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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 29:175–182.


Historical Arguments and Future Solutions


Two kinds of behaviour can be observed among historians speaking about the province/country of Kosovo/Kosova. Members of the first group present emotionally heated monologues about the given region, repeating the arguments of one or the other national stand with painful monotony. Colleagues in the other group try to approach the problem indifferently. Their argumentation often appears to be dry, sometimes disillusioned, and in some cases even cynical. Yet I would rather choose to apply the second approach in the following. I accept the odium that some of these negative attributes could be applied to what I wish to say. I think it is much worse if a historian, not belonging to either of the national communities adopts the set of arguments of one of them and enthusiastically propagates it. Moreover, he tries to preserve the nimbus of impartiality, which might seem convincing for those who do not adequately know the processes.

From the antecedents given here a fact surely well known by the audience becomes visible. It is not only the political and military elites of the Serb and Albanian people who are struggling for the land of Kosovo/ Kosova by arms and/or at the negotiating table but also the historiography of the two nations. As a result of that behaviour Serb historiography discusses almost exclusively the history of the region between the 13th and 15th centuries. The reason for that is that Kosovo was part of the Kingdom of Serbia during that period. It is due to the same basic stand that archaeologists of Kosovo favour to study the Iron Age. They want to prove that the Illyrians, regarded as their ancestors, were already living on the territory of the two disputed karst fields at that time and have been living there since the implicity.

Real facts are curiously mixed with over-interpreted and even false elements in both historical reconstructions. Let us take examples from the latter one. It is not true that Kosovo is the cradle of the Serb people. The Serb state was founded by Stefan Nemanja, Grand Župan (tribal chief) of the castle of Raška (1168–1196) on the territory of the present-day Sandžak, Eastern Herzegovina and Northern Montenegro in the last third of the 12th century. Only his sixth successor, the Serb King Uroš Stefan II Milutin (1282–1321) extended his rule over Kosovo or the land of ‘Rigómező’ (Kosovo Polje) by its medieval Hungarian name in the early 14th century. Due to its rich ore mines Kosovo became the wealthiest part of 14th-century Serbia. This is why the decisive battle had to take place there between Serbia sinking into internal strife after the death of Tsar Dušan and the Ottoman Turkish Empire surging ahead. The battle of Kosovo Polje on 14 June 1389, with which the fall of the Serb state began plays a central role in Serb historical consciousness. This is usually regarded as the fountainhead of everything bad and the beginning of the process excessively altering ethnic proportions. It is, however, a misconjecture that the population of Kosovo was homogenously Serbian before 1389. Not only because there was no such state at all in medieval Europe, but also due to the fact that there are written documents available about Albanian inhabitants in the town of Prizren in the 14th century, as it is referred to in the collected data of Sima Ćirković. However, it can be reliably proved on the basis of available written sources that the majority of the population of Kosovo consisted of South Slavs of Pravoslav ethnicity, namely Serbs and not Albanians.

With the latter remark I wished to refute a thesis of Albanian historiography considered as of axiomatic value. Let us accept as a starting point that the Albanian language originates from, or mostly from Illyrian because actually this is supported by most arguments. Even then, it is questionable to take an unbroken continuous Albanian settlement of 2500 years for granted in the case of Kosovo. The series of events of the Great Migration Period stands against the concept of people living in the same place continuously without interruption. At the end of the 6th century Avars and their Slav allies broke through the Lower Danube frontier, and the Slavs swarmed into the Peninsula. Byzantine administration and the system of cultivation collapsed on the Balkan Peninsula, together with urban civilisation as well as the Christian ecclesiastic organisation deriving from it. The Slavs settled down on the karst fields and in the river valleys and squeezed out the original inhabitants from their settlements, namely the Romanised or Grecised subjects of the Empire or the ones retaining their tribal language. Richer people moved to the cities of the marine coast not affected by the Great Migration, the poor went to the high mountainous regions where they shifted to transhumant animal husbandry. These processes are usually taken into consideration when defining the Albanian ancestral homeland. According to a widely accepted theory formulated in Western Europe the Albanian people originate in the mountainous area of present-day Northern Albania, along the upper course of the River Mati. The author of a more recent concept, Gottfried Schramm thought to have discovered the site in Eastern Macedonia. Both territories are rather distantly located from the land of Kosovo/Kosova.

Summarising we could say that the land of Kosovo/Kosova cannot be regarded as the cradle of Serbs neither as an Albanian land with continuous settlement for 2500 years. With these two statements the historical processes can be divested of the emotional charge by which they become, or may become suitable for whipping up negative passions. It is not ‘past merits’ that are to be considered in ethnic issues. The emergence of today’s ethnic proportions can thus be viewed in a far more realistic framework, better supported by sources.

