Kosovo as a Test for Russia
№3 2007 July/September

The autonomous province of Kosovo,
which is formally part of Serbia but is in effect under UN
administration, has been one of the most dangerous trouble spots in
Europe for the last decade. The fate of this small territory – a
mere 11,000 sq. km with a population of around 2 million people –
can seriously affect the course of events not only in the Balkans
but also far beyond. The great powers that will soon vote on the
status of Kosovo at the UN Security Council should bear this in
mind. They must approach the problem in an extremely circumspect
and judicious way. The vote will last just a few seconds, but it
will most likely encapsulate Europe’s entire past and future. For
Russia, the Kosovo settlement will come as a moment of truth, as it
were, since it will finally reveal its position, as well as the
extent of its influence in the world.


Kosovo remains the last territorial
problem leftover from the former Socialist Federal Republic of
Yugoslavia. The aspirations of the Albanians to acquire complete
independence from the Serbians, complicated by the desperate
attempts of the latter to keep the breakaway province in the fold,
led to a bitter war, death and destruction, and ongoing tension
between the two peoples.

Although the disintegration of
Yugoslavia was accompanied by several distinct conflicts, the
aspirations of the opposing sides are nowhere more obvious and
irreconcilable than in the Kosovo case. The dispute about the
status of the province goes beyond the bounds of a territorial and
political conflict since it is based on an emotional perception by
the parties of their ethnic, cultural and historical

To the Serbs, Kosovo is a source and an
inalienable part of their national mythology. This is where Serbian
statehood was born and eventually flourished (in the 9th-10th and
the mid-14th centuries, respectively). It is also the source of
Serbian Orthodoxy: many Kosovo monasteries were founded in the
early 13th century by St. Savva, the most revered saint in

But the main event in the province’s
history took place in 1389, when the Serbian army, led by Prince
Lazar, engaged a superior force of the Ottoman Empire. In a pitched
battle at Kosovo Field, the rulers of both countries were killed.
Neither side was able to declare a victory, while the Turkish army
soon returned and occupied Lazar’s land. Nevertheless, to the
Serbs, the Battle of Kosovo is a symbol of national heroism, and
demonstrates the ability to sacrifice everything for the protection
of the Motherland against aggressors, Christianity against Islamic
invasion, and Europe against the Turks. Although the abovementioned
battle was followed by four centuries of life under the Ottoman
yoke, and discrimination against the Serbs who remained loyal to
Orthodoxy, it still serves as a point of inspiration for Serbian

True, Western historiography often
questions the Serbian interpretation of events on the assumption
that the Serbs in fact completely lost the battle. Moreover, there
was no struggle between Christianity and Islam in the first place:
in those days, numerous representatives of Christian powers were
fighting on the Turkish side, and generally the confrontation was
not so much religious as geopolitical.

This interpretation is evidently
incorrect. Indeed, the clashes between Christianity and Islam were
not exclusively religious either in Europe or in the Middle East.
During the crusades, both Byzantium and Western Christians did tap
Muslims for assistance. Byzantine military leaders even formed
alliances with Muslims in the fight against the West Europeans.
Likewise, during the Spanish Reconquista, neither the conquistadors
nor the Moors strove to keep religious purity in their ranks: even
Cid, a hero of Spanish epos, fought side by side with Moors against
his enemies, the coreligionists.

But the general trend of historical
development is not subject to doubt. During the late Middle Ages, a
struggle broke out in the Balkans between Christianity and Islam as
systems representing different religions, ways of life, cultures
and, finally, geopolitical aspirations. Having overcome the Serbs,
the Ottoman Empire for almost two centuries continued its expansion
into the center of Europe until, in 1683, joint Austrian and Polish
troops defeated its army near Vienna. But even after that, it took
the Europeans almost another 200 years to push the Turks back into
Asia Minor.

