What’s the Big Deal About Kosovo?

Until recently almost no one had ever heard of Kosovo. Kosovo is a province in Serbia, which is part–in fact, most–of what is still called Yugoslavia. Bosnia and Croatia were part of the old Yugoslavia but aren’t anymore. There is a separatist movement in Kosovo and violence is increasing. But why are the troubles of this still-obscure place making global headlines?

The reason is fear that the Kosovo troubles could spark a larger war in Europe. There are various scenarios.

–Kosovo’s population is 90 percent ethnic Albanian. Adjacent Macedonia (an independent country formerly part of Yugoslavia) is one-quarter Albanian. Albania is a base for the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the militant wing of the Kosovo Albanians’ independence movement. KLA guerillas training in Albania already smuggle war material into Kosovo. Fighting in Kosovo could cause Albanians in Albania and Macedonia to join a campaign for a Greater Albania, or simply help out the nationalist movement of their fellow Albanians in Kosovo.

–The Yugoslav (Serbian) army could invade Albania to wipe out the training camps of the KLA rebels there.

–If Macedonia’s Albanians take up arms for Kosovo, they will likely also want autonomy, if not independence, from Macedonia, which will start a civil war.

–Alarmists believe that an uprising by Macedonia’s Albanians could catalyze the entry of an outer ring of players–Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey–in a general land grab. Macedonia was disputed in two Balkan wars early in this century, and Bulgaria and Greece both nourish long-running claims on Macedonian territory. Greece could become queasy about civil war in its northern neighbor because of the potential for new streams of refugees. It might intervene in Macedonia to settle the situation, causing Turkey (which hates Greece) to enter in opposition.

Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey all have a lot to lose by going to war, so these escalation scenarios are all unlikely. But, as the alarmists like to note, World War I started in the Balkans, and it was once regarded as unlikely too.

This item was written by Kate Galbraith. Explainer thanks Morton Abramowitz of the Council on Foreign Relations.