Last week, Serbian police massacred at least 51 Albanians in the Yugoslavian province of Kosovo. The dead, Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic says, deserved their fate. They were Islamic terrorists promoting the secession of this remote southern swath of Serbia. Balkan watchers say the killings will provoke the Albanians--90 percent of Kosovo's population--into armed revolt, sparking a conflagration that could involve the rest of Europe. Why the long history of Albanian-Serbian acrimony? Will Kosovo be Bosnia redux--another bout of ethnic cleansing and warfare, or worse?
According to the conventional wisdom, last week's murders were the latest chapter in a centuries-long feud between Albanian Muslims and their Serbian Orthodox Christian neighbors. Serbs still sting from their defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, which began the Turks' 522-year occupation of Serbia. Blame for the defeat is pinned on Albanian Muslims, who, like the Bosnian Muslims, are accused of having collaborated with the invaders. But this interpretation misrepresents the record: Most Albanians resisted invasion; they didn't collaborate with the Turks any more than their Serbian neighbors did.
In the mid-19th century, with the growth of nationalism across Europe, Kosovo became an obsession among Serbian intellectuals, a symbol of Serbia's past grandeur and current mistreatment. Poets wrote epics, with anti-Muslim subtexts, romanticizing the Battle of Kosovo. And Kosovo morphed into Serbia's Jerusalem. The liberation of Kosovar Serbs and Serbian holy places from Muslim tyrants became the nationalist rallying cry, as did the redemption of Albanians who had converted to Islam during the Turks' rule.
The nationalist myth of Christians vs. Muslims belies a pluralistic reality. Albanians and Serbs coexisted--peacefully--under Ottoman rule. Only when Serbia beat back the Turks in 1912 did leaders in Belgrade begin to transform their nationalist fantasies about Kosovo into policy. Serbs exported colonists to Kosovo and expelled Albanians. Even so, Albanians have always vastly outnumbered Serbs in the province; there are now 2 million Albanians, compared with 200,000 Serbs.
W hen Communist dictator Josip Broz Tito took over in 1945, he attempted to quash Serbian nationalism. He preached that there was no room for ethnic differences in the class struggle. But Serbs, suspicious of Tito's Croatian and Slovenian background, said he was giving them short shrift. To allay fears of anti-Serb chauvinism, Tito prohibited Albanian-language publications and gave Kosovo's most desirable jobs to Serbs. When Albanians staged protests in the late '60s, Tito attempted to pacify them by strengthening local government (largely dominated by Albanians) over local affairs and by restoring jobs. This satisfied no one: It was not enough to dent Albanian unemployment and just enough to rile Serbs. Following Tito's death in 1980, malcontents on both sides rioted.
In 1987, while other Yugoslav leaders ignored the Kosovo mess, Slobodan Milosevic, then a little-known Communist Party apparatchik, began accusing Albanians of perpetrating genocide against Kosovo's Serbs. Milosevic organized mass rallies in Kosovo--one of them attended by 2 million Serbs--where he charged Yugoslavia's leadership with ignoring the crisis. His attacks won him popular support, which he ultimately parlayed into control of Yugoslavia's Communist Party. Milosevic's demagoguery over Kosovo helped convince the Croatians, Slovenians, and Bosnians that they could no longer deal with Serbia. In 1991, they seceded from Yugoslavia.
Under Milosevic, Albanians lost all semblance of autonomy. They were removed from jobs in the party and government. Separate but unequal Albanian-only school and health care systems were established. (It is credibly alleged that Serbs poisoned Albanian schools' water supply with the nerve gas Sarin.) Unemployment among Albanians reached 85 percent, higher than in war-torn Bosnia. Arbitrary arrests and searches increased, as Serbs implemented de facto martial law.
The Serb crackdown spurred the first organized Albanian opposition. In the early '90s Ibrahim Rugova, a writer, created the Democratic League of Kosovo, modeling it on Gandhi's and King's nonviolent campaigns. Rugova established a shadow government and sent envoys abroad to make the case for independence. But Milosevic remained intransigent. Smarting from losses in the Bosnian war and from the collapse of the Serbian economy, opposition parties took to the streets in the winter of 1996 to demand Milosevic's resignation. Although Milosevic survived the protests, his position remains tenuous. He believes he cannot afford the loss of prestige that would accompany a compromise on Kosovo. Even opposition leaders agree that it is Serbia's manifest destiny to control Kosovo.
Meanwhile, Albanian discontent increases. Albanians feel slighted by the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord, which gave autonomy to Bosnian Muslims but stayed silent on their fate. The lesson they have drawn: Liberation comes from armed struggle, not nonviolence. Support grows for the Kosovo Liberation Army, a band of militants, many of whom fought on behalf of Bosnia. The KLA now controls several mountain villages and has smuggled a sizable cache of weapons across the border from Albania.
One rumor has Milosevic funding the KLA because he needs an excuse to start another nationalist war to boost his popularity. Another says he ordered last week's crackdown only after he received the implicit green light from the Clinton administration's special envoy to Yugoslavia, Robert Gelbard. Last week, Gelbard called the KLA a terrorist group. The Clinton administration has tried to play it both ways on Kosovo. It rejects Albania's claims for independence but decries the crackdown. Last week, the U.S. government and European allies agreed they would stiffen sanctions on Serbia to protest the massacres. But the United States is afraid that the 500 peacekeeping troops stationed in neighboring Macedonia will get drawn into battle.
Franklin Foer is editor at large of the New Republic. He is the author of How Soccer Explains the World.