Isa Blumi is a PhD candidate at New York University's joint History and Middle Eastern Studies Program and has been a scholar of Albanian politics since 1994. His present research interests focus on issues of identity formation in Northern Albania and Yemen during the last 50 years of Ottoman rule. His published works have appeared in East European Politics and Society and East European Quarterly in addition to contributions to several edited volumes.
Central Europe Review: Can you describe the situation on the ground nowadays in Kosovo?
Isa Blumi: Kosovo has been ravaged by states that, for more than 70 years, have systematically tried to change the ethnic balance of the country. As a colony of Serbia, Kosovo today reminds me much of the Central Asian states I visited immediately after they won independence from Russia.
I am sure any African who experienced French, Portuguese or English colonialism would see a great number of similarities in Kosovo as well. It has little or no independent economic link to the outside world. Its material, economic and spiritual infrastructure is almost non-existent.
One of the most dangerous legacies of Serbia's imperialism is a population that is largely divided along lines firmly linked to Kosovo's colonial past. Kosovo's political lines are drawn between a parvenu class that found levels of comfort operating within a system of colonialism or apartheid, and a vast majority that has for generations been subject to systematic policies of racial discrimination and state violence.
The enormous dislocations created by years of low-intensity state violence, culminating in the last two years of massive repression, has created a psychology of distrust that is incompatible with the aspirations the international community publicly expresses today. The pervasive naivete of the international community is accompanied by an archaic desire to homogenize constituencies that is proving detrimental to efforts to "bring peace to Kosovo."
UNMIK and its administrators, as they arrogantly administered Africa since the end of European colonialism, have perpetuated collective alienation and asserted a relational tension that only strengthens fears and resentments. The world community has proven to have little patience for nuances inherent to the country and have been manipulated by outside policy, rather than adopting an approach that respects local the impute towards resolving local issues.
Colonized by overpaid bureaucrats
Kosovo is still colonized, this time by a cadre of overpaid bureaucrats whose redundancy in their own countries has done little to inform how the United Nations operates. Instead of learning from past mistakes and attempting to move away from central control, the UN is enhancing efforts to dominate local life.
The social inequalities created in Kosovo over the last 70 plus years have been reassigned to new rulers, while the vast majority of people find themselves politically marginal. Their marginality has meant that almost all Kosovars have become pawns to "representatives" who have climbed over many human corpses to find a place at the interim council Bernard Kouchner has set up in Priština.
I am not only talking about the Albanian-speaking community here, by the way.
CER: What is your picture of the region in say, 10 years?
Blumi: I believe it is a mistake to generalize and think of the Balkans as an integrated region. It is erroneous to think in terms of the Balkans, as if it were a homogenous space.
The past ten years, as well as the next ten years, have been and will be completely different experiences for each society.
In fact, the levels of social inequalities in each society will obviously mean the next ten years will leave completely different impressions on people who may live in the same neighborhood, in say, Skopje. Obviously, some countries have made all the right moves since the end of state Communism, in particular Slovenia and for its efforts, [and so] it is no longer considered a "Balkan" state.
Despite residual problems which link most other societies in the region, Romania has a number of patrons in the European Union - France in particular - which assures it a far less torturous path to European integration than, say, Albania, Bosnia or even Serbia.
Healthy change in Croatia
Of course, it would be incorrect to suggest the future of individual societies depend on outside patronage alone, a fact that many Serb intellectuals just do not yet understand. The healthy changes taking place in Croatia, where the destructive elements of Communist-era nationalism [are] quickly being thrown in jail or ostracized from political life, suggests it may experience extraordinary, positive change in the next ten years.
I think the formula Croatia has finally adopted, which most other societies in Southeast Europe have not - that is, throwing in jail the mafia thugs of the Communist era - will mean a far more open society and greater political and thus economic dynamism.
Greece is also quite distinct and is an interesting case. Unfortunately, its developing maturity in some respects is still not necessarily reflected in political clarity. Greece is still a chauvinistic society and racism is still a viable political platform. If Europe is ever to function as a single governing entity, member states such as Greece must not be allowed to discriminate against large portions of its own citizens on the basis of their linguistic or cultural heritage.
For Greece, as for Bosnia, Macedonia and even Serbia, internal contradictions based on wildly archaic forms of popular mobilization will intensify political tensions and will prove a barrier to real changes in the next ten years.
