“Jam shqiptar e kosovar” (I am Albanian and Kosovar) is how Mitrush Kuteli begins his 1944 “Kosovar Poem.” This opening line perfectly describes the way I express my identity. My Albanian-ness is integral to me, but it is the combination of both elements that truly describes who I am.
I never felt the need to reconcile these two aspects of myself, as they existed as one. But recently, conversations in the Albanian community have started to position the terms Kosovar and Albanian in opposition. I have noticed an increase in disdain at the use of the term Kosovar. Some Albanians, from Kosovo and beyond, claim that this demonym does not reflect our “real” identity as Albanians.
As supported by Kuteli’s poem, the term “Kosovar” has existed from at least the mid-20th century. It was a term used to denote a regional origin, that through the years gained a direct association with the Albanians of Kosovo.
Today, Kosovar is the official term to describe citizens of our country, the Republic of Kosovo. People of Albanian, Serb, Gorani, Roma, Turkish, Bosniak, Ashkali and Egyptian ethnicity can be Kosovars. It now also exists as a civic nationality referring to individuals who come from the Republic of Kosovo, regardless of ethnic identity.
I use Kosovar often, but it has been implied that my use of this term — which I always use in conjunction with Albanian — undermines my Albanian-ness. However, I see it as the complete opposite. By using the term Kosovar, I clearly position my Albanian identity within the historical context of Kosovo. Having been born and raised in the West, I feel an added responsibility to acknowledge this. Ethno-nationalist campaigns, such as the “Kosovo is Serbia” slogan, actively aim to undermine Kosovo’s existence as an independent state. So, in order to emphasize Kosovo’s statehood, I consolidate my identity as Kosovar-Albanian.
Individuals are entitled to dislike the Kosovo flag or the term Kosovar. But, actively undermining this term is counterproductive to the representation that Kosovo requires. I am often bewildered when I see Albanians be vehement about Kosovo’s existence as a state, yet will disrespect, undermine and make fun of the term Kosovar. How can you expect others to respect your state, when you are discrediting core aspects of it yourself, such as its own demonym?
For me, the use of Kosovar-Albanian, denotes a highly contextual experience, which does not apply to all ethnic Albanians, spread across several countries. I am emphasizing the specific historical experience of Albanians from Kosovo. Some may argue that my opinions on this issue are divisive and that I seek to divide the Albanian community, which is not true.
I try to acknowledge the contextual experiences and identities, rather than the current tendency to essentialize Albanian experience. Kosovar Albanians did not face oppression throughout history simply because they were Albanian. It was the intersection of their Albanian identity and presence in Kosovo that resulted in the colonialism, genocide and ethnic cleansing they faced throughout the 20th century. It was this context that manifested the Kosovo independence movement and the creation of the state we have today.
Some Albanians regard Kosovar as a term that solely denotes regional identity, which historically was true. However, positioning Kosovo’s demonyms as “regional” identities in the post-independence era, infers that Kosovo is still a region today – which it is not. Although there may be good intentions behind this narrative, it counters Kosovo’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Some are against the use of the term Kosovar because it associates Albanians with the diverse ethnic communities that live in Kosovo. We can recognize that Albanians were central to the formation of the state of Kosovo, while wanting a state that is inclusive of all who live there. Having a term that denotes the civic nationality of the Republic of Kosovo and unites its citizens is not a negative thing to aspire to.
However, I am aware of the inter-ethnic issues that exist within Kosovo and asking groups who have historically been polarized to identify with one civic nationality is difficult. This is something that should be worked on, we should aim for a society based on mutual respect and free from ethnic division.
This does not mean we can not retain our ethnic identity and culture. The fact that some Albanians are using this discourse to make it seem that Albanian and Kosovar are mutually exclusive terms is not representative of our current reality. We are Kosovars by civic nationality and origin, and Albanian by ethnicity — both labels are important and valuable.
This conflict around terminology is very present on social media and I have noticed an insidious tendency to weaponize the tragedies from the last war in Kosovo in this conversation. When an Albanian chooses to use solely the term Kosovar to denote their country of origin, they’re met with a narrative that people who fought during the war “did not die for you to use Kosovar” or “were not murdered for you to use this flag.” This response is disrespectful and it is insensitive to flippantly use the deaths of others to further your point. We can debate on this issue, but we should cultivate a culture of respectful discussion that does not rely on playing with people’s emotions.
Recently, in the broader Albanian community the term Kosovar has become increasingly associated with negative characteristics and stereotypes. It is common to see unfavorable representations of Kosovar Albanians on Albanian television. Bledi Mane, a journalist and contestant on Big Brother Albania, was quoted as saying that “Kosovo does not offer anything…you [Kosovars] do not use olive oil…you do not have a cuisine, you still at the level of pleskavica (a traditional Balkan meat patty) and cabbage.”
This statement implies that Albanians from Kosovo are somehow culturally inferior. Why is it that when Albanians from Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Greece become successful — such as Dua Lipa, Rita Ora, Bebe Rexha, Granit Xhaka, Mother Teresa — the narrative we hear is “të gjithë jemi shqiptarë” (we are all Albanians). But, when it comes to the so-called “negative” aspects of our cultural practices, we transform back into Kosovars and our regional origin is weaponized in order to invalidate our Albanian-ness. This is a dynamic I am no longer willing to engage with or be defined by.
It is because of these stereotypes that I refer to myself as Kosovar-Albanian. I do so to reclaim this term and to highlight the positive contributions Albanians from Kosovo have made, both to the Albanian community and beyond. We must remind our community and the world that Kosovo is an independent country. This is a reality that cannot be undone.
So, be proud of your Kosovar-Albanian identity. The fact that I can say that I come from the Republic of Kosovo is truly profound, considering our struggle for self-determination. Do not feel like the use of Kosovar somehow “cancels out” your Albanian-ness, because it doesn’t.
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K.2.0.