The migration of the Northern, so-called Geg group of the Albanian population to Kosovo/Kosova speeded up from the 17th century. The transformation of ethnic proportions was so big, as it can be inferred on the basis of sources, that by the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries Albanians constituted the majority population of the province. If we also take this fact into consideration, one has to draw the conclusion that Serbia, step by step becoming independent during the course of the 19th century, was fatally late for the liberation of Kosovo from the Turks. By the time Serb troops entered the province during the First Balkan War in 1912, they were seen by the majority of the population as an occupation force and not as liberators. The contradiction between ethnic proportions and the actual affiliation to a state was and has remained the basic conflict of the 20th-century history of Kosovo/ Kosova. Moreover, the basic situation was significantly aggravated by the fact that the Albanians of Kosovo became the most dynamically growing population of Europe in the post-1945 period. Thus their proportion reached 80 per cent in the total population already by the 1980s and 90 per cent by the turn of the millennium. Finally, the attempt of solving the Albanian issue verging into genocide resulted in the 1999 intervention of the NATO member countries.

I do not wish to go into detail about the events that took place in the decades before and after the millennium. The tragic events of those two decades in fact can be linked only indirectly to the research into the history and material remains of past ages. In the following I wish to deal with this aspect, with the issue of heritage. Monuments in Kosovo represent an utmost explosive material for ethnic disputes, particularly for Serbs. The keynote of these disputes was set at least a century ago. May I only recall the poem of Milan Rakić entitled Simonida. Rakić was an eminent figure of Serb literature in the early 20th century, one if those who introduced symbolism in the region. In the years before the First Balkan War he undertook tasks related to foreign affairs as Serb consul in Priština – we all know, as the land of Kosovo/Kosova was still part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire at that time. The poet chose the perhaps most famous fresco of the Serb Orthodox monastery of Gračanica as the topic of his poem of 1907, often quoted in Serbian literature. Rakić wrote about a detail of the fresco representing Queen Simonida whose eyes were scratched out. The introductory thought of his poem was that this heinous deed could only be committed by a supposed Albanian rascal. It should be noted that there is yet another explanation for the scratched out eyes. The eyes of the Simonida fresco and of similar works of art could be scratched out by Orthodox believers who hoped for the healing of their eyes by using that powder.

The poem is of mobilising force, as a result of which a monument becomes a factor encouraging for action and fight. The South Slav ethnic war in the first part of the 1990s proved that all the combating parties had taken the role of national heritage into account. The planned and merciless destruction of the monuments of the other party was an organic part of that ‘dirty war’. The keynote was set by Božidar Vučurević, a truck driver of Trebinje, grasping the command of the local defence committee at the time when Dubrovnik was bombarded in December 1991. He in fact stated that “If necessary we will build a much lovelier and more ancient Dubrovnik”. The absurd logic of the statement well illustrates the attitude of the warlords of different kinds and rank to the built or archaeological heritage of the Balkan region, more specifically to the part of heritage that they regarded as alien. Taking full possession of areas, usually of mixed ethnic composition was to be accomplished not only by a violent alteration of ethnic proportions, by the so-called ethnic cleansing but also by a violent modification of the past of the region. According to the inhuman logic of the warlords not only the undesirable ethnic groups were to disappear without trace, after being humiliated and desecrated but also the buildings that would remind other of them. This is how the concept of ethnic cleansing of absurd logic can be supplemented by yet another one, by ‘heritage cleansing’. Naturally, it played no role whatsoever in the warlords’ set of ideas that the ‘wiping out’ of monuments was also a war crime similarly to locking up civilians in concentration camps, to their torture, rape and murder. The warlords could not even notice that destroying heritage is useless from a certain point of view. For in Croatia or in Bosnia there has been heritage protection for more than one hundred years and as a result of this work there is abundant documentation available about the destroyed buildings. Thus the murderous passion aiming at “damnatio memoriae” could not result in total oblivion, neither in the case of some buildings of Dubrovnik, i.e. of medieval Ragusa, or the Eltz Palace of Vukovar (or Valkóvár), or the Aladza Mosque of Foča, nor the old bridge of Mostar and the list could be continued almost endlessly.

Those who are interested in the history and antiques of the region should try to avoid two things. It is very bad if we accept the destruction of heritage with a kind of resignation and try to explain the rage of destruction with the accepted stereotype of the “eternal popular spirit of the Balkans”. Further on, it may lead to a negative result if we distinguish various types of destruction and are more forgiving in respect of war crimes committed by the party we find more sympathetic. The South Slav ethnic war shows that the roles of the sinner and the victim can be exchanged if destruction is not viewed uniformly, on the level of countries but taken by regions and by smaller periods of time. Thus at the beginning of the war the people’s army serving greater Serb interests or the Serb paramilitary units caused more extensive and 'professional' destruction. However, by emphasizing the crimes committed by the Serb party we cannot argue for the impunity of the two other parties. Several heinous deeds are weighing on the conscience of the Bosnian and Croat units as well because of the destruction of heritage sites between 1991 and 1995. A single but characteristic datum is that the duly world famous bridge of Mostar was completely destroyed with bombing by the Croat military troops, by a tanker unit of the HVO of Herzegovina on 9 November 1993. It was done with murderous patience and a bit less precision. They tried to cause damage to the Muslims of Herzegovina by their action.

