1995.)


Cvijić, Jovan: Grundlinien der Geographie und Geologie von Mazedonien und Altserbien. In: A. Petermanns Mitteilungen aus Justus Perthes’ Geographischer Anstalt: Ergänzungsheft 162. 1908.; La Péninsula balkanique: géographie humaine. 1918.; Balkansko poluostrvo. 1922.; and: Antropogeografski problemi Balkanskoga Poluostrva. In: Srpski etnografski zbornik 4.


Bartl 1995. 67–71.


About and to this: Bataković, Dušan T.: Islam na Balkanu: a arnautašima u Staroj Srbiji. In: Bataković, Dušan T.: Kosovo i Metohija. Istorija i ideologija. Beograd–Valjevo– Srbinje, 1998, Jedinstvo. 33–48.


In 1881 Spiridion Gopčević still felt strong commitment to the Albanians (Oberalbanien und seine Liga. Leipzig, 1881, Duncker-Humblot), whereas after the turn of the century he rather stood for Serbs and Montenegrins. (Geschichte von Montenegro und Albanien. Gotha, 1914, Perthes and Das Fürstentum Albanien. Seine Vergangenheit, ethnographische Verhältnisse, politische Lage und Aussichten für die Zukunft. Berlin, 1914, Paetel).


Peruničić, Branko: Svedočanstro o Kosovu 1901–1913. Beograd, 1988, Naučna knjiga. 509.


Đurković, Đorđe: Albanija. Crte o zemlji i narodu. Sarajevo, 1884. 81–82.


Müller, J.: Albanien, Rumelien und die österreichisch–montenegrinische Grenze, oder statistisch-topographische Darstellungen des Paschaliks Skutari, Prizrend, Ipek, Toli-Monastir, Jakova, Tirana, Kavaja, Elbasan und Ohrida sowie des Grenzdistrikts von Budua in Österreich-Albanien, nach eigenen Beobachtungen dargestellt. Prag, 1844.


Slijepčević, Djoko: Über die serbisch–albanischen Beziehungen im 19. Jahrhundert 1–2. In: Shêjzat 1973/9–12. and 1974/1–10. 1. 340. (Henceforward: Slijepčević 1973/1974)


Old Serbia: based on the use of the term by Serbs in that period it means approximately the territory of present Kosovo and Macedonia.


Slijepčević, 1973. 343–354. and 1974. 28–36.


Source of data related to the campaign: Clewing 2000. 46–47.


Miličević, M. Đ.: Kraljevina Srbija. Novi krajevi. Beograd, 1884.


The 60,000 refugees are Malcolm’s estimates: Malcolm 1998. 230. Regarding the Albanian settlers in see: Bataković, Dušan T.: Kosovo i Metohija u srpsko-arbanaškim odnosima. Priština, 1991, Jedinstvo. 33.


About the expulsion of Muslims of the Balkans see in general: McCarthy, Justin: Death and Exile. The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims 1821–1922. Princeton, 1995, Darwin Press and Kaser, Karl: Raum und Besiedlung. In: Südosteuropa. Ein Handbuch. Hg. Hatschikjan, Margaditsch – Troebst, Stefan. München, 1999, Beck. 53–72.


Currently the Albanien-Institut in Vienna (Eva Anne Frantz) has been conducting research in relation to the conflicts mentioned here. On the Serbian stand related to the Albanians (and Old Serbia) of those days see: Gersin, Karl (Županić, Niko): Altserbien und die albanische Frage. Wien, 1912, Anzengruber and Georgevitsch, Vladan: Die Albanesen und die Großmächte. Leipzig, 1913, Hirzel.


Malcolm 1998. 254–258. and Csaplár-Degovics Krisztián: A független Albánia létrejötte albán szemmel (1912–1913). Doktori értekezés, kézirat, (The Emergence of the Independent Albania as Seen from Albanian Perspective. PhD thesis, manuscript) 2007. 191. (Henceforward: Csaplár-Degovics 2007)


Hrabak, Bogumil: Arbanaški upadi i pobune na Kosovu i u Makedoniji od kraja 1912. do kraja 1915. godine. Vranje, 1988, Jedinstvo. 97 and 100.


Csaplár-Degovics 2007. 287.


Malcolm 1998. 258–262.