(Demographic, legal, and social-economic circumstances)


The territory of the state of the Serbian people varied dynamically during the 19th and 20th centuries. Following the Berlin Congress, the Principality’s four districts of Vranje, Niš, Pirot and Toplica measured 48,300 km2, an increase of 10,300 km2. (These territorial possessions were to eventually become the Kingdom of Serbia.)  During the Balkan post-war years of 1912-1913, and “return” to areas of their Middle Ages, Serbia encompassed 87,800 km2, an increase of 39,500 km2. But by the end of the First World War the Yugoslav state comprised of 248,666 km2— half the territory of the Balkan Peninsula—and thus represented a formidable European state. It was not only “Balkan country”, but also Pannonia, Medieval, Danube, Mediterranean, and alpine.

The new expansion inevitably reflected significant changes on the demography. After the Berlin Congress (and the subsequent annex of four districts), the Serbian population grew 23.1%, with an additional 303,097 new inhabitants. A population census recorded 2,922,958 residents living in Serbia in 1920, (of which 98.6% was Orthodox, 0.5% Muslim (14,335), 0.28% Roman Catholic (8,435) and 0.20% Moses’). As a result of the Balkan wars, territory that was gained added 681,104 more inhabitants from Kosovo and Metohija to Serbia. Forty-seven percent of remaining census figures (1,474,569 or 35.7% from the total number of inhabitants) claimed other religions and languages (Albanian and Turkish).  Up until then, the Serbian state had been nationally and religiously homogeneous; it was all a new experience. In that way, the Albanian population contributed to the composition of the Yugoslav state through Serbia. The national “image” became even more complex after 1918. At the onset of the Kingdom of Serbia’s establishment, Croatia and Slovenia had around 12,000,000 inhabitants. According to national and religious figures kept at that time, the population of the Yugoslav state was so integrated it became impossible to specifically identify. As a “conglomerate of peoples and ethnical groups” there were about 39% Serbs, 23.9% Croats and 8.5% Slovenians; 6.3% of those practicing their Muslim faith did so, but with feelings of separateness that had no ultimate sense of national identity (i.e, Serbian, Croatian, Yugoslav, authentic Muslim); 5.3% of the population of Macedonia whose national feelings were variegated (Macedonian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Slavic). From the total number of inhabitants, almost two million made up the national minorities. Most numerous were Germans (4.3%), then Albanians (4.0%), Hungarians (3.9%), Rumanians (1.6%), Turkish (1,2%), Slovenian minorities (1.6%), and Italians (0.1%). Their legal position was regulated by international agreements, conventions and treaties, positive legislation and decrees, and instructions enacted by the government.

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The Yugoslav unification set out on December 1, 1918 was not an accident of history. Serbian political elitists, preparing for the 20th century, considered unification of the one state “ethnically unique, but politically divided” as the imperative of the time. Serbia represented the most important factor of Yugoslav unification. It stepped into the war out of self-defense, although it was soon understood that care for the entire Serbian state represented an integral part of protecting the “Serbian ethnical area”. The same was true of territories inhabited by Yugoslav people. Serbia invested in a mission of statehood and tradition into this new state, and sacrificed to it more than one fourth of the total population. It defined and diplomatically “presented” the program of Yugoslav unification and, with army assistance, kept Yugoslav areas from being torn into bits and pieces and, by the end of the war, Serbia was found to have been on the side of winners. It enabled others to abandon conditions of defeat and accept the established Yugoslav state—which they did with very little bloodshed.

The sacrifices made during the war formed a security consciousness regarding the new state: it was to be defended by all means from external enemies, but also from those seeking to cause internal unrest, conflicts, or cessation of territories. Under such circumstances, Albania was a hostile neighbor who did not renounce the occupation of territories of former Kosovo, Bitola, and Skadar “vilayets”, and the anti-Yugoslav impartial Shiptar population became the bearer of separatism.