The Kosovo conflict also proves that all the warring parties are responsible for the destruction of heritage sites. Stray yet significant quantity of data suggest that the destruction of religious buildings, namely Muslim, Catholic, or Serb Orthodox shrines have been demolished since the beginning of the armed phase of the Kosovo conflict. Naturally, both parties blame the other in this respect too. They are probably right in doing so because these tools were used by both sides as far as it can be assessed on the basis of press news. For instance, the special Serb police force, launching the campaign for the liquidation of UÇK did not only destroy and set on fire the houses of better-off Albanians in 1998 and 1999, but also several mosques claiming that they were centres of resistance. And if it is proved that the Kosovo command of the Yugoslav army set up its headquarters in the building of the Kosovo Museum of Priština at the time of the NATO air strike of 1999, thus hoping to avoid the danger of being bombed, it would be a telling example of war crime. (The destruction done by the Serb military and police forces was precisely taken into inventory by András Riedlmayer in an internet periodical.) The turning point in the destruction of heritage sites was the accord of Kumanovo and the entry of NATO forces to Kosovo/ Kosova. Parallel to the appearance of NATO a series of Serb Orthodox churches were set on fire and/or pulled down. (The blacklist of destruction can be studied on the homepage of the Rasi-Prizren Bishopric.) The Albanian side, as far as it can be reconstructed on the basis of rare press statements, usually says that a number of Serb Orthodox churches were built in places exclusively inhabited by Albanians with provocative intentions during the dictatorship of Milošević, and the local population destroyed only those buildings. Since a series of medieval or early modern age Serb Orthodox churches also fell victim to this wave of destruction, this argument is obviously deficient and apologetic.

What can a researcher do who is interested in the built heritage of the region, but does not belong to either of the national communities? The only possible approach is anxiety for heritage. Due to objective criteria, the built heritage of the Serb Orthodox Church is currently exposed to greater danger in Kosovo/Kosova, therefore greater anxiety should be expressed towards the Serb Orthodox churches and that too, regardless of what we think about the political steps of the Serb government and particularly of Vojislav Koštunica. Further on, it should not be used as a cause for turning away that the Serb communities, living under the military protection of certain heritage sites, have almost moved to extremities. Let me just refer to the billboard posters praising the Serb Radical Party of Vojvoda Šešelj placed next to the Gračanica monastery. The heritage sites themselves have a real and symbolic value: naturally not only of the buildings, but of the continuous maintenance of the liturgical events performed there.

The UN Special Envoys governing the civil issues of the province since 1999 have recognised this situation relatively early, therefore, after the chaos of the first few months the KFOR has been ensuring the protection of the Serb heritage sites assessed as the most important ones, having symbolic significance by a spectacular stationing of armed units there. Such is, for instance, besides the above-mentioned Gračanica monastery the ensemble of buildings of the Visoki Deçani, the Patriarchate of Pečij, or Ipek in its medieval Hungarian name), or the 20th-century memorial built in the venue of the battle of Kosovo Polje, at the so-called Gazimestan, shaping a medieval tower. The defence of the latter one was unfortunately only organised after it had been partially exploded. According to press news it is not churches of emblematic significance and of basic importance to art history that are exposed to the greatest danger today but buildings considered as of smaller significance. Obviously the size of KFOR troops is not big enough to send spectacular protective forces deploying even armoured vehicles. The solution has to be sought elsewhere. The local representatives of the international community should encourage the local Albanian political elite to recognise the fundamental importance of the protection of Serb heritage. In fact the destiny of those heritage sites is of strategic significance. Their contingent destruction could lead to the radical deterioration of the security situation.

With this remark I have already shifted to the issue of “How to go on?”, which is indeed a question difficult to answer. At this point I have to confess sincerely that I go beyond the competency of an archaeologist and historian. A circumstance of the Southern Slav wars of the 1990s should also warn us to be cautious. Namely that during that war several West European or American archaeologists, working earlier in the region, got involved in discussing the future events and their predictions usually did not come true. I do not feel competent to elaborate possible scenarios for the events of the coming weeks and months. I do not wish to dwell upon the issue of either how big the possibility of a low-intensity armed conflict is or of a series of events in the ‘grey zone’ between armed conflict and peace or, last but not the least, of a peaceful solution so very much desired by the outside world. I have to concentrate on aspects that directly do not touch upon issues of military policy.