Legacy of organized crime
As for Albania, as long as redundant political loyalties persist, meaning the old guard remains influential, rampant corruption and criminality will be part of the socioeconomic reality, I am afraid. The Communists should have been thrown in jail for crimes against three million people, the country is a mess in large part because Albanians have not been able to shed the all powerful hierarchy that dominated all aspects of civic life since the Second World War.
If anything unites most of the "Balkans," it is this legacy of organized crime we in the West erroneously called Communist states. There are few places in the former Eastern Bloc, and I include the former Yugoslavia, that have cut links with the ruinous, exploitative and criminal past.
CER: Why should Kosovo become an independent state?
Blumi: Kosovo should have never been handed over to Serbia in the first place. Kosovo has, since before Dušan's time, been treated as a strategic, economic, commercial and, hence, cultural possession.
The mineral and agricultural productivity of Kosovo has, since the first centuries of our common era, been reflected in a rich cultural, spiritual and commercial infrastructure. It attracted the region's linguistic and cultural diversity, its towns and villages thrived as centers of trade and learning.
It was also the site of many battles, between armies that reflected the diversity of the region.
It remained as such, a distinct administrative space, even during Dušan's time and its economic importance was translated into fiefdoms [given as rewards to] to loyal subjects.
The monasteries we see today were often built on older temples or churches, marking, symbolically, the new political leadership, which of course was accompanied by new cultural symbols. The region's populations were subjugated and became property of the temporary rulers of the region, but that did not mean significant sociological changes took place.
While many were murdered, most adapted, redefining themselves and family to escape persecution.
Economically, most were rendered serfs and cultivated the new possessions of Dušan's temporary allies. The cultural and economic realities however, did not significantly change. The same administrative principles continued under Ottoman rule. As in earlier periods, ethnicity was not a question.
In fact, administrative categories operated in a completely different ways. Administratively, since early Byzantium, and possibly even during Roman times, human beings were not placed in ethnic categories but organized along criteria of regional identity, sex, social status, productive capacity or faith.
The Serbia of the nineteenth century, on the other hand, emerged under the burgeoning influence of European transformations that reshaped individual identities around the modern state. "National" identity became the operational unit by which human beings were classified: Serbia became a state that could only accommodate "Serbs."
The criteria that distinguished "Serb" from say "Bosniak," "Turk" or "Albanian" was obviously fused with contradictions.
I take this long route to answering the question because I feel it is necessary for all of us to acknowledge the precarious ground [on which] we stand once we start to peel off the layers of manufactured qualities required to be "Albanian," "Serb," "Croat," or "Macedonian" require.
Kosovo has always been diverse
Kosovo has always been multi-lingual, multi-faith and economically dynamic. During the Ottoman period, this quality was firmly established and became institutionalized. The Ottoman state did not, until the era of nation-state expansion, interfere in how local governance operated. The few interventions that did take place reaffirmed the cultural and administrative distinctiveness of Kosovo.
The Sublime Porte reconstituted the Serb Church, it harnessed the burgeoning Bulgarian collective identity and its operational policies permitted the exploration of the conceptual distinctiveness of Albanians, Montenegrins and Greeks.
Kosovo represented the heart and soul of the region's cultural and economic life, but it did not, however, become a center of nationalist chauvinism. Kosovo remained, until 1912, in its heart and soul what we would call today a multi-ethnic society. In 1908, for instance, Bulgarian, Albanian, Serbian and Greek-speakers rose in unison against the Abdul Hamid II state and instigated the "Young Turk" revolution that brought back constitutionalism and liberalism to the Ottoman Empire.
It was the subsequent influence of outsiders, the invasion of Kosovo by outside armies, that rendered the harmony - the distinctive social and economic networks that developed over centuries - contentious and anachronistic. Kosovo was distinct in 1912, it was not Serbia, it was probably the best example of what was possible in the world in the face of a European state-building project that sought "ethnic" purity for purposes of efficient rule.
Kosovo should have been recognized as a distinctive entity, with its own history, its own system of governance and its own identity.
Kosovars first, Serbs and Albanians second
I have read too many letters by Serbian-speaking locals to Istanbul to believe otherwise. These local Serbian speakers identified Serbs in Belgrade as wild, drunken and hateful men bent on plunder and exploitation. Local Albanian speakers and local Serbian speakers were first and last Kosovars, not "Serbs" or "Albanians" attached to separate entities.
