Main languages: Albanian, Serbian, also Turkish, Romani, Bosnian.
Main religions: Islam, Orthodox Christianity, also Roman Catholicism
Minority and indigenous communities: According to the 2011 census (excluding North Kosovo) the main minority groups are Bosniaks (1.6 per cent), Serbs (1.5 per cent), Turkish (1.1 per cent), Askhali (0.9 per cent), Egyptian (0.7 per cent), Gorani (0.6 per cent), and Roma (0.5 per cent).
However, because North Kosovo was excluded from the census, the true proportion of some minorities – particularly Serbs, who in some areas of the north comprise the majority of the population – may be under-estimated in these figures. It should be noted that in Kosovo minority groups have often been referred to as ‘communities’, defined in the new Kosovo Constitution as ‘inhabitants belonging to the same national or ethnic, linguistic or religious group traditionally present on the territory of Kosovo’. This terminology is used as the term ‘minority’ is shunned, particularly by Serbs, many of whom see Kosovo as part of Serbia and accordingly do not believe they are a minority.
Kosovo has a population of approximately two million. Ethnic Albanians form the overall majority with 92.9 per cent. Most Albanians are Muslim and speak Albanian. The last census in Kosovo took place in 2011, excluding North Kosovo. The Serbs, the largest minority group in Kosovo, speak Serbian and are predominantly Orthodox Christians. The 2011 census left out the Serbs in North Kosovo where many of them reside. According to estimates based on 2010 and 2013 OSCE data, there were 146,128 Serbs living in Kosovo, making up 7.8 per cent of the total population, a much larger proportion than the 1.5 per cent estimate in the 2011 census: of these, 70,430 were in northern Kosovo and 75,698 in southern Kosovo, with a total of 10 municipalities where Serbs are a majority. Smaller communities include Roma, Ashkalia, Egyptians, Bosniaks, Turks, and Gorani. Within Serb compact settlements, Albanians are effectively a minority.
Important demographic changes took place during the 1998-1999 war and subsequent ethnic violence. Exercising the right to self-identification is difficult in Kosovo, mainly because people are afraid to openly state their ethnicity for fear of discrimination, but also because others do not necessarily respect people’s identity, for example international and local actors often grouping Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptians into one. The size of the Serbian population has dropped dramatically since the end of the war in 1999 and notably in the wake of the Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008.
Most Ashkalia (estimated at 15,436 in the 2011 census, excluding North Kosovo) speak Albanian as their first language and practice Islam. Until the 1990s most Ashkalia identified themselves as Roma, when they began to identify themselves as a distinct group. However, they have not been accepted by the Albanian community: they face widespread discrimination and exclusion from economic life. Although the Ashkalia have one reserved seat in the Kosovo Assembly, they have been excluded from meaningful participation in political life.
A similar situation is experienced by Kosovo’s Egyptians (numbering 11,524 in the 2011 census, excluding North Kosovo). They also speak Albanian as their first language and practice Islam. Identifying as Roma until the 1990s, they now trace their origins back to Egypt and identify themselves as a distinct group. Like the Ashkalia, they suffer widespread social exclusion and economic marginalization. Although the Egyptians have one reserved seat in the Kosovo Assembly, they too have been excluded from any real participation in political life.
Bosniaks are a Slavic people who speak Bosnian, and most of whom are Muslim. They represent the second biggest non-majority ethnic group. According to the 2011 census, there were an estimated 27,533 Bosniaks in Kosovo. However, some estimates suggest that more than 3,000 Bosniaks live in the north of Mitrovica where the 2011 census was not completed. They have also been excluded from any effective participation in political life.
Turks speak Turkish and most are Muslim. They live mainly in the Prizren region. Kosovo was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire from 1455 until 1912. Under the 1974 SFRY Constitution, the Turkish language enjoyed equal status with Serbo-Croat and Albanian in Kosovo. Turkish community leaders estimated their own population to be between 12,000 and 50,000 in 1999. Since the number of Turks living in Kosovo has decreased, and as a result of the 2011 census was estimated at 18,738.
