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LOCATION: Kosovo;Serbia
POPULATION: 2.1 million
LANGUAGE: Albanian (majority), Serbian, Bosniak, Turkish, Roma
RELIGION: Muslim (Sunni and Bektashi), Serbian Orthodox, Roman Catholic
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 5: Serbs; Roma; Bosnians


The Kosovars are a predominantly Muslim and Albanian people who come from the young Republic of Kosovo. Although Kosovo only declared its independence in 2008, the ancestors of today's Kosovars have been living in the region for millennia. One of the first peoples to inhabit what is now Kosovo were the Illyrians. Albanian Kosovars claim to be the direct descendants of the Illyrians, but Serbian Kosovars dispute this claim. The Illyrians were conquered by the Romans in the 2nd century BCE. By the 9th century, Kosovo was under the control of the Bulgarian Empire and had become thoroughly Slavicized and Christianized. The Serbs, Bulgarians, and Byzantines fought over Kosovo for the next several centuries, but the Serbs emerged victorious. The Serbian Orthodox Church was created in the 13th century. Many of the Church's most important monuments can be found in Kosovo, and Kosovo is still regarded by Serbs as an integral part of the Serbian homeland.

The armies of the Ottoman Empire moved into Kosovo between the 14th and 16th centuries. The Ottomans ruled Kosovo until the beginning of the 20th century. During the Ottoman period, most of the Albanians living in the Balkans converted to Islam. These Albanians moved into Kosovo in large numbers as Serbs moved out of the province. It was also during this period that Kosovo acquired its Turkish minority.

The province of Kosovo was transferred from the Ottoman Empire to Serbia in 1913. After World War I, Serbia became a province of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenians. During World War II, Kosovo was briefly annexed into Italian-held Albania. After the defeat of the Axis Powers, Kosovo was returned to Yugoslavia. Communist Yugoslavia was ruled by Josip Broz Tito. Kosovo was one of the poorest regions of post-War Yugoslavia. It was also one of the most volatile, as Kosovo's Albanian population favored greater autonomy while the province's Serb population wished to remain part of Serbia. Over the next several years, the demographics of Kosovo changed greatly. Kosovo Albanians had much higher birth rates than their Serbian neighbors, and by 1960, Kosovo was 67% Albanian and about 23.5% Serbian. In 1968 Albanian Kosovars took to the streets to protest for more autonomy. In 1974 Kosovo was granted autonomous status under a new Yugoslav constitution.

The situation of Albanians in Kosovo became much worse in 1989. The new president of Serbia, Slobodan Milošević, engineered the abolition of Kosovo's autonomous status. His government also purged over 100,000 Albanian Kosovars from their positions in the public sector and restricted the use of the Albanian language in public education and the media. In response, Albanian Kosovars created their own parallel state institutions. Albanian Kosovars held their own elections and even set up their own underground universities. In 1996 the Kosovo Liberation Army—an ethnic Albanian organization that fought for Kosovo's independence—began a terrorist campaign against the Yugoslav state. The conflict escalated in March 1998 when Yugoslavia sent regular army troops into Kosovo to assist the Serbian police. Within a year, almost 500,000 Kosovars—mostly Albanian—had been displaced by fighting and ethnic cleansing.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervened on the side of the Albanians in March 1999. NATO member countries carried out a bombing campaign over Kosovo and Serbia that lasted until June 1999, when President Milošević withdrew his troops from Kosovo. By November 1999, the vast majority of displaced Albanians had returned to their homes (over 800,000 had returned). As Albanians poured in, over 200,000 Serbs and Roma fled Kosovo in response to violence and threats leveled against them by angry ethnic Albanians.

Between 1999 and 2008, Kosovo was administered by the United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK). Under UN administration, Kosovo saw little development in its infrastructure or economy. The Serb, Roma, and Ashkali communities have also faced violence and harassment. In 2004 interethnic violence displaced 3,600 non-Albanians in Kosovo. Kosovo declared independence on 17 February 2008. The declaration was recognized by a variety of countries, including the United States and many member states of the European Union. The declaration was not recognized by Serbia, which still claims Kosovo. In fact, the Serbian government continues to pay Serbian Kosovars who work in the education, health care, and other sectors in Kosovo. The constitution of the Albanian-led government entered into effect on 15 June 2008, marking the end of UN administration of Kosovo.