This watershed period was marked by an exclusivism that operationalised a state with its modern army to clear out whole areas of the world in order to permit colonization of homogeneous people. Kosovo, in 1912, experienced what the Western United States, Siberia, Niš, Chechnya, Tibet, Algeria, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina experienced throughout this period.
Unlike Siberia, Brazil and North America, however, the colonizers could not wipe out the indigenous people, and could not extinguish the distinctiveness of Kosovo. Today, there is an opportunity to correct the wrongs of European-boundary drawing. Unfortunately for indigenous Serbian speakers, they, as their Albanian and Turkish speaking neighbors, have been used by Belgrade's power-brokers. As they have been exploited, so too has their future in an independent Kosovo been jeopardized.
They must now shed the seventy years of manipulation and remember that it was less than twenty years ago that they would share the same shrines with their Albanian speaking neighbors to seek help from the local spirits. It was only twenty years ago that everyone could enjoy the forests and streams around Decan, Peja and Prizren.
There are people who are still alive that remember Kosovo is in fact distinct from Serbia, Albania and the Balkans. Kosovo is unique and exemplifies a distinctiveness that warrants independence from state-led racism and divisive politics.
CER: Do you see a possibility for yet another conflict in the region?
Blumi: If by region you mean the Balkans as a whole, I see several potential conflicts. The most dangerous one remains Prešova and the Mitrovica area in Kosovo. The politics of division and murder are still prevalent and the stakes are high.
I see in, Oliver Ivanović, the kind of local thug who has nowhere else to go, an incarnation of Milošević, if you will, and he will use all the tools at his disposal to make sure he does not end up in prison. Milošević thrives on such personalities.
Other pressing issues in Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia itself and even Romania speak of a tense next ten years. I believe all of these cases reflect the residual [effects] of archaic political powers who still dominate important sectors of the economy and security apparatuses in each of these areas.
The Milošević card
The possibility for the mafia in Belgrade to feel it necessary to shed more blood of Serbs and Serbia's neighbors is always there. I believe Milošević fears no one, especially in Serbia itself, for the "opposition" has done little to distance itself from the xenophobia that propelled Milošević to power in the first place. Serbs will see themselves in continuous warfare if they fail to acknowledge that an overwhelming majority of them have propagated fascism by their silence to state-led racism.
The culture nationalism and fascism infuse in popular culture [is evident] even the national basketball team, some of whose players make millions of dollars in the West, flash the three fingers [the traditional Serb victory sign] for all the world (and Serbia) to see when they win matches.
The three wars which have only led to impoverishment and massive death have rarely been critiqued for their content in Serbia. The kind of self-criticism and soul-searching that took place in Germany is just not happening in Serbia. It is this inability to be self-critical that leads to delusions and, ultimately, [apologies] for criminality throughout the Balkans.
The same holds true in Kosovo itself, where many have confused a legitimate struggle against tyranny with their own crude search for power. The politics of hate are still powerful mobilizing factors in many societies. Greece is one of the more disappointing examples where Slavs, Albanians, Muslims and Turks (or any combination of them) have been veritable scapegoats for all of Greece's ills.
That said, Italy, Austria, France and the United States fail the litmus test at some level as well. What distinguishes, say, the United States from Serbia or Romania, however, is the political and social space to be self-critical. So few people have taken [up] the challenge to go against the grain in the Balkans.
The Serb reporter being persecuted for "betrayal" as he reported on Serb forces and the atrocities being committed in Kosovo needs support from Serbs. Judging from what I have heard from the "leading" Serb intellectuals and the opposition, such gestures of self-inspection will not take place. Fascism can only survive with a complacent population. Milošević, let us not forget, operates as a populist, as do, his opponents. That is scary.
CER: Could the Kosovar Albanians have chosen a path other than Kosovo Liberation Army?
Blumi: I disagree with the foundation of this question. Kosovars took the path of armed resistance, yes, not in 1995, but since the late Ottoman period. All the KLA represents in what the three letters suggest, the Kosovo Liberation Army.
That it was representative of Kosovars is hardly worth discussing. Kosovars had no choice in the matter. Kosovo was being brutalized for decades, systems of oppression were firmly embedded in how Belgrade related to its constituents in Kosovo, and a ruling élite among Albanian speakers had developed important strategies to marginalize the majority of the population, which was rural.