It is obvious that the Serb political elite will not accept Kosovo becoming independent, at least not in the short or medium term. It can be stated for sure on the basis of the local press that realities would play only a minimal role in the process of accepting separation. Such realities are the ethnic image of Kosovo/Kosova, or the change that had taken place in 1999, namely the withdrawal and the winding up of Serb public local administration after a lost war. Even the public opinion of countries of a less turbulent history would not easily give up part of the territory of their state. At any rate, defiance, inat in Serbian is a basic trait of the Serb popular mentality. The Serb political elite should understand a painful fact in order to be able to accept independence. Namely, that the national action programme, worded in the mid-19th century was unrealistic right from the outset because it set two incompatible objectives. It simultaneously demanded the restoration of the 14th-century empire of Tsar Dušan in the south, namely the elimination of the territorial consequences of Turkish occupation. In the north it wanted to annex areas where Serbs settled down in the late middle ages and in the early modern age, such as the western rim of the Balkans and the southern third of the Carpathian Basin. The latter areas could be inhabited by Serbs exactly because they had given up part of their earlier habitat, namely the land of Kosovo/Kosova.

For a long time the Serb political elite seemed to succeed in realising both aims. They achieved this by transforming the Serb national objectives into a common South Slav issue and by making their claims, with clever foreign policy, part of the principles of settlement of the victorious Great Power alliance of World War I. In the new territorial arrangement, closing down World War II, once again Yugoslavia became a basic element of the Southeast European stability, and this situation, as it is commonly known, survived up to the fall of the one-party system states based on communist ideology. According to some approaches the foreign political failure of Slobodan Milošević in the early 1990s was caused by not succeeding in dividing the Western allies in the issue of the Serb–Croat and Serb–Bosnian conflict, and also by the fact that the old-new political elite of the Soviet Union transforming into Russia did not show sufficient interest in the question. Even on the basis of press news it is fully obvious that the situation was different in respect of Kosovo/Kosova in 2007. Russia, the Russia of the Putin era pursues a resolute and far more confrontational foreign policy than the Yeltsin era, and the protection of the territorial integrity of Serbia enjoys definite priority among its aims, together with hindering efforts of the Kosovo Albanians to gain independence. To approach the situation from another side: knowing the modern-age history of the Balkan Peninsula it can be justly assumed that not only the so-called contact group had talks about Kosovo/Kosova but also the foreign politicians of different rank and position of the various Great Powers. Public opinion orienting itself on the basis of press reports usually gets information belatedly, if at all, about such talks. Remaining at our profession, the analysis of these issues is not the task of the present but of the future generation of historians.

I wish to reflect on facts that a present-day Hungarian historian and archaeologist may have a good chance to encounter. Surely the issue of the Serb Orthodox churches would emerge in several conferences and meetings. It can be justly assumed that a long line of reports will describe their condition and deteriorating state. Therefore one will have to return to this topic many times. Hungarian experts have to show enhanced empathy towards such presentations. After all we are quite familiar with the decay of built heritage with reference to minorities, such as Hungarians in some successor states including Serbia. A further disputed issue may be the case of the archaeological material of the Kosovo Museum in Priština. Actually the most valuable finds of the Museum were taken to Belgrade for a representative exhibition installed in 1998, and as far as I know they were not returned to their original repository, with the exception of a Neolithic idol. This latter work of art, the so-called enthroning Goddess was returned on the occasion of the visit of the then Special Representative to Kosovo, Michael Steiner in 2002, obviously in order to illustrate the bona fide of the Serb party. It can be justly assumed that this gesture would remain an exceptional procedure and the issue of the return of the complete set of finds will not be settled in the near future and not at the cost of a single round of talks.


Earlier I have just cursorily mentioned the Hungarians of Vojvodina but it was not accidental. I cannot conclude my contribution without calling attention to that small but certainly not insignificant group of Hungarians. The existence of Hungarians in Vojvodina places enhanced responsibility on all of us. We cannot approach the northern Balkan region as foreigners elegantly standing aloof and the same applies for the problem of Kosovo/ Kosova. At the discussion of the independence of Albanians in Kosovo, which has come to the foreground of world power competition we have to call attention to the fact, on each occasion, either we speak about historical or of actual political aspects, that it is of basic importance to Hungary to help the survival of Hungarians in Vojvodina and the assertion of their minority rights without any reservation. We have to continuously strive for the enrichment of our knowledge in the service of that objective. Our words, in fact, would only be authentic if they are based on the solid knowledge of irrefutable facts.


* Senior Researcher, Institute of Archaeology, HAS