Approximately 2.1 million people inhabit the Republic of Kosovo. About 88% of Kosovars are ethnically Albanian, with Serbs making up the largest minority in the country (7% of the population). Other Muslim minority groups include the Turks, Bosniaks, Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptians. The number of Serbs and other minorities in Kosovo has declined significantly since 1999, when Serbia lost control over Kosovo. There are over 200,000 displaced Kosovars of Serbian and Roma background living in Serbia and other countries. There are also approximately 220,000 Albanian Kosovars living outside Kosovo. These ethnic Albanians are dispersed across the world, with especially high concentrations in Albania and Western Europe. Many emigrated during the 1998–1999 conflict in Kosovo, and others emigrated in order to find work. The Albanian share of Kosovo's population will likely increase in coming years due to high birth rates amongst Albanians and emigration of Serbian Kosovars to Serbia.

Kosovo is one of the smallest countries in Europe. The land-locked country covers just 10,887 sq km (4,203 sq mi), making it slightly larger than Delaware. The largest city in Kosovo is Pristina, which also serves as the capital. Prizren, Peć, and Kosovska Mitrovica are the next largest cities. Kosovo's neighbors are Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia.


Kosovo has three official languages: Albanian, Serbian, and English. Most Kosovars speak Albanian. Albanian is an Indo-European language that is so different from other Indo-European languages that it belongs to its own linguistic family. Albanian is also spoken in Albania, Macedonia, Italy, Turkey, and a variety of other countries. The language is divided into two main dialects: Tosk and Gheg. Gheg is the dialect that is most commonly spoken amongst Kosovars. However, Standard Albanian, which is based on the Tosk dialect, is used in Kosovo's newspapers, television, and government institutions. There are a variety of Tosk and Gheg sub-dialects, many of which are mutually unintelligible.

Some basic Albanian phrases are listed below:
Hello: Tungjatjeta
Yes/No: Po/Jo
Good: Mirë
I only speak a little Albanian: Flas vetëm pak Shqip

Serbian is a South Slavic language also spoken in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and other Balkan countries.

Albanian Kosovar children are usually given Muslim or Albanian names. Serbian Kosovar children are given Serbian or Christian names.


The Albanians have a colorful myth that tells of the creation of the Albanian people. According to the myth, an eagle caught a snake in its beak and brought the snake to a nest that sat atop a cliff on the edge of a mountain. A small eaglet began to play with the dead snake once the adult eagle flew off.

As this was happening, a young hunter was climbing that very mountain. He saw the eaglet playing with the snake, but noticed that the snake was not actually dead. The snake opened its mouth and looked as if it were about to strike the small eaglet. At that moment, the young man killed the snake with his bow and arrow. The hunter then took the eaglet and began to make his way down the mountain. The mother of the eaglet returned and approached the hunter. The eagle demanded that the hunter return the eaglet to her. The hunter agreed, but on the condition that the eagle grant him the vision and strength of an eagle. The hunter returned the eaglet, but once it grew, it flew over the hunter and protected him.

The Albanian people were amazed by the exploits of the hunter and made him their king. They named their new king "Son of the Eagle." Albanians refer to themselves as Shqiptarët, which is derived from the word "eagle." Although Kosovo's flag does not include an eagle, the flag flown by many Albanian nationalists in Kosovo—including the Kosovo Liberation Army—does have an eagle.


Islam is by far the largest religion in Kosovo, as it is the religion of the vast majority of Albanian Kosovars. Locally trained imams in Kosovo belong to the Hanafischool of Sunni Islam. Albanians tend to be lax in their practice of Islam. A 2001 survey found that only 12.2% of Albanian Kosovars attended religious ceremonies "several times a month." There are a number of reasons why Albanian Kosovars tend to be less devout than other Muslims. Religious piety was discouraged under the Tito regime. Furthermore, all aspects of Albanian national life were suppressed under Milošević, including Islam.

Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, has a long history in Kosovo. Before the 1998–1999 war, almost every town in Kosovo with a large Albanian population had a teqe, or Sufimeeting house. The largest and most famous Sufigroup in Kosovo is the Bektashi Order. The Bektashis are affiliated with Shia Islam, although the Bektashi sect differs from Orthodox Shia Islam in a number of ways. For example, Bektashis are permitted to drink alcohol and Bektashi women often lead religious services.

Serbian Orthodox Christianity is the largest Christian sect in Kosovo, although their number has declined dramatically since 1999. Orthodox Christianity in Kosovo has a long history in Kosovo, which is evidenced by the presence of numerous ancient Serbian monasteries throughout Kosovo. Approximately 60,000 Kosovars (3% of the population) belong to the Roman Catholic Church. In Kosovo, the Church is made up of Albanians, Roma, and Croats.


