From Tue Jul 12 10:00:19 2005
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: Kosovo's rival histories
Date: Tue, 12 Jul 2005 15:10:31 +0200 (CEST)

Threat of enduring nationalism: Kosovo's rival histories

By Jean-Arnault Dérens, Le Monde diplomatique, July 2005

Negotiations on the status of Kosovo will start later this year. If the rights of all who live in or want to return to Kosovo are to be guaranteed, there has to be cooperation between the communities, not supremacy alternating between Serbs and Albanians.

A FEW kilometres outside Kosovo's capital, Pristina, are two sacred sites. A tower commemorates the battle of Kosovo Polje on 28 June 1389, where a Turkish invading force defeated a coalition of the Christian peoples of the Balkans led by the Serbian prince, Lazar Hrebeljanovic.

Slobodan Milosevic chose the site of that battle, a place called Gazimestan, to deliver his speech on 28 June 1989 rehabilitating Serbian nationalism to an audience of about a million Serbs; he signed Yugoslavia's death warrant. Exactly 10 years later Monsignor Pavle, patriarch of the Serb Orthodox church, celebrated the parastos (Orthodox memorial service) for Hrebeljanovic before a handful of the faithful, closely guarded by soldiers from Nato who had just entered Kosovo.

Not far away is the turbe (tomb) of Sultan Murad I, the other protagonist in the battle. This beautiful structure is surrounded by a little garden and is a traditional place of pilgrimage for Kosovo's Muslims. For centuries the role of turbetar (guardian) has been passed down from father to son in one family of Turkish origin. The last of the guardians died in 2001 and his wife has taken the role. She is a Bosniac, a Muslim Slav from Novi Pazar in the Sandjak region. She has never learned to speak Albanian, the language of Albanian Kosovars, and does not hide her animosity towards the shiptari, the name Serbs and southern Slavs use to show contempt for the Albanians. Inside the tomb a family tree shows the lineage of the Ottoman sultans. The tomb is a monument and relic of a long-vanished state: the Ottoman empire.

Six years after the Nato bombings of spring 1999, Kosovo remains the main source of tension in the Balkans. The lack of political solutions has its roots in the differing interpretations of history: Kosovo is at a crossroads of conflicting Balkan memories. There are the historical perspectives of the Serbs and of the Albanians; and of all the different peoples and empires that have come into contact there.

At first sight these different positions seem irreconcilable. The Albanians insist on independence, which is anathema to the Serbs. The part Kosovo has played in the national perceptions of the Serbs and Albanians for more than a century is largely exaggerated. As far as the Serbs are concerned, Kosovo is part of the core of territory controlled by the Nemanjic dynasty since the 12th century. The youngest son of the founder of the dynasty, a monk called Sava, at Mount Athosa, established the autonomy of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which was recognised in 1219. Kosovo was at the centre of gravity of the empire of Tsar Dusan, proclaimed in 1346. Some of the largest Serbian Orthodox monasteries are in Kosovo, at Visoki Decani and Gracanica. The church has its seat in the town of Pec. The patriarchate of Pec symbolises the autocephalous nature (or ecclesiastical independence) of Serbian Orthodoxy. Even if he resides in Belgrade, the patriarch is always known as the Patriarch of Pec and, for symbolic reasons, his investiture always takes place in Kosovo.

After the battle of 1389 Kosovo also came to symbolise the political disappearance of the Serbian nation. Historians point out that the outcome of the battle was not decisive, because the Turkish victory at Marica in 1371 had already opened the gates of the Balkans to the Ottoman conquerors. Moreover in 1389 Hrebeljanovic commanded an army that included units from all the Christian peoples of the Balkans, including King Tvrtko's Bosnians. Hrebeljanovic's army was not a Serbian “national” army: that would have been an anachronism in the Middle Ages.

The “battle of the field of blackbirds” (Kosovo Polje) assumed major significance in the Serbian national imagination—popular songs praised the feats of the heroes of the battle, on the model of the chansons de geste of medieval western Europe. But it was not until the 19th century that the popular and religious memory of the battle was taken a step further with the assertion of a Serbian political claim to Kosovo. From the 1850s the Serbian principality, which had been autonomous since 1830, tried to expand southwards. The strategy was defined by minister Illija Garasanin, known as the Serbian Bismarck, in his famous Outline (Nacertanje). The Habsburg empire was blocking the possibilities of Serbian expansion to the north and the west, and the areas still under Turkish control were shaken by revolts and bitter national disputes.

