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IB DP History Study Notes

5.2.1 Ethnic Tensions and Nationalism

Kosovo, located in the heart of the Balkan region, witnessed a crescendo of ethnic and nationalistic tensions during the late 20th century. The primary friction revolved around its Serbian and Albanian populations.

Historical Context of Serb-Albanian Tensions

Kosovo's history is characterised by a delicate balance of ethnic coexistence and strife, particularly between its Serbs and Albanians.

Early Relations

  • Medieval Era: During the late medieval period, Kosovo was prominently Serbian. Many Serbian Orthodox monasteries, significant both spiritually and culturally, were founded here. This time imprinted Kosovo as a fundamental part of Serbian historical and religious identity.
  • Battle of Kosovo (1389): A critical event where the Serb-led forces faced off against the Ottoman Turks. Despite being tactically a draw, it led to increased Ottoman influence in the region and has since been ingrained in Serbian national mythology.

Ottoman Rule

  • Shift in Demographics: The Ottoman Empire's penetration into the Balkans in the 15th century heralded shifts in demographic patterns. As the Albanians gradually converted to Islam, they found themselves in a more privileged societal position compared to the Christian Serbs. This dynamic encouraged Serbian migration out of the area, amplifying the Albanian presence.
  • Administrative Dynamics: While Kosovo experienced periods of autonomy under the Ottomans, it was often directly managed by them, leading to a blend of Albanian and Serbian cultural practices.

Twentieth Century Integration

  • Post-WWI Scenario: Post the Balkan Wars and WWI, Kosovo was incorporated into the newly formed Kingdom of Yugoslavia. It was an official part of Serbia within this federation, but its predominantly Albanian population felt sidelined and unacknowledged.

Rise of Albanian Nationalism and Serbian Responses

The culmination of the 20th century was marked by potent nationalist sentiments, especially among the Albanian populace in Kosovo.

Albanian Nationalism

  • Root Causes: Several factors contributed to the rise of Albanian nationalism:
    • Economic Grievances: Kosovo, despite its rich mineral resources, lagged in development compared to other Yugoslav regions, leading to perceptions of neglect.
    • Political Marginalisation: Albanians felt they had a token presence in Yugoslav politics without any real power.
    • Cultural Assertion: A renewed interest in Albanian language, history, and culture fuelled aspirations for greater autonomy or outright independence.

Serbian Responses

  • Milosevic's Role: Slobodan Milosevic, rising to power in the late 1980s, tapped into and amplified Serbian nationalism. Using Kosovo as a symbol, he stressed its non-negotiable importance to the Serbian psyche.
  • 1989 Clampdown: Milosevic's centralisation drive saw Kosovo's autonomy sharply curtailed, bringing it under more direct Serbian oversight. This move only deepened Albanian resentment.
  • Cultural Suppression: Reports emerged of attempts to stifle Albanian language, culture, and institutions. Such measures further isolated and alienated the Albanian-majority populace.

Effects on Kosovo's Political and Social Environment

The oscillation of nationalist forces left deep imprints on Kosovo’s socio-political terrain.

Political Polarisation

  • Distancing from Belgrade: The measures of the late 1980s, particularly the curtailment of autonomy, pushed the Albanian-majority even further from the Serbian central administration.
  • Rise of Albanian Political Movements: The political climate became fertile ground for pro-independence Albanian political entities. Their call for greater self-determination gained more traction among the population.

Social Strains

  • Interethnic Distrust: A cloud of mutual suspicion hung heavy over the Serb and Albanian communities. This chasm was palpable in daily interactions, from educational institutions to public services.
  • Economic Disparities: The unrest didn't spare the economic sphere. Investment shrank, leading to rising unemployment, especially among Albanians. The economic gap between Serbs and Albanians widened, creating further points of contention.

Radicalisation and its Roots

  • Closing of Peaceful Avenues: With peaceful dialogue options appearing bleak, radical ideologies found more takers within the Albanian community.
  • Emergence of Militant Groups: Groups advocating for more militant approaches to the Serbian administration began to emerge. These factions would play pivotal roles in the unfolding drama of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The evolving dynamics of the late 20th century set Kosovo on a path of confrontation and conflict. The intricate blend of historical remembrances, nationalistic fervour, and contemporary politics set the stage for significant geopolitical developments in the region.


