Albanians in Kosovo: Prospects for the Future

  • Author: Owen Bennet Jones
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    1 October 1994


The politics of Kosovo are dominated by themes that could be regarded as classically Balkan. The main protagonists are motivated, above all else, by their sense of national identity. Minority rights, historical claims, population shifts and the desire to change boundaries are all at play in an area which is widely seen as potentially destabilising to the whole of the Balkan peninsula.

This paper will seek to give a brief outline of some of the historical issues which influence contemporary political developments. It will also attempt to demonstrate the extent of antipathy between the two most significant population groups: the majority ethnic Albanian community and the minority ethnic Serbs. The paper will try to outline some of the scenarios which could arise from the present political deadlock. And it will discuss some of the refugee issues presented by the situation in Kosovo. This is especially pertinent because the area has been the source of considerable population movements throughout history - not least in the last 50 years. That tradition is still very much alive with large numbers of ethnic Albanians trying to leave Kosovo even now. Looking ahead, should conflict break out, the numbers of people who might be forced to move would be far greater: indeed the scale of the problem could dwarf the events that have already taken place in Bosnia-Herzegovina.


The Serbs and Albanians are divided by the two most important defining elements of national identity in the Balkans: language and religion. The Albanians speak Albanian and are mainly Muslims, the Serbs speak Serbian and are mainly Orthodox Christians. The Albanians are descendants of the ancient Illyrians who were living in the southeast Balkans as far back as 700 BC. The Serbs arrived as part of the huge movement of Slavs in the sixth or seventh centuries. Some Serb historians claim that the Albanians in fact only moved into Kosovo in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Albanians maintain that they have been there ever since Illyrian times.[1] In any event, the two national groups have rarely lived together in peace and harmony. Moreover, the relationship between them has for centuries been one of barely disguised hatred punctuated by occasional outbursts of violence.

The Serbs have long regarded the area of Kosovo as being home to some of the most sacred symbols of Serb nationhood. The most important church for the Serb Orthodox faith, for example, is located at Pec or Paya, just a few kilometres away from the present-day border with Albania. Writing back in 1909, E. Durham noted that "Kosovo was a most important part of the great Servian [sic.] empire of the Middle Ages. The Serb of today looks at it as part of his birthright ..."[2] Much the same is true today. In June 1994, the Serbian governor of Kosovo expressed the views of the vast majority of Serbs when he said: "A Serbia without Kosovo is unimaginable. Every Serb monastery here is older than the discovery of America."[3]

The importance of Kosovo to the Serbs is explained in large part by a battle fought there in 1389. The Battle of Kosovo Polje (or Kosovo Field) was fought chiefly between the Serbs and the Turks. The Turks won and as a consequence established their rule over the Serbs for the next five centuries. Ever since, Serbs have commemorated the battle as symbolising the end of the independent Serb medieval state. It is perhaps ironic that the most celebrated battle in Serb history should have been a defeat but to this day Serbs visit the memorial built on Kosovo Field and pay homage to the bravery of the soldiers who were defeated six centuries ago.

In addition to these emotional historical associations, the Serb claim relies on the reasoning whereby any land once held by a particular nation is considered part of that nation's natural boundaries. The fact that Kosovo is seen as the cradle of Serb civilization only serves to lend strength to that claim. There is one other factor to consider: there is a Serb minority in Kosovo. Even though it is proportionately far smaller than was the case even 50 years ago, the government in Belgrade is still anxious to protect the interests of its national brethren to the south.[4]

It is worth noting that the Serb interest in Kosovo is not driven by economic considerations. Kosovo is a relatively poor part of Yugoslavia with little industry. Apart from possessing large deposits of low-grade coal, Kosovo has little to offer in economic terms.[5] It has been suggested that the low level of economic development in Kosovo has contributed to the antagonism between the ethnic Albanians and the ethnic Serbs living there.[6] While the net flow of funds from the central Government in Belgrade to Kosovo has been a source of resentment to many Serbs, the fact remains that the conflict in Kosovo is not caused by economic factors. The disputes throughout former Yugoslavia are historical and national in character: the level of economic development in any particular part of former Yugoslavia has not had any bearing on the extent of ethnic antagonisms.

While Kosovo has clear historical significance for the Serbs, it also has some importance to the Albanians. It was in Kosovo that the Albanian national revival started with the establishment in 1878 of the League of Prizren.[7] But when the modern Albanian state was created in 1912, it did not include Kosovo, which was instead to become part of Yugoslavia. The status of Kosovo has been disputed ever since. Kosovo did briefly become a part of Albania during World War II. Having taken over Albania, Italy created a nascent Greater Albania including Kosovo and some Macedonian and Montenegrin territory.[8] After the war, the victorious Yugoslav partisan leader, Tito, emerged predominant: Kosovo was returned to Yugoslavia.

Ever since, the Kosovo Albanians have sought a series of objectives ranging from greater autonomy, to independence, to union with Albania itself. Their case rests not so much on historical arguments as on the fact that ethnic Albanians form the bulk of the population of Kosovo.

