War in Europe Q & Q: Kosovo: from melting pot to flashpoint

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Is Kosovo a country?

No; since 1913 it has been a province of Serbia. Under Tito, when Yugoslavia consisted of six republics, Kosovo enjoyed considerable autonomy, being treated almost as a seventh republic. All that ended after Tito's death, when Slobodan Milosevic rose to power in Belgrade on the issue of "oppression" of Serbs in Kosovo.

Seeing what was happening, four of Yugoslavia's republics - Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia - broke away and became independent. The "Federal Republic" now consists of the two remaining republics, Montenegro and Serbia, plus the Serbian provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina.

What are Kosovo's population and size?

Two million people live in an area slightly smaller than Northern Ireland, which has about 1.5 million people.

Who lives in Kosovo?

Unlike Serbia, Montenegro and Vojvodina, where Serbs are in the majority, they form less than 10 per cent of the population in Kosovo. The proportion is declining further as Serbs leave. The rest of the population is overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian.

What are the differences between Serbs and Albanians?

Serbs and Albanians can tell each other apart by their names, language, dress (in rural areas) and writing: Albanians use the Western alphabet, Serbs Cyrillic script.

The Albanians, most of whom are Muslim - although there is a significant Catholic minority - have the highest birth rate in Europe. In the countryside, extended Albanian families usually live in walled compounds which may contain several houses. The Serbs, by contrast, have a low birth rate akin to western Europe's, and live in nuclear families. They point to these differences to say they are true Europeans, unlike the Albanians.

Kosovo has immense symbolic significance to Serbs as the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has its oldest monasteries in the province. The 14th-century battle of Kosovo Polje, when Christian forces were defeated by the invading Turks, is seen as a defining moment for Serbian nationhood. Serbia did not regain control of Kosovo until this century.

How did Kosovo come to be a flashpoint?

After Milosevic came to power the province was stripped of its autonomy and Albanians in state employment were sacked. This hardened the community's belief that independence was the only solution. Political leaders decided to set up an alternative state, which held elections and levied unofficial taxes to support its own schools and clinics. But younger Albanians became impatient with the middle-aged intellectuals in the leadership, who urged non-violence while they waited - in vain - for the international community to step in.

The Kosovo Liberation Army began attacks on Serbian policemen in 1992, and grew in strength the longer the outside world ignored the problem. A year ago Mr Milosevic let loose his forces, destroying thousands of homes, killing up to 2,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more in their campaign against the "terrorists". This finally drew international attention to Kosovo: in October, under threat of Nato bombing, the Serbs agreed to a ceasefire and the stationing of international monitors in Kosovo, though at Belgrade's insistence they were unarmed.

But, as the Racak massacre in January showed, the killing did not stop. The Serbs and Albanians were summoned to Rambouillet to have a solution imposed. Kosovo would regain its autonomy - but within Serbia, not as an independent state - and armed Nato peace-keepers would police the deal. The Albanians signed up; the Serbs balked at having foreign troops on their soil. Now the threat of bombing is being carried out.