The Legacy of Colonialism in Kosova: An Interview with Ibrahim Berisha

Ibrahim Berisha was born in the Republic of Kosova. He completed undergraduate degrees in Philosophy and Sociology in Prishtina, and then went on to postgraduate studies in Zagreb, Croatia, where he earned a PhD in sociology of communications. After working as a journalist and editor in Kosova and abroad, he now teaches at the Department of Sociology in the University of Prishtina, Kosova. He has published several books on the sociology of communications and socio-culture, as well as several collections of prose and poetry. His latest book is The Death of a Colony. This interview is conducted by Labinot Kunushevci, holding an MA in Sociology from the University of Prishtina.

LK: In your book The Death of a Colony, you describe Kosova’s history as the history of a colony. What do you mean?

IB: First, it is important to remember that colonizers differ from one another, and the same applies to colonized people. But in what sense? For instance, colonizers differ in terms of the narratives through which they build a colonization process as well as the ends projected in such narratives. There was a difference, for example, between France’s colonization goals in Algeria, England’s goals in India, or Belgium’s goals in colonizing the Congo.

Serbian state colonization in Kosova started from myths, before expanding to include economic, political, and expansionist goals. European states did not base their colonial occupations on myths or on the construction of particular historical events as is the case with the Serbian colonization of Kosova through the 1389 Battle of Kosova that sought to “correct history.”

LK: Can you say more about the goals of the Serbian colonization of Kosova as compared to more familiar forms of colonialism?

IB: Both the goals and the processes differ: the British did not intend to empty India of the country’s population, but Serbia did. The Serbian state tried to accomplish total ethnic cleansing of the Albanian majority in Kosova. Political intervention was legitimized on the basis of the idea that Kosova had to be emptied of Albanians once and for all, by any means necessary. This has been tried several times, most recently during the tragic war of 1998-1999. The “exercise” involved not only Serbian state authorities, but also religious, cultural, academic and artistic institutions. To put it in simpler terms: from the French perspective, Algeria was a land populated by Algerians, and it was clear that the French would eventually leave Algeria. In the case of Serbia, Kosova is seen as a territory inhabited only temporarily by Albanians, and occupation would be necessary until their final exodus.

LK: Do you think the colonization strategies were built upon state projects or rather shaped by the settlers?

IB: Colonization strategies were meant to produce concrete effects; in Kosova, that meant social-demographic changes. The urban and rural structure and architecture changed wherever the Serbs settled in Kosova after twentieth century. The recovery of medieval history reshaped and inspired these changes, along with iconographic images and the establishment of new villages and towns, with schools, roads, and economic change. The organization of the population could be easily changed in cities and towns, since the entire Serbian administration was deployed there, with its military officers, gendarmerie, judges, and even to some extent politicians. Estates expropriated from legitimate Albanian owners in the name of agrarian reform were given to the colonial settlers.

In the last agrarian reform, during the communist era, families in villages were left with a maximum of ten hectares of land and forest – a pattern of dispossession that devastated family economies. In 1950, a rural family of 60 or more members was left with only ten hectares of land. This is when economic migration started. Young people would go to Belgrade and other cities of Yugoslavia to do menial work. Goldsmiths, bakers, confectioners, craftsmen in general, left Kosova because there were no buyers for their products at home. But they did not lose touch with their families, sending money home.

By contrast, wherever the colonizers settled, they enjoyed full financial support from the central government. What did this social-demographic process look like in practice? If in 1912 the Serbs made up five percent of the population in Kosova, in 1939 this percentage had risen to almost 40 percent. Colonization not only changed the demographic structure, but also the economic, social and cultural landscape. Segregation of Albanians in villages and non-urbanized areas of the cities deprived them of the fruits of social change. Then this isolation was used by the political establishment to justify treating Albanians as second-class citizens. For years Albanians were deprived of the right to education (for instance, university courses in Albanian only began in 1970), they were impoverished after losing their estates, and they lived as if on an isolated island. Of all peoples from former Yugoslavia, Albanians were the only ones whose language was not Slavic – yet another factor of isolation.

