Are You My Mother? (Or: Is Kosovo Struggling To Forge An Identity?)

“Are You My Mother?” is the famous children’s story by Dr. Seuss about a baby bird who is trying to figure out who his mother is. Perhaps in a strained attempt at an analogy, Kosovo’s independence brings up a similar question that the baby bird had in the book:  who are we?  That sometimes amorphous idea of identity affects how we view ourselves and the world around us. 

In an article published today in the New York Times, “Kosovo Struggles To Forge An Identity,” Dan Bilefsky explores the theme of Kosovo identity, or more particularly, the “struggle” to forge one.  But the title of the article, though, is a bit misleading.  Chances are, if you ask someone from Kosovo where are they from, they will likely say, “Kosovo.”  But if you ask someone, “What are you?  What is your nationality?”  Chances are, they will say either “Albanian” or “Serb.”  There’s no real struggle there.  The real struggle lies in forging a national Kosovar identity.  To many Kosovar Albanians, being a Kosovar and an Albanian are not mutually exclusive.  You are either one or the other.

As I’ve argued in other posts, Balkanization, or the primacy of ethnic nationalism over nationalism and the rule of law, can often times be a recipe for instablity, intolerance, irrationality and inevitable disaster.  For starters, just look at Slobodan Milosovic. 

The same holds true in regions where religion trumps nationalism and the rule of law.  Ethnic nationalism or ethnic collectivism has the potential to be more dangerous than any “terrorist” cell, for it rests on ignorance and stereotype:  you are guilty because you are an Albanian; you are guilty because you are a Serb.  Indeed, today’s victims can be tomorrows war criminals, and vice versa.

The question is what direction or choice of identity will Kosovo take?  The article in the New York Times takes the pessimistic view that Kosovo, like others countries in the Balkans, will always identify itself by its majority ethnicity, i.e., Albanian over Kosovar.  It’s not simply a matter of semantics.  The distinction is deliberate and real.

I unfortunately share the pessimistic tone of the New York Time article.  In the case of Kosovo, ethnic nationalism was a form of self-defense against oppressive rule.  And it’s not simply something that sprouted in the last 10 years.  This has been going on for hundreds of years.  The question, then, is two fold:  a) can it be unlearned and b) if it can’t, is there a way for the rule of law to trump it?

As Kosovo nears independence, we shall see whether there will, in fact, be a struggle over Kosovo’s identity, or whether ethnic nationalism will have the ultimate trump card over rationality and the rule of law, as it has done in so many other parts in the region.

When Kosovo recently held a contest to design a flag, the organizers insisted that it reflect the multi-ethnic population, shunning the nationalist symbols of the past. But dozens of artists ignored that edict. They submitted variants of the red and black Albanian flag, its two-headed eagle proudly displayed at weddings and on the battlefield for decades. The flag is reviled by many Serbs, who make up a minority in this breakaway Serbian province.

As Kosovo prepares to declare independence — the culmination of a long and bloody struggle — this artistic rebellion underlines the challenge this small territory faces to forge a secular national identity, one that can overcome ethnic and religious resentments. Hashim Thaci, the incoming Kosovo prime minister who was the leader of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, expressed the view of many Kosovars when he recently said, “A Kosovo identity does not exist.”

But that is starting to change. “How we create a Kosovar identity is a critical question,” said Migjen Kelmendi, a former rock star who is now a linguist and editor. Mr. Kelmendi is leading the effort to fashion a new self-image for Kosovo. The Albanian Muslims who form a large majority of Kosovo, he said, “think of themselves in terms of their Albanian ethnicity, and they think that questioning that makes them a traitor.”

In anticipation [of independence], symbols have been cropping up. Fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army have peppered the province with giant monuments and statues glorifying K.L.A. soldiers and guerrillas, idealized fighters resembling James Dean, who wield AK-47 assault rifles and stare down at passers-by on Pristina’s main boulevards. The United States is similarly glorified, with a statue of Bill Clinton in the works and a replica of the Statue of Liberty atop the Victory Hotel.

Intellectuals and political analysts argue that this rebranding of Kosovo inevitably trips over history. Albin Kurti, an ethnic Albanian activist who is under house arrest, contends that Kosovar Albanians are wedded to their Albanian identity because they have long defined themselves by the ethnicity for which they were persecuted during decades of authoritarian regimes. “Our nationalism is a reaction to oppression by Milosevic and war with the Serbs,” Mr. Kurti said, referring to Slobodan Milosevic, former president of Yugoslavia, who in 1989 ended Kosovo’s autonomous status and dismissed 130,000 ethnic Albanians from their jobs.

The attempt to forge a new identity also resurrects memories of the Communist period after World War II when Tito tried to stifle ethnic Albanian identity as part of his project to subsume ethnic divisions across Yugoslavia. Instead, Tito’s effort had the opposite effect. He also inadvertently fostered a movement among Kosovar Albanians for the reunification of Kosovo with neighboring Albania — an aim since abandoned in favor of independence from Serbia.

Yet a new identity is needed if Kosovo is to provide for a multi-ethnic state with a segregated Serbian minority and reduce the divisions that have often led to war, a variety of leaders say.  Agim Ceku, Kosovo’s outgoing prime minister, argued in an interview that Kosovo must create a secular nation and draft a constitution like America’s that recognizes the rights of all citizens. Shortly after becoming prime minister, he was criticized by some Albanian nationalists for asking Kosovo’s Serbs to help build the new Kosovo.

The effort to build a civic society was initially championed by Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo’s first president. Mr. Rugova, an ardent secularist, tried to create a national cuisine by serving Kosovar dishes like ice milk and salty cheese. He even tried to rename the Sharr Shepherd, a dog indigenous to Kosovo, as the Kosovo Shepherd. Such was the resistance to his project that when he proposed a new flag in 2000, known as the flag of Dardania — the ancient word for Kosovo — some burned it in protest.

During the cold war, Mr. Kelmendi recalled, Albanians in Kosovo dreamed of reuniting with Albania, which was under a dictatorship and isolated from the rest of Europe. But he said when Kosovar Albanians visited Albania, they saw an impoverished people with whom they had little in common. “My father had told me about Albania as if it were a fairy tale homeland,” he said, but when he visited, “all I saw was a nightmare.”

Historians are also part of the effort to remold Kosovo. Jahja Dranqolli, a prominent ethnic Albanian historian, said it was time to rewrite Kosovo’s history, which he said had been whitewashed by foreign rulers. “We were always part of Yugoslavia or Albania or Serbia,” he said. “We have always been living in a shadow world from which we need to escape.”

The ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, who are 95 percent Muslim, could look to their Muslim roots for identity, as some did after the war of the 1990s, when several local imams went to study in Saudi Arabia, and returned preaching Islamic nationalism. But Shkelzen Maliqi, a leading political analyst and intellectual, argues that Kosovars are far more likely to embrace pro-Americanism. He said that most Albanians were secular, products of a history in which Turks forced mass conversion to Islam upon Christians. The only Islamic party in Kosovo garnered just 2 percent of votes in recent elections. “The national liberation movement against Serbia was always careful to play down Islam and to be pro-Western,” he said.

While the debate about a national identity is taking off, Mr. Kelmendi said it clearly had a long way to go: “When you ask a Kosovar, ‘Are you a Kosovar?’ they will answer, ‘No, I am Albanian.’ If you ask a Serb, ‘Are you a Kosovar?’ they will answer, ‘No, I am a Serb.”


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