Incidentally, if the Ottoman army had
to be fought anywhere in Europe, the Serbs were always ready. In
1557, the Habsburgs built a strong fortress on the left hand bank
of the Danube, near the town of Komarno (modern Slovakia), as an
outpost in their struggle against the Turks. When the question
arose as to who would be the staunchest defenders of the fortress,
no one had any doubts: the Serbs, of course. Indeed, Turkish troops
never managed to seize the Komarno fortress.

Throughout the many centuries of
Turkish rule, the Serbs never betrayed their religion on a mass
scale and never formed alliances with the conquerors. Due to their
refusal to adopt Islam, they were treated as second-rate citizens
and were subject to a special tax. In modern liberal jargon, the
Serbs were upholding European values. The same cannot be said for
the ancestors of the modern Albanians (when Ottoman Turks seized
Albania in the 15th century, the Islamization of the country began
– Ed.).

History repeated itself in the 19th
century. At that time, Europe (and especially the Balkan peoples)
acquired a new important ally – the Russian Empire. After two
heroic uprisings at the start of the century, the Serbs won limited
independence within the Ottoman Empire. In the Russo-Turkish War
(1877-1878), the Serbs naturally took the Russian side. In early
1878, they managed to seize the northern part of Kosovo, but their
subsequent advance was stopped by a truce between Russia and
Turkey. Under the terms of the San Stefano Peace Treaty (March
1878), the occupied part of Kosovo was to go to Serbia. But such an
expansion of Russian influence in the Balkans was unacceptable to
the West European powers, and at the Berlin Congress, Serbia
received independence – but without Kosovo, which remained part of
the Ottoman Empire.

Serbia’s political advance and its
brief military presence in Kosovo roused the Albanians who had
until then been subjects of the Ottoman sultan. After the Berlin
Congress, representatives of Albanian clans and communities formed
the so-called Priznen League (June 1878). Having assured the sultan
of their loyalty, the Albanians raised the question of national
independence, at least within the Ottoman Empire. That triggered a
chain of events that eventually led to the formation of an Albanian
state shortly before World War I. This is how Kosovo has become a
symbolic value for the Albanians as well.

Kosovo also played an important role in
modern Turkish history. In July 1908, thousands of Kosovo Albanians
converged on the town of Ferizai to oppose Austria-Hungary’s plans
to build a railroad across the province. Rumor had it that the
project was just a pretext for an Austrian invasion.

During that time, in the disintegrating
Ottoman Empire, a movement of military officers, who called
themselves Young Turks, was gaining influence. One of those
officers was Mustafa Kemal pasha, the future founder of the Turkish
Republic, also known as Kemal Ataturk. The advocates of reform were
demanding (without any success) the restoration of the 1876
Constitution, scrapped by the sultan.

When unrest started in Ferizai, Young
Turk agitators went there, persuading the Albanians to send a
telegram to Istanbul demanding that the Constitution be restored.
Before the Turkish emissaries arrived, the locals had no idea about
any problems related to the Constitution. But the message on behalf
of 30,000 subjects, couched in very decisive terms, made a strong
impression on the sultan (who did not know about the circumstances
under which it had come about), and the Constitution was restored.
That event marked the start of the triumphant march of the Young


During the First War in the Balkans
(1912-1913), the Serbian army occupied the Kosovo province and
annexed it to Serbia. That battle in Europe’s “soft underbelly,”
which became a precursor of the world conflagration, aroused
widespread concern. One individual in the battle zone was Leiba
Bronshtein, (who a few years later would become known as Leo
Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution), a
correspondent with the daily newspaper Kievskaya Mysl. He reported,
with considerable indignation, about the ethnic cleansing of the
Albanians. The conflict was resolved with the declaration of
Albania’s independence. But before long, the Western powers imposed
a protectorate status over the territory. During WWI, Kosovo was
occupied by Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian troops, while the local
Albanians welcomed them as liberators.