With the ending of the war, the new state gained clearly defined tasks and functions in a world that grew on the ruins of the great empires. It had to represent the “wall” which would prevent the renewal of German danger, but also serve as “sanitary cordon” which would disable the spilling of ideas of the October Revolution. And it needed to become an exponent of the victor’s powers—defender of the peace established at the end of war.

The idea of protecting ethnical, religious, and language minorities was proclaimed during World War I by the Triple Entente as a war objective. The issue of minorities’ protection found its full expression in the treaties concluded after the war. Control over carrying out decrees on minorities’ protection was assigned to the League of People’s Council as their duty but the great victorious powers of England, France, Italy and Japan excluded themselves from those obligations. Thus, the entire system of minorities’ protection was made to be incomplete, unstable, and caused smaller countries to carry a sense of “imposed obligation” which factored distrust into the equity of peace treaties. Through the agreement on minorities’ protection, signatory countries were obligated to carry out minorities’ protection through their legislation so that “no law, no decree, no official action be contradictory or in conflict with those regulations”.

peace treaty

The Saint-Germain Peace Treaty with Austria (September 9, 1919) and its Article 51 of the enclosed Treaty about the protection of minorities was one of the most politically unpleasant issues that the government of the Kingdom of SCS had to face. So severe were the conditions imposed by the Saint-Germain Peace Treaty that they eventually led to the downfall of the government in Belgrade. The request made of the Kingdom of SCS to “all regulations…that the Powers considered as necessary for minorities’ protection” was characterized as “carte blanche” and “violation of our state sovereignty”. The government was not in any peril as a result of the general principles of the Treaty on Minorities’ Protection, but the changes made to some internal provisions. The Treaty on Minorities’ Protection the Kingdom of SCS was to be singled out as fulfilling its obligations taken on by the Berlin Treaty in an honorable way. It requested confirmation that the Treaty exhausted completely the right of major powers predicted in Article 51. It requested exclusion of all territories of the Kingdom of Serbia, since they were at the beginning of the war from the Treaty. There was a rationale that Serbia at war was enjoying the right of full sovereignty without any confinements and hence, was ready to accept the implementation of provision of Article 9 “only on the territories granted to Serbia or the Kingdom of SCS after January 1, 1913”. After confirmation that the “major powers, allied and joined, shall not claim more in respect to this from the State of SCS, nor any signing of any other contracted provision that would refer to the mentioned protection of ethnical minorities”—which meant “total” exhaustion of all rights from Article 51; the delegation of the Kingdom of SCS by special Declaration concluded the Treaty on minorities’ protection in Paris on December 5, 1919.

The Treaty on minorities’ protection, joined to Article 51 of the Saint-Germain Peace Treaty, directed that the key Articles (2-8) be recognized as basic state laws, and would never be in collision with other legal acts. In Article 2, members of minorities were guaranteed protection of life and freedom as well as freedom of religion. In Articles 3 – 6, the right of citizenship and two-year option on guarding an estate was defined. Article 7’s regulation on equality before the law impacted religion and national determination as well as free usage of language either in private or trade relations, whether in the press, publishing, religious, or at public gatherings. Into Article 8 it was foreseen that members who formed ethnical, religious or language minorities would enjoy the same right and guarantees as all other subjects and, “at their expense”, to establish, maintain, manage and participate in the control of charity, religious and social institutions, schools and educational institutes “with the right to freely use their own language in them and to freely profess religion”. Article 9 prescribed “appropriate exemptions”, such as providing instructions at public schools in the language of those members. In Article 10, Muslims were guaranteed protection of elders, freedom to open new Islamic buildings and institutions, and the right to regulate family and personal status according to their customs.

According to the spirit of the treaties, the objective of protection was not to be excluded from fulfilling their duties, and those of all the other citizens of the Kingdom of SCS, but to validate them by guaranteeing their rights to become loyal citizens of the state. Factual implementation of rights and duties of the state and the national minorities depended on concrete historical situation and balance of power.

