The Kosovo independence movement is a recent phenomenon. It became a mainstream goal in Kosovo Albanian society only after the abolition of Kosovo's autonomy by Slobodan Milosevic in 1989 – and in the wake of the subsequent repression by his regime.
Until the beginning of the 20th century Kosovo was an integral part of the Ottoman Empire. The first Albanian national awakening found its expression at a historic meeting of Albanian leaders in 1878 in Prizren (the League of Prizren). However, it was not before 1912 that an independent Albanian state emerged on the European map; it did not include many Albanian-inhabited territories, including Kosovo.
The territory of today's Kosovo was fought over (and carved up) during the First Balkan War in 1912. Montenegro took a smaller western part of Kosovo; Serbia the rest. Kosovo's Serbs considered this liberation; Kosovo's Albanians saw it as a conquest.
Following World War I, Kosovo became part of the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Albanian brigands opposed to its incorporation into Serbia continued their resistance until the mid-1920s. The Serbian authorities brought Serbian and Montenegrin settlers to Kosovo, banning the use of Albanian as an official language and as a language of instruction. Several Albanian uprisings were suppressed. It is estimated that up to 150,000 Turks, Muslim Slavs and (mostly) Albanians emigrated from Kosovo to Turkey between the two World Wars.
With World War II, the tide changed again, bringing Kosovo under occupation by the Axis powers Germany, Italy and Bulgaria. This was – at least initially – welcomed by many Kosovo Albanians, who saw in it an opportunity for revenge against the Serbian regime. With the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies, Kosovo was again annexed by Serbia and became part of Yugoslavia.
The communist establishment saw most Albanians as collaborators of the former enemy. Only with the removal of the extremely repressive Interior Minister and Secret Service Chief Aleksandar Rankovic in 1966 did the situation improve. In 1974 a new Yugoslav constitution gave Kosovo the right of self-governance. Kosovo's (and Vojvodina’s) de facto status became equal – in all but name – to that of each of the six constituent republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia). The province now appointed its own highest officials, had its own president, a government, as well as a seat in the collective federal Yugoslav presidency. For the first time Kosovo received its own university, a central bank and an independent police force. It also obtained the right to veto Serbian parliament laws that affected the province.
In 1981, a year after Tito’s death of, Kosovo became the site of massive student unrest and demonstrations. What had begun as a protest against bad food in Pristina University canteens turned into a series of political demonstrations demanding a "Kosovo Republic". The communist leadership of Kosovo, mainly made up of Albanians, decided to crush the movement, bringing in in special police forces and tanks. Relations between the Albanian and Serbian population deteriorated.
In 1988/89 Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic asserted control over Kosovo. In March 1989, surrounded by tanks and police, the Kosovo assembly consented to the abolition of the province's autonomy. Strikes, in particular by miners from Mitrovica, were not successful in preventing this. Kosovo's League of Communists, as the communist party was called in Yugoslavia, was purged. Civil servants, teachers, hospital staff and industrial workers were pressured to sign declarations of loyalty to Milosevic's Serbia. Tens of thousands refused and were subsequently sacked.
A shadow government was now set up by the "Democratic League of Kosovo". Under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova, a professor of literature, peaceful resistance to Milosevic's regime continued for nearly a decade. By the late 1990s, however, Rugova's peaceful approach became increasingly discredited. State collapse in neighbouring Albania, meanwhile, made weapons widely available. Starting in 1998 the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) began attacking Serbian police. The ensuing clashes between the KLA and Serbian police forces – later backed by the army – led to the displacement of about 300,000 villagers, eventually triggering the spring 1999 NATO intervention.
In the wake of the NATO bombings, the Yugoslav Army and Serbian Police retreated. Kosovo was placed under UN administration.