From 1918, Kosovo was part of the
Kingdom of Serbs, Croatians and Slovenes (from 1929, Yugoslavia).
In 1941, the province was divided into three parts: the southern
part went to Bulgaria; the northern part went to Germany, while the
largest part went to Italy, which incorporated it into
Rome-controlled Albania. Ethnic purges continued, but this time
their victims were the Serbs, who were being driven out of Kosovo.
In early 1944, the Nazis formed a Kosovar SS division called
Skanderbeg (named for an Albanian national hero – Ed.). That
military unit, unremarkable for its battle-worthiness, remained
loyal to the Nazi Army to the end.

After the war, Kosovo was returned to
Yugoslavia. However, Josip Broz Tito, in a bid to avoid ethnically
motivated clashes, prohibited the Serbian deportees from returning
to their homes. In the 30 years that followed, the latent
confrontation between the two communities continued unabated. The
Serbs argue that even in peacetime the Albanian majority was
pushing them out of the province, deliberately creating conditions
that forced them to emigrate.

Before WWII, there were approximately
an equal number of Serbs and Albanians living in Kosovo. By the
early 1990s, however, a census showed that Albanians accounted for
around 82 percent of the province’s population and the Serbs a mere
15 percent. That mix was not due to the ethnic cleansing that
occurred in the first half of the 20th century: that terrible event
had affected both sides in equal measure. Rather, the decisive
factor to account for the population disproportion is that Albanian
families, which religiously follow traditions, have much higher
birth rates than the Serbs.

It is impossible to ignore this ethnic
correlation in tackling the Kosovo problem. The interests of people
take precedence over any historical considerations, statistics, or
geopolitical interests. A specific nation or ethnic group cannot
settle any conflict based on the interpretation of historical
justice: each nation has its own view of history.


The fuse for the ongoing conflict was
lit in 1987, when Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic scrapped the
privileges that had been granted to the Kosovo autonomy by the SFRY
Constitution (1974). As the Communist regimes began to suffer
collapse, it became evident that the country’s federal structure
was in need of reform. But instead of taking a cautious, carefully
planned approach, Milosevic placed his bets on

“No one will ever beat you [Serbs]
again!” This phrase, pronounced before an audience of several
thousand on Kosovo Field, June 15, 1989, the day of the 600th
anniversary of the legendary battle, marked the start of
Milosevic’s rapid political rise. But it also doomed the Serbs to a
series of military defeats.

Despite tense relations between the
Kosovo Serbs and Albanians in the 1990s, there was no ethnic
cleansing. Neither the non-governmental organization International
Crisis Group, which monitored the situation in the province in
March 1998, nor the Office of the UN High Commissioner for
Refugees, reported anything that would suggest such a

Nevertheless, the events followed a
sort of political logic: Yugoslavia effectively disintegrated, and
the Democratic League of Kosovo, led by Ibrahim Rugova, demanded
independence. The group agreed only to negotiate on the technical
details of the transitional period. That was unacceptable to
Belgrade, especially since the status of the Serbs in an
independent Kosovo would have been placed in a precarious

Starting in 1996, the Kosovo Liberation
Army (KLA), an armed wing of Rugova’s party, was created in the
province. Hashim Thaci and Agim Ceku, Kosovo’s current leaders,
among others, led it. Money and weapons began to arrive from the
fairly large Albanian diaspora in the West.

Initially, the United States included
the KLA on its list of terrorist organizations, but later removed
its name. However, KLA commander Ramush Haradinaj (later Kosovo
Prime Minister from December 2004 to March 2005), had been charged
by the Hague Tribunal with war crimes. In 1996-1998, the
organization assumed responsibility for killing at least 25
Yugoslav police officers, local Serbs and “Albanian

In June and July 1998, the KLA,
supported by the local population, started a full-blown war,
seizing a part of the province. The People’s Army of Yugoslavia
subsequently thwarted their attempts, but the fighting left about
250,000 Kosovars homeless. Refugees began to roam around the
region, while some found refuge in Albania and Macedonia. Needless
to say, atrocities were committed in Kosovo, but these actions were
reciprocal. Nevertheless, accusations were made primarily against
the Yugoslav army.

