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April 11 1999 3:30 AM

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What solution does history dictate for Kosovo? Good question.

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Ever since the United States began contemplating doing something about war and ethnic cleansing in the collapsing state of Yugoslavia in 1991, all sides have invoked history as a guide to action. Those who opposed involvement in Bosnia in the early '90s--and who doubt that NATO can bring peace to Kosovo today--argue that the long record of intractable ethnic tension among the Balkan peoples means we should stay out. Any settlement, they say, is doomed to be temporary. Robert Kaplan's book Balkan Ghosts, which advances this thesis regarding Bosnia, reportedly convinced President Clinton to steer clear of military action there for a time.

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Interventionists also invoke history. They note the longstanding claim of ethnic Albanians to the territory of Kosovo dating back to 1200 B.C., when the Albanians' supposed ancestors, the Illyrians, settled there. This ancient history forms the basis of demands for self-determination on the part of the long-suffering Albanian Kosovars. But the Serbs, too, stake a historical claim. Their Slavic forebears migrated to Kosovo around A.D. 500, and they contend that Serbs have lived there ever since.

In fact, each of these assertions is subject to qualification, as is made clear in Noel Malcolm's masterly (but misnamed) Kosovo: A Short History (my main source along with Hugh Poulton's The Balkans: Minorities and States in Conflict). The tie of today's Albanian Kosovars to the ancient Illyrians is fairly attenuated. And while Slavs did move into the area around 500, when the Bulgarian Empire conquered the Balkans, the Serbs didn't gain control of Kosovo until the 12th century, when a dynasty of their leaders known as the Nemanjids invaded it after a period of Byzantine rule.

For two centuries the Nemanjids basked in their Balkan kingdom. Serb nationalists today are fond of noting that in 1389 it was in Kosovo that the Serbian Prince Lazar and his armies made their last stand against the invading Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Kosovo. They're less likely to note that the Albanians of Kosovo fought alongside them. (Explicit references to the Albanian people as opposed to the Illyrians begin to appear around the 11th century.)

During Turkey's 500-year rule, most of Kosovo's Albanians--and Albania's Albanians, also subjects of the Ottoman Empire--converted to Islam. The Serbs remained Orthodox Christians. That may be one reason that the Serbs sought independence first. In 1804 they rose up and in 1828 broke free. Kosovo, however, remained largely content under Turkish rule. Serbs, believing that Kosovo still rightfully belonged to them, did briefly conquer it in 1877 when, along with Russia, the new Serbian state made war on Turkey. But under the Russian-Ottoman armistice a year later, Serbia was forced to withdraw.

At this point, the Albanians--of both Kosovo and Albania proper--commenced their so-called "national awakening." A group called the League of Prizren, named for the Kosovo town where it met, lobbied for autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. A generation later, this movement flowered into insurrection, as Albanians throughout the western pocket of the Balkans revolted. Albania secured statehood in 1912, but before the status of Kosovo could be resolved, the entire region was rocked, in quick succession by the First Balkan War (1912), the Second Balkan War (1913) and, for good measure, World War I (1914-18).

First to invade Kosovo in these years were the Serbs. The Serbs were knocked out by the Austrians, who were knocked out by the French. The French handed the province back to their allies the Serbs. After the war, the Allies, following Wilsonian ideals of self-determination, straightened up Europe into tidy nation-states. With minimal thought on the part of the mapmakers, Kosovo was folded into Serbia, which joined five neighboring Balkan territories to form the new state of Yugoslavia. Albania appealed to the Allies for control of Kosovo but, considered an insignificant state, was rebuffed in deference to Serbian claims.

As the largest republic in the multinational state, Serbia dominated Yugoslavia. Its capital of Belgrade, for example, was the nation's capital too. Under Serbian rule, Kosovo again became a battleground. In the late 19th century, Serbian nationalists had built up national myths about the heroics of Prince Lazar and cast Kosovo's status as a Jerusalem-like holy land populated with Orthodox religious shrines. Throughout the 1920s and '30s, the central government in Belgrade pushed Albanians out of the region and moved Serbs in--efforts the Albanian majority resisted, often to their peril.

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I n World War II, Kosovo again resembled Europe's Grand Central Station. The Axis powers rolled in and carved up the region: Albania's Fascist government, headed by a puppet of Mussolini's, seized the biggest chunk, while Bulgaria and Germany each occupied a strip. Communist partisans retook the province in 1944, and when the war ended, the partisan leader Josip Broz Tito became dictator of the reconstituted Yugoslav federation. The Communists considered ceding Kosovo to Albania but instead decided that it should revert to its antebellum status quo. They deemed Kosovo not an autonomous republic but a province of Serbia.

In the name of Yugoslav unity, Tito suppressed most assertions of ethnic identity. He jailed or killed thousands of Albanian Kosovars and banned Albanian-language publications. But he was, to some degree, an equal opportunity tyrant: He also halted Serbian efforts to settle Kosovo. In 1968, with uprisings sweeping the globe, student protests triggered a wave of demands for greater Kosovar autonomy. Tito acceded to a series of reforms, culminating in a new Yugoslav Constitution in 1974, which gave Kosovo control over much of its internal affairs. That year marked the high point for Kosovar aspirations to independence, and it remains the benchmark for NATO's demand at Rambouillet for a restoration of Kosovo's "pre-1989" autonomy.

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