A student of Balkan history and politics will quickly discover that what they already considered to be an impossibly complicated situation is even more complicated than they thought. Nowhere is this more the case than in the disputed territory of Kosovo. Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 and has now been recognized as an independent nation by more than half of the world’s countries. Serbia, and its key allies Russia and China, still vehemently object.
As a student of Balkan history, I decided to venture to this disputed nation to see what it is like to live in Kosovo today, and how the Kosovar people view the world and their geopolitical predicament, nearly a generation after the conclusion of the Kosovo War, which displaced more than half of the country’s population.
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Nestled in a picturesque wooded valley deep in the Balkans, tiny Kosovo has been at the center of history both ancient and modern. In 1389 it played host to the epic Battle of Kosovo, in which a pivotal clash between the Serbs and invading Turks decimated both armies, ultimately ending with the subjugation of Serbia under the Ottoman empire.
Five centuries later, in 1987, Kosovo became the focal point for Yugoslavian disintegration as Kosovo Serbs revolted against supposed indignities visited upon them by their Kosovo Albanian counterparts, and demanded intervention from the Serb-dominated capital in Belgrade.
Enter Slobodan Milosevic, the longtime Communist boss of Serbia after the 1980 death of Josep Broz Tito. Milosevic traveled south to the Kosovo capital, Pristina, to address an adoring Serbian crowd, and promised that the days of humiliation and oppression at the hands of the Kosovars were to come to an end.
He famously claimed to the Kosovo Serbs “No one should dare to beat you!” coining a modern-day rallying cry for the Serb minority, which constituted a mere 10% of Kosovo, and had long bristled at the growing Albanian population and influence in Kosovo.
Kosovars are Albanians by ethnicity and language, and Muslim, a reflection of the longstanding Ottoman domination in the Balkans. Under the Tito Communist era, the government was relatively successful in minimizing ethnic or religious conflicts by severely curtailing religious practices and institutions, and ruthlessly pursuing a policy of “jedansto i bratstvo” or “unity and and brotherhood.” Those who believed in nationalism were intimidated, jailed, or shipped to concentration camps in the Adriatic Sea.
Thus, the problem of Serbs and Albanian Kosovars living together on the same land was largely avoided as these historically warring neighbors were now to think of themselves as patriotic Yugoslavian Communists, rather than dwell on their religious or ethnic identities.
Tito was a Communist dictator, if a somewhat benevolent one, and his policies served their purpose. However, as Yugoslavia disintegrated in the wake of Tito’s death and the collapse of Communism, ethnic and religious tensions came to a head. The early 1990s turned Yugoslavia into a bloody civil war battlefield, based along ethnic and religious lines.
At the end of the 1990s, with peace settlements achieved in Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia, Milosevic and the remnants of the JNA (Yugoslavian National Army), pushed south into Kosovo, intent on driving the Albanian Muslims out of Kosovo, unleashing one of the greatest humanitarian crises in modern history. Three quarters of a million Kosovars were driven from their land as refugees.
After failing to find a diplomatic solution with the Milosevic government, the US and NATO led a bombing campaign, which included bombing the Serbian Ministry of Defence in Belgrade. As a result, Serbia withdrew northward, paving the way for a Kosovar Albanian state, which is now slowly but surely winning international recognition.
As I soon was to discover, Kosovo may not be merely the most pro-American country in the Muslim world, but the most pro-American country in the world.
As I crossed the Macedonian border heading north to the southern town of Kacanik, the Cyrillic alphabet gave way to the strange umblatt-permeated Latin script of Albanian…a language with little to no resemblance to its Slavic or Greek neighbors…or to any other language for that matter.
Getting off the bus on the side of the highway, Kosovo history immediately reared its head: first I observed a decrepit abandoned Serbian Orthodox basilica in a small clearing, overgrown with weeds. As I first entered the city proper, I passed by monuments to the defenders of the city: their names memorialized, etched into stone.
As I walked through the town of Kacanik, striking up conversations with people along the way, the reverence for America was overwhelming and somewhat surprising.
“God bless America!” a middle-aged shopkeeper beamed as I stopped to purchase a pair of sunglasses.
“America is the great friend of Kosovo people” said a toothless man splitting wood in his front yard.
I stopped in a cafe where men chain-smoked cigarettes and drank demitasses of strong coffee. I soon struck up a conversation with a man, who told me that the Kosovo War had driven him to coastal Croatia.
“Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are the saviors of Kosovo” he told me.
In fact, so great is the reverence for Bill Clinton here, that a main thoroughfare in the capital Pristina, is named Bill Clinton Boulevard, replete with a 10 foot bronze statue!
