Kosovo : A Short History, by Malcolm, Noel
- ISBN: 9780060977757 | 0060977752
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 5/21/1999
|A note on names and pronunciations||p. xi|
|Orientation: places, names and peoples||p. 1|
|Origins: Serbs, Albanians and Vlachs||p. 22|
|Medieval Kosovo before Prince Lazar: 850s-1380s||p. 41|
|The battle and the Myth||p. 58|
|The last years of Medieval Serbian Kosovo: 1389-1455||p. 81|
|Early Ottoman Kosovo: 1450s-1580s||p. 93|
|War, rebellion and religious life: 1580s-1680s||p. 116|
|The Austrian invasion and the 'Great Migration' of the Serbs: 1689-1690||p. 139|
|Recovery and decline: 1690-1817||p. 163|
|Reform and resistance: 1817-1878||p. 181|
|Kosovo's other minorities: Vlachs, Gypsies, Turks, Jews and Circassians||p. 202|
|From the League of Prizren to the Young Turk revolution: 1878-1908||p. 217|
|The great rebellions, the Serbian conquest and the First World War: 1908-1918||p. 239|
|Kacaks and colonists: 1918-1941||p. 264|
|Occupied Kosovo in the Second World War: 1941-1945||p. 289|
|Kosovo under Tito: 1945-1980||p. 314|
|Kosovo after the death of Tito: 1981-1997||p. 334|
|List of Manuscripts||p. 431|
|Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.|
Orientation: places, names and peoples
A journalistic cliche of the nineteenth century described the Kosovo region as the lost heart of the Balkans. Like many cliches, this one was both slightly foolish and, at the same time, suggestive of a significant truth. Although Kosovo has played a central role in Balkan history, it has remained, during much of that history, mysterious and little known to outsiders. Western knowledge of the whole central Balkan area was confined to the major through-routes until surprisingly recently: European maps of this area contained gross inaccuracies well into the late nineteenth century. Yet it was not only Westerners who knew little of this area. According to a Bulgarian geographer who visited Kosovo during the First World War, parts of the Kosovo region had been, until just a few years previously, `almost as unknown and inaccessible as a stretch of land in Central Africa'. Political factors are the main reason for the inaccessibility of Kosovo during the last period of Ottoman rule, which was marked by chronic disorder, violent rebellion and even more violent repression. But simple physical geography also matters, helping as it does to explain both the seclusion of the area and, at the same time, its near-central importance.
The present borders of Kosovo -- that is, of the `Autonomous Province' of the post-1945 Yugoslav constitutions -- are of course the products of political history. At the same time, they correspond more or less to a physical fact. Kosovo forms a geographical unit because it is ringed by ranges of mountains and hills. The most dramatic of these is the range of the Sar mountains (Alb.: Sharr) which runs eastwards out of the mountain complex of northern Albania and forms much of Kosovo's southern border. Its highest peaks are over 2,500 metres (nearly 8,000 feet), some of them crowned with permanent snow; the high pastures, green and Alpine, are places of breathtaking beauty, grazed in the summer by herds of semi-wild horses, which veer off from the approaching traveller like flocks of starlings on the wing. On the western side of Kosovo, running northwards from the Albanian massif into Montenegro, is another range, the `Accursed Mountains' (Srb.: Prokletije; Alb.: Bjeshket e Nemura), so called because of their fierce impenetrability: rivers have sliced through their dry limestone like wires through cheese, creating a network of vertiginous gorges. The borders of Kosovo continue (still moving clockwise) along another mountain range until, at their northernmost extension, they cross a different massif: the Kopaonik range, which pushes down into Kosovo from the highlands of central Serbia. On the eastern side of Kosovo the circuit of mountains softens, with a string of summits less than half the height of those of the south and west, until we come back, in the south-eastern corner of Kosovo, to the easternmost extension of the Sar mountains -- a range of hills known as the Skopska Crna Gora (Alb.: Karadak, from the Turkish for `Black Mountain'; this is also the meaning of Srb. `Crna Gora').
Within this ring of peaks and hills, the interior of Kosovo is raised up, its plains qualifying as plateaux, 1,200 feet or more above sea level. Some idea of the elevation, and the near-central position of Kosovo in this Balkan region, can be gained from the curious fact that rivers run out of Kosovo into each of the three coastlines of the Balkans: the Aegean, the Black Sea and the Adriatic. One, the Lepenac, runs south through the Kacanik (Srb.: Kacanik) gorge into Macedonia, where it joins the broad river Vardar on its slow journey to the Greek coast near Salonica. Another, the Ibar, flows northwards out of the eastern half of Kosovo and passes through central Serbia into the river Morava, which joins the Danube near Belgrade. The valley of the Morava is the main south-north axis of Serbia, and its most important head-waters, near the Serbian-Macedonian border, are streams which flow out of the southeastern corner of Kosovo. Finally, on Kosovo's western flank, there is a river whose name recurs constantly in the history of the region: the Drin (Srb.: Drim). This is the river which flows westwards through the mountainous territory of northern Albania, entering the Adriatic a little way past the city of Shkodra (Srb.: Skadar; Itl.: Scutari). At a point just inside Albania, 10 miles west of the border with Kosovo, two contributary rivers join to create the united Drin: one, the White Drin, has flowed southwards through the western half of Kosovo, while the other, the Black Drin, has never quite touched Kosovo territory, flowing northwards from Lake Ohrid, first through Macedonia, then through Albania itself.
