The Balkan Peninsula of southeastern Europe has been a focal point in world history since the times of Classical antiquity. While historians speak of the Balkan Peninsula and its eponymous mountains as one of several cradles of Western civilization, recent history places the region in a different light. The modern Balkans are best known for economic hardship and decades of genocidal war. While the entire region might be highlighted as a place where some lines desperately need shifting, two areas in particular deserve specific attention. These two breakaway regions present curiously linked yet strikingly dissimilar scenarios: Kosovo and Transnistria.
Both stories start with the decline of the Roman Empire. Rome’s influence encompassed the peninsula and most of the region surrounding the Black Sea. As the Roman and Byzantine Empires declined, “barbarian” groups moved into their periphery. In the west, these groups were primarily Germanic, and their descendants comprise a great deal of modern England, Germany, and Austria’s genetic makeup. Their Romanized kin became the French. The eastern invaders were the ancestors of the Slavic people. The Slavs eventually established themselves as Rome’s successors via the Kievan Rus, which became part of the Russian and Ukrainian cultural identities. Before that, the Slavs moved into the Balkans, conquering and assimilating the Romanized peoples of the western, Adriatic coast in particular. This invasion separated the Eastern Romance speakers—the ancestors of modern Romanians—from the rest of the Romance-speaking world. This also brought the Slavs into contact with the other Balkan peoples, in particular the Greeks and Albanians.
This map highlights Kosovo and Transnistria (red), the countries from which they seceded (blue), and other countries involved in the conflicts. (Adapted from Wikimedia Commons.)
The region known as Kosovo had been among the Romanized Balkan regions when it was conquered and assimilated into the new Slavic Kingdom of Serbia. It became a Serbian cultural and spiritual center for centuries. This role was cemented with the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, wherein Serbian and allied forces attained a Pyrrhic victory against an Ottoman invasion. Serbia, including Kosovo, would be conquered and added to the Ottoman Empire by 1455, along with its southern neighbors.
While records from the Ottoman period are incomplete, the Kosovo vilayet (much larger than modern Kosovo) was almost certainly a multiethnic region, with a Serbian majority and notable Albanian and Turkish minorities. In the face of institutional incentives to convert, the Albanians in and out of Kosovo became a Muslim-majority ethnicity. This gave Albanians many financial and government advantages, not least being freedom from the jizya tax against non-Muslims, and also led to numerous Albanian Grand Viziers. At the same time, a series of Serb revolts led to violent reprisals against the region’s Serb population, and the combination of violence and enforced Ottoman cultural assimilation led to a large-scale Serbian evacuation to Habsburg Austria. Kosovo, as the southernmost part of Serbia, was depopulated first. Albanians, with Ottoman approval, filled the vacancy and quickly became Kosovo’s majority.
The fall of the Ottoman Empire led to a reversed situation. Kosovo changed hands several times between Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania (as part of a growing ethnic-nationalist movement), eventually becoming a province of Serbia inside Yugoslavia. The Slavic, Orthodox Christian identity of Yugoslavia was legally enforced, with even minority Slavic groups like the Muslim Bosniaks facing discrimination. Projects to move Serbians into Kosovo coexisted with policies encouraging Albanians to emigrate to Turkey. When Yugoslavia fell to the Axis powers in World War II, Kosovo was appended to Italian-sponsored fascist Albania, but was returned to Yugoslavia by Yugoslav and Albanian Communists hoping for a Communist state. Kosovo gained autonomy within Serbia in the 1960s, and Kosovar Albanians immediately began agitating for republic status within Yugoslavia. Then-Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito responded brutally, but the subsequent emigration of Serbs to Serbia proper and the higher birthrate of Albanians only increased their majority. To an alarming degree, Kosovar Albanians were regarded as the same kind of danger to Serbian identity as the Ottomans and treated in kind.