Under the Yugoslav constitution of 1974, Kosovo enjoyed the status of an autonomous province of the Serbian Republic within the Yugoslav state.[9] The Albanian population wanted Kosovo to have republican status. But under the communist constitution, republican status would have brought with it the right to secede and was consequently never very likely to be granted. Nevertheless, in 1974, Kosovo received prerogatives generally associated with republican status, including the right to fly the Albanian flag.[10]

The dispute reached one of its periodic climaxes in 1981 when parts of the ethnic Albanian population rioted in pursuit of nationalist objectives - chiefly the granting of republican status. The Yugoslav authorities clamped down with mass arrests, long prison sentences and a purge of the Kosovo communist leadership. In Belgrade, though, there was still concern that the central authorities were losing their grip on Kosovo. In 1988, for example, the Yugoslav League of Communists Central Committee called not only for more investment in Kosovo to prevent Serbs leaving but at the same time recommended a birth control programme to slow the growth of the Albanian population.[11]

In 1989 and 1990, there was a series of violent riots by ethnic Albanians in response to a decision of the Serbian Parliament to amend the constitution and give Belgrade much greater power in its autonomous provinces. Under these amendments, the authorities in Kosovo lost control over the local security forces and the judiciary.[12]12 The riots cost scores of lives: according to official figures, in the course of 13 months 60 people - all ethnic Albanians - were killed.[13] Unofficial estimates put the figure at over 100.[14]

In May 1990, all the ethnic Albanian members of Kosovo's Government resigned in protest at Serbian interference in its affairs. At this stage the policy of Serbia's President Slobodan Milosovic of exerting Serbian power in Kosovo was forcing matters to breaking point. In June 1990, the Kosovo Assembly declared the province to be independent but the Serbian authorities dissolved the Assembly and Government. The Kosovo Presidency resigned in protest. In July 1990, the Serbs introduced special measures and implemented direct rule. By September, over 15,000 ethnic Albanian officials had been dismissed.[15]

The political divide was to become yet more marked. On 7 September 1990, a two-thirds majority of the members of the abolished Kosovo Assembly met in secret and again declared the independence of Kosovo. A year later, the Kosovo Albanians held a referendum which was boycotted by the local Serbs. The result proclaimed Kosovo's independence with a 99.9 per cent majority.[16] The Serbian Government declared the vote to be illegal.

But the Kosovo Albanians pressed their demands. In May 1992, they organised elections, which were monitored by international observers, for a parliament in the self-declared 'Republic of Kosovo'. The Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) emerged predominant with 76.4 per cent of the vote. Fourteen seats in the 140 seat assembly were reserved for ethnic Serbs but these remained empty as a result of a Serb boycott of the vote.[17]


There is overwhelming evidence of a high level of human rights abuse in Kosovo. The vast majority of the abuses concern the Serb authorities' treatment of the ethnic Albanian community, although it should be noted that the Serb minority also claims to be the subject of harassment and persecution.

The abuses against the ethnic Albanians have been fully documented by a wide range of human rights organizations and other investigators. The U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1993 in Serbia/Montenegro[18]18, for example, found systematic police repression in Kosovo. It accused the Serb authorities of having killed ethnic Albanians allegedly resisting arrest; of having beaten and in some cases killed detainees and prisoners and of having arbitrarily arrested members of the ethnic Albanian community. The Serb police were also accused of having used torture and indiscriminate violence - sometimes in public - justifying such action as necessary to quell Albanian demands for independence. The report found further that police routinely subjected ethnic Albanians to random searches of their homes, vehicles and offices on the pretext of searching for weapons. The report says that: "Ethnic Albanians involved with political groups are subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention, disruption and destruction of their meetings and offices, and confiscation of documentation and property."

Amnesty International has reached similar conclusions. In it's annual report[19] Amnesty found that hundreds of ethnic Albanians were beaten or otherwise ill-treated by police. There were almost daily reports of ill-treatment by the police. Amnesty also said that ethnic Albanian political prisoners were convicted after unfair trials and that ethnic Albanians were sentenced to up to 60 days' imprisonment for non-violent political activity. In Amnesty's view, conflict between the police and ethnic Albanians resulted in the deaths of at least 16 ethnic Albanians in disputed circumstances. Amnesty put these charges to the Serbian authorities and a briefing prepared by the Serbian Ministry of the Interior denied allegations of police abuses and claimed that the police only used physical force in self-defence.

Subsequent research by Amnesty not only confirmed that abuses continue to occur, it also found evidence that police violence had been escalating. In April 1994, Amnesty claimed that:

Officers of the largely Serbian police force have carried out arms searches in homes throughout the province, often arresting and severely beating male members of the family and relatives, including minors, women and the elderly have also sometimes been beaten in place of those who have fled their homes.[20]

In September 1994, Amnesty reported a further escalation, citing evidence of many incidents of police abuse daily. According to Amnesty:

Brutal beatings with truncheons, punching and kicking are the most common forms of violence, but electric shocks have also been used by police officers. Police officers commonly express ethnic hatred towards their victims.[21]

Amnesty went on to cite one case in which a police officer used a knife to slash a Serbian nationalist symbol into the chest of an 18-year-old ethnic Albanian student.