Nineteenth-century Serbian nationalism relied on literary and religious traditions relating to Kosovo to justify its territorial demands. Modern nationalism has transformed the myth into a territorial claim. The 500th anniversary of Kosovo Polje, celebrated in 1889, was an opportunity to affirm Kosovo's new political status. Although the myth had previously been celebrated by the Orthodox Church specifically because of a choice that Hrebeljanovic made (1), the church played only a small part in rewriting the myth. Deprived of its centre in Pec when the patriarchate was suppressed in 1776, and forced to retreat to Sremski Karlovici, in Vojvodina, at the time Austrian territory, the church had little involvement in the emergence of the modern Serbian state.

A nationalist perspective

However, incipient Albanian nationalism was developing in Kosovo at the same time. In 1878 the Prizren League was the first manifestation of this emerging Albanian nationalism. Firmly integrated into the structures of the Ottoman empire, the Albanian peoples of the Balkans were not immediately affected by the appearance of the phenomenon of nationalism in 19th-century Europe. While the revolt of the Christian peoples was sending shock waves through the Ottoman empire, the demands of the Albanian delegates meeting in Prizren were vague. They claimed to be loyal subjects determined to preserve the empire, but at the same time demanded the reunification of, and administrative autonomy for, the Albanian territories. Most were Muslims, but there were also a few Catholic delegates, an indication of the non-denominational character of the political emergence of the Albanian nation.

At a time of serious crisis in the Ottoman empire, the parallel claims of the Serbian and Albanian nationalists sparked the first inter- ethnic clashes in Kosovo. Though Serbian and Albanian peasants had coexisted without real conflict for centuries, violence increased from the late 19th century, triggering the mechanism of revenge. The coexistence that had endured for centuries, guided by subtle rules of good neighbourliness (komsiluk) could not survive the modern assertion of nationhood. Once the twin nationalisms began to structure irreconcilable claims to Kosovo, they also began to develop contradictory interpretations of the region's history.

The Albanians had serious disadvantages in mobilising the past. Kosovo's toponomy is predominantly Slav. The Albanian forms of place names, which nationalists want to see in general use, are often recently Albanianised Slav names. When confronted with this, Albanians explain that it is the effect of the violent Slav colonisation of the Middle Ages, and stress that the Serbs are latecomers. The Albanians also emphasise the policies of repopulating Kosovo with Serbs in the 1930s and the 1990s, even though those population movements involved only tens of thousands, most of whom have left Kosovo since 1999.

The Albanians also stress that they are an indigenous people, citing their Illyrian roots. The ancient tribe of the Illyrians populated a large area of the western Balkans, so much so that most of the peoples of the region have a substantial Illyrian heritage, particularly in the coastal regions of Albania, Montenegro and Dalmatia. But there is no evidence of a special link between the Illyrians of antiquity and today's Albanians. That link, highlighted by militant historians, is specifically designed to extol the indigenous nature of the Albanians, enabling them to describe themselves as “Europe's most ancient people”, even making comparisons with the Greeks (2).

The Slav presence in the region dates back no earlier than the 6th-7th centuries. Albanian militants believe that even if Serbian history then developed in Kosovo, and the toponomy of the region is Slav, that is just the consequence of a colonial conquest (3). That leaves them free to conclude that the Serbs have no right to Kosovo.

The Serbs have evolved parallel theories, pointing out that the Albanians' demographic advantage did not emerge until the 20th century and was the result of a massive invasion of immigrants from the mountainous regions of northern Albania. The anti-communist Serbian nationalists accuse Marshall Tito's regime of encouraging that invasion after 1945 in order to undermine Serbia and the Serbian people; and they claim that, at the same time, restrictive legislation prevented the settlers of the 1930s from returning home. But the only laws ever adopted were on agricultural reform; in some cases, they may indeed have been unfavourable to Serbian or Montenegrin settlers who had moved in between the wars and whose land was taken away from them.