Running from north to south through the middle of Kosovo is a lesser range of hills which divides the whole territory into two roughly equal halves: streams running off the eastern side of these hills will flow into the Ibar and the Danube, while the western side sends its waters to the White Drin and the Adriatic. The two halves of Kosovo have their own traditional names, which for various reasons, political and geographical, have been sources of both friction and confusion. The western half of Kosovo is known to Serbs as the Metohija. This is derived from metochia , a Byzantine Greek word for monastic estates, and reflects the fact that many Orthodox monasteries were granted rich endowments here (farmland, orchards and famously fine vineyards) by medieval Serb rulers. Kosovo Albanians, on the other hand, resent the use of this name, since it seems to imply that the identity of the territory itself is bound up with Serbian Orthodox land-ownership. Their own name for this part of Kosovo is Rrafsh i Dukagjinit, the `Dukagjin plateau' -- Dukagjin being a medieval Albanian ruling family which also gave its name to a broad swathe of territory in northern Albania.
Where Kosovo's eastern half is concerned, confusion arises because this sub-division of Kosovo is itself known simply as `Kosovo'. (Historically, the confusion happened the other way around: it is this area which gave its name to the entire territory, rather in the way that Holland, one of the component territories of the Netherlands, has become a commonly used name for the whole country too.) Thus the official name for the administrative unit of Kosovo during most of the Titoist period was `Kosovo and Metohija', sometimes compressed into a made-up single word, `Kosmet'. Quite how and why Kosovo became the name of this component territory is a little unclear; it was never used as a territorial name under the medieval Serbian kings, and first appears in accounts of the great battle of 1389, which took place on Kosovo Polje, the `Kosovo field (or plain)'. Kos means `blackbird' in Serbian (the - ovo is an adjectival ending): hence Germans know the battle-site as the `Amselfeld', and Latin chronicles call it campus merulae . (Kosovo is not an uncommon place-name in the Balkans: there are various villages or districts called Kosovo, unconnected with this one, in Dalmatia, Bosnia and Albania.) Geographically, Kosovo Polje (Alb.: Fusha e Kosoves) can describe not just the battlefield but the whole rolling plateau which extends to the north and south of the territory's capital, Prishtina (Srb.: Pristina); there is also a town named Kosovo Polje on that plateau, just to the west of Prishtina, on the main railway line. Early sources show that there was also once a small mining town called `Kosovo' somewhere in this region; its precise whereabouts are uncertain, as are those of a minor administrative sub-division called `Kosovo' in the early Ottoman period. And, just to add a final touch of complication, a sub-region to the north of Prishtina is also known as Malo Kosovo (Alb.: Kosova e Vogel), `little Kosovo'.
In order to hold some of these confusions at bay, a simple rule will be adopted in this book. The term `Kosovo' will refer to the entire geographical region in accordance with its post-1945 borders (the so-called Kosovo and Metohija). The western half of Kosovo will be called Western Kosovo; the eastern half will be called Eastern Kosovo. (This differs from the usage of some modern Kosovo Albanian writers, who use `Eastern Kosovo', misleadingly, to refer to a small area to the east of Kosovo itself.) The names of a few sub-regions of Kosovo will be mentioned from time to time, and explained on their first appearance. The term `Kosovo Polje' will be used either for the immediate area of the battlefield or (where the context makes this clear) for the small modern town of that name to the west of Prishtina; and `the Kosovo Polje plateau' will refer to the wider area (corresponding to what geographers know as the `Kosovo depression') running north and south of Prishtina.
Geography, or rather geology, supplies one essential reason for the enduring historical importance of Kosovo -- particularly of its eastern half. It contains the greatest concentration of mineral wealth in the whole of south-eastern Europe. The Trepca mine (Srb.: Trepca; near Mitrovica, 30 miles north of Prishtina), developed by a British company in the 1920s, became in the post-war period one of Europe's largest suppliers of lead and zinc; this mining area, including another important mine south-east of Prishtina, was estimated in the 1960s to contain 56 per cent of the reserves of those metals in Yugoslavia, and 100 per cent of the nickel. It also supplied half of the country's production of magnesite (of which Yugoslavia was the third largest producer in the world). Important too are the deposits of bauxite and chrome in Western Kosovo; and there are large coal-mines in both halves of the territory, as well as some copper and iron ore. Kosovo's mineral riches have made the territory a special target for conquest by many armies, from the Romans to the Nazis: when Hitler divided this area into occupation zones with his Axis allies after the conquest of Yugoslavia in 1941, he took care to create a special German zone to include the Trepca mine and its nearby mines and factories. Within three months, Trepca was sending a daily train-load of 500 tons of lead and zinc concentrate to supply the war industries of the Reich.