There were an estimated 10,265 Gorani according to the 2011 census, excluding North Kosovo. They are a Slavic people who speak Gorani as their first language and converted to Islam in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are concentrated in the south of Prizren. Gorani have one designated seat in the Kosovo Assembly. They have been excluded from real participation in political life, including discussions on the future status of Kosovo.
Roma speak either Serbian or Romani as their first language. Most are Christian Orthodox, but some are Muslim. They are a dispersed group, with a significant number remaining displaced after the violence of 1999 and 2004, mainly in camps in Kosovo and Serbia. The European Roma Rights Centre has estimated the pre-1999 Roma population at 120,000. In the 2011 census, however, excluding North Kosovo, the community was estimated at 8,824.
Since Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence on 17 February 2008 from Serbia, there has been a vacuum in effective international protection for minorities in Kosovo. A lack of certainty over the status of the territory has limited the practical application of international human rights law. An international protectorate since 1999, Kosovo has suffered engrained hostility between ethnic Albanian and Serb communities, as well as continued segregation. However, restriction of movement and political, social and economic exclusion are particularly experienced by the smaller minority groups – Bosniaks, Gorani, Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, and Turks – as well as by Serbs and Albanians living outside the main areas of population of their respective communities.
While as of 2017 Kosovo had received diplomatic recognition from 114 countries, Serbia still contests its status as an independent state. This ongoing dispute and the recent history of ethnic conflict have left a legacy of bitter divisions, particularly between Albanian and Serb communities. Various EU-led negotiations have brought a measure of conciliation between Pristina and Belgrade, including the 2013 Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalization of Relations. This landmark agreement secured the political integration of the northern areas of Kosovo, with a Serbian majority population, into the rest of Kosovo and a measure of recognition from Serbia of Kosovo’s institutions in return for concessions to its ethnic Serbian population. This included the establishment of a separate Association of Serbian Municipalities in the north, comprised of 10 municipalities with a Serbian majority, with considerable autonomy in a range of areas including planning, service provision and economic development. The agreement has yet to be fully implemented, however, and there continues to be significant disagreement about its terms.
As a result, the political environment remains volatile and the country’s ethnic divisions have periodically surfaced in protests, including demonstrations in 2015 by the Albanian opposition parties against the government’s proposal to cede greater autonomy to Serb-dominated areas. These issues have been reflected in ongoing incidents of intercommunal hate crime, harassment and obstruction between ethnic Serbs and Albanians, evident in particular in the city of Mitrovica, effectively split by the Ibar River between Albanians in the south and Serbs in the north. The construction of a wall near the bridge in December 2016, on the Serbian side of the town, saw tensions within the city escalate until after protracted discussions it was demolished by local Serbs in February 2017.
A lack of political will among majority Albanians and poor investment in protection mechanisms have resulted in minority rights being eroded or compromised in the post-independence period. Smaller minority communities have yet to see resolution or redress for oppression and human rights violations since the late 1990s, such as attacks and occupation of the homes of Bosniaks and Gorani, and an inability to exercise their language rights in public for fear of harassment. Many smaller minorities, such as Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, who were displaced from their homes, have faced severe difficulties in returning. Smaller minorities like Roma also suffer from lack of access to information or to tertiary education in their own languages, and face discrimination, violence and lack of security. Even though the Offices for Communities and Return were established at the municipal level in 2013 to help facilitate the safe return of refugees and displaced persons, those who have been repatriated are still struggling with finding employment, education and health care. These smaller communities face particular issues around social exclusion, discrimination and lack of political representation that remain unaddressed. Following the failure of the 2009-2015 Strategy and Action Plan for the integration of Roma, Askhali and Egyptian communities, a new plan was introduced in 2016 which focuses on improving civil registration, access to housing and public services.
Discrimination, poverty and economic stagnation have meant that many members of minority communities are now leaving Kosovo altogether. Unless reversed, this trend could see the steady migration of minority groups who have other states to migrate to, such as Bosniaks and Turks, who have lived in Kosovo for hundreds of years. For Ashkali, Gorani and Roma, who have no such options of escape, these trends are likely to lead to ingrained poverty and further marginalization for future generations.
