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Language, religion, history divide Kosovo’s Serbs and Albanians

The Associated Press

A patch of land slightly smaller than Connecticut is all that Kosovo’s Serbs and ethnic Albanians have in common. They speak different languages, hold different religious beliefs and different versions of history.

balkansmap.gif (14404 bytes)Ethnic Albanians speak an Indo-European language as old as Latin and as different in vocabulary and grammar from Serbian as Italian is from Russian. Serbs speak a Slavic language that resembles Bulgarian and Russian.

Since the early 1980s, ethnic Albanians have boycotted the state education system in favor of their own schools funded by Albanians living abroad. As a result, many young ethnic Albanians don’t learn to speak Serbian and Serbs rarely learn Albanian.

Most ethnic Albanians are Muslims, descendants of Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians who converted to Islam during 500 years of Ottoman Turkish rule.

Serbs are staunchly Orthodox, following Christian traditions similar to the Russians, Greeks and Bulgarians.

Today, ethnic Albanians account for an estimated 90 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million people, a sharp increase since the end of World War II, when Serbs made up about half of Kosovo’s population. That shift was due to a high birth rate among ethnic Albanians and a steady Serb exodus from the rural province for more prosperous urban areas of Serbia. In many cases, the government actually encouraged Serbs to leave the province, or barred them from returning.

Fears of growing ethnic Albanian dominance in Kosovo led to calls from Kosovo Serbs for a crackdown on Albanian separatists, culminating in a government decision to take away Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989.

Kosovo was the heartland of the old Serb kingdom, which reached its height in the 14th Century. In 1389, Ottoman Turks defeated the Serbs and in the decades afterward brought Kosovo under their control.

The Serbs regained Kosovo in 1912 during the First Balkan War, when Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria defeated the Ottoman Turks and ended more than 500 years of Turkish domination.

The Albanians tell a different story. They claim to be the descendants of the Illyrians, who lived in Kosovo and elsewhere in the Balkans before the Roman Empire.

Although Serb historians dispute this, the Albanians consider themselves the original claimants to Kosovo as well as other areas of the southern Balkans where Albanian-speaking people live.

After the First Balkan War ended, major European powers convened a conference in London to redraw maps and restore stability to the region vacated by the Turks.

Serbia insisted its claim to Kosovo be recognized. The new Albanian state, proclaimed during the war in 1912, also demanded Kosovo, arguing that Albanians had a historic right to the territory.

The Western powers, however, wanted to shore up Serbia as a counterweight to Russian and Turkish claims in the southern Balkans. They gave Kosovo to the Serbs, leaving about one-third of the Albanian people outside the borders of the new Albanian state.



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