But of all the mineral assets of Kosovo, the most important for much of its earlier history was its wealth of silver. There was mining in this area in pre-Roman times, and both silver and lead (and, probably, some gold) were mined extensively during the Roman period. The medieval Serbian kingdom drew much of its wealth from the mines of Kosovo, especially from the area south-east of Prishtina. Novo Brdo (Alb.: Novoberda), the town which processed the ore and minted the coins, became one of the richest places in southern Europe. Production remained strong throughout the early Ottoman period: at the end of the sixteenth century this whole mining region (including the mines of the Skopje area and the rich Zaplana mine near Trepca) was producing more than 800,000 troy ounces of silver per year. During the next century production steeply declined, thanks in large part to Ottoman mismanagement and the terrible disruptions of the Austro-Turkish war. And for the last two centuries of Ottoman rule the underground wealth of Kosovo remained almost completely neglected: it is a pathetic commentary on the economic incompetence of the Ottoman state that the only sign of mineral extraction noticed by one traveller through this region in 1858 was the panning of river-sand for specks of iron ore. (So rich were the local ore-beds that this method alone supplied enough for six small foundries in the villages of one valley; the metal so obtained was then used mainly by Gypsy smiths and farriers.)
Geography also explains why the possession of this territory has always been important for strategic reasons. Despite its ring of mountains, Kosovo has always been a crossing-place for both merchant caravans and armies. It is true, admittedly, that the most important routes in the western and central Balkans lay elsewhere -- which is why Kosovo's position was described above only as `near-central'. The main route into the Balkans from Austria or Hungary went southwards from Belgrade, up the Morava valley to Nis. From there, travellers to Constantinople could turn east and take the road through Bulgaria; those who were going to Salonica could continue due south to the range of hills which separates Serbia from Macedonia, crossing it just to the east of the Kosovo border. The most important east-west route from the Adriatic coast to Salonica, the ancient Via Egnatia, also missed Kosovo, and by a wider margin: it went from Durres (Itl.: Durazzo) across the middle of Albania to the northern side of Lake Ohrid, and then across Macedonia into Greece.
But Kosovo did possess two routes of real importance. The first linked it with the city of Shkodra, a major trading centre in north-western Albania (connected by a short stretch of navigable river to the Adriatic coast). From Shkodra an old caravan track, based partly on a Roman military road, wound through the mountains of northern Albania, crossing into Kosovo on the bank of the White Drin and arriving shortly thereafter at Prizren. This connection with a Mediterranean port made Prizren a commercial centre for the entire Kosovo region -- until the 1870s, when a railway joined the towns of Eastern Kosovo to Salonica, drawing trade away from Prizren and bringing in cheap goods made in Manchester and Birmingham. After Prizren, travellers from Shkodra could continue northwards to Pec (Alb.: Peja) or eastwards to Prishtina; both of those towns were connected with a network of other routes through Kosovo and neighbouring parts of inner Serbia. And from Prishtina a main road led due south, through the Kacanik gorge, to Skopje and on down to Salonica.
The second important long-distance route, also connecting Kosovo to the Adriatic coast, began in Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik). This extraordinary commercial city-state, at the southern end of modern Croatia, was in some periods the main rival of Venice in the trade of the Eastern Mediterranean, and gained a privileged trading relationship with the Ottoman Empire. Unlike Venice, it never tried to conquer territory. Existing only on its wits (and its money), Ragusa might be described as the Hong Kong of the Ottoman Balkans. Huge quantities of Ottoman imports and exports passed through Ragusan hands; the Ragusans had so-called `colonies' (communities of merchants) in many inland towns, and organized the transport of goods between all parts of the Balkans and their mother-city. One of their main routes went up from Ragusa through the south-eastern corner of Bosnia-Hercegovina to Foca, and then turned eastwards to the town of Novi Pazar (Trk.: Yeni Pazar: meaning `New Market' in both languages); a few miles beyond that town, it crossed into the northern part of Kosovo. From there traders could either continue eastwards to Nis, where they joined the Belgrade-Sofia-Constantinople route, or turn southwards through Kosovo, passing through Prishtina and down into Macedonia. Because of these connections, Prishtina was also an important trading centre, and the road from Nis via Prishtina to Skopje was in some periods just as frequented as the more direct Serbian-Macedonian route.
Trading-routes can play a great role in history; but the strategic importance of Kosovo is not a question of roads alone. A glance at the map of the Balkans will show why Kosovo mattered so crucially to the Ottoman sultans. Whoever held Kosovo would control their strategic access to Bosnia and northern Albania, and could threaten to cut the link between Serbia and the Macedonian-Aegean region. The conquest of Kosovo was a key element in the ambitious Austrian strategy of 1689, which aimed at prising the whole of Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia free from the grip of Ottoman rule. Similarly, it was in Kosovo that a force of Bosnian rebels met the Ottoman army in 1831: there they inflicted a heavy defeat on the Turks, in a battle which, had a canny Grand Vizier not succeeded soon afterwards in sowing political dissension among the rebels, might have altered the course of modern Balkan history. In the course of three centuries, Kosovo has been either the turning-point or the choke-point for four major withdrawals by German-speaking forces (in 1690, 1737, 1918 and 1944), and one massive and terrible retreat in the opposite direction, southwards into Kosovo and then over the Albanian mountains to the sea, by the defeated Serbian army in 1915. And, of course, no brief tally of Kosovo's military history would be complete without mentioning the medieval battles: the famous battle of Kosovo of 1389, and the much less well-known `second battle' of 1448.
