Following decades of enforced separation, Albanians are discussing how different they've become.
On a hot summer’s day, a group of friends is sitting in a seaside cafe in southern Albania. Erleta, the daughter of a dissident in Kosovo, and Tomi, a native of Tirana, have much in common.
However, as is usual in the Balkans, they are divided when discussing the past. Tomi believes the former communist regime in Albania was far more oppressive than Josip Tito’s regime in Yugoslavia. Erleta disagrees.
Poverty and hunger were routine in communist Albania, Tomi adds, while people in Kosovo could own property, practice their religion and emigrate to the West, if they wished.
However, Erleta insists that oppression cannot be measured in terms of material goods alone. “Try enjoying a table full of food while somebody is striking you in the face,” she replies, searching for a metaphor to convey the oppression that Albanians felt they experienced in Kosovo. “And don’t refer to us as Kosovars,” she adds. “We too are Albanians”.
The two friends’ heated dispute is a reminder of the fact that, while all Albanians supported Kosovo’s revolt against Serbian rule, Kosovo’s independence since 2008 has thrown up questions concerning the new state’s identity, and about whether it differs from Albania’s.
Some see the attempt to promote a specific Kosovar identity as imposed and invented and reject it as artificial. Others feel more positive. Either way, the question is a hot topic in Pristina, Tirana and Skopje, among intellectuals, politicians and ordinary people alike.
Divided by borders
The origins of the questions concerning Kosovo’s identity date back to the Balkan War of 1912, when Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria overran the last remaining swathe of Ottoman-ruled territory in the Balkans.
The result of the London Peace Conference of 1913 was the partition of Macedonia between the victors and the creation of an independent Albania.
However, almost half of the region’s ethnic Albanian population was left out of the new country after Serbia annexed Kosovo and what is now the Republic of Macedonia.
Though still united by a common language and heritage, a state border now divided Albanians in Albania and Albanians in Kosovo.
After the Second World War, the border became firmer still. The two states in which Albanians lived now followed very different ideologies, with Albania sticking to a hard-line Stalinist philosophy. From 1948 until 1991, the border between Yugoslavia and Albania was almost hermetically sealed.
Even after Yugoslavia collapsed, during Slobodan Milosevic’s rule in Serbia, Kosovo Albanians could not easily cross the border. As a result, Albanians on both sides of the frontier had few chances to communicate, for almost half a century.
In Albania, the isolationist regime of Enver Hoxha also did its best to wipe out most aspects of traditional Albanian culture. Most of the population lived in material deprivation, left wanting for the most basic goods.
Robert Elsie, a former German diplomat and long-time Balkan observer, maintains that, although Kosovo was the poorest region of the former Yugoslavia, it enjoyed modest prosperity when compared to Albania.
However, Kosovo Albanians experienced constant political and cultural oppression from Belgrade. One result was that they tended to withdraw into themselves as a community, remaining more traditional in culture than Albanians in Albania.
Paradise is on the other side
For most Kosovo Albanians who grew up in the former Yugoslavia, Albania was a proletarian paradise, known only by the propaganda images beamed out by Hoxha’s regime.
“We saw Albania as the land of our dreams […] because it was an independent country and wasn’t ruled by others, like us and the Serbs,” says Sefer from Pristina.
He spent most of the 1990s in exile running an Albanian club on the outskirts of Lyon, France, and publishing a magazine, The Road To Freedom.
“What we knew of Albania was the propaganda that the regime broadcast on Radio Tirana,” he recalled. “It was an independent state, free from Russian or American influence, where a free people raised its own flag.
“When my friends in Kosovo first travelled to Albania in the early 1990s, they used to kiss the ground,” he added.
Sefer’s magazine praised Hoxha as a ‘great patriot’. He says his eyes were not fully opened until the late 1990s, when he ended up in Albania as a refugee.
“We only became familiar with the real Albania during the 1999 exodus, when over 600,000 of us found refuge [in Albania] and saw with our own eyes the misery of our dreamland,” he recalled.
“As we recognised each other, we understood better that we didn’t really know each other at all.”