One of those events (the Racac
Massacre, in the fall of 1998) in fact prompted NATO to include the
use of force to end the confrontation. A reference to Racac was
made at the Hague Tribunal’s list of charges against Milosevic. But
now that the former Serbian leader has died, we are left to wonder
whether the judges would have found him guilty or not. In any
event, after Kosovo was de facto separated from Serbia, some
individuals in the West doubted that the Serbs were really
responsible for Racac.

In all fairness, it should be pointed
out that the great powers made considerable efforts to find a
diplomatic solution to the conflict. In February 1999, a peace
conference was held at Rambouillet near Paris. Under a draft
agreement, drawn up primarily under pressure from Washington, the
Serbian army was to leave Kosovo, NATO troops were to receive
freedom of movement across Yugoslavia, while the province’s final
status was to be established within three years. But the agreement
failed to mention that Belgrade would have the final say on the
future of the province.

Serbia was ready to pull its army out
of Kosovo and not interfere with the deployment of international
forces there, but it refused to grant foreign troops the freedom of
movement across its territory. The Serbs also insisted that
Kosovo’s final status must be harmonized with Belgrade.

The conference ended with no results,
and on March 24, 1999, NATO aircraft started bombing Yugoslavia.
The KLA joined forces with the North Atlantic Alliance and enjoyed
U.S. support in conducting its own operations against the Yugoslav
army. In response, Belgrade sanctioned the eviction of all
residents from all Albanian villages.

Contrary to the hopes of Western
leaders that the war would be brief and Yugoslavia would soon
capitulate, combat operations dragged on. The population
courageously stood up to the attacks, while the defensive action
was quite effective. After the military campaign, it turned out
that the Yugoslav army had sustained minimal losses. Nevertheless,
Belgrade was certainly not able to stand up to allied Western
forces on its own, and in the end a ceasefire agreement was reached
(with diplomatic assistance from Russia). NATO air strikes stopped,
and on June 10, 1999, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution

Belgrade received what it had demanded
at the Rambouillet Conference. The resolution confirmed the
country’s territorial integrity, including Kosovo. Furthermore, the
document did not contain any provisions on the deployment of NATO
troops outside Kosovo, in Yugoslavia. Under the resolution,
Belgrade was to have a final say on the province’s status. Had such
a document been considered at Rambouillet, Serbia would have
accepted it, and the war and all of its victims could have been

The states that had participated in air
strikes against Yugoslavia assumed moral and legal obligations to
create a more favorable climate in the province. NATO deployed its
military formations in Kosovo, while the United Nations Mission in
Kosovo (UNMIK) exercised civilian administration.

But almost all obligations contained in
Resolution 1244 remained entirely on paper. As soon as the Yugoslav
army left Kosovo, ethnic cleansing began there. Albanian militants
killed and deported Serbs, while Orthodox churches and monasteries
were plundered and destroyed.

The last wave of anti-Serbian
atrocities, killings and the destruction of cultural landmarks
swept the province in March 2004, almost five years after the
peacekeepers were deployed there – that is to say, when the
situation had become “relatively stable.”

NATO troops and the UN administration
proved unable to ensure security, with instability spilling outside
the province. In neighboring Macedonia, armed clashes occurred
between the Slavic population and the Albanian minority (2001),
while the Albanians used weapons supplied from Kosovo.

According to Belgrade, by early 2007,
approximately 230,000 Serbs who were forced to flee from Kosovo
were still unable to return to their homes. Today, the province’s
remaining Serb population is only able to live in enclaves under
NATO’s armed protection. The Serbs cannot rely on local security
forces: Kosovo police are comprised primarily of former KLA


The Contact Group for the former
Yugoslavia (the United States, the UK, Germany, France, Italy and
Russia) coordinated the principles of a Kosovo settlement. The main
principle was the following: first, enforce humanitarian standards,
and then achieve territorial status. But under pressure from
Western participants, the formula almost completely reversed: first
came status and then the standards.