All the cited rights were put under the guarantee of the League of Peoples. In that way the minorities’ protection became a permanent obligation of the Kingdom of SCS. The provisions of the Saint-Germain Treaty about minorities’ protection were entered into the Constitution from June 18, 1921. Its’ Article 4 proclaimed equality and the same rights of all citizens before the law—and guaranteed protection. Article 12 of the Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion and conscience. In one paragraph, Article 16 regarded school freedom of national minorities, (“Minorities of other race and language are given basic instruction in their native language under the conditions that shall be prescribed by the law”). Article 19 proclaimed that all titles in all professions be equally accessible, according by legal conditions, to all citizens. Part of the norms prescribed by the Constitution found reflection in the legislation of the Yugoslav state itself.

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By its’ sheer size, the Albanian population became one of the biggest minority (and most lagging, economically and culturally) in the Kingdom of SCS (Yugoslavia). According to data from the census of population from January 31, 1921, there were 441,740 Albanians (4.0%) residents out of which 17,230 lived in Montenegro, 20,610 in Serbia proper and 110,670 in Macedonia. According to the same census in Kosovo and Metohija there were 439,010 inhabitants of whom there were 288,910 Albanians (or 65.8%) and 114,090 Serbs (26%).

Ten years later, the 1931census population showed there were 505,259 Albanians in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. For the most part, they lived in the territory of Morava (48,300), Vardar (302,901) and Zeta “banovina” (region ruled by ban). (As an aside, the total percentage of population in those regions increased 21.7% in comparison to the 1921 census.)

According to Yugoslavia standards the areas in the south were sparsely inhabited (32.2 per square kilometer in 1921 and 39 inhabitants per square kilometer one decade later). Despite the small population, the overall agrarian profile in the regions where Albanians and Serbs freely integrated was visible. The fallow land in the hilly regions produced 6 – 8 times less income. Life in the ravine was richer, more comfortable, and better. But exposure to plunder by the tribes from the surrounding hills was more prevalent.

During war years, cities in the south suffering anarchy and looting were often deserted. Settled partially along unsafe borders of the new state, they lost the function they had enjoyed during in the Turkish Empire. Instead, they became crossroads to nowhere. In 1910 Djevdjelija had 46.2% fewer inhabitants; Bitola, 41.2%; Debar, 30.7%; Sjenica, 27.1; and Tetovo, 24.1%. In compliance to this there was failing economic and cultural strength in those urban centers drowning in the agrarian ocean of autarchic village life that surrounded them, and smothered them more and more. The twenty-four towns in the south were expressly regions of migration regions: in the period 1910-1921 they were abandoned by over 60,000 inhabitants— mainly craftsmen. If the number of about 70,000 migrant workers is factored in, it is reasonable to conclude that migrations and emigrations caused significant social changes in centers from where they originated, and to those who were caught by them.

The agrarian population of the south progressed slowly from the traditional and semi-feudal heritage. Unhealthy “traditionalism” was equally felt in general production and productivity, as well as way of life. In Kosovo and Metohija, small estate structure was dominant (up to 1 ha – 11% of all estates on which 7,100 families lived; from 1 to 2 ha – 15% of all estates with 9,300 families; from 2 to 5 ha – 37% of all estates with 24,300 families; from 2 to 7 ha – 26% of all estates with 16,800 families; over 10 ha – 11% with 7.400 families). According to economic criteria they were not fit for life. Small estates did not produce market surpluses, but tied up labor in unproductive work. Its residents spent their own naturally produced products, and thus had insufficient resources to start any process of modernization (intensive working of the land, new agricultural cultivations, modern agricultural tools). Their owners did not appear on the market either as producers, or as purchasers. In conditions where fallow soil had to feed several hungry mouths, hunger struck – and with that came migration, plunder and diseases. The owners of big estates were for the most part Albanian and Turkish “beys” who represented about 10% of the Muslim population.