Kosovo has always been multi-ethnic. Its history is very important to Albanian and Serbian identities. Ethnic Albanians and Serbs have been living in Kosovo since the 11th century. From about 1200 to 1455 Kosovo was part of the Serbian Kingdom. This is when some important Christian Orthodox sites were built in Kosovo. In 1389 the battle of Kosovo Polje took place between a Christian Orthodox army led by a Serbian feudal prince and the Ottoman army. Although Albanians fought in the armies on both sides of the battle, and historians debate the battle’s outcome and importance, it has passed into Serbian mythology as a heroic defeat for the Serbs, who in the telling were martyred in a decisive battle for Ottoman dominance of the region. The Ottomans finally conquered Kosovo in 1455, and it remained under Ottoman rule for 450 years. During this time, most of the population of Kosovo became Muslim. The Albanian national revival began in Kosovo, with the ‘League of Prizren’ in 1878, and in this era of European national awakening, Christian Orthodox history, including the mythology surrounding the 1389 battle of Kosovo Polje, was re-interpreted from religious into ethno-nationalist Serbian-history.
In 1912 Kosovo was conquered and divided between Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria. The largest part went to Serbia and became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia) following World War I. Kosovo was the most impoverished area of the Kingdom, with the ethnic Albanian population much poorer than the Serbs and Montenegrins who were supported from Belgrade. During this time, Belgrade expelled 45,000 Albanians from Kosovo and replaced them with 60,000 Serb settlers. During World War II, Italy ruled Kosovo as part of greater Albania. Many Serbs were killed or fled.
Under Josip Broz Tito’s Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), power gradually devolved to the authorities of Kosovo, although it formally remained a part of the Socialist Republic of Serbia. In 1968, the government established an Albanian language university in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. The university became the centre of the Albanian dissident movement. In an attempt to defuse national movements, Tito approved a new Constitution in 1974 that granted substantial rights of self-government to Kosovo as well as the Serbian province of Vojvodina. This sharpened Serb feelings of resentment.
Following the death of Tito in 1980 and the collapse of the Yugoslav economy, Yugoslav politics became increasingly polarized along ethnic lines. The SFRY was now governed weakly from Belgrade under an eight-person presidency, the chair of which rotated yearly among the constituent republics and Serbia’s autonomous provinces. Albanians demonstrated for Kosovo to become a republic, notably in 1981. Many were arrested. Also during this time, Serbs, who were effectively a minority in Kosovo, claimed they were discriminated against by local ethnic Albanian-led authorities. In 1986 the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts published a memorandum that laid the intellectual groundwork for the rise of Serbian nationalism, rooted in historical mythology surrounding Kosovo and themes of victimization, including complaints about the Serb position within the SFRY. In the late 1980s, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic mobilized this discontent in his rise to power by championing the cause of the Serb ‘minority-within-a minority’ in Kosovo and by complaining of the bureaucratic devices used to reduce Serb influence within Yugoslavia.
In 1989, the Serbian parliament revoked the right of self-government in Kosovo and Vojvodina, and Milosevic’s supporters took control of the republican government of Montenegro, giving Milosevic fully half of the votes in the federal presidency. In Kosovo, ethnic Albanians were fired from the state administration. As Albanian education and media were considerably curtailed, Albanians, under the leadership of their pacifist leader, Ibrahim Rugova, established parallel political and social structures, including a separate educational system.
Belgrade’s grasp for the levers of power in the SFRY accelerated the break-up of the Communist Party in other Yugoslav republics, including Slovenia and Croatia. Not only the Communist Party was crumbling; Milosevic’s moves to consolidate Serb control over the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) weakened another central pillar of Yugoslav unity. In response to declarations of independence by Croatia, Slovenia and then Bosnia and Hercegovina in 1991 and 1992, Milosevic sent troops. The wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina would last until 1995. For the time being, Milosevic did not take military action against the majority Albanian population in Kosovo, where Serb grievances had fuelled his political ascendance. In December 1992, US President George H.W. Bush issued the so-called ‘Christmas warning’, promising immediate American military action against Serbia if it should intervene in Kosovo. President Bill Clinton reiterated the warning in early 1993. While Washington looked the other way in response to the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina, it feared that war in Kosovo and Macedonia could draw other countries into a wider conflict, including NATO members Greece and Türkiye on opposite sides.
