“Kosovo is Serbia”, “Ask any historian” read the unlikely placards, waved by angry Serb demonstrators in Brussels on Sunday. This is rather flattering for historians: we don’t often get asked to adjudicate. It does not, however, follow that any historian would agree, not least because historians do not use this sort of eternal present tense.
History, for the Serbs, started in the early 7th century, when they settled in the Balkans. Their power base was outside Kosovo, which they fully conquered in the early 13th, so the claim that Kosovo was the “cradle” of the Serbs is untrue.
What is true is that they ruled Kosovo for about 250 years, until the final Ottoman takeover in the mid-15th century. Churches and monasteries remain from that period, but there is no more continuity between the medieval Serbian state and today’s Serbia than there is between the Byzantine Empire and Greece.
Kosovo remained Ottoman territory until it was conquered by Serbian forces in 1912. Serbs would say “liberated”; but even their own estimates put the Orthodox Serb population at less than 25%. The majority population was Albanian, and did not welcome Serb rule, so “conquered” seems the right word.
But legally, Kosovo was not incorporated into the Serbian kingdom in 1912; it remained occupied territory until some time after 1918. Then, finally, it was incorporated, not into a Serbian state, but into a Yugoslav one. And with one big interruption (the second world war) it remained part of some sort of Yugoslav state until June 2006.
Until the destruction of the old federal Yugoslavia by Milosevic, Kosovo had a dual status. It was called a part of Serbia; but it was also called a unit of the federation. In all practical ways, the latter sense prevailed: Kosovo had its own parliament and government, and was directly represented at the federal level, alongside Serbia. It was, in fact, one of the eight units of the federal system.
Almost all the other units have now become independent states. Historically, the independence of Kosovo just completes that process. Therefore, Kosovo has become an ex-Yugoslav state, as any historian could tell you.
· Noel Malcolm is a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He is the author of Kosovo: A Short History