The desire to grant Kosovo independence
as soon as possible resulted from the concern that if the
international community did not recognize Kosovar statehood in the
foreseeable future a fresh outbreak of violence would erupt.
Presently, it is assumed that finalization of Kosovo’s status will
help attract assistance from international financial organizations,
as well as private investment to Kosovo. And although the plan
proposed by UN Special Envoy for Kosovo Martti Ahtisaari will
establish formal international protectorate over the province, in
effect it sets the stage for granting it full

In this situation, all eyes are on
Russia. Moscow has never approved of Western policies toward Kosovo
or former Yugolsavia as a whole. Although Russia played an
important role in ending the 1999 war, it is the only member
country in the Contact Group that has not been assigned a sector of
responsibility in the province. However, the appearance of Russian
troops in Pristina in June 1999 was met with real jubilation among
the Serbian population, which saw Russia’s presence as the most
reliable guarantee of their rights.

Formally, the question is this: Will
Russia use its veto power at the UN Security Council if a draft
resolution is submitted that, on the one hand, will grant Kosovo
independence, but, on the other hand, will not be based on the
principles coordinated by the Contact Group, primarily ensuring the
return and security of the Serb refugees? But the importance of
Moscow’s position on Kosovo goes far beyond the bounds of a
separate episode. The real question is: Is Russia ready to maintain
its traditional contacts with friendly nations in the Balkans
(primarily the Serbs, who are close to Russians religiously,
culturally, historically and ethnically) or will it abandon them?
Kosovo will become a litmus test as to how far Moscow, which has
announced its return to the global arena, is prepared to go in
protecting its traditional spheres of interests and its moral

What is Russia’s position on the Kosovo
issue today?

Moscow demands that any resolution
should respond to the universal principles of international law and
be supported by all of the sides concerned – i.e., including
Serbia. Russia emphasizes that a Kosovo resolution cannot be
secured with different standards than those that are used in
similar cases – for example, in Abkhazia, South Ossetia or

Kosovo’s separation from Serbia without
Belgrade’s consent will indeed set a precedent for the above
conflict areas in the post-Soviet space. Nevertheless, a parallel
between Kosovo, Abkhazia and other unrecognized states can only be
drawn in the following scenario: Russia vetoes a UN Security
Council resolution that grants sovereignty to Kosovo. Nevertheless,
the province proclaims its independence, while one of the great
powers recognizes such a status. This scenario would give Moscow
the moral right to recognize the independence of post-Soviet

But what if Russia supports a Kosovo
resolution that grants the province independence from Belgrade, or
even simply abstains at the UN Security Council? Then there will be
no parallels with breakaway territories in Georgia or

Let us consider a similar scenario:
Russia does not prevent the separation of Kosovo and at a later
date the question of independence for Abkhazia or South Ossetia,
for example, is raised. A corresponding resolution is submitted to
the UN Security Council. What line will Western countries take in
this situation? They will come out strongly in favor of Georgia’s
territorial integrity. And if Sukhumi or Tskhinvali then declare
their independence, it will be considered illegitimate, as will its
recognition by Russia. But Kosovo is already independent –
furthermore, fully in accordance with international law, since the
UN Security Council sanctioned the province’s

In global politics, moral
considerations are often sacrificed to state interests or specific
goals. But in the case of Kosovo, the situation is such that
maintenance of moral principles, including the threat of using the
veto power, completely corresponds to Russia’s

In this scenario,
first, the Russian Federation should act as a
guarantor of minority rights.

Second, if, due to
Russia’s efforts, Kosovo remains part of the Serbian state, Moscow
will also have to guarantee the rights of Kosovo’s

Third, Russia should
not allow a review of the Helsinki Final Act, in accordance to
which a change of borders is only possible with the consent of the
countries concerned.

Implementation of this policy will
require courage and firmness, and it can complicate relations with
important international partners who are looking for an early
solution to the Kosovo problem in favor of the Albanians. But in
the final analysis, commitment to principles of morality and law is
a more advantageous position than attempts to ignore them out of
some timeserving considerations of political expediency.