Kosova and Albania: history, people, identity

Robert Elsie
25 February 2008

The issue of national identity always has the capacity to provoke argument and debate, especially perhaps among peoples who share many similarities yet who are divided by political boundaries. The Albanians of Kosova (the territory is spelled thus in its Albanian form) are one of those groups who were and are understandably obsessed with issues relating to their ethnic and national identity. For many years, they knew what there were not. They never liked to be called Yugoslavs, though for decades they had Yugoslav passports and benefited from freedoms which people in Albania itself could only have dreamed of. And they were certainly not Serbs, though much of the world regarded their country simply as a province of Serbia, indeed some still do.

Robert Elsie is a scholar and translator of Albanian literature. He runs a website on the subject: www.elsie.de

But what and who then are the Kosovars, citizens now of the independent state declared on 17 February 2008? Are they simply Albanians, i.e. the same people as the inhabitants of the Republic of Albania, or are they Kosovar Albanians, a special breed? Confusion over this matter gave rise before and during the Kosova war of 1998-99 to the rather denigrating term "ethnic Albanian". I say "denigrating" because the term was imposed upon the Kosovar Albanians from outside and was used almost universally during and after the war, whereas the equivalent term "ethnic Serb" for the Serb inhabitants of Kosova never really took hold - thus implicitly suggesting that the country was, indeed, simply part of Serbia.

Also in openDemocracy on Kosovo and the region:

Peter Lippman, "Kosovo: approaching independence or chaos?" (30 October 2006)

TK Vogel, "Kosovo: a break in the ice" (2 February 2007)

Marko Attila Hoare, "Kosovo: the Balkans' last independent state" (12 February 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Serbia after Kosovo" (18 April 2007)

Eric Gordy, "Serbia's Kosovo claim: much ado about..." (2 October 2007)

Paul Hockenos, "Kosovo's contested future" (16 November 2007)

Juan Garrigues, "Kosovo's troubled victory" (7 December 2007)

Ginanne Brownell, "Kosovo's Serbs in suspension" (10 December 2007)

Mary Kaldor, "The Balkans-Caucasus tangle: states and citizens" (9 January 2008)

John O'Brennan, "Kosovo: the hour of Europe" (14 January 2008)

Timothy William Waters, "Kosovo: the day after" (18 February 2008)

In the years of struggle on the part of the Kosovar Albanians for the right to be Albanian, talk of a specific Kosovar identity was very much taboo. In the political context of the period, it was seen as tantamount to driving a wedge between the Albanians in Kosova and those in Albania, thus dividing and weakening the Albanian nation to the benefit of an expansive Serbia.

The Kosovars are particularly sensitive to the subject, not least because of intrigues by the one-time communist authorities in Belgrade. In order to maintain its rule over a region which was not primarily Serb-inhabited, Belgrade after 1945 fostered two different terms in the Serbian language to refer to the Albanians: the Albanci (denoting the inhabitants of the Republic of Albania) and the Šiptari (the Albanian-speaking inhabitants of Kosova and the rest of former Yugoslavia, and a word not without negative connotations). Official circles in Belgrade had deftly divided one ethnic group into two, as part of an attempt to stifle any latent desire for their reunification.

One world, two worlds

The western world only really discovered the Albanians in the 1990s as a result of the Yugoslav wars and ethnic conflicts, and of the 1997 uprising in Albania. Newspapers and television reports at the time presented the Albanians in two varieties - not Ghegs and Tosks (that is, northern Albanians and southern Albanians, as dialectologists and ethnographers are wont to divide them) but actual Albanians and in Kosovar or "ethnic" Albanians.

Such issues of identity, and national identity in particular, are complex, here as elsewhere; definitive judgment is rarely possible, and certainly not in a short article. A basic question illustrates the point: are the Kosovars the same people as the inhabitants of the Republic of Albania?

On the surface it seems clear: yes, of course, they are. They are fundamentally of the same ethnicity; they speak the same language, despite substantial dialect differences; and they hold a certain community of values. They thus share most of the basic attributes of what constitutes a nation. Anthony D Smith defined this as follows: "A human group sharing (usually by birth) an historical territory, common myths and historical memories, often a common language, a mass public common culture, a perception of threat and common legal rights and duties for all members."

So far, so good. Yet, if we are to seek a fuller answer to this question, it must be what the Germans would call jein: that is, yes and no.

Paulin Kola, the BBC analyst, indicates the character of the issue at stake when he writes: "having been at the receiving end of repeated invasions by countries more powerful than themselves, the Albanians remained fragmented and unable to establish a unifying central authority that would command their collective allegiance" (see The Search for Greater Albania, C Hurst, 2003).

Albania, in the ethnic sense of territory in southeastern Europe inhabited primarily by the Albanians, was united for about five centuries as part of the Ottoman empire. With the final collapse of the moribund empire in the first Balkan war of 1912-13, Kosova (which had an Albanian majority population at the time) was invaded and conquered by the Serb Third Army under King Petar I Karadjordjevic. Albania itself, in the current political sense, had rather chaotically declared its independence in November 1912 and managed to gain international recognition at the London conference in summer 1913. Since that time, the Albanians have been living in two different states; though it would be more accurate to say six different states, because there are also substantial Albanian communities in Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Greece (to say nothing of old and new communities in Italy). But their core settlement was in the two entities where the Albanians were the absolute majority in 1913 and have remained so to the present day.