LK: It is commonly thought that during the communist period, under Tito’s rule, Albanians were in a better political and economic position. Is this true?

IB: The government in Belgrade could not agree to Albanians becoming an equal community, that is, to give Albanians and Serbs equal rights and responsibilities. What happened during Tito’s regime, beginning after 1966, might be described as cosmetic change without true reform. Albanians were the third largest nation in Yugoslavia, after the Serbs and Croats, but the Yugoslav state worked actively to change this. In the 1950s, around 200,000 Albanians migrated from Kosova and in order to escape state oppression, there was a massive change of national identity: the number of “Turks” in Yugoslavia – that is, mainly Albanians who sought some sort of sanctuary by changing their identity – increased by 260%, from 97,945 in 1953, to 259,536 in 1961.

During the era of Tito, colonization continued to advance. Kosova, which is rich in lead, zinc, silver, coal, magnesium, and other minerals, was treated as a region of natural resources but the ore was mainly processed in Serbia, Vojvodina and elsewhere. This is why Kosova suffered continual underdevelopment.

LK: How has Albanian sociology looked upon Serbian ideology of political, ethnic and cultural domination over Kosova?

IB: Albanian sociology in Kosova is young, and has long been dominated by dogmatism and doctrinarism; the Department of Sociology and Philosophy only opened in Prishtina in 1971, and the most famous Albanian sociologist, Professor Fehmi Agani, who wrote the influential book Sociological and Political Studies, was executed in 1999, during the war in Kosova. Ukshin Hoti, another professor in the University of Prishtina’s Sociology Department, was arrested on political charges in the 1990s, for advocating freedom of speech. He has been on the list of missing persons since 1999. Professor Hoti, who was educated in the United States, also focused on political sociology.

Today a team of young sociologists have broadened the scope of topics to include culture, social structure, religion, gender equality, communications, politics, and so on. These young sociologists have mainly been educated abroad; they bring different methodological expertise and explore different questions. It is a sign of progress that those young scholars no longer pursue sociology through ideological lenses – lenses that serve as propaganda and retard sociology’s critical perspectives.

LK: What are the consequences of colonization today?

IB: Today we can speak of a post-colonial, post-socialist period. After a difficult period, Kosova’s society is in a period of reconstruction, attempting to integrate itself into international financial, political, and cultural institutions. However, this integration, although it seems to offer hope, has not produced the results that citizens would like. Disappointment, lack of freedom of movement, unemployment (especially among young people), remind people of the past and of the legacies of past discrimination and underdevelopment.

The failure of current policies to create more social equality has made young people cynical. Most young people want to leave Kosova, looking to the global job market as an opportunity to build a future. But success on the global market requires investment and change of the education system.

LK: How have myths, glorifications, indoctrination and propaganda affected the Kosovar environment, and how has this produced a sense of inferiority among Albanians? Have Albanians been able to resist Serbian domination?

IB: The Balkans are a big garden of illusions. Who will be the carrier of these “glorious memories” in the future? Intellectuals, artists, and mediocre politicians. They use deceptive words to comfort the public: homeland, nation, heroes and myths. Their language is dominated by folkloric patriotism and glorification supported by arrogance, and threats. They serve politicians who scramble for power without caring for those over whom they rule. Many are living in the past, seeking public attention by playing with the emotions of the people who only want jobs and well-being.

In a social environment like ours, indoctrination is widespread. Over the past five years many young people have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq, responding to the propaganda that fills the political void and plays on their sense of hopelessness.

LK: What role does the Yugoslav context play in Kosova’s politics today?

IB: Yugoslavia is history now. It was created out of a cultural and political movement that was built on geographic closeness, and historical national and linguistic links among southern Slavs. It was a creature that could not survive because it was not built on principles of equality. Albanians suffered in every way, and therefore Yugoslavia has no place in their political consciousness today.

Direct all correspondence to Ibrahim Berisha and Labinot Kunushevci

, Kosovo, Volume 7, Issue 3

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