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The Serbs are a European people who speak a Slavic language related to other Slavic languages such as Russian, Polish, Czech, and Bulgarian. The Serbs have lived in the Balkans since about the 7th century AD. They moved in from the north and east of Europe as part of a huge wave of resettlement known as the "migration of the peoples," which occurred during and after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. This wave of settlers also included other Slavs, who would eventually become the Croats, Bosnians, and Bulgarians. Each of these groups formed their own medieval kingdoms at different times. Photo courtesy of arttoday.com

These kingdoms were more regional and dynastic, and less "national," than what we typically think of as countries in recent times. That is to say, they tended to be based on a ruling family, ecclesiastical (church) structures, and sometimes similar groups of nobility, but they contained various smaller national or ethnic groups.

These kingdoms also occupied many of the same territories at different times so that when people try to reconstruct these medieval countries today, they have borders that overlap. These zones of overlap are then often the scene of fierce fighting as both (sometimes three) groups try to reassert their historic rights. This overlap was a major issue, for instance, in the recent fighting between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. It is also one reason the Serbs want the region of Kosovo to stay fully integrated into their country--because it was theirs in medieval times.

In the 1350's, the medieval Serbian kingdom was at its peak. Then in 1389, the Serbs lost a major battle in Kosovo to the invading Turkish armies. Gradually, all of Serbia was conquered by the Turks, who incorporated it into their country, which was known as the Ottoman Empire (after the name of their ruling dynasty). Conditions permitted the Serbs to keep their language, religion, and peasant culture alive during the centuries of Turkish occupation, although they were largely cut off from important developments in Western Europe such as the Reformation, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution.

In the 19th century the Serbs began rebelling against Ottoman rule. By 1830 a small Serbian state was formed. But it included only a fraction of the total Serbian people living in the various Turkish provinces of the Balkans, and it was not fully independent. By 1882, a bigger "Serbia" existed, and it was a completely independent kingdom. Serbia continued to grow until World War I, generally guided by the principle that everyone who spoke Serbian (variously defined) or lived in regions that used to be Serbian (even in the distant past) should be included in the new kingdom of Serbia.

After World War I, Serbia combined with its neighbor Montenegro and with newly independent parts of the former Ottoman and Habsburg Empires to form Yugoslavia. The Serbs were always the biggest single national group within Yugoslavia, but they never formed a majority (over 50%) of the total Yugoslav population. The very name Yugoslavia means Land of the South Slavs, and the Serbs shared the country with other South Slavic groups such as Croats, Slovenes, Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians, and Montenegrins. By 1981, the Serbs constituted about 35% of Yugoslavia's total population of 23.4 million people.

Yugoslavia's "republics," which used to be made up of today's Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia, were administrative units roughly comparable to American states or Canadian provinces. Most Serbs lived in the republic of Serbia within Yugoslavia, but large numbers lived in the republics of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Because non-Serbs like Albanians and Hungarians happened to inhabit the republic of Serbia, they were sometimes given local autonomy. This is the case for Kosovo, which was technically part of Serbia but enjoyed a great deal of self-rule for its Albanian majority. Kosovo was called an autonomous province up until 1989, when it was fully reabsorbed into Serbia by Slobodan Milosevic. In the northern part of Serbia there existed another autonomous province, known as the Vojvodina; it was based mostly on the large Hungarian minority there. In the 1980's, many nonSerbs saw the existence of these autonomous republics, with their system of "home rule," as a way to protect minority rights and to prevent the numerous Serbs from getting too powerful inside Yugoslavia. Many Serbs, on the other hand, saw the existence of Kosovo and Vojvodina as more or less separate political units that diminished Serbia's rightful political power and diluted their cultural heritage.

Yugoslavia existed in its original territorial form from 1918-1991; today there is a country that still calls itself Yugoslavia, but it consists just of Serbia and one other constituent republic--Montenegro, since many regions of the country seceded in 1991 and 1992.


Why Are There "Ethnic Albanians" in Kosovo?..| Who Are the Serbs?..|..History of Kosovo to 1918..|..Kosovo within Yugoslavia..|..Kosovo and Its Neighbors..|..Issues Affecting the Future of Kosovo..|..Kosovo Today

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