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The Saga of Kosovo
Between Two World Wars
When in early 1920, some 450,000 Albanians, living mostly in the Kosovo-Metohija region, looked to Belgrade for help and guidance in adjusting to their new status in the family of Slavs, they did not realize how little aid the new Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes could give, because the entire country was in dire straits. Moreover, the task of organizing the newly created state was enormous. Leadership fell largely to Serbia, which had spearheaded the unification movement. But to move from the homogeneous Serbian state to one of considerable diversity, and four times larger in geographic size, with all the other problems associated with building a new nation, constituted a challenge never before faced.
Understandably, with so many problems of greater urgency, some normal for a war-ravaged country and others new and unanticipated, the central government did not give the Albanian plight a high priority. There were two tasks that seemed rather logical: first, the badly needed re-Serbianization of Kosovo, justified by centuries' long effort by a foreign occupier to denationalize it. The most suitable way to do it was through abolishing semi-feudal economic conditions that prevailed in the area, which meant going ahead with agrarian reforms that had long been overdue under the Turks. The second imminent task was to bring the Albanian masses into the modern political process, which had existed in Serbia and was about to begin functioning in the new state. This task was left to the existing political parties, most logically to those of Serbia, but those in other parts of the country were also free to enter the political arena.
Kosovo Albanians or Arnauts, as they were called, were in much deeper difficulties than Belgrade ever realized. First, they were a closed society; new ideas could not easily penetrate. Secondly, the bitter taste of what Albanians had done in the past, influenced the Serbs to keep their distance and to refuse to get involved in the "salvation" of the Albanian minority. Third, the resistance of local "katchaks" was highly visible, as well as the activity of Kosovo Albanians in exile. Last, but not least, the broad masses of the Kosovo Albanians in the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes were existing on a very low economic level. With no schooling at all, they were totally dependent for leadership on local hodjas and Moslem overlords. It was impossible to find Albanian teachers (Albania itself could not provide them), let alone capable administrators, trained policemen, or professionals (doctors, engineers, et al.). Sending a Serbian teacher into an Albanian village meant forcing a Albanian father to decide whether he would let the Orthodox teacher or the Moslem hodja educate his son, and whether he would give up the custom of not sending the female child to school.
The pressures were enormous, really overwhelming, for the impoverished and uneducated Albanian. The cultural barrier began to crack only later, when local boys had a chance to serve their military term in the new army, where they were exposed to modern ways of life and learned to read and write.
Belgrade accepted the stipulations of the Treaty of St. Germain (1920) concerning the protection of national minorities. These included all the great sounding principles of equality before the law, political rights, civil rights, usage of the mother tongue, right to public instruction, religious guarantees, etc. In principle, these sounded great, but how much of scarce resources was the new state obliged to allocate in an effort to achieve all of these aspirations?
The new government was not a wealthy uncle, and Serbia proper (along with Montenegro) was the hardest hit part of the new nation by the devastations of two Balkan wars and World War I. The ideological South Slav euphoria had a very meager material base, which was very much disoriented at that. It was nice to proclaim a principle and design a program, but when it came to realizing it, the Serbian colonists, the ones who were brought to Kosovo to "re-Serbianize" it, were the most vocal victims of that reality. The problem had nothing to do with nationalism. The state had to make due; there was no UNRRA or other relief agency, and the Hoover European Rehabilitation program concentrated mainly on Belgium.
The insufficient response to the problems of Kosovo and Methoija, whatever the reasons, undoubtedly opened up an opportunity for anti-state (mainly anti-Serb ) elements in the area to fan the flames of disappointment. As the armed but spotty opposition to the new state was dying out, and life seemed to return to a type of normalcy, the Kosovo program, if it can be called that, was mainly visible through the work of the Special Commission whose task was to redistribute the lands obtained in the agrarian reform. It is estimated that about 60,000 Serbs from Bosnia, Hercegovina, Lika, and Montenegro homesteaded in the region, through the work of this commission. It was a frustrating task and a tiresome process, consuming great energy, time and cost, mainly because there were no reliable documents to work with. The land that had belonged to the former spahis and beys had no deeds, and some of this property was claimed by many families and institutions (churches, cooperatives, clans, and tribes) as "usurped" in the past. There were lands belonging to "outlaws" hiding in the woods or who had crossed over into Albania. There were properties so atomized and dispersed that it was impossible to put them together. There were pieces of land that nobody claimed, or that the spahis were not even aware that they owned them.
Most of the land available for homesteading belonged to Turks who had left with the Turkish army, or who had moved to Asia Minor. Some of this migration continued until the late 1930s. About 40,000 Turks left Kosovo and other South Serbian regions, and many from Bosnia as well. Another 40,000 were Albanians who, being Moslems, declared themselves Turks. The official policy of the Belgrade government was to encourage Turks and Albanians to leave. In the process there were some injustices and abuses, but this was not the intention of the law. Cases of over-reaction, revenge, and misuse of authority were reported, but they were a far cry from the situation which existed at the beginning of the century, when the Serbian population was terrorized by the Albanians on the loose, with no strong government authority to stop them. In general, it can be said that after 1918 there was no revenge on the part of Serbia against Turks or Albanians because of their misdeeds against the Serbs throughout the centuries.