The Ottoman Empire's policies profoundly influenced Serb-Albanian relations in Kosovo. With the Ottomans favouring Islam, Albanians who converted found themselves in more privileged positions, both socially and politically. Conversely, the Christian Serbs, who resisted conversion, faced a more subordinate status. This encouraged Serb migration out of the region, allowing an increase in the Albanian presence. Over time, the social hierarchy, largely determined by religious allegiance to the Ottoman regime, solidified ethnic divisions and sowed the seeds of discord between the two communities. The legacy of these policies continued to influence the socio-political dynamics even after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Economic factors significantly contributed to the ascendance of Albanian nationalism in the 20th century. Kosovo, rich in mineral resources, lagged behind other Yugoslav regions in terms of development. This economic disparity led to perceptions among the Albanian majority that they were being deliberately sidelined or neglected. High unemployment rates, particularly among the Albanian youth, and the apparent disparity in infrastructure investment between Serbian and Albanian areas further heightened these grievances. This economic marginalisation served as a catalyst, galvanising the Albanian population towards nationalistic sentiments and demands for greater autonomy or even outright independence.

During the 1980s and 1990s, under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic, there were reported attempts to stifle the Albanian cultural identity in Kosovo. This manifested in various ways. Albanian-language media and publications faced restrictions or outright bans. Educational curriculums were modified to minimise Albanian historical and cultural contributions, and there were efforts to serbianise Albanian names. Institutions promoting Albanian art, literature, and heritage faced scrutiny, with many being shut down. These measures were perceived by many Albanians as a systematic attempt to diminish their cultural presence in Kosovo, exacerbating tensions and driving further wedges between the Serbian administration and the Albanian-majority populace.

Yes, there were periods in Kosovo's history when efforts were made towards reconciliation between Serbs and Albanians. In the early years of the Yugoslav federation, there were initiatives aimed at promoting interethnic harmony. Educational programmes were introduced to teach both Serbian and Albanian languages, fostering mutual understanding. Economic development projects were sometimes framed to benefit both communities. Interethnic dialogue forums were set up in some areas to facilitate communication and resolve localised issues. However, these efforts often faced challenges, either from nationalistic factions or external geopolitical events, and by the late 20th century, the escalating nationalist sentiments largely overshadowed these early reconciliation initiatives.

The Battle of Kosovo in 1389 is emblematic in Serbian history and has played a key role in shaping Serb national consciousness. Although it ended without a clear victor, the battle saw the Serb-led forces pitted against the Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans subsequently gained a stronger foothold in the region. Over time, this event was mythologised in Serbian folk tales and literature, underlining Kosovo's importance as the cradle of Serbian identity. While Albanians might view the battle differently, for Serbs, it represents a valiant stand against invaders and has been evoked throughout history to inspire nationalistic fervour and justify territorial claims.

Practice Questions

How did historical events contribute to the rise of Albanian nationalism in Kosovo during the late 20th century?

Historical events played a pivotal role in the ascent of Albanian nationalism in Kosovo. During the Ottoman period, Kosovo's demographic underwent a significant shift as Albanians converted to Islam, thus achieving a privileged status over the Christian Serbs. This evolution encouraged Serbian outmigration and enhanced Albanian presence. Later, under the Yugoslav federation, Kosovo, despite its majority Albanian populace, felt marginalised within the Serbian framework. Economic grievances, spurred by Kosovo's relative underdevelopment, combined with a perceived political sidelining, fostered discontent. As such, these historical and socio-economic underpinnings became a fertile ground for the burgeoning Albanian nationalism of the late 20th century.

Evaluate the Serbian responses to Albanian nationalism in Kosovo during the 1980s and 1990s.

The Serbian reaction to Albanian nationalism in Kosovo during the 1980s and 1990s was both assertive and suppressive. Under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic, Serbian nationalism surged, countering the rising Albanian sentiments. Milosevic emphasised Kosovo's intrinsic value to Serbian heritage, turning it into a rallying point. In 1989, in a decisive manoeuvre, Milosevic curtailed Kosovo's autonomy, placing it under more direct Serbian jurisdiction, which further exacerbated Albanian resentment. Furthermore, there were concerted efforts to suppress Albanian culture and language. These moves, viewed collectively, reveal a Serbian strategy aimed at reasserting control, stifling Albanian aspirations, and re-emphasising Serbian dominance in the region.

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Written by: Maddie
Oxford University - BA History

Maddie, an Oxford history graduate, is experienced in creating dynamic educational resources, blending her historical knowledge with her tutoring experience to inspire and educate students.

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