Amnesty International and the U.S. Department of State concur that the situation seems to have deteriorated since the departure, in July 1993, of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) monitors in Kosovo. The monitors were expelled when the Serbian Government linked the mission's mandate to Serbia and Montenegro's suspended status in the CSCE.

The findings of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in former Yugoslavia, are very much in keeping with the findings of both Amnesty International and the U.S. Department of State. A report of the UN Commission of Human Rights in February 1994 highlighted the importance of the 'parallel' education system, remarking that the continued absence of dialogue between the Serbian and Yugoslav authorities on the one hand and the leadership of the ethnic Albanians on the other had prevented any improvement on this issue. The Commission's report also referred to police brutality, to families being forcibly and illegitimately evicted from their homes, and to a climate of ethnic hatred. It cited cases of ethnic Albanians being robbed by Serbian police and suggested that in some cases the passports of ethnic Albanians are seized when they try to cross from FYRM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) into Kosovo.[22][23]

It should not be overlooked that many of the ethnic Serbs living in the province say they are the victims of human rights abuses. There have been complaints from the Serb population who say that throughout the 1980s and up to the present, they have been subject to intimidation and physical attacks by the Albanian population.[24] The intimidation of Serb farmers has persuaded many of them to leave Kosovo altogether. It is common practice for Serb farmers to take weapons for self protection when working in the fields.


As has been noted above, the Kosovo Albanians base most of their political demands on their numerical predominance. As is so often the case in the Balkans, precise figures for the population are somewhat illusive. The Albanians did not take part in the census of 1991 with the result that the current make-up of the population is disputed.

An official source in Belgrade claims that, before World War II, Serbs constituted nearly 50 per cent of the population of Kosovo. But the same source estimates that in 1988 the proportion had declined to just 10 per cent with Albanians accounting for 85 per cent of the population.[25] In 1993, the Director of the Serbian Statistics Bureau, Milovan Zivkovic, said that of the 2 million people living in Kosovo, 1.6 million were ethnic Albanians (i.e. 80 per cent). The 1981 census recorded 1.7 million Kosovo Albanians.[26] The Government in Tirana claims that since the Albanians boycotted the 1991 census, the Serb authorities have tried to understate the total numbers of Albanians in Kosovo.[27] Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo claim that they make up 92 per cent of the population.[28]

Whatever the precise figures, no one disputes that the ethnic Albanians are in a clear majority. But very few Albanians (if any at all) are now involved in the official governance of Kosovo. The ethnic Albanians have pursued a policy of passive resistance to the Serbs, creating a parallel state. There are now two separate spheres of political and public activity: the official Serbian sphere and the unofficial Albanian sphere. In Kosovo today, there are virtually no Albanians working in any public institutions. Albanian teachers, doctors and other professionals provide their services either from home or in makeshift surgeries and offices. In 1994, for example, Albanian sources claimed that their parallel education system was attended by 335,000 pupils taught by more than 18,000 teachers.[29] The ethnic Albanian leadership has advocated that the creation and administration of this parallel state should be pursued peacefully and by and large this has been achieved.[30]

There are a number of political parties representing the ethnic Albanians but by far the largest is the Democratic League of Kosovo or LDK. The LDK is led by the chairman of the Writer's Union, Dr Ibrahim Rugova, and his victory in the unofficial 1992 elections made him the President of the self-declared 'Republic of Kosovo'. LDK membership figures are uncertain. 22 parties representing ethnic Albanians took part in the 1992 elections; five of them won seats. Apart from the LDK, the main political parties representing Albanians in Kosovo are: The Peasants' Party of Kosovo; The Parliamentary Party of Kosovo; The Albanian Christian Democratic Party; The National Unity Party and The Social Democratic Party. The fact that as many as 22 parties participated in the 1992 elections is explained by the fact that there are also large numbers of groups and loose associations which from time to time organise themselves to support an election candidate.[31] Having said that, distinctions between the ethnic Albanians' different organizations are, in political terms, not important. The ethnic Albanian leadership has been able to remain united. There is a Coordinating Council of the Albanian Political Parties and there seems to be tacit agreement that national solidarity is more important than individual party interest.[32]

There have been indications that the ethnic Albanian leadership has agreed on a set of political objectives that would result in union with Albania. The Deputy Prime Minister in the parallel government, Rrushit Tahiri, wrote in a Tirana newspaper in 1992 that 11 Albanian political parties in Kosovo had agreed on a strategy. He said the establishment of the 'Republic of Kosovo' was only the first part of a three-stage plan. The second stage was the formation of an Albanian state to include all the Albanian-inhabited areas in former Yugoslavia and the third, the formation of "the Albanian integral state in the Balkans built on the ethnic principle".[33]

However, since then, Ibrahim Rugova has stated that he is seeking an independent and neutral Kosovo "open equally to Serbia and Albania".[34] While that remains the official position of Kosovo's parallel government, few doubt that, should independence be achieved, the public support for union with Albania would be irresistible. Dr Rugova has in fact admitted as much, saying; "We would be ready to declare ourselves a neutral state and not to unify with Albania for a certain time. However, I cannot deny that our objective is, of course, to become part of Albania."[35]