Some of the links between Kosovo and its surrounding territories have now been briefly sketched; it may be helpful to add a few more details here about those neighbouring areas, which have been connected with Kosovo not only by trade and war but also by overlapping populations. Just to the north and north-west of Kosovo lies the historic territory of Rascia (Srb.: Raska), the original nucleus of the medieval Serbian state. (The town of Ras, its early capital, was a few miles from the site of Novi Pazar.) The central Serbian territory due north of Kosovo remains, in every sense, a Serb heartland. But the broad swathe of land stretching north-westwards from Novi Pazar to the Bosnian border underwent a special development in the final Ottoman period. This was the `Sandzak of Novi Pazar'; which is often called simply `the Sandzak'. A sancak (Srb: sandzak ; Alb.: sanxhak ) was an administrative division of the Ottoman Empire, and this sancak was originally just one of many; but it gained a peculiar status in 1878 which brought it to the attention of the outside world, and has been referred to simply as `the Sandzak' since that date. Like Kosovo, the Sandzak passed from Ottoman to Serbian and Montenegrin rule only as late as 1912; and as in Kosovo the majority of its population consists (or consisted until very recently) of Muslims. But unlike the people of Kosovo, the Sandzak Muslims are mainly Slavs, like the Muslims of Bosnia: for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Sandzak was treated as part of the administrative unit of Bosnia. There is an ethnic Albanian minority in the Sandzak, and there were larger concentrations of Albanians there in the past; but these two Muslim populations stand somewhat apart from one another, divided by national consciousness as well as language.
Moving clockwise round Kosovo again, one comes to the upper Morava valley, the area of Serbia south of Nis. This region too had a large Muslim Albanian minority in the later Ottoman period, until the wars of the 1870s and the territorial changes of 1878 enabled the Serbian authorities to expel the Albanians en masse . Only a handful remained after that date; but since 1912, when Kosovo was mainly absorbed by Serbia, there has been some eastwards expansion of the Albanian population again, particularly in the region of the Presevo pass (where the main route crosses from Serbia into Macedonia) and round the little town of Vranje. (This is the area now referred to by some Kosovo Albanian writers as `Eastern Kosovo', a usage which will not be followed in this book.)
Passing westwards along the Kosovo-Macedonian border, one finds at first, in the hills of the Skopska Crna Gora, a fairly clear ethnic frontier between Albanians and Macedonians. The Macedonians are Slavs whose language is quite distinct from Serbian and closely related to Bulgarian. In the past, populations have spilled over this line of hills in both directions; nineteenth-century travellers found villages inside Kosovo whose people spoke `Bulgarian' (i.e. Macedonian) rather than Serbian, and some linguists (particularly, of course, Bulgarian ones) noticed `Bulgarian' influences on the Serbian speech of southern Kosovo. Where the political and ethnic frontiers begin seriously to diverge, however, is further to the west, along the Sar mountain range. Here a substantial Albanian population extends well over the range into Macedonia, including the predominantly Albanian town of Tetovo (Alb.: Tetova; Trk.: Kalkandelen) and, further to the south and west, the town of Debar (Alb.: Dibra). These two towns have been linked, for much of their history, with Kosovo. A road over a mountain pass connected Tetovo with the trading centre at Prizren, and another route led from Prizren up a river valley to Debar. The people of Debar and its surrounding villages (which include, almost uniquely among the northern Albanian population, a cluster of adherents to the Orthodox Church) were famously independent-minded, and this was often the last area to be subdued when Albanian rebellions were crushed by Ottoman armies.
To the north-west of Debar lie the great mountain massifs of northern Albania. Inhabited by powerful clans (many of them Catholic) who jealously guarded their territory and lived by their own customary law, this area enjoyed a kind of semi-autonomy for much of the Ottoman period. As one English traveller in the late nineteenth century put it: `To say that the Turks have subjugated the Arnauts [i.e. Albanians] is not strictly correct. Their position is something like that of the French in the remoter parts of Algeria. They hold certain towns, the intervening country being occupied by independent tribes, governing themselves.' For most British readers, a closer parallel might be with the Scottish Highlands up to the eighteenth century; and as we shall see, this is not the only resemblance between northern Albania and `North Britain'. An inhabitant of this mountainous Albanian region is known as a malesor (from mal , meaning mountain), which translates precisely as `highlander'; the whole complex of mountains can be referred to by the general name of the Malesi, the Highlands. (Within this region, there are smaller ranges with their own particular names: of these the most important in relation to the history of Kosovo are the Malesi e Gjakoves, the Gjakova Highlands, which lie inside Albania to the west of the Kosovo town of Gjakova, and the Malesi e Madhe, the Great Highlands, which run to the east of Shkodra along the Montenegrin frontier.) This entire region has enjoyed a peculiarly close relation to Kosovo, and very many of the Kosovo Albanians are descended from these mountain clans. To say that the Malesi and Kosovo are umbilically connected might even be to understate the case: until a frontier was created between them after the war of 1912, the two areas had been -- at least so far as the Albanian population was concerned -- parts of a single, continuous ethnic realm.
Finally, north of the Malesi, there are the mountains of Montenegro. The Montenegrins are generally regarded, in ethnic terms, as a type of Serb, and their adherence to the Orthodox Church has indeed aligned them closely to the Serbian cultural world, rather than to the Croatian or Bosnian. But Montenegro has led a very separate life from Serbia for much of its history, becoming contiguous with it only in 1912 and united with it in the Yugoslav Kingdom only in 1918. The inhabitants of the Montenegrin mountains just to the north of Albania, known as brdjani (sing.: brdjanin ; `highlander' in Serbian, from brdo , meaning `mountain'), do in fact share many characteristics -- customs, traditional laws and forms of social organization -- with their Albanian malesor neighbours. In past centuries, there were strong and specific links between Albanian and Montenegrin highland clans: some were longstanding allies in war, others had traditions of each taking brides from the other clan, and some had legends of common ancestry. Long-term patterns of what might be called ethnic osmosis took place: some of the Montenegrin clans may originally have been off-shoots from Albanian families, and some of the Albanian ones may have Slav ancestry too.
