Background: The Balkans — Europe’s Tinderbox
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MARGARET WARNER: NATO has gone to war in Europe over a land that most Americans know nothing about. The President admitted as much Tuesday in describing a briefing he had for members of Congress.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: One of the members who was there, a man from my part of the country, he said, “You know, Mr. President, I support your policy, but most of my folks couldn’t find Kosovo on a map; they don’t know where it is.”
MARGARET WARNER: Kosovo is a 4,200-square-mile area about the size of Maryland on a mountainous peninsula in Southeastern Europe. It’s the southernmost province of Serbia, the dominant republic in what is left of Yugoslavia. But Kosovo’s ethnic and religious mix is very different from the rest of Serbia’s. Ninety percent of its roughly two million people are ethnic Albanians and mostly Muslims, like the people of the country of Albania immediately to the South. Ethnic Serbs, who are Orthodox Christians, make up only about 10 percent of the population. Both ethnic groups have legitimate historical claims to the land they share.
Kosovo is one of the least developed parts of Yugoslavia, despite the mineral resources and fertile farmland of its mountains and valleys. Many of the people live in tiny villages, and eke out a living farming and raising livestock. Unemployment stands at 70 percent. Yet, this impoverished province is now demanding self-rule, at least, from the Serbian Government.
In his televised address Wednesday night, the President tried to explain why the United States has been drawn into this conflict.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Take a look at this map. Kosovo is a small place, but it sits on a major fault line between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, at the meeting place of Islam and both the Western and Orthodox branches of Christianity. To the South are our allies, Greece and Turkey; to the North, our new democratic allies in Central Europe. All around Kosovo there are other small countries struggling with their own economic and political challenges.
MARGARET WARNER: Kosovo’s neighborhood is a volatile region known as the Balkans, the Turkish word for mountains. Geographically, the Balkans extend from the Danube River to the Mediterranean Sea, and between the Adriatic and Black seas. Politically, it’s been made up of an ever-shifting assortment of countries, sometimes independent, sometimes dominated by outside powers. Religious and ethnic wars have been so prevalent, the area’s history so fractious, that the region has given rise to a verb. To “Balkanize,” says Compton’s dictionary, means “to break up into small, mutually hostile political units.”
The most long-standing occupation of the Balkans was by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. In 1389, Muslim Turks invading from the South defeated the Orthodox Christian Serbs at a place in Kosovo called “Kossovo Polje,” or “Field of Black Birds.” The defeat gave birth to centuries of Serbian epic poetry, and helps explain the Serbs’ continuing emotional ties to Kosovo. For the next 400 years, the Serbs chafed under Turkish domination. Serbia broke free of the Ottoman Empire in the late 1800′s.
But conflicts with the advancing Austro-Hungarian Empire from the North helped trigger World War I, when a Bosnian Serb assassinated Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. The Second World War, when the axis powers occupied the Balkans, was even bloodier for the region. The different ethnic and religious groups chose up sides and perpetrated savage atrocities on one another.
The end of the war brought nearly 40 years of peace under the iron-fisted rule of former communist resistance fighter Marshal Josip Broz Tito. He united the region into a single state, Yugoslavia, and granted growing autonomy to Kosovo.
In the 1980′s, with the death of Tito and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, instability returned. And as Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, former communists, like Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, began to whip up Serbian nationalism to hold onto power. In 1987, on the anniversary of the battle of “Kosovo Polje,” Milosevic traveled to the site and vowed to a crowd of Serbs, “No one will dare beat you again.” Milosevic tightened his grip on Kosovo, revoking its autonomy.
The Albanian residents, who had grown to be the majority group, resisted, first peacefully, and then, beginning a year ago, with armed resistance. The Serbs responded with massive force. The past year of violence has caused an estimated 2,000 deaths and created a quarter million refugees, mostly Kosovo Albanians who have fled their homes. Now, once again, outside powers have been drawn into another Balkan war.