The rural population comprised 76.3% of the total population in the south. The influence of the tribal organization of life (fis) was especially felt among the Albanian population in Kosovo, Metohija, and Montenegro. The brotherhoods composed communities of around 100 houses. The clans were immediate families within which conclusion of marriage was forbidden. Housing cooperatives represented property and working communities that gathered relatives (always several dozens of people). In the Albanian village, a big family dominated (averaging 5 – 7 children). The word of the “master of home” was obeyed, in order to survive tough life in the Albanian village. Socially, the Albanian home represented a firm entirety within which common works, rights, and duties, were known. Solidarity, shown through works and self-protection, connected the members of the family, clan, and brotherhoods, strongly. The village shared the common areas of forests, meadows, and waters. At the head of the community was the “kmet” (village judge) who, in compliance with patriarchal norms of behavior, settled local disputes and reconciled quarreling families. The man of the village, especially Christian, became accustomed to a life of “moral mimicry,” and humbleness, and developed the power of adapting. Life was but poverty and grief, often with only one good meal a day. Corn provided nutritional sustenance but during years of famine, the Christian population in the village “fasted” up to 260 days per year.


A look at the towns indicates that only Skopje, whose population during the 20’s increased by over 40%, gained the physiognomy of a European city. It became an important traffic center (road and railway) through which the total production of Kosovo, Metohija and Macedonia moved, among others. Contrary to Skopje, Debar remained a “town of furious ‘beys’” and declined into general poverty, and un-enlightenment. Debar was a town with no perspective: with an Albanian majority of Albanized Serbs and Turks; frightened Christians who were accustomed to mimicry; being exposed to attacks by “kacaks”; connected by “unsafe roads as it was. The town population of Ohrid, Prizren, Djakovica, Peć, and Priština lived in a similar ambient. From the former wealth of approximately 550 stores in Peć, over 1,000 in Djakovica and Orahovac, 500 craft shops and stores in Priština, and about 1,300 in Prizren, only memories were left. The majority of stores and 128 industrial enterprises registered in the sound in 1933 were kept by Christians (Tzintzars, Greeks, Serbs). The decades-long anarchy and lawlessness faded its glory. The life in Bitola, once a town that boasted 25 schools and a population two-thirds literate, was barely much better off. “Withering away” appropriately describes how the towns of Kosovo, Metohija, and Macedonia were caught off-guard. According to their ethnical composition, the towns were an ethnical mélange composed of Turks, Albanians, Serbs, Tzintzars, Greeks, Jews, and Gypsies. Around 17% of the Albanian population in the towns spoke the Turkish language.

Albanian society’s conservatism was a hindrance to the economic and cultural emancipation of the Albanian population. The existence of patriarchal, tribal, brotherhood and family relations characteristic of the Arbanas population, life in “fises” and home cooperatives, and other such forms of joining—not to mention the solidarity that is distinctive of a patriarchal environment—spoke eloquently of the insufficient readiness of the Albanian society to accept the modern state of the Kingdom (SCS) of Yugoslavia as it strived to be. Genealogical sayings about their common origin, tradition, collective memories, legends, ancient customs, tribal consciousness—but also the existence of common land (pastures, forests and waters) as a material base for life that connects blood members of tribe in economic community, the remains of feudal and cooperative –čivčija (peasant living on čitluk-estate) relations of production, extensive economy, the principle of simple exchanges of goods, are some other elements that fettered communication and disabled the integration of the Arbanas society with the economic, educational and cultural fluxes in the Yugoslav state. Archaic conceptions, ethical and moral norms of behavior, opinions and reactions of the collective community should also not be neglected in the historical elaboration of the issues regarding the relation of the state towards the Albanian population. The institution of ruling and chief layer (“agas”, “beys”, chiefs), the Turkophil and Turkophonic feelings among the Albanians in towns and so forth cherished the conservatism of the Albanian national environment and made it hostilely oriented towards the state and distrustful towards any measure and action the state carried out.

Written by Djordje Borozan, Ljubodrag Dimic

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