As these details may already have suggested, the two main ethnic groups whose history will dominate this book -- Serbs and Albanians -- are far from being homogeneous blocs of humankind. There are many variations within each of them, different ethnic roots, regional varieties and different cultural and religious alignments.
Generalizations about `the Serbs' or `the Albanians' are always slightly suspect, and statements about `national character' are of no explanatory value to the historian. But some characteristics -- social practices, inherited traditions -- can be broadly described, and a few words about them may be of some use to readers unfamiliar with this part of Europe.
The Serbs of modern Kosovo come, as we shall see, from many different stocks, some of which migrated to Kosovo from Dalmatia or Bosnia or northern Serbia. Within Kosovo, however, their differences of origin were largely discarded, and they shared a common way of life, touched to some extent (in matters of clothing, for example) by the influence of their Albanian neighbours, but broadly similar to the lifestyle of the Serbs to the north of them in the central Serbian territory. A mainly agricultural population, they based their society on the community of the village and, within it, the community of the family. The self-image of the Serbs is of a naturally egalitarian people; it is true that there is no hereditary aristocracy in Serbia, but that is more easily to be explained as a consequence of the Ottoman conquest (which eventually eliminated the Serbian nobility) than by innate tendencies in the Serbian soul. Similarly, romantically-minded Serb historians, influenced by nineteenth-century Russian theories about the village commune as an ancient Slav institution, have made much of the role of the self-governing village community in Serbian life. But modern scholars have demolished the Russian theory, and it seems that self-reliant villages can better be explained simply as a practical response to periods of insecurity or weak government.
The same factors help to explain the famous zadruga or family commune, which involves several generations of the same family living together (usually in a group of houses protected by an outer wall) and functioning as a single economic unit. The zadruga died out in most parts of Serbia in the late nineteenth century, but it seems to have lasted a little longer among the Serbs of Kosovo: Edith Durham, travelling across Western Kosovo in 1908, saw many `typical Servian zadrugas, family groups of houses enclosed in huge palisades'. Within the zadruga there is a kind of equality of the male heads of the component families, who form a council to decide important matters, subject to the final authority of the ruling `elder'. However, modern research has shown that there is nothing peculiarly Serbian, and perhaps nothing even peculiarly south-Slav, about the zadruga. It is just a product, found in many parts of Europe, of two common factors: conditions of insecurity, which put a premium on mutual defence, and a patrilinear social system, which identifies family with sons. A third factor, pastoralism, may also play a part: the management of large flocks or herds, and the control of grazing-grounds, also puts a premium on large cooperative groups. That probably explains why the zadruga has survived longest in mountain regions, which depend more on pastoralism than on settled agriculture. In fact, the last surviving zadrugas in Kosovo are not among the Serb population but among the Albanians, whose way of life has been more dominated by pastoral traditions.
There are many other aspects of the traditional way of life of the Serb peasant which can be found mirrored in his Albanian counterpart. Some may be historical products of shared centuries of Ottoman rule; others may reflect a common heritage at a far deeper level. Codes of honour, respect for military prowess, a strong tradition of hospitality (anyone who has visited Serbian villagers in their homes will testify to the strength and warmth of this last characteristic): all these are common features of traditional rural societies in this part of Europe.
Of the things that differentiate Serbs and Albanians, the most obvious is language. But although the Serbian language clearly separates Serbs from Albanians, it does not so clearly constitute Serbs as Serbs: the type of dialect and pronunciation used in Serbia shades off -- in Bosnia, for example, and in Montenegro -- into other varieties of what used to be called Serbo-Croat, as spoken by Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Another key factor is needed to determine Serbian-ness; and that factor, historically the most powerful one in building a Serb identity, is the Serbian Orthodox Church. This Church first acquired an autonomous status within the Greek Orthodox Church in the early thirteenth century, and became fully independent in 1346; since then its independence has been intermittent, but its use of the Slavonic liturgy and its key role in Serbian cultural life have been continuous. When modern concepts of nationhood began to be propagated in the nineteenth century, membership of this Church supplied a ready-made category of Serbian-ness.
However, although Serbian Orthodoxy may in this way have a national-political dimension to it, Western readers should be reminded that the type of Christianity found in the Orthodox Church is in some ways much further removed from social and political matters than is the case with Protestantism or Roman Catholicism. In Western Europe, the churches have always been actively engaged in social and political thinking: the arguments debated in the major Western texts of political theory have many of their roots in works by medieval Franciscans and Dominicans. There is nothing really equivalent to this in the Eastern Orthodox tradition (at least not since the early Byzantine period). The intellectual energies of Orthodoxy have been devoted to mystical theology, and the real focus of religious life is placed, to an extent which West Europeans must make an effort of the imagination to understand, on just one thing: the celebration of the liturgy. To explore the implications of this would take a book in itself. But one rather paradoxical suggestion can be touched on here. It is sometimes claimed that the political traditions of many Orthodox countries (including Serbia) suffer from a Byzantine legacy of `caesaro-papism', meaning a fusing together of temporal and spiritual rule, and that this is the root cause of their occasional tendencies towards a kind of mystical or fanatical politics. If the argument sketched here is correct, the problem is the other way round: far from fusing themselves with politics, the Orthodox Churches withdrew from social and political engagement into a realm of contemplation and liturgical celebration. As a result, the cultures of their countries had fewer chances to develop the habits of critical social and political thinking which were generated in the West by the Catholic Church and its Protestant offshoots. This may help to explain why the Serbian people have been, at some moments in their history, persuaded to follow political causes with an uncritical and absolute loyalty.