5.1 Kosovo and the Balkans

Kosovo is now widely seen as holding the key to Balkan stability. The reasoning that leads to this conclusion is as follows. The political divisions in Kosovo are deep and could result in violent conflict. Some politicians in Belgrade, like the nationalist parliamentarian and paramilitary leader, Vojislav Seselj[36]35, have called for the expulsion of Kosovo's Albanians to Albania itself.[37] There are also militant voices on the ethnic Albanian side. While the Albanian leadership in Kosovo seems committed to peaceful change, there are those, as Ibrahim Rugova has acknowledged, who advocate a more radical line.[38] If there is a violent conflict between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, then the Albanian state would almost certainly move to defend its national brethren in Kosovo.[39] Once Albania became involved then it is likely that the ethnic Albanians in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYRM) would seize their chance to break the link with the Government of FYRM in Skopje. If the government in Skopje should face a challenge from its ethnic Albanian citizens then it would find few friends in the region willing to help restore its authority. On the contrary, most of FYRM's neighbours would be delighted to see its collapse. Bulgaria has long-standing territorial claims on FYRM and Greece has made no secret of its hostility to the existence of an independent government in Skopje. The situation is further complicated by the existence of a Serb minority in the north of FYRM. This is the worst case scenario for a Balkan conflict on a massive scale. The consequences in terms of refugee movements would be severe.

In this context, the proposal that Kosovo Albanians might create some constitutional, even territorial, links with Albanians in the rest of former Yugoslavia as just a first step to eventual union with Albania can only be seen as a real threat to stability. Such a move would be bound to provoke Serbia and FYRM into defensive action.

The largest Albanian community in the former Yugoslavia outside of Kosovo is in FYRM, which is home to an estimated 377,000 ethnic Albanians.[40] There are also some Albanian communities in the parts of Serbia bordering with Kosovo and in Montenegro. One estimate for the size of these communities is 100,000 ethnic Albanians in Serbia and 50,000 in Montenegro.[41] Some Albanian leaders from these communities have advocated union with Kosovo.[42] As noted above, some Kosovo Albanian leaders have made similar suggestions.

In order to assess the risks of a Balkan conflict resulting from developments in Kosovo, it is important to understand Albania's attitude to the issue. The status of Kosovo was the cause of the very poor relations between Albania and Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 1980s. Albanian leader Enver Hoxha consistently adopted an anti-Yugoslav stance and his successor Ramiz Alia was no different. Indeed, in 1986 he accused the Yugoslav leadership of attempting to "turn the independent Albanian state into a Yugoslav colonial province and to denationalise the Albanians of Yugoslavia."[43] The Albanian Government has pursued much the same line since the collapse of the communist regime, and in October 1991, following the referendum and consequent declaration of a 'Republic of Kosovo', the Albanian Parliament in Tirana responded by becoming the first and only country to recognise the new unofficial government in Kosovo.[44] It argued that following the collapse of Yugoslavia, the Kosovo Albanians should be able to seek independence in the same way as, for example, the Slovenes. This reasoning, of course, overlooked the fact that Kosovo never did achieve the status of a republic under the old constitution.

Ever since recognising the 'Republic of Kosovo', the Albanian Government has tried to create and maintain links with the unofficial government and parliament there. But given the desperate state of the Albanian economy, most of the links are of symbolic rather than practical value. Albanian President Sali Berisha seems to be aware of his limited room for manoeuvre. In June 1993, he was quoted as having said: "We are seven million people separated into five states. We exercise self control, which is not a sign of fear or hesitation but of strength"[45]

It is also worth noting that relations between Kosovo Albanians and the Albanians in Albania have sometimes been problematic. Many Kosovo Albanians look down on the Albanians across the border, considering them poor and unsophisticated. The relative liberality and economic success of communist Yugoslavia compared to communist Albania has resulted in the two Albanian communities having markedly different levels of development.[46]

There are some proposals to resolve the dispute in Kosovo peacefully. The ethnic Albanian leadership has many times requested talks with the authorities in Belgrade under the auspices of the United Nations. The Government in Belgrade is unwilling to accept international mediation in what it considers to be an entirely internal matter. The Kosovo Albanians have also suggested opening up some kind of office in Belgrade to ease communication with the Serbian and Federal authorities there. If there were ever any talks, the ethnic Albanians would doubtless seek to regain some of the autonomy they had under the 1974 constitution. This would fall short of Dr Rugova's demands for eventual independence but may satisfy the demands of many Kosovo Albanians at least in the short term.

Yet another proposal is to produce a compromise whereby an 'extra-territorial statute' would protect Serbian monuments and churches in Kosovo.[47] Dr Rugova, however, has said that this proposal would not work because the Serbs would demand that the main city, Pristina, as well as all the areas that are rich in raw materials come under their territory.[48] Reacting to reports that a plan to partition Kosovo was under consideration by the Serbs, another ethnic Albanian leader, Veton Surroi, said the result would be the expulsion of some 700,000 Albanians from northeast Kosovo to the southwest.[49]

In view of the fact that none of these proposals is likely to come to pass, the Albanian leadership has resorted to another strategy - the internationalization of the issue of Kosovo's future. Indeed, it is far from clear how the Albanians can pursue their political objectives except by continuing the policy of passive resistance and trying to create support for their case in the international community.