One lesson that the members of the anti-Yugoslav kosovo.netmittee in exile, and local Albanian outlaws, learned was that the Yugoslav army and gendarmerie would not tolerate Albanian excesses as had the Turks. Belgrade could not be blackmailed as Constantinople had been. Attacks on frontier posts or individual terrorists acts against the police or other authorities were harshly dealt with, and those giving sanctuary to guerrillas were severely punished if they could be located.
All of this had some unfortunate consequences: first, it prevented the normal integration of Albanians into the social life of the new state; second, it antagonized the central government to which Albanians had been turning for help; third, it hurt,primarily and most of all, those among the Albanian population who needed help most.
One should note that Serbs from Serbia itself were the least interested in settling in Kosovo, or of profiting from the opportunity. Those who came to Kosovo were Serbs from other areas. Inhabitants of Serbia proper never cast their eyes on neighboring lands, because they had no need for them. This is why a Serbian peasant is still sincerely taken aback when he hears anyone accusing him of "hegemonism." Of all those Serbian peasants in army uniform who roamed the vast latifundias of liberated South Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia--not a single one stayed there after his release from the army. Neither did any one of them show any desire to settle there. They were startled by the number of landless farm laborers in all those regions, and felt good about helping them to become landowners, providing them an opportunity freely to exercise their political and civil rights. All this, only to hear them, a few years down the road, accused of "Serbian hegemonism."
What happened in Kosovo after World War I was not just a "change of occupiers," the Serbian master replacing the Turkish one, as some circles like to portray it. The fact is that after centuries of social immobility, Kosovo suddenly went through a revolutionary change. The Serbian liberation of Kosovo, in a small way, resembled the Napoleonic push through Europe. It opened many doors to the Albanians. That they were unable or unwilling to use them is another matter.
One of the most unfortunate things for the Albanian masses of Kosovo
was their being abandoned by their leaders. As if that was not enough,
these same leaders instigated Kosovo Albanians to act against the Yugoslav
authorities. The mushrooming of "committees for the liberation of Kosovo,"
in Albania and elsewhere, resulted in the sending of terrorists and irredenta
literature into the Kosovo area, sometimes allied with Bulgarian, Croatian,
Hungarian, and Comintern terrorists. In spite of such activity, an increasing
number of Kosovo Albanians began to realize that accommodation, if not
assimilation, was the proper way to follow.
Joining a Serbian party did not, however, mean conversion, as later developments would show. In 1941, many of those who had joined Serbian parties became protagonists of Great Albania (under Italian occupation). They were the ones that Italian foreign minister, Count Ciano, had as early as 1939 called "daggers pointed in Yugoslavia's back."
If the political consciousness of the Albanian voter in Kosovo was not on the same level as that of most other Yugoslav citizens, it was not the fault of the Belgrade regime. Some of the accusations against Belgrade, even by well-meaning Western liberals, that Yugoslavia was running a "political bastille" make no sense at all, and reveals a pitiful lack of familiarity with the actual state of affairs. Poorly or not at all educated Moslem voters (whether Albanian or Bosnian) were easy prey to all sorts of political operators, susceptible to bribes, response to demagoguery, and liable to be affected by various scare tactics. In the Constituent Assembly elections of 1920, twentytwo political parties and groups participated. Is this a way to run a prison?! The Communist Party, which campaigned as a champion of the "rights of national minorities to independence, including the right to secession," came out with 59 seats (out of 419). Many dispossessed Moslem beys and hodjas cast their votes for the Communists (a protest vote), and asked their followers to do the same.
What really mattered was that the Albanian minority in Yugoslavia, thanks to its myopic leadership, made two faux pas at the very beginning: rebellious, it chose the wrong ally; introvert, it locked itself in its own cocoon. The third, and indeed fatal mistake which it would make much later was to accept the offer to develop within the confines of that very same cocoon (the autonomous province).
Even when in the 1930s it became obvious that Albanians had finally begun to participate in Yugoslav day-today reality--culturally, professionally, politically--the residue of the unfortunate 1918 beginning was still noticeable. Perhaps there were too many people around who would not let it be forgotten. Twenty years of the first Yugoslavia were too short a span of time to let the process of forgetting take place. When World War II came, the bedlam started all over again. Now, after a forty year lapse, forgetting seemingly is not even considered.