These issues are relevant to any study of the Kosovo question, not only because of the quasi-religious fervour of some Serbian writers and politicians on this subject, but also because the Patriarchate of the Serbian Orthodox Church is located at the Western Kosovo town of Pec. Let the last word on the general question of the Serbs and their religion go to a distinguished Serbian diplomat and historian, Cedomil Mijatovic, whose remarks, written at the beginning of the twentieth century, may be equally valid at its end:
The religious sentiment of the Servians [i.e. Serbians] is neither deep nor warm. Their churches are generally empty, except on very great Church festivals, and on political festivals. The Servians of our day consider the Church as a political institution, in some mysterious manner connected with the existence of the nation. They do not allow anyone to attack her, nor to compromise her, although, when she is not attacked, they neglect her.
No religion, on the other hand, unites the Albanians. There is an autocephalous Albanian Orthodox Church, but it gained its autonomy from the Greek Church only as recently as 1923; its members are all in the southern half of Albania (or in the emigre community), and it has played no part in the history of Kosovo. Overall, the modern Albanian population (i.e. the Albanians of Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro) divides, in terms of religious background, into roughly 80 per cent Muslim, 12 per cent Orthodox and 8 per cent Catholic. The word `background' is essential here: since religion was heavily suppressed in the Albanian state after 1945 and officially abolished in 1967, whole generations have grown up there knowing little or nothing about the religious practices of their ancestors. And in Kosovo, where religion was never formally banned, urban Albanians are just as secularized as their Muslim counterparts in the towns of Bosnia. The proportions in Kosovo are roughly 95 per cent Muslim and 5 per cent Catholic.
The other division in the overall Albanian population is between the Gegs, who live in northern Albania and Kosovo, and the Tosks, who live in southern Albania. (There are also two smaller southern groups who are considered distinct from the Tosks, the Cams and the Labs, but these can be ignored here.) The differences between Gegs and Tosks are a matter partly of language, partly of way of life. In the north the highland clans developed their special social system; in the less mountainous landscape of the south, whatever quasi-clans that may have existed were more or less swept aside, and the countryside was dominated by feudal or Ottoman landowners.
The linguistic differences between Gegs and Tosks are striking, but not large enough to get in the way of mutual intelligibility; in most respects the gulf is no greater than that between Scotland and the south of England. To the outsider, the most obvious differences are in the pronunciation of certain vowels (nasalized in Geg speech), and in the Geg use of the consonant `n' in some words where Tosk has `r'. This last detail helps to show that Geg has retained an earlier form of the language: it is Tosk speech which has changed `n' into `r', in a process known to linguists as `rhotacism'. (Thus the Albanian town whose name comes from the Greek `Aulon' and the Latin `Avlona' or Italian `Valona' is Vlona in Geg, and Vlora in Tosk.) When a standardized version of the language, known as `unified literary Albanian', was finally codified in Tirana in 1972, it was based -- partly for political reasons -- much more closely on Tosk than on Geg. (The Communist leader Enver Hoxha and many of his inner circle were Tosks; and they felt a special hostility towards not only the traditional clan leaders of the north, but also the Catholic priests of Shkodra, who had developed the Geg literary language.) As a result, the type of Albanian now found in almost all printed works, including books printed in Kosovo, diverges from the spoken language of Kosovo and the other northern regions. For simplicity's sake, the standard Albanian forms are used in this book.
The basis of the traditional Geg social system, as mentioned already, is the clan. The Albanian word for this, fis , is also sometimes translated `tribe' (like the Serbian word pleme , which refers to the Montenegrin equivalent). Northern Albanian society was strictly patrilinear, which means that descent was calculated only through the male line. The official theory or myth of each fis was that all its members were descended from a common male ancestor, the founder of the clan -- rather in the way that all MacGregors might romantically suppose that they were descended from a single Gregor. In some cases there may well have been one original founder, whose direct descendants supplied at least the dominant element in the clan; but in the formative stages of these clans it is likely that unrelated groups who lived in close proximity came together for mutual protection.
A smaller collective sub-group within an Albanian clan -- or, at least, within most of them -- was the vellazeri , or brotherhood (Srb.: bratstvo ), which did indeed consist of a group of blood-related families (again, only through the male line). The vellazeri was like a looser version of a zadruga: the family structure was similar, but it did not live in a single set of buildings and did not pool its earnings and expenditure in a single budget. In the Malesi, each clan had its own territory, consisting of its grazing-lands and an inhabited valley or group of valleys. In Kosovo, where members of different clans intermingled, this territorial principle could seldom be applied, and clan loyalties were somewhat eroded. So while in the Malesi blood-feuds could reach the point of pitting one whole clan against another, in Kosovo the basic unit of cooperative retribution was not the fis but the family.