5.2 Kosovo and the International Community

The ethnic Albanian leadership has directed a number of demands to the international community. Above all else, it wants international recognition of the 'Republic of Kosovo'. However, given that this seems unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future, the leadership has come up with a proposed interim measure. Ibrahim Rugova has suggested the creation of an international protectorate:

As a preventative measure, we have requested a larger international presence and protection for Kosovo, as well as a protectorate or civil administration as a transitional or temporary stage for Kosovo, in which life would be normalised and institutions would function. We could then talk about the status and future of Kosovo.[50]

There are other demands, too, including the deployment of UN or NATO peacekeeping troops; the placing in Kosovo of more human rights monitors from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe; the extension of the flight exclusion zone over Kosovo; and the exemption of Kosovo from international sanctions on Serbia.[51]

But the international community has always been constrained by Kosovo's constitutional status. If the international community accepts the status quo and acknowledges that Kosovo is a part of Serbia, then it also has to accept that any international activity in Kosovo must first be approved by the authorities in Belgrade. If, on the other hand, the international community moved to recognise Kosovo's independence, it would risk sparking off a war. Having seen how events developed following the recognition of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the international community is reluctant to move down this path. It is, however, prepared to advocate an improvement in the human rights situation in Kosovo and greater autonomy for the province. At the same time, the international community is urging the Kosovo Albanians to pursue these goals peacefully.[52]

Nevertheless, the Kosovo Albanians have enjoyed some limited success in their diplomatic offensive. While Albania is the only country to have recognised the 'Republic of Kosovo', many other countries have established links with the leaders of the parallel government. The Federal Republic of Germany's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, organised a meeting with Dr Rugova in which Dr Rugova was presented as "the most senior freely elected representative of the majority Albanian population in Kosovo". The federal Yugoslav authorities in Belgrade sharply rebuked Germany for this.[53] But German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, at the time President of the European Union Council of Ministers, responded by saying that there could be no lifting of the sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro without a solution to the Kosovo issue.[54]

The U.S. has also made it clear that it is looking for change in Kosovo. In 1992, the U.S. Ambassador to Belgrade, Warren Zimmermann, called on Serbia to grant not independence but maximum autonomy for Kosovo: "We regard this problem ... as a typical colonial situation ... You cannot have a combination of colonial authoritarianism and communism in the middle of Europe." The ambassador went on to make a change in Serbia's policy towards Kosovo a condition of good relations with the U.S.[55]

It is worth noting that the 'Republic of Kosovo' maintains an information office in Brussels to put its own point of view to the European Union. Members of the parallel government make frequent trips abroad. In June 1994, for example, Dr Rugova visited Denmark, Norway, Germany and France. The Prime Minister of Kosovo's parallel government has had meetings in the U.S. at Under-Secretary of State level. The U.S. made it clear, though, that the meeting did not imply recognition of Kosovo as an independent state.[56]


There are two main refugee issues to be considered in Kosovo. One concerns the departure of ethnic Serbs and Montenegrins from the region and the consequent attempts of the authorities in Belgrade to replace them. Another, and the currently more pressing, issue is the departure of ethnic Albanians.

While it is difficult to find accurate figures, there is no doubt that substantial numbers of ethnic Serbs have moved away from Kosovo since World War II. One official Serbian source claims that between 1968 and 1988 some 220,000 Serbs and Montenegrins abandoned their homes in Kosovo as a result of the persecution and harassment they were facing. The same source gives a figure of 600,000 departing over the far longer period of 1878 to 1988. It is also claimed that during World War II between 80,000 and 100,000 ethnic Albanians from Albania moved in and took possession of Serbian farms and houses.[57] According to a report written by the Federal Executive Council of Yugoslavia in 1983 which was presented to the Yugoslav Assembly, over 90,000 Serbs left Kosovo between 1971 and 1981.[58]

In the face of declining numbers of Serbs in Kosovo, the authorities in Belgrade have attempted to pursue a policy of repopulating the area with Serbs. Since the outbreak of war in former Yugoslavia, for example, the Serbian Government has considered the possibility of settling some Serb refugees now within Serbia to Kosovo.[59] Little has come of the idea - not least because many Serbs are reluctant to go to Kosovo seeing it as a poor and insecure place to live. The idea of resettling refugees in Kosovo can be seen as a continuance of President Milosovic's long-standing attempts (dating back to before the current war) to persuade more Serbs to live in Kosovo. The policy has never really succeeded - even considerable inducements (in the form, for example, of double pay and free or cheap housing) have failed to persuade many Serbs to make the move.