Kosovo rapidly descended into chaos, as Yugoslav forces attempted to enforce a Serbian identity on the province and Kosovar Albanian partisans attacked Yugoslav military and police targets. Numerous Yugoslav atrocities against Albanian civilians are documented, including massacres and mass rapes, and their primary architect, Slobodan Milosevic, died in prison awaiting trial. During and after the Kosovar War, numerous Serb and Albanian cultural sites, mosques, and churches were destroyed by both sides and a NATO bombing campaign against the Yugoslav forces. Thousands of Albanians went (and remain) missing. The United Nations authorized a mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, which enabled thousands of displaced civilians to return home, though the renewed influx of Albanians encouraged more Serbs to flee. UNMIK established a police force and other institutions for Kosovo, but could not prevent the Serbian authorities from continuing to act against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians. Kosovo’s assembly declared independence in 1990, which prompted Serbia to shutter Albanian-language universities and media in Kosovo, which led to a new wave of organized and violent resistance via the Kosovo Liberation Army.
In 1999, Yugoslavia handed Kosovo to a UN administration and promptly began disintegrating into separate Slovene, Croat, Macedonian, Bosniak, Serb, and Montenegrin states. Kosovo’s renewed 2008 declaration of independence is perhaps only the most recent entry in Yugoslavia’s decline.
So that’s Kosovo: a region of immense symbolic and cultural significance to the Serbs but currently inhabited by Albanians, and where the people who want “their” territory returned to them have undertaken repeated efforts at cultural assimilation and genocide to reclaim it. Sound familiar?
Unlike many such restive places, Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia is recognized by a plurality of nations, with the most notable abstentions being countries like Cyprus that have their own separatist conflicts they do not wish to encourage. Eventual Kosovar freedom from Serbia seems all but guaranteed. But what happens next?
The Albanian flag flies proudly in much of Kosovo, often more proudly than the provisional Kosovar flag, and many speculate that the former Yugoslav territory will request to join Albania. But the political maneuverings of Communist Albania and Yugoslavia have left a surprising amount of bad blood between the Albanians of Albania and the Albanians of Kosovo. Ironically, for all of the terror that accompanied their exit, peacetime Serbia was arguably a safer place for Albanians than Communist Albania. The Kosovars who moved across the border to try their luck with their kinfolk often became part of Albania’s famous problem with organized crime. Only recently have ties grown and tensions shrunk between the two Albanian polities, and the possibility of a merger grown more realistic.
Merging with Albania may become a moot point, however. Albania and Kosovo both have their eyes set on the European Union, among whose tenets are harmonized laws and the free movement of EU citizens between member states. Even if Kosovo and Albania joined the EU as separate, independent states, much of what would have been accomplished with a formal merger would become a fait accompli. This becomes even more so with a Serbian accession, which would potentially obviate Serbian concerns about movement of Serbs in Kosovo. Of course, all three nations are a long way away from joining the EU, despite Slovenia’s and Croatia’s recent/impending accession.
Like Kosovo, Transnistria was a multiethnic region at the periphery of several empires—in this case, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. Its history is inextricably tied into the history of nearby Romania. Transnistria was ruled as part of the Romanian principality of Moldavia until 1792, when the Russo-Turkish War placed the eastern edge of Moldavia in the Russian Empire. Like many of Europe’s ethnicities, the Romanian-speaking peoples spent the next century attempting, succeeding, and failing to consolidate their territory into a single state, but Transnistria remained Russian throughout, administered as part of Russian Ukraine and inhabited by roughly equal numbers of Russians, Ukrainians, and Romanians.
From 1918 to 1940, Romania encompassed all of the Romanian principalities, a period known as “Greater Romania.” This period of unity ended abruptly during World War II, when parts of Romania were again dispersed among Romania’s neighbors. The portion of Romania ceded to the USSR was appended to Transnistria to become the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, as part of Russia’s “divide and rule” strategy. As in the Caucasus, combining culturally and historically distinct peoples into single units would keep the region from developing or maintaining a distinct identity around which a nationalist movement could form and would ease the process of Russification. To that end, Russia also pushed the idea that the Moldovan identity was distinct from the Romanian identity, attempting to keep pro-reunification sentiment from becoming incendiary.