Kosovars celebrate two major secular national holidays. Independence Day is February 17. It commemorates the date on which Kosovo officially declared its independence from Serbia. June 15 has also been designated a holiday. It marks the date in 2008 when Kosovo's new constitution came into effect.

Kosovars also celebrate a number of Muslim and Christian holidays. For Muslims, UrazaBayram (also known as Eid al-Fitr) is one of the most important holidays. It marks the end of the month of Ramadan, during which Muslims are expected to fast from sunrise until sunset. Kurban Bayram (the festival of the sacrifice) is a holiday when all Muslim families who are able are obliged to sacrifice a lamb and donate the meat to the poor. Muslim holidays are celebrated at a different time every year because they are determined by the lunar calendar.

In order to accommodate Orthodox and Catholic Christians, Christmas is celebrated on two dates in Kosovo. Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on January 17 and Catholic Christmas is celebrated on December 25. Easter is celebrated on March 23.


Circumcision, or sunet, is a rite of passage for Muslim Kosovars. Boys are usually circumcised before the age of seven. The sunet ceremony is a cause for great celebration in Muslim households. Boys are dressed in special gowns and showered with presents.

Since 1998 it has been difficult for many Muslim Kosovars to access affordable and qualified circumcision services. As a result, some boys have waited until after the age of seven to be circumcised.

Marriage is the principal rite of passage for most women in Kosovo society. In traditional Kosovar families, marriage is the time when women leave the home. Their identity changes from one of daughter and sister to nusja (bride). In fact, upon entering the home of a new husband, women are referred to by the term nusja, rather than by given names.


Much of social interaction in Kosovo is governed by a set of centuries-old customary law known as the Canon of Leke Dukagjin. Although few Kosovars have actually read the Canon, its tenets are still respected among Albanian Kosovars. The Canon defines honor as extremely important virtue.

Women are expected to maintain their honor through chastity and fidelity to their husbands. Blood feuds sometimes result over insults or attacks on a family's honor. The law also enshrines the value of hospitality, which is still very much alive among Kosovars.

Interethnic tension is a major problem for Kosovars. Human rights organizations have reported numerous instances in which ethnic Albanians have harassed and attacked minorities, especially Serbs and Roma. The homes of many displaced Serbian Kosovars and Roma Kosovars have been appropriated by Albanian Kosovars. The most serious outbreak of interethnic violence since 1999 occurred in 2004, after a clash between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs in the divided town of Mitrovica. At least 19 Kosovars were killed and thousands of Kosovars, most of Serbian and Roma ethnicity, were displaced as a result of the violence.


Kosovars face some of Europe's worst living conditions. The homes of many Albanian Kosovars were destroyed by Serbian forces between 1998 and 1999. Poverty has prevented many of these Albanians from rebuilding their homes. As a result, many Kosovars live in clay brick homes that lack insulation and windows. Furthermore, access to electricity is sporadic throughout Kosovo.

Over 200,000 Serbian and Roma Kosovars have been displaced from Kosovo. Most now live in Serbia. Their living conditions vary greatly; many displaced Roma live in shacks built from scrap material, while other displaced persons live in government-run refugee camps.

Kosovo faces a severe shortage of qualified nurses and doctors because Albanians were excluded from higher education during the 1990s. Much of the medical infrastructure remaining from the Yugoslav era is in poor condition. Deficiencies in health care, nutrition and living conditions have caused Kosovo's infant mortality rate to reach 35–49 per 1,000 live births (the highest in Europe).

A parallel health care system exists for Serbian Kosovars. One hospital and a number of clinics are supported by the Serbian government, which does not recognize Kosovo's independence.


Families in Kosovo tend to be large compared to the families of other Balkan and European peoples. The unavailability of contraceptives and the desire of fathers to have sons are the primary reasons for this phenomenon.

In Albanian Kosovar families, a bride leaves home to live with her husband after marriage. The couple may move to a new home or continue living with the husband's family.

Descent is traced patrilineally, and children are thought to derive their personality and "essence" from their fathers. Th us, when parents divorce, the father is usually given custody of the children. Furthermore, if the father of a child dies, the child sometimes goes to live with his father's extended family, even if the child's mother is still alive.

