Perspectives | Independence

Flagging and banal nationalism confirm Kosovo’s statehood, but that’s not the full picture

By - 22.02.2017

While recent success in the sporting arena has helped to increase affinity to the Kosovo flag, Kosovar identity remains complex and nuanced.

February 17, 2017, marked nine years since Kosovo declared independence. This year, a larger presence of Kosovo flags was witnessed than on previous celebrations of Independence Day, but at the same time, so was the normalization of waving the blue-yellow flag with six stars.

The waving of this flag became more normalized because it was the first Independence Day since Kosovo took part in the Olympic Games, and since Kosovo’s national football team played for the first time in an international competition. On both occasions, the Kosovo flag was waved with fervor, confirming Kosovo’s independence and statehood. This flag-waving, together with other daily representations of the state, are part of our routines that  shape and influence the world around us, and are embedded in our subconscious.

When these deictic words are used in the Kosovo context, then gradually Kosovo is normalized as something that unites Kosovo’s citizens.

It is a nationalism that Michael Billig defined as ‘banal nationalism,’ in his book by the same name. Published in 1995, “Banal Nationalism” is not dense and has a simple idea at its core: that banal nationalism is a daily phenomenon that is present all around us and most of the time remains unnoticed. Up until Billig discussed the notion, most academics that had written about nationalism had described and focused only on the extreme, violent, separatist or irredentist forms of nationalism. With his definition, Billig expanded nationalism to involve also “a collection of ideological expressions that reproduce existing nations as nations in everyday life.”

The idea of the nation, or the state in Kosovo’s case, is constructed and perpetuated in society, but also in the minds of individuals. But how does this perpetuation of the Kosovar state happen in our minds through banal nationalism?

According to Billig, it happens when we wave flags at sporting events, when we sing national songs and when we use popular expressions. Banal nationalism is especially noticeable in news broadcasts that use deictic words or expressions — those whose meaning are dependent on the context in which they are used, for example: ‘here,’ ‘you,’ ‘me’ or ‘next Saturday.’ When these deictic words are used in the Kosovo context, then gradually Kosovo is normalized as something that unites Kosovo’s citizens. For example, on every Kosovar TV channel, whenever they speak about “the weather in our country,” Kosovo is implied, and when we say “the prime minister,” “the president,” “the Constitutional Court,” we mean Kosovar institutions. Whereas when we speak about the president of another country, we say, for example: “the prime minister of Albania” or “Prime Minister Rama.”

The same goes for newspapers and for television news. If we look at, for example, news on KTV or RTK, they usually start with “domestic” news — meaning news from Kosovo — and then continue later with “regional or world news.” These symbols and expressions are very effective, according to Billig, because of their constant, subtle, and subconscious repetition that creates unity among citizens of the “country.” Political elites, says Billig, practice the construction of a continuous flagging of statehood, so as to enforce it and give the people subtle reminders of their national collective. In Kosovo, this gradual and consistent flagging slowly familiarizes the population with the notion of Kosovo as a state, while making the flag a part of their identity as a state.

Complicating the theory

However, using banal nationalism to explain Kosovarism has its problems. On February 17, strolling along Prishtina’s streets, you’d see people, buildings and other premises with Kosovo flags, others had Albanian flags, while some had both. And these in particular are the modes of thought that exist within Kosovo, as far as the acceptance of the Kosovar flag and Kosovarism as an identity goes.

The first group, known as Kosovarists, surpass the concept of Kosovo’s statehood by having a new nation vested to it. The second group is made up of Albanian nationalists that reject the Kosovo flag and see the Albanian flag as the only flag that represents their identity. Whereas the third group are those that identify themselves as Albanians of Kosovo; they are emotionally tied to both flags.

The first two groups are more categorical, and don’t necessarily have many people within them. Kosovarists contest the Albanianhood of their identity and attempt to re-define what it means to be Albanian, whereas the second group contest symbols of Kosovo’s independence, for example by refusing to support the Kosovo national football team. However, the third group is the most comprehensive and flexible.

The interesting thing about Kosovo’s banal nationalism is that it re-creates itself through symbols and language, but at the same time, Albanian national symbols are kept alive. For example, before independence was declared, in Kosovo’s primary schools you’d see Albanian flags and pictures of the Albanian national hero, Skanderbeg. Since independence, in many schools these symbols have not been removed, but Kosovar symbols now accompany them as well. Now pupils draw Albanian national flags on November 28, but they also draw Kosovar flags on February 17; next to the national hero in schools we often now see the widely hailed hero of the Kosovo war, Adem Jashari.

When those standing alongside that flag are politicians and ex-commanders that are accused of corruption, Kosovo starts to be perceived, by Kosovar Albanians themselves, as a state of thieves.

State actors also support the Kosovar identity as a sub-identity of an umbrella Albanian identity. In October, in an interview in Albania, Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci, rejected the existence of the Kosovar nation, saying that Albanians, wherever they are, are Albanians. At the same time Edi Rama similarly also mocked the idea of a Kosovar nation during a visit to Kosovo.

In order to escape words of nation-building, through subconscious banal nationalism, Albanians from Kosovo play very carefully with words: Notions of ‘state’ and ‘nation’ are separated with the idea that there is one Albanian nation, and two Albanian majority states; November 28 is celebrated in Kosovo just as February 17 is celebrated in Albania; Skanderbeg is seen as a national hero, whereas Adem Jashari is seen as the Kosovo war hero; as Kosovo’s Olympic delegation paraded in the 2016 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, Majlinda Kelmendi’s trainer Driton Uka waved a small Albanian flag next to the Kosovo flags; you have sportspeople that don’t play for Albania, but gesture the Albanian eagle with their hands.

This dualism and the elevation of a parallel state sub-identity or regional sub-identity, is a very interesting phenomenon for the preservation of the stability of the Balkan security puzzle, but at the same time it is highly dependent on geopolitical circumstances, on the socio-economic position of individuals, and on what the flag is associated with. When those standing alongside that flag are politicians and ex-commanders that are accused of corruption, Kosovo starts to be perceived, by Kosovar Albanians themselves, as a state of thieves, a Kosovo in which those who pose with Kosovar flags are the very people who became wealthy after the war. This naturally does not foster an emotional attachment to the flag for many of the middle and lower classes.

Whereas when Majlinda Kelmendi or Rita Ora wave the flag, or the national football team (that some call the ‘representative’ team) does, then there is a lot of pride associated with it. At the same time, at times when there are increased tensions with Serbia, the Albanian identity is strengthened. The same happens when Kosovo is ignored by the European Union; the nationalist fuses are lit, and Kosovar Albanians turn their heads toward Albania for support — and maybe even a national union.

Regardless of how much banal nationalism produces and reproduces Kosovo’s statehood and the Kosovar sub-identity — which is also comprised of minorities (at least in theory) — and regardless of how many Kosovar flags are waved and how slowly they are normalized in the Albanian subconscious, the fact that Kosovo’s citizens are poor and isolated cannot be covered by the parallel creation of a sub-identity through flags and achievements in sports, music and film. Symbolism, images and flagging can facilitate statehood through soft power, but they do little to change the living standards of Kosovars, regardless of ethnicity.K

Featured image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.