The Kosovo Albanians were not the only ones to labour under misconceptions concerning their ethnic kith and kin. Albanians in Albania cherished similar illusions about their cousins on the other side of the border.
“We considered them [Kosovo Albanians] lucky because, economically, they were much more prosperous than us,” recalls Julian. His family originated from Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, but he was born and raised in a village close to Fier, in central Albania.
Julian’s family had moved to Albania after the Second World War to escape from Serbian repression, but felt the Albanian communist regime treated them even more harshly than the Serbs had done.
“We couldn’t move from the village, let alone go to a European metropolis like people in the former Yugoslavia could,” Julian recalls. “They also had religious freedom [in Kosovo] while my mother had to prepare her Eid cookies in secret because, if they were discovered, we would suffer the consequences.”
At one point, Julian’s family was sent to an internment camp in a poor and swampy area known as Derrmenas. One of his uncles was executed as a political dissident. The family was denied access to higher education and experienced a life of poverty and fear until the communist regime collapsed in 1991.
Julian remembers how he had “longed for the moment to visit Kosovo for the first time because it then seemed I would be entering the West – but I was disappointed.”
The terror experienced by many Kosovo Albanians during Milosevic’s rule shocked him. “I understood what a police state they were living in – constantly scared for their lives,” he explains. “Furthermore, they seemed different, as if they belonged to another nation.”
Fatos Lubonja, an Albanian writer and former political dissident who spent most of his youth in Hoxha’s gulags, says the fact that Kosovo Albanians experienced a different history from that of the Albanians in Albania since 1912 has helped shape their respective identities.
“The Albanians of Kosovo for a certain period of time felt more Yugoslav than Albanian,” Lubonja says. “National awakening, even there [in Kosovo], has been a process.”
One identity or two?
Travelling from Tirana to Pristina on the newly-constructed four-lane highway is an enjoyable experience. A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable.
The idea that Kosovo would be an independent nation, recognised by 63 states, including the US and 22 of the 27 member states of the European Union, was even more unimaginable back then.
Nexhmedin Spahiu, professor of political science at the University of Pristina and author of a book, Towards the Kosovar Nation, maintains that Kosovo Albanians and Albanian Albanians have evolved separate identities.
“In terms of ethnicity, we have the same identity because we speak the same language and have common traditions,” he says. “But we have had different histories and this has created two distinct identities – separated from one another in the political sense of the word.”
Spahiu says Kosovo is unusual in that it is creating a national identity after the country has declared independence – not the other way round. “We created our state before being shaped as a nation,” he notes.
With its own flag, national anthem and other symbols, “we will progress towards the creation of a Kosovar nation made up not only of Albanians but other ethnic minority communities,” he predicts.
Other commentators also admit the existence of important social differences between Kosovo Albanians and Albanians in Albania.
“When we first made contact with the Kosovo Albanians during the NATO air war, it did not take me long to discover that we were similar – but as time passed I noticed differences,” Mustafa Nano, a Tirana political commentator, says.
“In 1999 I would have said that we had a common identity, but today I would answer that our identities are distinct,” he adds. “This is revealed in our relations to the nation, to religion, to the family, the state and our work ethics,” Nano continues.
One obvious difference between the two peoples is their speech. The Gheg dialect used in Kosovo differs from the language that is taught in school and used in Albania.
Enver Hoxha, a southerner, imposed the southern Tosk dialect on all of Albania. As a result, use of the Gheg dialect is often frowned upon.
In Tirana, Kosovo Albanians are often perceived as people with rural values who cling to outdated clan structures, something the communist regime in Albania reviled during its long dictatorship.
Kosovo Albanians have their own grudges against Albanians from Albania, seeing them as less patriotic than themselves and indifferent to the Albanian cause.
At the same time, many ordinary Albanians believe these differences are only skin deep and are mostly based on prejudice.
When Murat Rrahmani from Mitrovica fled the armed conflict in Kosovo in 1999 with his wife, mother and three daughters, he settled in the southern Albanian town of Vlora.