But while the ethnic Serb community in Kosovo continues to shrink in size, the number leaving is small when compared to the recent exodus of Albanians. Ethnic Albanians claim that as many as 300,000 have fled Kosovo since 1989.[60] While stressing that there are no accurate figures available, the Kosova Information Centre in London reckons that there are now 300,000 Kosovo Albanians in Western Europe. There are some 4,000 in the UK.[61] Ibrahim Rugova has said that most of those who left went in 1981 and in 1989/1990, at the time of violent riots in Kosovo. He says that it is currently more difficult for people to leave because "many European countries have established their system of visas".[62]

The war in former Yugoslavia has produced an estimated 3.9 million refugees and internally displaced persons.[63] Most are now living within the borders of the former Yugoslavia but many have moved further afield - mostly to Western Europe. The attitudes of Western governments to these would-be-refugees varies but in general terms there appears to be a greater willingness to accept people from Bosnia-Herzegovina than there is to accept people from other parts of former Yugoslavia, including Kosovo.

The Kosovo Albanians are in a particularly awkward situation. As well as facing human rights abuses referred to above, there is the added factor of conscription. Given that Kosovo is part of Serbia, the Serbian authorities have been pressing on with conscription in Kosovo. But for most, if not all, Kosovo Albanians, the idea of fighting for Serbia is anathema. As will be shown below, Western governments have not given wholehearted acceptance of this factor in determining the status of asylum seekers from Kosovo. Many young Kosovo Albanians are unable to get a passport if they have not done their military service. This has led many to try to leave Kosovo without any papers: typically by walking across the border with Albania. Since this is a heavily guarded border and there have been numerous border incidents, some have thought it safer to try to cross into FYRM. The level of security on this border is variable but trying to cross has its risks. If caught by the authorities in FYRM, illegal immigrants will generally be handed over to the Serbian border authorities.[64]

Many of the ethnic Albanians who have managed to leave Kosovo have made their way to the West via Bulgaria and Romania. Border guards at the Romanian checkpoint of Calafat in 1993 said that an estimated 80,000 Kosovo Albanians had passed through in a year. The Kosovo Albanians consistently described themselves as tourists but the buses in which they travelled generally came back empty. Most of the 'tourists' were single males between the age of 18 and 20 anxious to avoid being drafted by the Serbian army. Having traveled through Romania these people would typically go to Hungary and the Czech Republic before crossing illegally into Germany.[65]

Germany is now playing host to an estimated 309,000 former Yugoslav citizens. The next largest recipient of these asylum seekers is Sweden with 76,000, followed by Austria with 55,000.[66] Its estimated that as many as 200,000 of those in Germany could come from Kosovo,[67] although this is probably an overestimate. Of those who have fled to Germany, only those coming from Bosnia-Herzegovina have an indisputable claim to refugee status. Each German state has different regulations concerning asylum seekers that have come from Kosovo. And the attitudes within a state can change over time. The State of North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, had a reputation as being relatively welcoming to Kosovo Albanians. But with an estimated 50,000 of them living there, the state authorities in March 1994 started repatriations via the Romanian city of Timisoara.[68] Other states started to repatriate Kosovo Albanians earlier. The state of Baden Würtemberg, for example, forced about 220 to leave between September and November 1993. There have also been expulsions from other states like Rhineland-Palatinate. German courts have handed down contradictory opinions concerning Kosovo Albanians. According to the court in Mannheim, Albanians from Kosovo are not persecuted as a group although the court acknowledged that there is evidence of individual human rights abuses. But the courts in Cologne, Lüneburg and Braunschweig have ruled that Kosovo Albanians are politically persecuted.[69]

Other Western governments have been going ahead with repatriations. In December 1993, Denmark was reported to have returned 600, and Sweden has also returned an unspecified number. Sweden received 60,000 asylum seekers from Kosovo between 1991 and 1993 - more than from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Only 2,400 of the Kosovo Albanians received Swedish residence permits. Switzerland has received 1,800 Kosovo Albanians and granted permanent refugee status to just 100 of them.[70] There do not appear to have been any repatriations from Britain, reflecting the fact that there are few Kosovo Albanians in Britain compared to other West European countries.[71]

The fact that there have been international sanctions on Serbia has made it more difficult for Western governments to repatriate Kosovo Albanians. Some reports indicate that Interior Ministers from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway took this issue so seriously that they met secretly in Vienna in March 1994 to discuss how best to go about the process of repatriation. The meeting was said to have focused on the possibility of persuading the authorities in FYRM to open its borders with Kosovo. The border was closed in October 1993 after complaints from FYRM about the number of refugees being returned.[72] The authorities in FYRM, aware of their own, large Albanian minority, are somewhat sensitive on this subject. Reportedly, one of the pressures on the FYRM Government in Skopje is mounted by the Party of Democratic Prosperity (which represents FYRM's own Albanian minority) which objects to the use of Skopje airport for repatriations.[73] Following Western newspaper reports about the pressure being applied on Skopje to make its airport available for repatriations, a senior official in the FYRM's Interior Ministry, Kiril Sarevski, admitted that there had been a meeting in Vienna at the request of the German authorities and that many EU countries were interested in deporting asylum seekers via Skopje airport. However, he denied that FYRM had agreed to a large-scale deportation.[74]


For the last three to four years, most Western press reports from Kosovo have emphasised both the bitter hostility between Serbs and Albanians living there and the risk of conflict between the two sides. But so far, despite the conflicts and border changes taking place in the area, the situation has remained relatively peaceful. One of the reasons that so many have predicted a crisis is that visitors to Kosovo are generally taken aback by the extent of the divide between the two communities.