The manifestation of the KLA in the 1990s was but a loose amalgamation of communities who were being subjugated to violence for years on end. Let us not forget that, in the eyes of the West, the KLA materialized conceptually when opposition to Milošević's state became violent. That violence, however, had existed for decades under the guise of other mechanisms of control.
The KLA existed under different names since the 1870s. It is not three letters that marks history, but the conditions. Kosovars have always resisted Belgrade's colonialism, be they Albanian, Slavic, Roma or Turkish. The recent death of Commander Drini, who was not "Albanian," should be an important reminder that Kosovo's history is not one based on an ethnic criteria, but one of an indigenous people's desire to live their lives in peace.
CER: Can Kosovar Albanians live together with Kosovar Serbs and, if yes, how do you think this is possible to implement this?
Blumi: As I have been stating throughout, the distinctions between Kosovars along ethnic lines is problematic historically and, as I have argued recently, manipulative in our present state of affairs.
Kosovars have lived, shopped, traded, married and died together for centuries. They shared the same religious proclivities and political aspirations. Of course Slavic and Albanian speakers can live together. What has to be eliminated is the political capital one gains from operating in ways that make these people distinctive.
I am not talking about distinctions in a positivistic sense, for every individual is distinct from the other, but if we look at the operational and spiritual sense, Kosovars share so much. Slavs and Albanians have no inherent need to kill each other. The recent manifestations of xenophobia are products of external forces patronizing local, individual aspirations, making it possible, if not necessary, for such levels of systematic hatred to operate.
If we were to eliminate that political space, if we could return to a Kosovo where no one could break local rules for personal gain, rules which state "love thy neighbor, treat them fairly etc," we would see a completely different situation on the ground.
Hardly naive peasants
In UNMIK's Kosovo, this critical relationship between local systems of justice are not permitted to develop. For example, if only the world community did not recognize the political saliency of a "Serb" or "Albanian" identity attached to larger political bodies or states, we would quickly see that communities can operate on a different level.
Kosovars are not naive peasants, as is often suggested among urban élite in both Priština and Belgrade. They are keenly aware of their immediate needs. Eliminate the element of colonial power, erase the politics of difference that are being perpetuated by the international community, and I believe human beings anywhere can find new ways of living their lives.
CER: As a historian what is your opinion of the role of the Great Powers in the region?
Blumi: I have hinted throughout the destructive impact outside factors have had on local politics. Certainly, the operational logic of ethnic states has been the most detrimental to the Balkans in the last two centuries.
As much [as in] Africa, Asia and the Middle East, European powers partitioned the Balkan peninsula, stigmatizing populations and categorizing whole regions along highly problematic criteria. I think it must be remembered that I consider Belgrade as much an outsider as Moscow or London. In fact, in many ways, the UN's Priština today is operating under the same principles of "modern" state-craft. It is not the geographic location but the mentality of modernity, the modern bureaucratic state seeking to create rationally-constituted constituencies, that is the outsider.
The persistent impact of outsiders is not surprising, as humanity has yet to shed itself from the project of the modern state. In the last 80 years, many would identify the pervasive force as capitalism behind modernity, but it is clear that the operating logic of capitalism is the subjugation of human diversity to unambiguous categories such as ethnicity, creed or nation. Such gestures entail an intrusive state, be it liberal or "socialist."
Outside forces have attempted to rationalize the diversity of the Balkans, the beautiful complexity of life that is inherent in all of us, to one which can become but a singular category in a census book or targeted in an advertising campaign. That has had long term effects on our beloved Balkans. We have been made into hated adversaries, our history has been rewritten to reflect this modern way of seeing human interaction.
The battle of [Kosovo Polje in] 1389 was not about ethnicity, it was about power, silver mines and trade routes. Ethnicity has been imported ... the "Great Powers" have a great deal of responsibility for this.
CER: How do you judge the situation of ethnic Albanians in Greece, Macedonia and Montenegro?
Blumi: I would add to this list of countries Turkey, [to which] over three million Albanian speakers have been forced to migrate over the decades, and Italy as well. Turkey has seemingly integrated [many] of its migrants from the Balkans, but one would be surprised how resilient linguistic and cultural identity is in contemporary Turkey.