In between those two collective identities, large and small, some other groupings also existed. Some of the larger clans were divided into (or had been composed of) several smaller clans. With their belief in patrilinear descent, the malesors regarded any relative on the paternal side as the same blood, and marriage to such a relation as incestuous. The clans were therefore `exogamous', acquiring their brides from other clans. But in a few cases the sub-clans of a large fis were seen as sufficiently unrelated (or their supposed common ancestor was thought sufficiently distant in time) for them to exchange brides with one another. In some cases also one sub-clan might convert to Islam, while other components of the same overall fis remained Catholic; their mutual loyalty as fellow clan-members would remain unaffected by their religious differences.
The other important grouping was the bajrak , a word derived from the Turkish for a banner or military standard. This institution, which became a more or less organic part of the clan system, was originally an alien administrative device, imposed on the area by the Ottomans from the seventeenth century onwards. Its purpose was to single out local leaders who could supply fighting men, when called on, and who would gain status and privilege in return; and its basis was territorial, not tribal. Roughly speaking, a large clan's territory might be divided into several bajraks, each under its own bajraktar , a medium-sized clan might constitute one bajrak, and several small clans might be lumped together; but there were also less neat arrangements, with just some members of one clan included in another clan's bajrak. (As a result of this, the first Westerners who tried to describe and classify the Albanian clan system were faced with all kinds of difficulties, and produced very conflicting accounts.) In Kosovo, because of the geographical dispersal of the clans, the bajrak became an important unit, and the bajraktars wielded great local power as administrators, military leaders and settlers of disputes.
One sign of the alien origin of the office of bajraktar was that it was a hereditary rifle. Most of the Albanian clans, despite their obsession with male genealogy, had not regarded the authority to rule as an inheritable good. (The main exception was the Mirdita, the largest and most untypical of the Catholic clans, which had its own hereditary ruling family.) Decision-taking, at each of a series of levels -- village, clan and inter-clan -- was made by councils of elders. For important matters, such as going to war against another clan, a general assembly of all the elders of the clan was held; this was known as a kuvend (from the Latin conventum ). And on special occasions assemblies were called of all the clans of the region: there are important historical examples of this from as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century.
No such system of local self-government could subsist without a strong framework of customary law. Large-scale assemblies were infrequent, and were usually aimed at getting agreement on action or policy, not at legislation. All the essential rules of human life -- relating to marriage, inheritance, pasture rights, criminal acts, and so on -- were laid down in traditional codes of law, transmitted from memory to memory; the job of the elders was not to make new laws but to interpret the facts of any particular case in the light of the laws they knew. Over time, of course, the codes of different geographical areas diverged on some points; several regional law codes have survived into the twentieth century. Of these, the only one which matters for the history of Kosovo, and for most of the Malesi, is the most famous of them all: the Kanun of Lek Dukagjin. The name `Kanun' is derived (via Arabic and Turkish) from the Greek word which gives us `canon'. Lek Dukagjin is commonly identified with a fifteenth-century member of the Dukagjin family (`Lek' or `Leke' being an abbreviated Albanian form of Alexander). The attachment of this nobleman's name to the law may be spurious: some scholars have suspected that it was originally known just as the law of Dukagjin, referring to the territory, not the family. But even if a fifteenth-century individual did put together this code, it is clear that he was codifying many customary practices which went back much further into the past. The Kanun remained unwritten until the nineteenth century, when summaries of it by non-Albanian writers began to appear in print. The fullest and most authoritative text was compiled by a Catholic Albanian priest, Father Shtjefen Gjecov, and issued first as a sequence of articles in a Catholic journal; it was eventually published as a book, four years after his murder by Serb extremists in 1929.
The importance of the Kanun to the ordinary life of the Albanians of Kosovo and the Malesi can hardly be exaggerated. `Whenever in the mountains I asked why anything was done,' wrote Edith Durham in the 1920s, `I was told, "Because Lek ordered it." ... "Lek said so" obtained more obedience than the Ten Commandments, and the teaching of the hodjas [Muslim clerics] and the priests was often vain if it ran counter to that of Lek.' Anyone who has read Ismail Kadare's novel Broken April will associate the Kanun above all with the archaic and terrible laws of the blood-feud; and some news reports on the revival of the blood-feud in post-Communist Albania have given the impression that the Kanun, which is now being implemented again in the Malesi, is nothing more than a system of vendettas. But the Kanun covered most aspects of human life (there are sections, for example, on the duties of blacksmiths and millers); it specified the system of assemblies, judges and juries; and it laid down punishments for a range of criminal offences (fines for minor ones, and execution, plus the burning down of the offender's house and the expulsion of his family, for serious crimes).
One leading scholar has summed up the basic principles of the Kanun as follows. The foundation of it all is the principle of personal honour. Next comes the equality of persons. From these flows a third principle, the freedom of each to act in accordance with his own honour, within the limits of the law, without being subject to another's command. And the fourth principle is the word of honour, the bese (def.: besa ), which creates a situation of inviolable trust. Gjecov's version of the Kanun decrees: `An offence to honour is not paid for with property, but by the spilling of blood or a magnanimous pardon.' And it specifies the ways of dishonouring a man, of which the most important are calling him a liar in front of other men; insulting his wife; taking his weapons; or violating his hospitality. The reference to hospitality here is important: entering a man's house as his guest creates, like the word of honour, an inviolable bond between the two, and there are stories of Albanians sacrificing their lives to protect a perfect stranger who had taken shelter with them for one night. The reference to weapons should also be noted: the history of Kosovo and northern Albania is punctuated by a series of revolts caused by ill-starred official attempts to disarm the population. In the words of one English traveller of the 1880s: `The pride of a farmer in his livestock, or of a collector in his specimens, is nothing to the pride of an Albanian in his weapons. They are ... the guardians of his hearth, the object of his admiration, and his perpetual glory.'