In traditional Kosovar homes, brothers will often share a single household with one another. Paternal uncles, or axhas, hold authority over all the children in the household. As many Kosovars have left the country to work, axhas provide an important source of parental authority in Kosovar society. On the other hand, the fathers and brothers of female members of the household wield little authority. This lack of responsibility allows maternal uncles, or dajes, to be much more warm and loving toward their nephews.


Kosovars wear Western-style clothing. However, some women and girls wear the Muslim headscarf. The headscarf, which is banned in Kosovo's public education system, is a source of contention in the secular republic.

Although traditional attire is not worn on a daily basis in Kosovo, it can be seen during parades and some special occasions. Women wear colorful dresses and headgear that often features ornate flower prints. Men wear pants and shirts, both of which usually have two vertical stripes. Men also wear vests and traditional white Albanian skull caps, known as plis.


The cuisine of Kosovo is similar to that of other Balkan and East Mediterranean peoples. Qofte (fried meatballs), byrek (filo dough pies filled with spinach, meat, or other vegetables), and grilled meat are all staples of Kosovo cooking.

In recent years a number of foreign cooking styles have been introduced into Kosovo. This is a result of the influx of aid workers and foreign peace keepers. The recipe for spinach byrek follows.

Byrek me Spinaq

25 leaves of filo pasty leaves
1 1/4 pounds spinach, chopped
2 eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup olive oil
1 cup diced feta cheese
1/2 cup chopped green onions

Cooking Instructions:

Coat a baking pan with oil and then lay filo pastry leaves on the pan. Coat the leaves with oil and lay down additional leaves over the pan. Make sure the entire pan is covered.

Mix the eggs, onions, feta cheese, oil, and salt. Spread the mixture over the filo pastry leaves and then add spinach on top. Cover the mixture with the rest of the filo pastry leaves. Seal the edges of the pie. Bake at 340 degrees Fahrenheit 45–50 minutes or until light brown.


School overcrowding is a significant problem in Kosovo. Many schools were destroyed during the 1999 conflict. Although many of these have been rebuilt, the lack of schools and teachers is still so severe that children often attend school in shifts. In Pristina children only received 2.5 hours per day of lessons. Education is also a problem in rural areas, because students often have to walk long distances to reach their schools.

There are two public universities in Kosovo. The University of Pristina is controlled by Albanians, while the University of Mitrovica is controlled by Serbs. In 1990 the Serbian government ended the practice of instruction in both Albanian and Serbian. It also removed nearly all Albanian professors and students from Kosovo's universities. During the 1990s Albanian students and professors held informal classes in houses and other private buildings. It was not until 2000 that Albanians gained control of the higher education system and made Albanian, along with Serbian, the languages of instruction.


Kosovo has a rich musical tradition. The Ciftelia is a traditional Albanian stringed instrument that originated in Central Asia. Different versions of the Ciftelia can be found throughout the Middle East, especially in Iran and in Turkey. The instrument is made of wood and only has two strings. The first string is used to play the melody and the second is used to create harmony.

Pjetër Bogdani is widely regarded as the father of Albanian literature. He lived in the 17th century and wrote the first work of long prose written in Albanian. Bogdani, like most of Kosovo's Albanians, spoke the Gheg dialect. In recent decades, the Socialist Realist literature of communist-era Albania has become popular in Kosovo. The most well known Albanian Socialist Realist writer is the former dissident author Ismail Kadaré. In recent years, Kosovo has produced a number of prominent writers, including novelist Iljaz Prokshi, children's writer Rifat Kukaj, Roma scholar Bajram Haliti, and poet and women's rights activist Flora Brovina.

Kosovo has a small but growing film industry. One of the most famous filmmakers in the country is Isa Qosja. In 2005 Qosja directed Kukumi, a politically-charged drama about three mental patients who try to make sense of post-war Kosovo.


In early 2008 the unemployment rate in Kosovo was estimated at 40%. It is difficult for Kosovars to find work within Kosovo because the economy is in such poor condition. The economic situation is aggravated by endemic corruption, poor infrastructure, and the destruction caused by the 1998–1999 war.

Approximately 60% of Kosovars support themselves through agriculture. Agricultural output declined after 1999, but has been increasing ever since. Much of the uptick in agriculture can be attributed to foreign donors who invested in the rebuilding of irrigation networks. Less than a quarter of Kosovars work in mining or industry. A large number of Kosovars work for the numerous international organizations that operate in the small republic. Finally, many Kosovars earn their living through participation in organized crime networks. UNMIK estimates that 15%–20% of the Kosovo economy comes from organized crime.

