News pieces concerning Kosovo in Western outlets will seldom go without mentioning that Albanians make up 90 percent of its population. Pick a Kosovo-themed news piece at random and it is likely its background paragraph will include a phrase like "Kosovo's 90 percent Albanian majority", "Kosovo is 90 percent ethnic Albanian" or "Kosovo, whose population is 90 percent ethnic Albanian". In fact such assertions regularly found their way into news reports before the massive expulsions of non-Albanians in 1999 actually made this the case in reality. Particularly around the time of NATO attack on Yugoslavia, but even as early as 1990.
It is easy to determine why a typical background paragraph in a Kosovo story, will include this information, but little else. The purpose is to frame the story as dealing with a territory that is for all intents and purposes Albanian. It is ultimately intended to elicit a response of disbelief at the cheek of the Serbs for even claiming it as their own, or for having it included in their state in the first place. This particularly seeing the same reports will, if at all, describe the Serbian attachment to the territory as stemming from the fact it was at one point a part of the Serbian medieval empire, and a place of a certain large 14th century battle. Arguments then, which if truly formed the basis of Serbian claim to Kosovo would indeed point to its exceeding weakness.
Demographics of a contested region indeed provide the strongest possible argument for a claim over it. As such some information of such nature should probably be a part of any report from a trouble zone like Kosovo. When that information is reduced to a tiny tidbit such as "90 percent ethnic Albanian" it may, however, be leaving out a great deal and be potentially misleading. Imagine, for example, an eight-unit apartment building. Let us say that six of the apartments are owned by Chileans who each live alone. That the other two apartments, on the other hand, are occupied by two separate Norwegian families each with nine members. In this case for every Chilean occupant of the building, there are three Norwegian occupants. Having in mind the structure of the ownership, however, would it make sense at all to say this apartment building is mainly occupied by Norwegians and leave it at that?
Reality of the matter is that Kosovo is as Serbian as South Dakota is Sioux (and in much the same way). Essentially all the place names in Kosovo are of Serbian origin. The only toponyms with Albanian names are of settlements that are exceedingly recent. The name "Kosovo" itself is Serbian. There is no Albanian name for it, instead the Serbian name is used slightly adapted. This is only natural seeing that there is no record of mayor Albanian presence in the territory before the 18th century. Serbs have lived in Kosovo since there was such a thing as a Serb, but Albanians are largely newcomers from the highlands to the west, in northern Albania.
To Albanians Kosovo started out, not as a home, but as a place to raid. As many other tribal highlanders the tribesmen of northern Albania nurtured a raiding culture. For the prospect of plunder and recognition they would raid each other, as well as organize annual incursions into lowland Kosovo. Serbian agriculturalists there were hardly the only such in the world at the time to be subject to recurrent raiding. Many such populations prospered regardless and eventually made themselves impervious to such attack. Situation of Christian Serbs in Kosovo was uniquely precarious, however, since they were required by Islamic law in force in the Ottoman-ruled Balkans to go unarmed. With them unable to defend themselves the most exposed areas gradually cleared of their Serbian inhabitants who fell back to safer areas. Albanians attracted by the superior land in the lowlands moved in their stead, thus beginning the process of ethnic shift in Kosovo.
Once settled in Kosovo Albanian newcomers let go of some of their highland ways but not of their attitude toward the Serbian peasants as a convenient source of income. Albanian colonization in Kosovo therefore meant that robbery and extortion for many Christians became a daily, rather than just a seasonal occurrence. Barehanded they were unable of mounting a defense, and unable to give testimony in Islamic court they were without legal recourse. They could be harassed by Muslim tribesmen with impunity. Often they led a wretched existence in breaking poverty and under constant threat of violence. Many opted to enter into a quasi-feudal relationship with this or that Albanian with renown among fellow tribesmen, subjecting themselves to his arbitrary rule and demands in return for protection against other Albanians. Other strategies of survival included flight, and conversion to Islam, which granted one citizenship rights.
In such circumstances, that is, with the application of violent methods, Albanians in the course of two hundred years gradually supplanted the Serbs as majority population of Kosovo. Migration and forced migration played the largest role in this process, conversion the smallest. Another factor was likely the difference in natural growth, which would have almost certainly occurred. This was effectively pre-modern time in which mortality determined population growth much more so than natality. A marginal difference in standard of living could affect the ability of a family to raise its children to adulthood. The robbery they were subjected to depressed the living standard of Christian Serbs of Kosovo, likely reducing their rate of natural increase below that of Albanians, and almost certainly below where it would have been had they been left unmolested. The difference would have been small, but would have significant effect compounded over two centuries.
Countless regions in the world could tell a similar history, of one population displacing another. What makes Kosovo rather more unique, is that displacement was made possible by an outside power that was distinct from both the retreating and the advancing population. It was not the number, the organization, or the technology of Albanian tribesmen that enabled them to become the terror of Serbian peasants in Kosovo, but the fact that they were piggybacking on the power and the religious zeal of the Ottomans who had subdued and disarmed the Serbs.