Another Serbian advantage, which the Albanians dispute, is related to the Orthodox monasteries and churches. The Albanian nationalists contend that these Orthodox shrines were built on the ruins of earlier Catholic monasteries, pointing out that Kosovo's Albanians were Catholics before their conversion to Islam, which was not widespread until the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Catholic diocese of Kosovo officially endorses this nationalist view, and that is blocking any prospect of ecumenical dialogue. For the Serbian monks, cooped up in their monasteries (which are now isolated camps protected by Nato troops), the Albanian extremists are pursuing a strategy of denial. Some 150 places of Orthodox worship have been vandalised or destroyed since June 1999 and the Albanians are said to be questioning the identity of the remaining monasteries.

This polemic shows that the battle for historical memory still rages. In 2002, after provocation that failed to elicit a sufficiently strong response from the international regulatory authority, Serbian MPs decided to boycott the Kosovan parliament. The foyer of its building was decorated with murals depicting the history of the Albanian people, omitting the history of Kosovo's other inhabitants. Both the Albanians and the Serbs claim exclusive rights to Kosovo. The presence of the others can only be the result of usurpation, violence or colonisation.

That Kosovo's Albanians were late converts to Islam has also enabled some nationalist movements, particular that led by Kosovo's president, Ibrahim Rugova, to present this conversion as an accident of history. Catholicism is claimed to be the true historical religion of Kosovo's Albanians, so that it is possible to distinguish them from the Albanians of Albania. Within that ideological construction, Kosovo's small Catholic community (fewer than 5% of the Albanian population) enjoys a privileged position, as do crypto-Catholic communities who pretended to convert to Islam to escape discrimination but continued to practise Catholicism (4).

In Albania a similar role has been attributed to the Bektashi communities as part of the process of constructing a national identity. This order of dervishes was particularly influential in southern Albania, and it produced many of the intellectuals involved in the national renaissance movement (rilindja) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bektashism, markedly heterodox compared with Sunni Islam, has even been perceived as a separate religion.

The current reality is bitter. Since 1999 Kosovo's Catholic community been physically attacked and the dervishes, both Bektashis and members of other groups, have been targeted by those intent on imposing the rules of strict Sunni Islam. Dozens of turbe (5) have been destroyed without any outcry, although they were an important part of Kosovo's historical and spiritual heritage.

There are two approaches. Rugova is trying to establish the identity of Dardania—the name of the Roman province whose territory partially matched that of present Kosovo—which would have roots in the region's Catholic past. Certain intellectuals, in particular those close to the periodical Java, are militantly anti-Islamist. Some, like Milgjen Kelmendi, are trying to rehabilitate the local variants of the Albanian language, which was standardised on the Tosque model, current in southern Albania. The aim of both projects is to assert a national identity for the Kosovars, distinct from Albania's Albanians.

That political project was developed from the 1980s, particularly during the 1990s, in opposition to Milosevic's Serbian regime. The intellectuals attached to the Democratic League of Kosovo were not trying to establish a Greater Albania—that is much more the objective of the movements that emerged from the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). But the project is being swept aside by the demands for the unification of Albanian territories in the Balkans and efforts to impose a standardised Sunni Islam that wants to consolidate its hold on society.

We may be witnessing the shift of a historical pendulum. Kosovo was integrated into the kingdom of Serbia in 1913. Within that kingdom, between 1918 and 1941, vigorous policies of centralisation and Serbianisation were conducted to the detriment of the Albanian peoples. They took their revenge during the second world war. Kosovo was parcelled up: the northern mining region was placed under direct German administration; another sector was allocated to the Bulgarian occupiers and the bulk of the territory included in Greater Albania, created under the auspices of Mussolini's Italy.

Taking turns to dominate

The multinational movement of Tito's communist partisans was late to develop in Kosovo: during the second world war the opposition was between the Chetniks (Serbian ultranationalists) and the occupying forces and their Albanian collaborators (6).Domination has passed alternately from one group to the other. The Serbs dominated from 1918 to 1941; the Albanians from 1941 to 1945; the Serbs in the early days of socialist Yugoslavia—the interior minister, Serbian Aleksandar Rankovic, applied a policy of centralisation that tolerated no support for the re-emergence of Albanian nationalism. The fall of Rankovic (1965) and the new decentralising Yugoslav constitution of 1974 restored the advantage to the Albanians. Between 1974 and 1981 Kosovo had a golden age under the leadership of local communist officials, with Albanians in the majority.