The Kosovo Albanians, spurred on by their success in running unofficial elections as well as hospitals and schools, are now quite open in stating their desire for independence or union with Albania. This marks a change, as even three to four years ago Kosovo Albanians were reluctant to declare such aspirations openly.

The fact that there has not been any widespread conflict is explained by the Serb military superiority in Kosovo. The Serbian army is highly visible in the province and few Kosovo Albanians doubt that, even with the aid of Albania, they would be no match, in military terms, for the Serbian forces.

In other words, despite the apparently unstable political situation in Kosovo, there are reasons to believe that the status quo might remain in place. The Albanians see little alternative to peaceful resistance. While the local Serbs are unhappy about the parallel government, there is not much they can do to prevent its existence. The Serbian Government remains disinclined to use military force at a time when it is trying to court international favour. Furthermore, Serb military action could not actually achieve very much - Kosovo is, after all, already a part of Serbia and the international community does not seem inclined to press for any change of borders. It could be argued that a Serb miliary offensive is one of the few things which would persuade the international community to recognise an independent Kosovo. In fact, the only circumstances in which Serb military action looks possible is in the event of the Serbian Government needing a diversion to shore up its domestic political support.

Most of the international community is pressing for Kosovo to be granted greater autonomy. This would not only improve the level of human rights observance but also meet some of the Albanians' political aspirations. However, President Slobodan Milosovic is in no position to make concessions of this kind. His rise to power was based on a policy of reinforcing the Serb presence in Kosovo. Furthermore, there is such a consensus about Kosovo in Serbia that it is difficult to foresee any government in Belgrade making significant concessions.

Apocalyptic visions of a conflict in Kosovo with all its ramifications for the Balkans as a whole may well not come to pass. At the same time it is difficult to see how the political conflict in Kosovo will be resolved. Either way, the outlook for refugee movements is somewhat bleak. If there is a violent conflict the result will be disastrous. If not, then it is likely that ethnic Albanians will continue in their efforts to leave Kosovo and reach Western Europe. And under present circumstances its unlikely that many of those already in the West will want to return home.


The views expressed in the papers are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of UNHCR.


[1] L. Zanga, "The Question of Kosovar Sovereignty", RFE/RL Research Report, vol. 1, No. 43 (October 1992), p. 23.

[2] E. Durham, High Albania, (London: Virago, 1985), p.248.

[3] Reuters, "Serb Crackdown of Kosovo Albanians Reported", 14 June 1994.

[4] F. Schmidt, "Kosovo: The Time Bomb that Has Not Gone Off", RFE/RL Research Report, vol. 2, No. 39 (October 1993), p. 1.

[5] M. Crnobrnja, The Yugoslav Drama, (London: Tauris, 1994), p.93.

[6] Documentation Refugies, "La Situation au Kosovo", Supplement au No 226, 28 Septembre 1993, p. 1.

[7] H. Poulton, The Balkans: Minorities and States in Conflict, (London: Minority Rights Group, 1993), p. 57.

[8] B. Jelavich, History of the Balkans: Twentieth Century, (Cambridge MA: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 262.

[9] The New Encyclopedia Britannica, (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1985), vol. 29, p. 1076.

[10] Poulton, The Balkans, p. 60.

[11] BBC World Service Radio, "Kosovo: Deadlock Remains", 1 August 1988.

[12] BBC World Service Radio, "Albania slams Belgrade", 30 March 1989.

[13] BBC World Service Radio, "Kosovo: Emergency Ended", 18 April 1990.

[14] Associated Press, "U.S. Ambassador Said to Lend Strong Support to Kosovo", 29 March 1994.

[15] Poulton, The Balkans, p. 71.

[16] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, "Results of Kosovo Referendum Announced", 10 October 1991.

[17] Reuters, "Humble Albanian Writer Aims to Create New Kosovo Republic", 24 May 1992.

[18] U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993, Serbia/Montenegro, (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994), pp. 1038-1050.

[19] Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 1993, (London: Amnesty International Publications, 1993), pp. 313 - 315.

[20] Amnesty International, Yugoslavia: Police violence against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo province, (London: Amnesty International, April 1994), p.1.

[21] Amnesty International. Yugoslavia: Police Violence in Kosovo Province - The Victims, (London: Amnesty International, September 1994), pp. 1 - 3.

[22] United Nations Economic and Social Council, Situation of Human Rights in the Territory of the Former

Yugoslavia, 21 February 1994, E/CN.4/110, p. 23.

[23] United Nations Economic and Social Council, Situation of Human Rights in the Territory of the Former

Yugoslavia, 21 February 1994, E/CN.4/110, p. 23.

[24] See for example BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, "Four Serbs attacked and injured by Albanian separatists", 24 August 1994.

[25] M. Vucelic, Kosovo and Albanian Separatism: The Defence of Kosovo, (Belgrade: The Secretariat for Information of the Socialist Republic of Serbia, 1990), p. 8.

[26] P. Moore, "The "Albanian Question" in the former Yugoslavia", RFE/RL Research Report, vol. 1, No. 14. (April 1992), p. 7.