The Serbian economy had gone into steep decline under Milosevic and the population was weary of international isolation. With his popularity on the wane, Milosevic played the nationalist card in Kosovo once again. In response to isolated attacks on Serb police and civilians in the province by a small band of guerrillas calling itself the ‘Kosovo Liberation Army’ (KLA), in February 1998 Milosevic ordered reprisal attacks on ethnic Albanian villages. As the violence escalated and western states showed no signs of intervening, Milosevic grew bolder and broadened his assault on Kosovo Albanian civilians, as well as guerrillas. In early 1998 the KLA was unpopular with most Albanians who feared it would trigger the kind of Serb assaults recently seen in Croatia and Bosnia. But as Milosevic targeted civilians, the numbers of killed and displaced Albanians climbed, with 300,000 displaced from their homes by October 1998. Anger increased, creating near universal Albanian support for the KLA by 1999. The strengthened KLA posed a very real and increasing threat to minority Serbs in Kosovo, which in turn provided Milosevic with additional fodder for war propaganda at home. Amid mounting atrocities, NATO intervened in March 1999, bombing Serb targets in Kosovo and Serbia proper. Some one million people fled or were expelled from Kosovo between March and May 1999; the NATO bombing stopped in June 1999 following an agreement with Milosevic. Belgrade agreed to withdraw its forces from Kosovo and allow the province to be put under UN administration, although the territory would officially remain a part of Serbia pending agreement on final status. Nearly all ethnic Albanian refugees flooded back to Kosovo from Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro. Subsequent studies place the number of killed during the Kosovo conflict, overwhelmingly ethnic Albanians, at around 10,000.
By the end of the conflict, many radicalized ethnic Albanians viewed the KLA not only as a force for liberation, but one for revenge. Ethnic violence against non-Albanian (notably Serb and Roma) communities erupted. NATO peacekeeping forces (KFOR) helped to contain the violence, but Serbs, Roma, and other non-Albanians increasingly sought security in their own communities, and Kosovo became further segregated. The area north of the Ibar River became the largest Serbian enclave, and the Belgrade government maintained strong influence there. Straddling the Ibar, the town of Mitrovica became a festering flashpoint, its communities separated by heavily armed KFOR checkpoints. March 2004 saw a resurgence of ethnic violence. Protests against the killing of three ethnic Albanian children escalated into an anti-Serb pogrom and clashes with KFOR and UN police. The violence in 2004 claimed the lives of over 28 civilians and one KFOR soldier, and wounded hundreds; 3,600 Serbs were displaced, and 30 Serb churches destroyed along with 200 Serb houses. Violence flared again in June 2005, albeit on a smaller scale, with coordinated attacks against the international presence in Kosovo.
In 2007, the UN-led process known as the Ahtisaari Plan, formally the Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement (CSP), established the basis for Kosovo’s independence. The plan included the rights of minorities in line with international human rights and freedoms, as well as extensive decentralization with the creation of a number of autonomous Serb provinces, and protection of minorities in the security and public sectors. On 17 February 2008, Kosovo proclaimed its independence and a new Constitution was adopted which transferred the power to majority ethnic Albanian government. A month after the declaration, Serb opponents of independence occupied a court in Mitrovica, with more than 100 people injured in the fighting that followed. A new Constitution was adopted by parliament in 2008 and by June of the same year power was effectively transferred to a majority ethnic Albanian government. Kosovo Serbs who refute the legality of independence set up their own assembly, also in Mitrovica. At the end of 2008 the European Union took charge of policing and customs services from the UN and Serbia arrested 10 former Albanian rebels suspected of war crimes.
In 2001, Serbia arrested Slobodan Milosevic and transferred him to The Hague, where he stood indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). In addition to charges relating to the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina, Milosevic faced charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for allegedly ordering atrocities in Kosovo in 1998-1999. He died suddenly in 2006, as his lengthy trial was nearing its conclusion. Several Serbian and Yugoslav officials have been accused of perpetrating alleged atrocities in Kosovo, as have several Kosovo Albanian militia leaders, including the current prime minister Ramush Haradinaj and president Hashim Thaci, both of whom have been accused of complicity in atrocities carried out during the conflict in Kosovo. Haradinaj, though detained for several months in early 2017 by French authorities at the request of the Serbian government, which wished to see him extradited to the country to be tried for war crimes, was subsequently released and is now serving as prime minister of Kosovo. Thaci has faced similar accusations, but, despite the recently created Kosovo special war crimes court in the Hague affirming that Thaci would not be immune from prosecution, he has yet to be tried on any counts.