In 1912, when Serbia drove out the Ottoman Empire from Kosovo it extended its control over a province in which Albanians already outnumbered Serbs. That is not to say, however, that Albanians also necessarily owned more land. Albanian settlers displaced the older Serbian population in the most desirable areas of Kosovo first, but showed less interest in the less hospitable areas. Seeing that Muslim Albanians were predominant in the more inviting and therefore more densely populated plains and valleys, and the Christian Serbs in the more rugged areas less capable of supporting life an average Serb community held more land by default. At least for some time still the Serbs even as a minority in Kosovo continued to hold more land than Albanians by acreage, albeit of lesser quality.
In the 20th century, most of which Kosovo was ruled from Belgrade, Albanians further increased their proportion of territory's population, mainly through natural increase — which thanks to the great medical advances was now mainly determined by natality. Culturally greatly distinct, Kosovo Serbs and Albanians were on different population growth trajectories. Frequency of births among Serb population, in line with the trends in the rest of Eastern Europe, dropped rapidly after the Second World War. Fertility remained high among Kosovo Albanians, however, for several decades after that. So where the number of Kosovo Serbs in the post-war period increased by some 30%, the number of Albanians in Kosovo instead tripled. Naturally, this also meant that average Serb land holding decreased through division between brothers to a smaller extent than that of Albanians. As a consequence by 1999 an average Serb land owner in Kosovo owned more land than an Albanian one than at any other time.
NATO occupation of Kosovo has been a throwback to the Ottoman era (as had been the Italian, then the German occupation in the Second World War). It is striking just how closely the two align. Once more Kosovo Serbs were driven from their property en masse, with those who remain harassed, beaten and murdered to better convince them to evacuate as well. Once again there was an epidemic of land theft and a violence-driven shift in the ethnic composition of the populace in favor of Albanians. A situation that again came into existence not due to inherent power of Albanian nationalists, but because the USA made it so ordinary that Kosovo Serbs were defenseless and effectively without legal recourse against them.
The major difference between the American and Ottoman rule over the region two has to be the manner of their onset. Unlike the Ottoman (or German) conquests of Kosovo, American occupation came into being after the Kosovo Albanians' political leadership had worked and conspired for such. Albanian champions gathered around Ibrahim Rugova spent years pleading for foreign support for their claims to Kosovo. Having failed to substantially mobilize interventionist great powers behind them, their rivals in the newly-founded KLA made an attempt of their own. They organized an armed uprising against Serbian authorities not intending for it to succeed of its own power, but to eventually invite an American attack against the Serbs. The strategy was to strike at Serbian civilians and police in order to provoke a retaliation which would give the US cover to attack Serbia. When the Serbs would not bite and provide a real massacre a phony one was enacted instead (Račak).
The answer to the question whether is it possible today to overturn the injustices in Kosovo of the Ottoman period the answer has to be no. Assuming a brutalized Serbian Christian who left his land in territory under duress did not abandon it, but remained its true owner, more so than an Albanian settler who replaced him. Assuming also, as one reasonably may, any such person, in the case his actual descendants can not be found (as they indeed can not), would wish for his property in Kosovo to pass down to his own ethnic kin rather than the ethnic kin of people who forced him into exile, there is still no ground for revision of land titles as they existed in 1999.
Though it is generally true that Kosovo Albanians settled on land that Christian Serbs had been earlier forced from, it is impossible to say for any specific Albanian owner if his own piece of Kosovo was not, on the contrary, passed down to him by Albanized Serb ancestors (some Serbs who adopted Islam in time adopted Albanian custom and language), or had never been homesteaded by any of the original inhabitants, but was first put to the plow, or some other use, only by Albanian colonists. Likewise, some land may have emptied in an epidemic or due to some other cause unconnected to duress, or switched hands in an honest trade without pressure. Any manner of sweeping dispossession of Albanian landowners in Kosovo aimed at righting old wrongs would therefore be sure to result in striking injustices and can not be argued for in good conscience.
That the injustices against Kosovo Serbs of the Ottoman era can no longer be remedied is no reason, however, that similar usurpation of land under Americans should be accepted as something underpinning the Albanian claim to Kosovo. Following the withdrawal of Serbian forces in 1999 numerous non-Albanians were expelled from Kosovo and may not return and hope to be able to lead dignified lives free of the threat of violence. Keeping this in mind, the tidbit of information that Albanians make up 90% of people present in occupied Kosovo hardly means Kosovo is "90 percent ethnic Albanian". The more relevant question is how did each nationality come to make up its percentages, what proportion of Kosovo land owners belong to each, and what proportion of privately-owned land is owned by these?