Behind the moon

In 1918-39, the end of one world war to the start of another, Albanian culture evolved in two different worlds. In this period, and in particular during the reign of King Zog (1928-39), the Albanians of the motherland managed, somewhat sluggishly, to develop a solid national culture, primitive though it may have been by European standards. For their part, the Kosovar Albanians were in this period subjected to an unprecedented level of ethnic discrimination as unwanted guests in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and were unable to advance politically or culturally. Public use of the Albanian language in Kosova (Albanian-language school education) was just as forbidden in the "first Yugoslavia" as it had been in the Ottoman empire.

The brief reunification of Albania and Kosova under the auspices of fascist Italy during the second world war did bring some relief. An ephemeral Albanian-language administration was created, elementary and secondary schools were opened and a number of young Kosovars received scholarships to study abroad. If many Kosovars welcomed Italian and Nazi German occupation, it was certainly not because of any innate love of fascism. It was simply because, for most people, Italian and German occupation was infinitely preferable to Serb occupation; a fact which reflects the nature of their experience under the latter.

But Kosova was returned to Serb rule after 1945 and was encompassed, against the will of the majority of its population, into socialist Yugoslavia, where it remained until the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. There was, however, a short period in 1946-47 (after the communist victory in Tirana) when a modicum of contact between Albania and Kosova existed. Indeed, plans were underway at the time for a political merger not only of Albania and Kosova, but of Albania and Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav dinar was introduced as the national currency of Albania, and the Serbo-Croatian language was made compulsory in all Albanian schools.

However, the great split between Tito and Stalin - and the choice of Albania's leader Enver Hoxha to ally his country firmly with Moscow against Belgrade - radically changed the political situation. From summer 1948 to the 1990s, the border between Albania and Kosova was hermetically sealed; the Berlin wall was, by comparison, a sieve. Kosova Albanians were still being imprisoned for visiting Albania without a Serb "exit visa" as late as 1998.

The obvious result of this imposed division and long period of separation between Albania and Kosova was a cultural dichotomy: the creation of two different Albanian cultures, and, one might almost postulate, two different Albanian nations. The isolationist regime of Enver Hoxha in Albania, faithful for almost half a century to the primitive and inhumane system of Stalin and his successors, wiped out the middle class in the late 1940s and achieved nothing over the following decades but economic and cultural stagnation. The population lived in ignorance, fear and misery. In material terms, they were deprived of all but the bare essentials needed to stay alive. Indeed one can do little but marvel at how they managed to survive as a people at all.

Most aspects of traditional Albanian culture were destroyed, in particular in the 1960s. Decades of communist revolution, purges and terror demolished virtually everything Albania had once been. Even today, Albania is still largely a victim of the decades of social and cultural isolation it suffered from the rest of the world. In such circumstances, the population of Albania had no time or energy to give a thought to Kosova. For most of those with no close family ties, Kosova was somewhere behind the moon.

The mountain bridge

Kosova for its part, while always the poorhouse of Yugoslavia, made some economic progress and by the 1970s had attained a certain degree of prosperity - in modest Albanian terms. However, with the exception of the 1974-81 period, Kosovar society was under constant and mostly destructive pressure from Serbia, politically and culturally; as a result, it withdrew into itself, remaining hermetic and traditional.

The Kosovar Albanians knew little about what was going on in Stalinist Albania. It was the country of their dreams, their hopes and their aspirations, and there was no place in these dreams for reality. They naively regarded their lot as worse than that of the motherland and were devastated in the late 1990s when they were forced to accept the fact that they had fared much better under Serbia than their brethren had under Enver Hoxha.

In the early 1990s, during and after the slow implosion of the communist regime in Tirana, the first contacts between the two halves of the Albanian nation after decades of separation were coloured by much prejudice. Some of the first Kosovars to arrive in Tirana were carpetbaggers from the diaspora in western Europe, there to make a quick buck. They helped introduce a free- market economy, but with it corruption and crime. The local Albanians reacted with shock and hostility at the new capitalist practices, and viewed the incomers as foreigners. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to state that in the first half of the 1990s, Kosovar Albanians were much more welcome in Belgrade than they were in Tirana. Even the substantial communities of Albanian emigrants that then arose in western Europe remained staunchly divided. Albanians from Albania and Albanians from Kosova did not mix publicly or privately, and encountered one another most often with latent or open hostility. In the 1990s, there was certainly not one Albanian identity, but two.

The turning-point came after the beginning of the war in March-June 1999 between Nato and the Belgrade regime of Slobodan Milosevic for control of Kosova, when about half a million of the approximately 800,000 Kosovars expelled (in many cases from their burning homes) by Serb militias sought refuge in neighbouring Albania. Though Albania was still very poor and backward, and the people were not overly predisposed to receiving "asylum-seekers", they took the Kosovars in as best they could. It was thus in these three months of 1999 that the Albanians finally got to know one another and, despite major misunderstandings - both linguistic and cultural - began to realise that they were one nation. Since that time, with the open border, Albanians have been growing together. Contacts - cultural, political, economic and individual - have flourished as never before in the history of the Albanian nation.

The tortuous course of Albanian history cemented two distinct identities, and they will no doubt continue to exist for some time. But they will grow together whether they want to or not. Kosova's political independence will now offer Albanians there an opportunity to achieve their own self-definition in light of the history they have lived through.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData