When it was announced almost exactly a year ago, Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia immediately generated an avalanche of intense political reactions about "Europe's newest state".

In Prishtina, the capital of the contested Balkan region, the declaration was widely characterized as an affirmation of the right to self-determination, and sparked massive celebrations by Kosovan Albanians. On February 17, 2008 thousands rallied around a monumental typographic sculpture that spelled out, in English, the word Newborn. Fireworks accompanied live appearances by pop stars and elected officials.

The Serbian government had been bracing for this moment as well. Its official stance—summed up in its slogan "Kosovo is Serbia"—claimed the province as an inalienable and quintessentially Serbian territory that had historically belonged to the Serbian nation, but which the Kosovan Albanians allegedly usurped for themselves.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica reacted to the news from Prishtina by vehemently denying the legitimacy of the Kosovan declaration and expressing outrage at the "appalling violation" of Serbia's territorial integrity.

On February 21, 2008, a government-organized protest in Serbia's capital Belgrade brought together well over one hundred thousand demonstrators, some of whom vandalized local sites associated with those countries that supported Kosovo's independence, especially the United States.

Many foreign observers saw in the controversial declaration of independence an enormous legal problem that put at risk the future of international law as we know it. For these writers, the unilateral declaration of independence and the subsequent recognition of Kosovo by over fifty countries (so far) could set a dangerous precedent for hasty and potentially violent resolution of similar disputes across the globe in places like Kashmir, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kurdistan, and Taiwan. [For more on these regions, please see the recent Origins articles on Taiwan and South Ossetia/Georgia.]

Other analysts turned to the past to understand these tumultuous events. They traced the twists and turns of what they considered a centuries-long ethnic rivalry between the Serbs and the Albanians, telling their versions of what "really happened" in such nationally charged historical moments as 1389 (the Battle of Kosovo, when Ottoman forces defeated the Medieval Serbian state) or 1690 (when the Serbian Patriarch of Pec led tens of thousands of Serb families out of Kosovo).

Others still have explained the violence that swept through former Yugoslav societies in the 1990s and the early 2000s as a result of the special historical character of the Balkans. It was a barbaric relic from the past, a vengeful ghost that continues to haunt the different Balkan nations locked into patterns of mutual hostility stretching back for hundreds of years.

In contrast, many other analysts dismissed the notion of "ancient hatreds" as too simplistic and instead tended to perceive the violence as a recent political development. For them, the brutality was as a crude instrument wielded by unscrupulous and power-hungry Balkan politicians who derailed the otherwise cheerful post-1989 transition from communism to market economy.

In either case, however, they assumed that the recent violence was a passing political phase that can now be replaced with processes of democratization and legal reform. These processes, in turn, would enable the new post-Yugoslav states to enter a promising European future unburdened from their "tragic Balkan past."

As compelling or politically useful as they may be, such interpretations tend to overlook just how formative and decisive the political violence of the 1990s was in the attainment of nationhood and the establishment of recent political relations in the western Balkans.

The new states in the post-Yugoslav space—today comprising the countries of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, and now Kosovo—emerged in the 1990s and the early 2000s amid a series of extraordinarily violent events and political processes designed to re-configure the ethnic composition of populations and territories. The people and their future options were enduringly changed through this carnage.

As Zarko Puhovski, human rights activist and professor of philosophy in Zagreb, noted in an interview for Radio Free Europe, the roots and character of Kosovan independence are best found in Yugoslavia's much more recent past.

If one insists on drawing "principles" out of this story, Puhovski asserted, it could be said that the achievement of Kosovo's independence effectively marked "the acceptance of the principle that [Former Serbian President] Slobodan Milosevic" championed in the late 1980s in his quest for the re-ordering of the socialist Yugoslav state: "Namely [the principle] that the internal borders of federal republics in Yugoslavia did not matter—but the ethnic composition of the population did."

Kosovo and the Legacy of the Past

Kosovo is roughly the size of Connecticut, with an estimated population of approximately two million (in 2007). For centuries, it has been home to a rich and characteristically Balkan amalgam of different ethnic and religious communities sharing space, culture, and history. Its profile today as a region torn "between Serbs and Albanians"—that is, between two adverse "ethnic groups"—testifies both to the erasure of the historical diversity of the area and to the power of "ethnic" labels to grossly oversimplify the many existing divisions among Kosovo's inhabitants.

What is now the territory of Kosovo had been a part of various states and empires throughout its history.

As a vital part of the medieval kingdom of Serbia, Kosovo became a veritable center of Serbian and Byzantine cultural heritage, reflected particularly clearly in a number of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Orthodox monasteries.

After the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, Kosovo was ruled until 1912 as part of the Ottoman Empire. During these centuries, Kosovo became integrated into wider Ottoman, Mediterranean, and Eastern European networks that facilitated waves of urban growth, migration, and socio-economic shifts. Over time, these connections enabled the formation of distinct Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Orthodox communities that spoke a variety of languages and dialects, including Albanian, Serbian, Turkish, Greek, Ladino, and Romani, among others.

The rise of Slavic nationalism and the expansion of Balkan nation-states in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries radically redrew this political and social map. Whereas the Ottoman state sustained sharp Muslim-non-Muslim religious divisions that severely disadvantaged and maltreated many Balkan Christians, the emerging states like Serbia and Greece developed their own exclusionary policies based on newly-forged notions of "nationality" and "ethnic" origin.