Nevertheless, in the waning days of the Soviet Union, the Popular Front of Moldova successfully pursued a number of policies focused on that shared Romanian-Moldovan identity. Moldova returned to the Romanian Latin alphabet from Cyrillic and made Romanian/Moldovan the republic’s primary language, with Russian kept only incidentally. Reunification became a priority for the group and the political discourse of the Moldavian SSR. Combined with the Front’s chauvinistic, dismissive attitude toward Moldavia’s ethnic minorities, this led to a great deal of apprehension among Moldova’s Russians and Ukrainians, concentrated in Transnistria, and its Gagauz people, concentrated in the south. Ethnic tensions rose to the point that violence against Russian members of parliament and interference in an autonomy referendum for Gagauzia went unpunished. It was in this environment that Transnistria declared its secession from the Moldavian SSR as a separate Soviet republic, a declaration that Mikhail Gorbachev ruled as invalid in order to preserve Soviet unity.
Shortly thereafter, Moldova seceded from the USSR altogether, leading to the short Transnistria War. Moldovan police clashed with Transnistrian separatists and Russian armed forces, leading to de jure maintenance of Transnistria within Moldova and de facto acceptance of Transnistria as an independent country. Transnistria has since cultivated ties with Russia, including maintaining Russian as a primary language over Romanian/Moldovan, and relies on Russian power to maintain its independence. Since Transnistria is the most heavily industrialized part of Moldova, it requires no more economic assistance than the rest of Moldova, to the surprise of many.
So that’s Transnistria: a region that never should have been part of a country that should never have been partitioned.
The question of Transnistrian independence remains entangled with the question of whether Moldova will ever rejoin Romania. The expectation was that Moldova would seek integration into Romania more-or-less immediately, but with over 20 years of independence, that prospect seems unlikely. Moldova’s dire economic condition, with or without Transnistria, means it would be largely at the mercy of the rest of Romania in a unified state. Romania did not treat the region particularly well during the previous period of unity and its record on ethnic minorities (at least a third of Moldova’s population even outside Transnistria) is poor. So, pro-unification sentiment in Moldova quite low at the popular level. Romania, for its part, usually desires unity but knows that adding Moldova’s weak economy to its own might push its indicators below the minimum required to get or remain in the Eurozone or even the European Union. Either way, the legal harmonization and open borders that accompany EU accession mean that, as in Kosovo, separate countries may not be the barrier that they currently are. If a reunification left Transnistria independent, its fate would remain unclear.
So what are we looking at?
In both of these conflicts, small states became restive when separated from regions with similar ethnic and cultural attributes and trapped in the same unit with disparate neighbors. And in both of these regions, centuries of abuse in every direction have made it difficult for all parties involved to trust one another.
What if Kosovo merged with Albania? The Serb-majority pockets on Kosovo’s periphery might best be left in Serbia. There would be an immediate need for an agreement permitting Serbian citizens to move freely in Albania, in particular to access the Gazimestan memorial and similar sites, lest another Balkan war ensue. (The Serbs might reciprocate by removing the “Kosovo Curse” inscription, or at least acknowledging its awkwardness in this scenario.) Albania’s increased Serb minority would also merit the same linguistic rights that the Serb authorities denied their Albanian minority, lest this same scenario unfold all over again in a generation. Another potential complication is Kosovo’s unilateral switch to the euro, which may complicate economic transactions within an enlarged Albania in the years before an Albanian EU accession.
And here’s the strange idea: What if Transnistria joined Ukraine?
Once upon a time, Transnistria was administered as part of Ukraine, and it was Transnistria’s separation from Ukraine that set up its current difficulties. Transnistria’s ethnic composition would hardly stand out in Ukraine, and Russian remains a common lingua franca in both regions. Crimeaprovides a precendent for an autonomous, culturally and linguistically distinct region within Ukraine. While Ukraine and Transnistria are not exactly bosom buddies, only Transnistria’s anachronistic obsession with Soviet iconography might make the union difficult to maintain. Transnistria might be disappointed that Ukraine is actively moving away from Russia and toward Europe, but would find common ground with Ukraine’s Russian-oriented, eastern minority. Gagauz and Moldovan/Romanian are already recognized as minority languages in Ukraine, easing the transition further. And then, Moldova and Romania could unite, or not, as suits them.
That would place both of these tiny, vulnerable, war-torn polities in a much better social, political, and economic position than even fully recognized independence would give them, on top of uniting them with their cultural kin and placing both on much better paths toward a European Union future.