So long, Serbia | Monocle

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The birth of Europe’s newest nation was marked by celebratory gunfire, free beer, a 1,500kg chocolate cake and an all-night party in freezing weather. Hashim Thaçi, prime minister of Kosovo, signed the declaration of independence (carefully drafted by western diplomats) at 15.40 on Sunday 17 February 2008. Mother Teresa Street, Pristina’s main drag, became a sea of red and black flags, emblazoned with Albania’s double eagle. Kosovars cheered, laughed and some cried for sheer joy.

But the party-goers were waving the wrong banners. Kosovo’s new flag shows a yellow outline of the new Balkan state, on a blue background, crowned with six stars. The story of the flag is that of Kosovo itself: the construction of not just state institutions, but a national identity and attendant heraldry. The former Serbian province has been a UN protectorate since 1999, when Nato bombed the Serbs.

Since then, the international community has launched an unprecedented process of nation-building. Kosovo is run by an alphabet soup of acronyms. Pristina’s potholed roads are jammed with white UN vehicles, dun-coloured military jeeps and shiny four-wheel drives. The ICO, the International Civilian Office of the EU’s mission, will guide Kosovo to eventual EU membership – nobody is talking about dates. The ICO will work with the EUPT, the European Union Preparation Team, on implementing the rule of law, building a European-standard police force and an independent judiciary. Kosovo has no tradition of any of these.

Why is the international community exerting so much effort on a landlocked territory a third of the size of Belgium, with a ramshackle infrastructure, no motorways, a barely functioning economy, unemployment of more than 50 per cent and a population of just under two million? Because after four wars, the Balkans – the West has finally realised – must be anchored into the European Project. And that includes Kosovo.

Evliya Çelebi, the great Ottoman traveller and writer, visited Pristina in 1660. He found an attractive town of stone houses with tiled roofs, “abundant vineyards and gardens” whose grapes and pears were “much praised”, numerous hans (courtyard guesthouses) and bathhouses, and 300 shops.

Little remains of Ottoman Kosovo nowadays, apart from a handful of mosques in the old town. Kosovo was the poorest province of Yugoslavia and despite almost nine years of UN rule, Pristina remains dilapidated and rundown. The pavements are potholed, the poured concrete buildings cracked and worn.

Still, the atmosphere is electric. Blue and yellow banners proclaim “Kosova is Born”. Giant yellow letters, signed by thousands of passers-by, spell out “New Born”. The backdrop of the Pristina Media Centre in the Grand Hotel is blue and yellow. The car park is jammed with television vehicles and satellite dishes. Thousands of journalists have poured in from around the world. Harassed but proud and happy Kosovar officials bustle from interview to interview.

Since the collapse of communism, Europe has witnessed an explosion of new states. Yugoslavia, once one country, is now seven: Serbia, Croatia, Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia and now Kosovo. Czechoslovakia has split into two. While the politicians work on the practicalities of statehood, the nationalist theoreticians, often with some desperation, explain how each new land has its own unique history, language, culture and cuisine. But many of these supposed differences, if they exist at all, are often little more than the regional peculiarities that divide, say, Normandy from Provence.

Kosovo’s leaders originally wanted the 12 stars of the European Commission on their flag, but that was ruled out. So they settled for six, supposedly representing Kosovo’s ethnic mix: Albanians, who make up about 90 per cent of the population, Serbs, and four minorities. Others muttered that Kosovo’s flag is a coded message of support for Greater Albania. Albanians are scattered across six countries: Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece. Kosovo’s flag resembles Bosnia’s, another western-imposed heraldic compromise: a blue background, with a line of stars, next to a gold triangle, resembling a flying piece of cheese.

Europe’s newest state, like several of its neighbours, has never been fully independent. Kosovo was captured by the ­Ottomans in 1389, and remained part of the Ottoman empire until 1912. It was ­absorbed into the first Yugoslavia in 1918 and the second, communist one, in 1945. It does not have its own distinct language, culture or even cuisine, although its folk dances differ from Albania’s.

Albanians refer to Kosovo as Kosova, but as Balkan expert Tim Judah, author of a forthcoming book on Kosovo, argues that whether it ends with an “o” or an “a” the K-word is problematic because it ­derives from “Kos”, which is Serb for blackbird, thus proving (for Serbs) that Kosovo is theirs, as they were here first. Nonsense, say Albanian Kosovars. Kosovo was originally part of the ancient province of Dardania. Kosovo’s first president, Ibrahim Rugova, who led the civil resistance movement in the 1990s, said the province should be renamed Dardania. Dardania also had its own flag combining the traditional Albanian colours of red and black with blue and yellow. But Dardania never caught on.

Language could help define Kosovo, argues Migjen Kelmendi, over tea at the hip Café Fellini in central Pristina. A voluble intellectual, Kelmendi is editor of Java magazine, Kosovo’s only publication written in the Albanian Gheg dialect. Kosovars speak Gheg, but write in Standard Literary Albanian, based on the Tosk dialect spoken in neighbouring Albania.

Gheg is virtually banned, says Kelmendi. “There’s a conspiracy of silence. Gheg speakers were second-class citizens. You couldn’t get a job, even a girlfriend if you spoke Gheg.” Now that Kosovo is ­independent, Kelmendi believes it’s time to reclaim Gheg. “Even the directory ­enquiries voice speaks Tosk. Why are we are importing TV presenters from Tirana to speak Tosk?”

The Gheg vs Tosk debate is irrelevant to Kosovo’s Serb minority. After Nato intervened, Albanians turned on the Serbs and “ethnically cleansed” them. About 100,000 remain. Riots erupted on the border and in Belgrade after the declaration of independence. But Kosovo’s Serbs are not homogeneous, argues Jelena Bjelica, through a haze of cigarette smoke at Café Odyssea, an Israeli-owned restaurant packed with “internationals”, as those working for the UN and EU are known. Bjelica is editor of Gradjanski Glasnik (“Civic Herald”), a Kosovo Serb-language newspaper. “Kosovo Serbs have more prospects here than in Serbia. They have their land and their houses. Relations between Albanians and Serbs are being re-established on a more pragmatic basis.” Kosovo’s constitution, drafted by US and European officials, grants the Serbs some of the strongest minority rights in Europe.

Just outside Pristina is the village of Kosovo Polje. In 1389 the Ottomans ­defeated the Serbs here, ushering in centuries of Ottoman rule. And it was here in 1989 that Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic warned of potential battles to come, heralding the break-up of Yugoslavia. Now it’s time to reject ethnically based identity, says Kelmendi. Kosovo could yet be an exemplar for Europe, he claims optimistically.

“Our culture is based on uniformity, but now for the first time we have a debate about identity that is neither ethnic nor national, but based on living in the same territory. Diversity is not a threat, but a value. Nations are not biological but are self-constructed. If we ask who is a Kosovar, we are asking who is a European.”

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