The Belgrade-centered principality of Serbia, which since the 1830s gained autonomy and later independence from the Ottoman Empire, was particularly bent on expanding its realms. It wanted to acquire Kosovo as an act symbolic of the "rebirth" of the legendary medieval Serbian kingdom—despite the fact that Kosovo was by then largely populated by non-Serbs, namely Albanians, Turks, Jews, and Roma.

Only in 1912 was Serbia able to attain this goal. Its army finally defeated the Ottoman troops, marched into the province, and set about burning many villages "with a view to the entire transformation of the ethnic character" of the province (as the 1914 Carnegie Endowment report on the Balkan Wars put it).

In 1918, on the heels of World War I, the new state of Yugoslavia came into existence—the first joint South Slavic state stretching from Slovenia to Macedonia. In the new Yugoslav political framework, which would define the local struggles for the remainder of the twentieth century, the Kosovan Albanians became one of the largest—and one of the most stigmatized—non-Slavic "minorities."

The Belgrade government's inter-war policies of forced Albanian emigration and Serb colonization tried to increase the numbers of the Serbian-speaking population.

Kosovan Albanian organizations not only resisted such policies, but also began to assert themselves as the rightful "owners" of the province, denying in the process the legitimacy of local Serbian (and other) claims to the future of this territory.

The multiple campaigns of mass murder that characterized the Second World War in the Balkans served to polarize the already tense local relations which, with the near-annihilation of the Jewish and Romani communities during the Holocaust, were reduced to the question of "ethnic ownership" of the province.

After 1945, this Serb-Albanian conflict changed dramatically. Under Yugoslav socialist rule, some of the earlier patterns continued. However, from the 1960s onward, the socialist state vigorously pursued the "modernization" of Kosovo, building heavy industries, constructing new cities, and encouraging ever more urbanization, self-management, and decentralization on both federal and local levels.

The 1974 Yugoslav constitution affirmed these trends, granting the "autonomous provinces" of Kosovo and Vojvodina (which nominally remained parts of Serbia) [see Vojvodina map] considerable powers that greatly reduced the influence of Belgrade in those regions.

But the pursuit of the Yugoslav programs of "modernization" and decentralization did not necessarily mean the outright elimination of nationalist sentiment in Yugoslavia. In fact, after 1974, Kosovan Albanian organizations started to push for further separation from Belgrade. In the early and mid-1980s, intimidation, abuse, and other acts of brutality against Kosovan Serbs became increasingly common across the province.

It was in this environment that Serbian nationalist writers and intellectuals began to sound alarm bells about the well-being of the Serbs in Kosovo and in Yugoslavia at large. "The exile of the Serbian people from Kosovo," wrote the authors of a 1986 Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of the Arts and Sciences, "is a spectacular testament to [the] historic defeat" of Yugoslavia as a state and a multiethnic political idea. For growing numbers, Yugoslavia had become a failed state and illegitimate political structure. Calls accelerated to dissolve the Yugoslavian federation.

Under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic in the 1980s, Belgrade pushed aggressively toward political recentralization—including the abolishment of autonomy for Kosovo and Vojvodina.

His government also orchestrated campaigns urging grave public concern over the status of the Serbian nation, which allegedly faced "genocide" at the hands of Albanians in Kosovo and attacks from the other Yugoslav nationalities. In doing this, Milosevic and others hoped to mobilize support for new nationalist parties that called for the violent reorganization of Yugoslavia along "ethnic" lines.

As part of the massive changes brought about by the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the aspiration to forge new nation-states by carving ethnically cleansed territories out of the existing Yugoslav framework became one of the paramount concerns common to nationalists of all stripes in the region.

Breakdown in the 1990s

What followed in the 1990s is probably the most written about and certainly the most notorious part of Kosovo's history. [For more on this topic, see the 1993 Origins print article on the breakup of Yugoslavia]

While wars broke out in Croatia and Bosnia as Yugoslavia disintegrated, Kosovo initially avoided massive armed confrontations. Yet, repression and violence nonetheless became a part of everyday life throughout the 1990s.

Despite Kosovan Albanian attempts to secede from Yugoslavia, the resurgent Serbian authorities instituted an oppressive regime that eliminated autonomous provincial institutions, dismissed Kosovan Albanian civil servants, doctors, teachers, and workers from their positions, and persecuted opposition leaders.

In turn, the formally dissolved Kosovan Albanian political parties, led by Ibrahim Rugova, decided to organize extensive networks of parallel local institutions (including councils, schools, and hospitals) and repeatedly (if unsuccessfully) called for international recognition of their struggle for independence from Serbia.

Rugova himself remained popular, but by the late 1990s his gradualist approach was sidelined by the emergence of a new militant force, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The KLA began to attack local Serbian police stations as well as Serbian villages. More generally, it made clear that a new Kosovo would be forged through violent struggle against Serbian domination.

Milosevic responded with a severe crackdown in 1998 and 1999. The repression put Kosovo on the international map as a region whose fate hung in the balance between two armed factions, the Serbian army and the KLA. Both forces claimed to represent two "peoples" locked in a now-familiar quarrel over whether Kosovo was Serbian or Albanian.

The dénouement is well known. Crimes against Albanian civilians perpetrated by Serbian government forces and the refusal of the Serbian delegation to sign the so-called Rambouillet Agreement, which would have given Kosovo wide political autonomy under the auspices of NATO, led to NATO intervention.