In 2013, under EU mediation, the Brussels agreement was reached between Serbia and Kosovo. A foundation of the agreement was the creation of the so-called Community of Serb Municipalities that would be comprised of 10 municipalities with Serb majorities with its administrative centre in North Mitrovica. The agreement has not yet been fully implemented.
In 1999, UN Security Council Resolution 1244 ended the war in Kosovo and established an interim international civil presence (the UN Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK) and the KFOR peacekeeping mission. UNMIK played a lead role in Kosovo’s governance until its independence in 2008, focusing on security, civil administration, democratization and development. Resolution 1244 included provisions relevant for protection of minority rights and human rights more generally, further affirmed in the 2001 Constitutional Framework for Kosovo.
The Ahtisaari Plan, unveiled in 2007 following talks overseen by UN envoy and former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari with Serb and Albanian leaders but not smaller minorities, formed the basis of Kosovo’s de facto independent governance arrangements. This includes a number of key guarantees for minorities, including constitutional provisions to enshrine international human rights and freedoms, and plans for extensive decentralization that would lead to a number of autonomous Serb districts. The plan also included special protections for minority communities, across a range of different sectors including the security and public sectors, where the multi-ethnic composition of staffing would be guaranteed. More recently, following extensive EU-led negotiations between the governments of Kosovo and Serbia, the 2013 Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalization of Relations saw Belgrade provide a measure of recognition to Kosovo’s institutions in return for the creation of 10 autonomous Serb-majority areas in North Kosovo, though the terms have yet to be agreed in practice.
While Kosovo has progressively secured increasing recognition as a separate state, with the International Court of Justice ruling in July 2010 that Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence was legal under international law, the country has continued to face considerable governance challenges, including corruption and accusations of complicity in war crimes among senior officials, including the current prime minister (Ramush Haradinaj) and president (Hashim Thaci), who have both faced allegations of human rights abuses during the conflict and criminal activities. Kosovo’s politics is further complicated by ethno-nationalist parties such as Vetevendosje (Albanian: ‘self-determination’) or LVV Party, the third largest political party, which gained 32 seats in the Kosovo Assembly in the 2017 elections. The party is notable for its hostile rhetoric towards minorities, the international community and the multi-ethnic character of Kosovo: drawing on the propaganda and imagery of Albanian nationalism, the party advocates unification with Albania through a referendum. Consequently, the decentralization of Kosovo into autonomous areas in the north, as outlined in recent negotiations between the Kosovan and Serbian governments, is strongly opposed by LVV.
In terms of protecting the rights of minorities, the Constitution of Kosovo guarantees the rights of all ethnic, religious and linguistic groups ‘traditionally present on the territory of the Republic of Kosovo’. The Constitution also guarantees freedom of expression and self-identification, while committing to ‘take all necessary measures to protect persons who may be subject to threats or acts of discrimination, hostility or violence as a result of their national, ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious identity.’ Also, equality among members of communities in all areas of life is secured, as well as the preservation of cultural and religious heritage, and the right to receive public education in any of the official languages. However, despite these guarantees, minorities struggle to secure their rights in practice.
Under the Kosovo Constitution, out of 120 seats, a quota of 20 seats are set aside for minority communities: 10 to representatives of the Serb community and the remainder assigned to the other minority communities which include Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities (4 seats), Bosniaks (3 seats), Turkish (2 seats) and Gorani (1 seat).
Civil Rights Program Kosovo
Humanitarian Law Centre, Branch Office Kosovo
Kosovo Foundation for Open Society
Kosovo Helsinki Monitor
Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development (KIPRED)
Kosovo Women’s Network
Youth Initiative for Human Rights
Roma and Ashkali
Roma and Ashkalia Documentation Centre
Updated March 2018
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