Many Kosovars leave the country in search of work. Over 200,000 Albanian Kosovars live and work abroad. Many live in Western Europe; Germany and Switzerland are two of the most common destinations. Kosovars of Roma and Serb ethnicity who have left Kosovo tend to live and work in Serbia.


Soccer is the most popular sport in Kosovo. In 2008 the Soccer Federation of Kosovo applied to the international soccer association (FIFA) for recognition of Kosovo's soccer clubs. The Kosovo national soccer team played its first games against Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Albania.

Basketball is also quite popular in Kosovo, just as it is in the other former Yugoslav republics. Kosovo has a national basketball federation and a number of regional teams. Kosovo's basketball federation is still seeking recognition from the International Basketball Federation.

In addition to basketball and soccer, Kosovars sometimes play traditional sports dating from Ottoman times. Long jumping, tugs of war, and stone throwing are some of the games played. Turkish wrestling is also popular. The sport has Balkan, Persian, and Turkic influences. Turkish wrestlers grease themselves with oil and wear stitched leather pants called kisbet.


Kosovars spend a great deal of their leisure time in cafés. In the capital city, Pristina, there are hundreds of small coffee shops that serve Italian-style cappuccinos, Turkish coffee, and other drinks. The unemployment rate is very high and as a result many Kosovars have found that sitting in cafés is a cheap and enjoyable way to pass time.

Young people in Kosovo's larger cities also enjoy nightlife. Although some bars are only for men, many night spots serve both young men and young women. The influx of United Nations personnel and aid workers into Pristina has increased the number of bars, dancing clubs, and music venues in the city.

Satellite television is popular amongst Kosovars. Many watch foreign programs that are dubbed in Albanian or have Albanian subtitles.


Kosovar artisans have a long history of producing ornate wood carvings. Artisans decorate furniture, roofs of buildings, and musical instruments.

Kosovo also has a variety of traditional dances. The performers of these dancers wear their traditional dress. The style of dress and dance varies according to the background of the performers. Albanian Kosovar dance resembles that of other Balkan and Anatolian peoples, although men and women often dance together in the Kosovan versions. Traditional dances are often accompanied by men playing lodras, or bass drums, and a variety of other instruments.


Many of the social problems faced by Kosovars stem from the country's poor economic situation. Industry has been on the decline in Kosovo since the 1990s. The lack of economic activity in Kosovo has contributed to high levels of unemployment and poverty. In 2007 approximately 45% of Kosovars lived below the poverty line.

Poverty contributes to the problem of organized crime. Human traffickers sometimes promise poor women and girls from Kosovo that they will find them legitimate employment in Western Europe. Instead, Kosovars are often trafficked into prostitution rings. Furthermore, Albanian criminal organizations use Kosovo as a distribution point for heroin from Afghanistan. Even Kosovo's prime minister in 2008, Hashim Thaçi, was accused of having once headed up a criminal network involved in a wide range of illicit activities.


Albanian Kosovars tend to be more traditional with regard to gender relations than many other Balkan peoples. In most families, women are expected to raise children and carry out housework. Men are expected to provide for their families financially. The belief that women's responsibilities are in the home often leads to girls leaving school early. Only half of Albanian girls aged 15–18 attend school. Furthermore, Albanian custom dictates that women have no inheritance rights and almost no property rights in the event of a divorce. While Kosovan law provides inheritance rights to Kosovar women, women often come under strong family pressure to forego their legal rights.

Although homosexuality is not illegal, it is viewed as abhorrent in Kosovo's traditional society. Homosexual and trans-gender Kosovars routinely face violence and harassment. The Canon (Albanian customary law) does not mention homosexuality. However, it places a strong emphasis on honor and masculinity, and homosexuality is regarded as a serious breach of these values.


Di Lellio, Anna, ed. The Case of Kosovo: Passage to Independence. New York: Anthem Press, 2006.

Duijzings, Gerlachlus. Religion and the Politics of Identity in Kosovo. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Elise, Robert. A Dictionary of Albanian Religion, Mythology and Folk Culture. London: Hurst, 2001.

Noel, Malcolm. Kosovo: A Short History. New York: Harper-Collins, 1999.

Pipa, Arshi. Contemporary Albanian Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Schwandner-Sievers, Stephanie and Bernd Fischer, eds. Albanian Identities: Myth and History. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2002.

—by B. Lazarus