Kosovo Genocide: Summary & Timeline

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will detail the conflicts in Kosovo that took place during the 1990s. We will explore whether or not acts of genocide took place during this time and asses other war crimes that occurred.

The Kosovo Conflict

Beginning in the late 1980s, the Communist regimes that dominated most of Eastern Europe began to collapse in spectacular fashion. One of the most dramatic and violent of these collapses was in the former Yugoslavia, which over the course of the 1990s broke apart into numerous different nation states. One of these regions that desired independence was Kosovo. Their northern neighbors, Serbia, had other ideas. The resulting conflict turned into one of the bloodiest and most tragic events in Europe since World War II.

Map of Kosovo and surrounding countries.

Kosovo: Ethnicity and Demographics

Kosovo is a small, mountainous country at the southern end of the former Yugoslavia in the Balkan Peninsula. To Kosovo's north lies Serbia, who to this day consider Kosovo to be an inseparable part of the Serbian motherland.

To the south of Kosovo lies Albania, which was an independent and largely isolated communist republic until the early 1990s. As 90% of the Kosavar population is ethnically Albanian, Albania came to play a key role in supporting Kosovo during the Balkan wars. To the west of Kosovo lies Montenegro and to the east lies Macedonia.


Religion played an important role in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Because much of the Balkans had been a part of the Ottoman Empire until World War I, many ethnic groups in the region practice Islam. In Kosovo, most Albanians are Muslims. In Albania itself, about 80% of the population is Muslim.

Most Serbs are Orthodox Christians and belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church. Serbian nationalists see Kosovo as the medieval cradle of both the Serbian nation and the Serbian Orthodox Church. This intense connection with Kosovo that intertwined both nationalistic and religious sentiments was one of the major factors in Serbia's attitudes towards Albanians in Kosovo.

The Balkan Conflicts

As communism began to collapse throughout Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, the fate of what was then Yugoslavia was uncertain. Beginning in 1991, Croatia and Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia. Serbs did not accept these declarations and attempted to violently suppress these attempts.

In 1992, the regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence. This began what was probably the most horrific theater in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs clashed in numerous bloody encounters that culminated in the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. It was in Bosnia and Herzegovina that many of the most egregious crimes against humanity were perpetrated by Serbian forces. The Srebrenica massacre is considered by many to be an act of genocide.

Slobodan Miloševic

Slobodan Milosevic, 1996.
Slobodan Milosevic

Slobodan Miloševic was the ultra-nationalist president of Serbia. He is seen by many observers as the architect of the Balkan conflict. An important leader in Yugoslavia during the communist period, Miloševic hoped to survive the demise of communism by becoming a Serbian nationalist and capitalizing on ethnic tensions in the region.

Slobodan Miloševic was charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia with war crimes, including crimes against humanity, genocide, and ethnic cleansing. He died of a heart attack in his prison cell in the Hague in 2006 before the court could reach a verdict.

The War in Kosovo

Albanian nationalists had been campaigning for Kosovo's independence from Yugoslavia since the 1970s.

Serbia began to suppress Albanian language, radio, schools, and participation in public life in an attempt to deter Albanian nationalism in Kosovo in the early 1990s. Increasingly, Kosovo became a divided nation, with the Serb minority occupying the official bureaucracies, while Albanians formed their own unofficial schools, governments, and civil society.

The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) formed in 1996. The KLA were an Albanian guerrilla army that sought independence from Serbia. Although initially lacking in arms and other supplies, the KLA received significant support in the form of guns being smuggled into Kosovo via Albania and financial support from the Kosavar Diaspora.

Between 1998 and 1999, the KLA clashed with Serbian forces in an attempt to separate Kosovo permanently from Serbian control. Serbia attempted to crush the KLA using many of the same tactics seen in previous years in Bosnia and Herzegovina. These tactics included the mass killings of Albanians in the Racak Massacre in 1999.

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