It may be instructive at this point to indicate what was happening on the Albanian side of the border. In 1918, as the war ended and the dawn of a new day came to Kosovo, some 3,000 Albanian men, members of the "volunteer army," were poised on the Albanian side of the frontier, waiting for an order to go in and to liberate Kosovo. Their leaders were members of the Kosovo elite that coordinated earlier "revolts" against the Turks at the beginning of the 20th century. Many of them held high positions in the Turkish bureaucracy, and some were members of the parliament in Constantinople (Hasan Prishtina, Isa Boletini, Bajram Curri, Dervish Mitrovitsa). All of them relentlessly bombarded the League of Nations with denunciations of Belgrade. None of them paid any attention to the political personalities that were emerging in Albania itself: Ymer Vrioni, Evangjeli Pandeli, Bishop Fan Noli, "flagbearer" Ahmet Zogu. The members of the kosovo.netmittee were over-confident, enjoyed full Italian support, and felt that they could even challenge the Tirana government. Bajram Curri, a member of the Committee, even assembled a few thousand warriors in the region of Kukes, and sent them to fight the government.
In the years immediately following the world conflict, Albania was still experiencing birth pangs, and had no need for an arrogant committee from Kosovo. The country was in strife; the liberals (headed by Harvard-educated Orthodox theologian, Fan Noli) and the conservatives (led by Ahmet Zogu) were seeking to control the government. The Chieftain of the Mati tribe, Zogu, was either unusually lucky or especially capable, because he rose to the position of the country's minister of interior at the age of 26. In that position, he was ideally placed to watch the conspiracy work of the Kosovo exiles. He charged them with obstructing the normalization of relations with a neighboring country, took away their parliamentary immunity, and made it clear that he intended to bring Albania into the family of Balkan nations. In the meantime, he became head of the government, just in time to face the attempt of the Kosovo exiles to overthrow him. That was either a poorly organized coup attempt or Zogu's position was in 1923 far sounder and stronger than that of the Turkish government in 1911. Kosovo bands in Albania werecrushed by Zogu's forces, with the support of some Yugoslav units.
The internal situation in Albania, however, was far from stable. In February 1924, an assassination attempt was made on Zogu (in Vienna). In June, the liberals staged a coup, and Bishop Fan Noli formed the government, but his rule was short-lived. Looking for a foreign protector, he picked Moscow. That move alarmed the West, as well as King Alexander of Yugoslavia. Already in December 1924, Ahmet Zogu, leading a motley crew of Albanians, White Russians, and Yugoslav border troops, was back in Tirana, reinstalled as the future leader of Albania (1925-1939). After 1928, as King Zog I, he ruled by a combination of despotism and benevolence. He forbade Albanians to carry guns, outlawed archaic customs (such as vendetta), concluded several treaties with Italy and Balkan countries, secured internal stability, established the authority of the Albanian central government, and gave Albania a sense of national identity. Stavro Skendi describes Zog's contribution as follows: "Whatever his flaws, he made a nation and a government where there had been a people and anarchy." (Cited in Paul Lendvai, Eagles in Cobwebs, Garden City, N.Y., 1969, p. 181. )
Relations with Yugoslavia were mixed. Zog conceded St. Naum (Ohrid) in exchange for another border point, but misunderstandings and distrust between the two countries continued. In 1926 Zog signed two pacts with Italy that gave Rome freedom of action in Albania. The Italian army built roads, fortifications, and airports that would later be used in attacks against Greece and Yugoslavia. In 1927, Albania broke diplomatic relations with Yugoslavia, but dialogue was reestablished shortly thereafter. Full mutual confidence, however, was never achieved. In the meantime, Albania had some contacts with Bulgarian irredentists and Croatian separatists, with Italian blessings. In 1937, however, Yugoslavia and Italy signed an agreement "not to permit, nor support, on their respective territories any activity that could harm mutual relations," which may explain why certain Bulgars and Croats had to be moved from Italy to Albania.
On January 21, 1939, Count Ciano and Yugoslav primier Milan Stojadinovich conferred in Belgrade about the "Albanian question." Stojadinovich was told of Italy's intention to occupy Albania, and apparently was promised Skadar in return, as well as the cessation of anti-Yugoslav propaganda with regard to Kosovo. A few days earlier, King Zog had recieved an Italian plan--in effect an ultimatum--for a reorganization of the state, which amounted to a loss of independence and practical annexation. With 30,000 Italian troops landing at four Albanian ports, Zog fled, and the Albanian parliament offered the Albanian crown to Victor Emmanuel III. In the meantime, Stojadinovich had resigned, and Ciano felt no obligation to his successor.
The Italian occupation was humilating to many Albanians, but the Kosovo Albanians felt rather good about it. Finally, the dream of a Great Albania was to become a reality, after the fall of Yugoslavia in 1941, even if under the aegis of the Italian crown. It meant a reverse of the Serbianization process in Kosovo, with encouragement by the Italians. It also meant the resurgence of hostilities, and the coming of civil war, both in Albania proper and in Kosovo. It meant a new beginning of an old, old struggle.
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