Life for Albanian speakers in Greece is not consistent. One must remember that Greece, in the 1820s, was very much an Albanian speaking state, there are a remarkable number of communities throughout the islands and even the mainland that have retained their old linguistic links to a past that the modern Greek state has failed to institutionally and legislatively erase.
The influx of migrant workers from Albania has greatly complicated the politics of identity in Greece and has highlighted how tensions of difference reflect tensions of class and economic security. One finds that indigenous and, for the most part, integrated Albanian speakers [discriminate against] migrant Albanians as [much as] "Greeks" do.
"Us" versus "them"
I believe the same tensions exist in Macedonia, where populist politics help rearticulate larger, deeper fears in the marketable discourse of ethnicity. That is the tragedy of racism, for it is not a natural but a rhetorical link that can easily articulate for a heterogeneous polity fears that are otherwise inaccessible on an individual basis.
What actually unites the victims of racism and xenophobia, be they migrant workers in Greece or Kosovars resisting colonialism, is not some distinctive similarity between them, but that they are different from "us," whoever that may be.
That "us," as is clear in Serbia, Macedonia, Turkey, Greece or the United States is as ambiguous as "they" are.
Nevertheless, [the terms] "Albanians," "Blacks," "Gypsies," or "Turks," are remarkably broad in their meaning and have the capacity to consume most of our personal fears, demons and anxieties. The situation for Albanians anywhere today is one of flat out marginalisation. They have no political voice as individuals because they are not recognized as individuals, but members of a collectivity: "Albanians."
As long as we refuse to respect individual rights and operate along lines that categorize human beings in such homogenizing ways, we will have racism and war in our lives.
CER: Is Priština a Central European capital and, if yes, why?
Blumi: Priština is not a capital city in Europe. It persists in being an administrative center for a government which refuses to integrate the local population into the operation of day-to-day affairs.
I think the architecture which characterizes Priština is highly suggestive of its role since the end of the Balkan wars in 1918: an administrative outpost for aliens who brought their out-of-this-world aspirations and tried to impose it on a native people. The jury is still out [on whether] this generation of aliens will successfully eliminate Kosovo's distinctiveness.
CER: Are Albanians fundamentally different then the other people from the Balkans?
Blumi:I do not like the overreaching category of Albanian in the first place, so I wish to explore this issue a bit differently.
In terms of language, people who speak Albanian are fundamentally different. [That which] links people who are considered (or who see themselves as) Albanian, [is] in fact share[d] with the other inhabitants of the Balkans. Maybe the most important shared quality is that they are all seen as coming from the "Balkans" by the outside world. This has enormous suggestive capital in the West.
The Balkans has become a black dot on all of our foreheads, one sees it operate when one tries to travel anywhere in the world: the extra time the border guard [spends] inspecting your passport, the questions raised about the contents of one's luggage etc. In fact, this element links us with all the people in the third world.
What also links "Albanians" with the rest of the Balkans is the legacy of the Communist state. We all still suffer under the weight of a veritable mafia who all share, if not a criminal industry, at least an affinity for their past. One only need to recall the scene on Crete in 1997, when Fatos Nano and Milošević exchanged kisses.
Russia has been the most glaring example only because of the scope of the criminality, but Croatia and Serbia, Macedonia, Romania and Bulgaria and, last but not least, Albania have all been suffering under the weight of ex-Communists who have dominated post-1989 political and economic life.
The worst of the worst
Ultimately, the fault lays at our feet for being so desperately ignorant and greedy, but much fault must also lay at the feet of the West whose naivete has led to their repetitive manipulation by the Miloševićs and Yeltsins of the world.
In the context of the Balkans, what makes the "Albanians" distinct, I am afraid, is their relationship with the outside world. The desperate economic conditions in Albania itself have led to wide-spread stereotyping that has harmed relations between Macedonians of Albanian and Slavic background in particular. It is much easier to promote racist legislation and project xenophobic politics when the categories one uses are hypocritically applied by large numbers of Italians, Swiss, Germans and Greeks.
This is what makes Albanians different from the rest of their neighbors: they are, in the eyes of the world, the worst of the worst. But I must warn your readers that these perceptions change dramatically … that Serbs were widely respected and Yugoslavs generally considered the creme de la creme some thirty years ago.
Židas Daskalovski, 2 July 2000
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