But the development of Albanian national claims soon threatened this fragile balance. The Albanian demonstrations of 1981, designed to establish Kosovo as a federal republic of Yugoslavia, were violently suppressed, and that founding moment produced two political trends. Lecturers at the University of Pristina, set up in 1968 and the cradle of national renaissance, asserted that Kosovo had its own identity; but their students supported the underground movements in favour of a Greater Albania controlled by Enver Hoxha's Stalinist Albania. During the 1990s these movements, which enjoyed strong support within western Europe's Albanian diaspora, led to the formation of the KLA (7).

From the suppresion of the demand for autonomy in 1989 until 1999, the Serbian regime under Milosevic ruled Kosovo with a rod of iron. But the strategy of passive non-violent resistance, adopted by the Albanian leadership within Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo, established a counter-society. It was certainly a response to Belgrade's violence but it jeopardised any chance of future reconciliation.

The creation of this Albanian counter-society was accompanied by intense propaganda abroad, comparing the position in Kosovo to that of a colonial situation in which the indigenous (Albanian) population had been oppressed by a foreign power. Demographics were mobilised: it was claimed that more than 90% of Kosovo's population were Albanian, whereas, according to the last census of 1981, the figure was only 81%.

Serbian historians developed theories about the specific rights of the Serbian people by comparing the historical rights of Serbia with the demographic rights of the Albanians, who had been in a clear majority since the mid-20th century at least. Among both Serbs and Albanians school textbooks reproduce and reinforce these conflicting interpretations of the past. A major failure of the international protectorate for Kosovo has been the lack of any real reform of the school curriculum, or any initiative to help the different communities move beyond their conflicting images of their own identities (8). Those, like historian Linka Perovic, who call for a historical compromise between Serbs and Albanians are few and far between.

The official aim of the Nato bombing in 1999 was to end the abuses of the Serbian army and police, who were responding to the upsurge in Albanian guerrilla activity. But the Albanians saw the involvement of Nato as indicating support for their demand for independence and welcomed the Nato soldiers as liberators. Those soldiers did nothing to prevent the ethnic cleansing of the Serbs and other non-Albanian communities. The western forces used the Albanian demands to justify their own objectives, especially that of weakening the Milosevic regime.

Have the Serbs lost Kosovo? If the international community were to recognise Kosovo's independence, there would probably be a fresh exodus of some 100,000 Serbs, who still live in an international protectorate. In opting to favour, and thereby legitimise, a particular national position, the international community has assumed a huge responsibility, because it has flouted the values it professes of an open and tolerant society. By favouring the emergence of an exclusively Albanian Kosovo, without as yet formally recognising its independence, it has fallen into a trap that may close on all the peoples of Kosovo and even drag the region into fresh violence.


(1) On the eve of the battle, an angel is said to have asked the prince whether he would prefer victory and the kingdom of this world, or the spiritual world. He opted for the spiritual world, following Christ's example.

(2) The attempt to give a modern nation historical roots is a recurring feature of nationalism. Under the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu Romania's “Daco-Romanian” origins were extolled. This phenomenon has been studied by Ernest Gellner in Nations et nationalisme, Payot, Paris, 1999.

(3) The Albanian viewpoints are summarised by Rexhep Qosja in La question albanaise, Fayard, Paris, 1995.

(4) Catholics are concentrated in western Kosovo, in the Prizren and Djakovica regions, but the tradition of crypto-Catholicism was widespread in Vitina or Gnjilane.

(5) The turbe are the tombs of a Dervish saint who is believed to possess a power of intercession (like the marabouts in north Africa), and are the object of popular devotion.

(6) Ibrahim Rugova's father, a member of the Balli Kombëtar movement, was executed under the policies of ethnic cleansing at the end of the war.

(7) See Christophe Chiclet, “Rise of the Kosovar freedom fighters”, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, May 1999.

(8) See Besnik Pula, “Kosovo: l’école et l’expérience de l’état”, Le Courrier des Balkans,