As several details will already have suggested, this was very much a man's world. The reference to `equality of persons' above needs some qualification. Women had their honour, but it existed through, and was defended by, men. Of all the proverbial sayings in the Kanun, few will offend modern sensibilities as sharply as the statement, `A wife is a sack for carrying' -- meaning that her raison d'etre is simply to bear her husband's children. A woman had a hard life in this society, engaged in ceaseless housework and labour in the fields, and forbidden to have contacts with the world outside the family, at least until she was old. The only permitted escape from such a life was to become a `sworn virgin', which involved renouncing all prospects of marriage, dressing in man's clothes and leading the life of an honorary man; but this was a rarity, caused either by extreme revulsion at an arranged marriage, or by a desire to look after a father who had no sons. Of course, as is usual in rigidly patriarchal societies, there were some compensations: the strongest taboo of all concerned the murder of women, and any woman could walk through raging gunfire in the knowledge that she would never be shot at. Edith Durham, a close observer of life in the Malesi, summed up her impressions thus:
A woman in the mountains, in spite of the severe work she is forced to do, is in many ways freer than the women of Scutari. She speaks freely to the men; is often very bright and intelligent, and her opinion may be asked and taken. I have seen a man bring his wife to give evidence in some case under dispute. I have also seen the women interfere to stop a quarrel, but where the family honour is concerned they are as anxious that blood should be taken as are the men.
Which brings us back, finally, to the blood-feud. This is one of the most archaic features of northern Albanian society, resembling the codes that govern other isolated societies in the Mediterranean region (such as Corsica) or the northern Caucasus. What lies at the heart of the blood-feud is a concept alien to the modern mind, and more easily learned about from the plays of Aeschylus than from the works of modern sociologists: the aim is not punishment of a murderer, but satisfaction of the blood of the person murdered -- or, initially, satisfaction of one's own honour when it has been polluted. If retribution were the real aim, then only those personally responsible for the original crime or insult would be potential targets; but instead, honour is cleansed by killing any male member of the family of the original offender, and the spilt blood of that victim then cries out to its own family for purification.
Since honour is of the essence, there are strict rules for every step of the feud: one who `takes blood' to satisfy his (or his family's) honour must announce that he has done so; a formal truce or bese for a set period must be agreed to, if requested for a proper reason (this is a special use of `bese', the general term for a man's word of honour); and so on. The person who has the right to claim satisfaction for a killing is known as `Zot i Gjakut', `Lord of the Blood': in some clan areas there were procedures to enable him, with the encouragement of the bajraktar or other elders, to settle a feud in peace. But such procedures, though urged by both Ottoman administrators and Catholic priests, were of limited popularity. At the end of the Ottoman period it was estimated that 19 per cent of all adult male deaths in the Malesi were blood-feud murders, and that in an area of Western Kosovo with 50,000 inhabitants, 600 died in these feuds every year. One mid-nineteenth-century vendetta in the Malesi began when two men quarrelled over four cartridges which one had promised and not delivered: within two years it led to 1,218 houses being burnt down and 132 men killed. This is an extreme example, of course, and the days of entire clans becoming involved in such wholesale feuding are unlikely to recur. And yet the tradition of the blood-feud has never died out in Kosovo: innumerable small-scale feuds have continued in the remoter villages, and not all of them were ended by the great series of mass reconciliations arranged by an inspirational settler of blood-feuds, Anton Cetta, in the early 1990s.
Only if we bear in mind the whole system of the feud and the Kanun can we make sense, finally, of the very conflicting reports which have come down to us on the Kosovar and Northern Albanian character. In the writings of some past visitors to the Balkans, Kosovo was a place of anarchy and terror, where even children carried guns and murders were everyday events. Those who understood the rules (such as Edith Durham) saw, on the other hand, that a strict system of law was usually at work. However, the law applied only to Albanian clansmen, and, in some respects, only within the clan. As with many other warlike pastoral societies -- Scotland, again -- stealing cattle from outsiders might be seen as an exploit rather than a crime. Many of the Serbs of Kosovo suffered grievously on this principle. In the words of the handbook on Albania issued by the British military in the Second World War:
Our own Army Act draws a distinction between stealing the property of a comrade, and stealing from one of the public, but the Albanian would hardly recognize any similarity between the two. Where the limits of social obligation are so sharply defined as in tribal society, the same man may be loyal, generous, and hospitable to all those within the bond, but haughty, morose, suspicious, and untrustworthy to those beyond it.
The traveller, brought `within the bond' by the sacred duties of hospitality, could more easily experience the best of the Albanian character. As one Austrian who visited Kosovo in the bloodiest period of its final revolt against Ottoman rule declared: `If you observe the customs of the land, you can travel more safely in Albania than in any other country in the world.'
Copyright © 1998 Noel Malcolm. All rights reserved.