“I was worried,” Murat recalls. He knew only that the town had been at the centre of major unrest a few years earlier, following the failure of a series of pyramid investment schemes.
But the poor working-class family with whom Murat and his family took refuge surprised them with their hospitality.
“Because of the difference in dialect we had trouble understanding our hosts at first,” Murat says. “But we adapted fast and after a while we felt at home.” Now back in Kosovo, he and his family return to Vlora each year.
Mehmet Shushollari, the construction worker who hosted Murat’s family, says that, although the two families knew little of each other, in the end they found they were much the same.
“In Vlora, we knew very little about Kosovo,” Mehmet says. “But we lived with Murat’s family for several months and, although they were not very keen on seafood, we found each other very similar, even in culinary terms,” he adds.
Some intellectuals also feel that a separate Kosovar identity does not really exist. “The term ‘Kosovar identity’ is artificial. It’s difficult to define what it really is – even for those who think it exists,” Pristina-based sociologist Shkelzen Maliqi says. “Although there are differences in the worldviews of Kosovo Albanians and those across the border, these differences are not enough to make up an identity.”
“A Kosovar identity would not be… a stable and strong identity, with a clear meaning,” he adds.
Kosovo Albanian academic Rexhep Qosja agrees. Those who speak of different identities for Kosovo Albanians and Albanians from Albania should remember that every human being has their own “identity”, he maintains.
“The same logic stands for different areas inhabited by Albanians, where people have their own micro-identities,” he explains. “But if we stretch this to all Albanians, they have a common identity that is made up of these micro-identities.”
Rather than Albanians creating differences among themselves, Qosja says it is their neighbours that have superimposed such differences.
He notes the different terms that the Serbian language uses for an Albanian in Kosovo and an Albanian in Albania - “siptar” and “albanac” respectively.
Qosja says the international community might want to encourage the development of a specific Kosovar identity for political reasons, “thinking that will make Serbs more comfortable.”
But he insists that Albanians on both sides of the border “are one nation, and the pretence of creating another nation or identity is not only absurd but anti-historical.”
“The two Koreas are two states, as was divided Germany, but, other than the different political systems, no-one [has ever] believed that either was two separate nations,” he concludes.
Reunion in the EU
For some Albanians in Kosovo, having a new identity does not mean radically changing their perceptions of themselves, but enriching their existing Albanian identity.
“A new state is being established with a new flag and its own boundaries, and efforts are being made to establish an identity for Kosovo Albanians that is no longer like the identity they once had,” Bujar, a reporter in Pristina, says.
The Albanians of Albania and the Albanians of Kosovo are not the only people following the debate over identity.
In Macedonia, a quarter of the population is also ethnically Albanian. Many of them feel excluded from both Albanian ‘nations’, especially by the current stress on Kosovo’s separate identity.
“What identity do I have?” asks Arben, a worker at a pharmaceutical company in the western Macedonian town of Tetovo. “Am I Albanian, Macedonian, Muslim, or am I a Kosovar, as many in Albania call us?”
Julian agrees. To many ordinary people like him, the new focus on Kosovo’s identity looks divisive. “Up to the time of NATO’s intervention, everybody argued for being Albanian,” he says. “Now that they don't have to deal with the Serbs, they have started to argue with each other.”
For many Albanian politicians, the answer to Arben’s question about where he fits in must come, at least in part, through integration into the European Union.
Only then will Albanians throughout the region be truly reunited, because national borders will then have little or no meaning.
Speaking in Pristina in October, Albania’s Prime Minister, Sali Berisha, said that although the division of Kosovo from Albania had left scars, they had remained essentially one nation that aspired towards a common future in the EU.
“The nation is one and undivided, and there are not two Albanian nations as there are not two Croat and Serb nations,” he said, adding: “There is no brighter future for us Albanians to wish for than integration into the EU.”
This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN.
Arjan Konomi from Tirana, Albania, is a member of the editorial management team of the Shqip magazine
The collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 triggered a frenzied phase of nation-building in Eastern Europe, while some Balkan nations embarked on armed conflicts aimed at strengthening national, religious and cultural identities.