[27] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, "Serbian Official Gives Numbers of Albanians in FRY, Serbia, Macedonia", 25 February 1993.

[28] International Herald Tribune, "Act Now to Save Kosovo", 19 May 1993.

[29] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, "Action to Provide Resources for Independent Albanian Schools in Kosovo", 24 August 1994.

[30] P. Moore, "Kosovo Could Spark Another Balkan War", RFE/RL Research Report, vol. 1, No. 50 (December 1992), p. 19.

[31] Kosova Information Centre, London. Telephone interview with the Centre's Director, Isa Zymberi, 21 October 1994.

[32] F. Schmidt, "Kosovo: The Time Bomb that Has Not Gone Off", RFE/RL Research Report, vol. 2, No. 39 (October 1993), p. 25.

[33] BBC World Service Radio, "Kosovo After the Albanian Elections", 25 March 1992.

[34] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, "Rugova Interviewed on Kosovo Independence", 23 June 1994.

[35] FBIS-EEU-92-112, "Rugova Says Aim to Become Part of Albania", 10 June 1992.

[36] U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993, Serbia/Montenegro, (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994), p. 1043.

[37] L. Zanga, "The Question of Kosovar Sovereignty", p. 22.

[38] FBIS-EEU-92-112, "Rugova Says Aim to Become Part of Albania", 10 June 1992.

[39] See for example, statements of Prime Minister Meski in L. Zanga, "The Question of Kosovar Sovereignty", p. 23.

[40] Poulton, The Balkans, p. 47.

[41] Schmidt, "Kosovo: The Time Bomb that Has Not Gone Off", p. 21.

[42] See for example, BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, "Sandzak Muslim Leader Sees Future with Kosovo", 9 August 1994.

[43] BBC World Service Radio, "Alia Takes Hard Line against Yugoslavia", 11 February 1986.

[44] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, "Albanian People's Assembly Recognizes Kosovo Provisional Government", 26 October 1991.

[45] Schmidt, "Kosovo: The Time Bomb that Has Not Gone Off", p. 28.

[46] Eastern Europe Newsletter, "The Kosovars' Reputation", 17 February 1992.

[47] L. Zanga, "The Question of Kosovar Sovereignty", p. 21.

[48] FBIS-EEU-92-112, "Rugova Says Aim to Become Part of Albania", 10 June 1992.

[49] Reuters, "Serb Crackdown on Kosovo Albanians Reported", 14 June 1994.

[50] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, "Rugova Interviewed on Kosovo Independence", 23 June 1994.

[51] International Herald Tribune, "Act Now to Save Kosovo", 19 May 1993.

[52] L. Zanga, "The Question of Kosovar Sovereignty", p. 24.

[53] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, "Yugoslavia Protests over German Foreign Ministry Statement on Kosovo", 4 June 1994.

[54] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, "Provincial Leadership Greets Kinkel Statement on Sanctions", 1 September 1994.

[55] Associated Press, "U.S. Ambassador Said to Lend Strong Support to Kosovo", 29 March 1992.

[56] Reuters, "Kosovo leader says West Must Do More to Avert War", 19 October 1992.

[57] Vucelic, Kosovo and Albanian Separatism, p. 7-8.

[58] BBC World Service Radio, "Yugoslavia's Kosovo Problem", 17 June 1983.

[59] See for example FBIS-EEU-92-101, "Large Scale Settlement of Serbs Planned", 26 May 1992. And BBC World Service, "Milosovic "Mobilises for Peace"", 6 February 1990.

[60] International Herald Tribune, "Act Now to Save Kosovo", 19 May 1993.

[61] Kosova Information Centre, London. Telephone interview with the Centre's Director, Isa Zymberi, 21 October 1994.

[62] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, "Rugova Interviewed on Kosovo Independence", 23 June 1994.

[63] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Region of former Yugoslavia, (UNHCR/United Nations Documents Database, electronic format), 14 July 1994.

[64] Kosova Information Centre, London. Telephone interview with the Centre's Director Isa Zymberi, 21 October 1994.

[65] Reuters, "Kosovo's Albanians Cross Romania to Flee to the West", 27 June 1993.

[66] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Region of former Yugoslavia, (UNHCR/United Nations Documents Database, electronic format), 14 July 1994.

[67] The Independent (London), "Massive Repatriation of Kosovo Refugees Feared", 18 March 1994.

[68] The Independent (London), "German Deportations Criticised", 9 March 1994.

[69] F. Schmidt, "The Former Yugoslavia: Refugees and War Resisters", RFE/RL Research Report, vol. 3, No. 25 (June 1994), p. 49.

[70] Schmidt, "Refugees and War Resisters", p. 50.

[71] Kosova Information Centre, London. Telephone interview with Centre's Director, Isa Zymberi. 21 October 1994.

[72] The Independent (London), "Massive Repatriation of Kosovo Refugees Feared", 18 March 1994.

[73] Schmidt, "Refugees and War Resisters", p. 49.

[74] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, "Senior Official Denies Reports that Germany Is to Deport Refugees via Skopje", 28 March 1994.


This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.