As I stepped into a pizzeria for lunch, I was invited by a team of 5 British NATO peacekeepers and their Kosovar translator, to join them for lunch. The US and NATO still maintain a significant presence in Kosovo, and the US has a large base just 25km east of Pristina. In addition to protecting Kosovo from Serbia, they are also there to protect Kosovo’s resilient 5% minority population from any flareups with the Kosovar Albanian population.
I continued eastward along a lazy creek that runs through Kacanik, and began climbing a winding country lane into the mountains as dueling calls to prayer from the city’s two mosques echoed through the valley. Virtually everyone I talked to over the age of 20 had a story about where they went during the Kosovo War. Many sought refuge in Germany, Austria or Switzerland, while others fled westward to Albania, or southward to Macedonia. Many never returned, resulting in an immense Kosovar diaspora throughout Europe and abroad.
One young man invited me on a tour of the neighborhood. During the war, he explained, he left for the German city of Heidelberg, where he had family. Now, 20 years later, he and his family have earned enough to build new houses on the shady hillsides overlooking the city of Kacanik. He took me further up the hill, and pointed out the home of the local imam, next to a shelter for those displaced from the war. Still, 20 years later, there are still Kosovars who have been unable to find new homes after the war.
The situation in Kosovo should remind us that when the American Left claims that US foreign policy is inherently anti-Muslim, they clearly have not considered the role the US and NATO played in preventing humanitarian disaster and genocide at the hands of Milosevic and the JNA. While it is not my intent to assign blame for the tragic history of Yugoslavia, it is clear that the majority of death and destruction came at the hands of Milosevic and his cohorts: Margaret Thatcher wrote as much in a NY Times op-ed in 1994, which, while written in the midst of the Serbian aggression in Bosnia, is no less relevant to the Serbia-Kosovo conflict.
I do not blame the Serb people, or even the Serb nation. I blame the barbarian Milosevic: an unreformed Communist and reckless nationalist who was prepared to unleash untold human suffering upon non-Serbs in order to implement his geopolitical vision.
When America discussed intervention in the Balkans to the aid of Kosovo, Albania, and Bosnia, we did not do so in order to aid Muslims against Christians. We did it because it was the right thing to do. We did it because the displacement of three quarters of a million people on the European continent was unacceptable. We did it because the Serb forces had unprecedented capacity to outgun their opponents and slaughter the innocent.
Margaret Thatcher had it entirely right in 1994: She opposed boots on the ground in the region, but supported bombing the military infrastructure of Serbia, and lifting the arms embargo on Yugoslavia, so that non-Serbs could have the opportunity to defend their land with arms, rather than wait for the imminent slaughter and/or displacement from their lands.
So the next time some lefty tells you that the US has it in for the Muslims…ask him or her to talk to a Bosnian, an Albanian, and a Kosovar, to get their perspective.
There are plenty of valid reasons for criticizing US foreign policy: the War in Iraq, for one, has been an unmitigated disaster.
But there is no need for eternal enmity between America and the Muslim world: it is pointless and counterproductive. There is no need for conservatism and libertarianism and the Republican Party to battle Islam at a global level. Many on the right forget, for example, that in 2000 George W. Bush won a majority of the Muslim vote in his controversial electoral college victory over Al Gore. Such a scenario seems most improbable today, in which Donald Trump openly mused during his campaign about a “complete and total ban on Muslims entering the USA until we can figure out what the hell is going on.”
Our foreign policy in Muslim lands has been at the epicenter of a new divide between traditional Republicans and neoconservatives, who favor a more muscular foreign policy, and libertarians and paleoconservatives, who see myriad geopolitical and economic consequences of our military adventurism and nation-building overseas.
Yes, some of Trump’s Muslim-oriented rhetoric has been irresponsible, and it’s likely he’s turned off many of the nation’s 2 million Muslims from the GOP brand for some time. However, it is hardly Islamophobic or hate to suggest a temporary ban on immigration from majority Muslim nations such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Libya that are embroiled in civil wars, have a palpable presence of radical jihadi terrorist groups, and have little control over their borders or territory.
As commentators such as Pat Buchanan have pointed out, the War in Iraq has been a public relations disaster for America in the Muslim world. We as Americans should make a clear distinction between Islamism, which seeks to impose a politicized form of Islam on others and is fundamentally inimical to our values, and Islam, which in most mainstream interpretations, poses little threat to us.
The hard left and the hard right could both learn lessons from the Kosovo experience. The hard left could appreciate that we have come to the aid of besieged innocent Muslims because it was morally imperative, and not for economic interests which American foreign policy is often accused of pursuing. The hard right could learn that there is a enormous population of mainstream, moderate Muslims who desire the same political, economic, and social freedoms that they do.
If you don’t believe me, go visit Kosovo: the most pro-American country in the world.