Nomen est omen: The Albanian-Serb territorial dispute is also a 50 plus years semantics battle

Recently, a Kosovo public service journalist received a second reprimand for using the term „Metohija“, which was interpreted as spreading racial and religious intolerance, as well as inappropriate behavior within RTK. This is just one in a series of similar situations in which the term „Metohija“ has been predominantly polarizing Serbs and Albanians for decades. The absence of public debate on this issue has turned the term into a taboo topic and it is not the only term that has an impact over extending the lack of understanding between the two peoples. With the aim of encouraging public debate, the KoSSev portal will publish a series of op-eds on this issue in the coming period.

Read an article written by Stefan Surlic, an associate at the University of Belgrade – Faculty of Political Sciences:

Fadil LepajaProfession, law, and justice

Stefan Surlic: What happened with Metohija?

By Petar Ristanovic

Ever since Albin Kurti started sharing posts written in English on his Twitter profile in September 2018, he has been conspicuously using the word „Kosova“ instead of the usual English word „Kosovo“. The example of the leader of the Self-Determination party was followed by other members of the movement – to indicate their patriotism and the Albanian identity of the territory. Insisting on the Albanian variant of the name is nothing but a new stage in the conflict between Albanians and Serbs over the territory, a war in the field of semantics which has been going on for more than half a century.

The reflection of that conflict was seen a few days ago when the media reported that an RTK2 journalist was suspended because she used the term „Kosovo and Metohija“ while reporting the news in Serbian and that she was facing consequences for „spreading racial and religious intolerance.“

Today, the use of the term „Kosovo and Metohija“ is considered a kind of political classification, and there is a widespread belief among both Albanians and Serbs that the use of the term „Metohija“ means siding with the Serbian side in the dispute, and vice versa – that omitting this word is proof of pro-Albanian orientation. In the semantic war, trenches were dug a long time ago, but its beginnings and complicated history are almost unknown.

The terms „Kosovo“ and „Metohija“ originated as geographical determinants. Today, the term „Kosovo“ refers to a vast valley that stretches in a northwest-southeast direction from Zvecan to Kacanik.

In an earlier period, the term had a much narrower meaning. The preserved petitions the Serbs addressed to the Sultan show that during the Ottoman Empire, the term referred only to a small area around Kosovo Polje and the monastery of Gracanica, near Pristina.

Serbian philologists believe that the term Kosovo comes from the term kos (blackbird in Serbian), while Albanians claim that the word has Illyrian roots. Therefore, the term is acceptable for both parties, which cannot be said for the disputed term „Metohija“.

In the 19th century, the name stood for the plain that stretched from the foot of Prokletije all the way to the Prizren valley and the slopes of the Shar Mountain. Today, this geographical term often means a somewhat narrower area, around the cities of Decani, Pec/Peja, Djakovica/Gjakova and Istok. The name „Metohija“ comes from the Greek word metoh and in Greek, as well as in Serbian, it represented monastery land. A significant part of Metohija was in the possession of Serbian medieval monasteries, hence the name.

That is why the name is unacceptable for Albanians today because it indicates the Serbian identity of the territory. Albanian historians claim that the term is a political construction, coined during the Serbian national awakening in the 19th century and then promoted in the 20th century, to change the identity of the area mostly inhabited by Albanians, which they call Dukagjin.

This, also a historical area, covers a much wider territory in the valley of the river Drim, all the way to the city of Shkodra in Albania.

Documents from the 18th century, however, show that the term „Metohija“ was already in use at that time. The last Serbian patriarch on the Pec throne before the abolition of the Patriarchate, Vasilije Brkic, wrote in 1771 that the name was first used by the Turks.

Letters and travel books from the 19th century show that the name was used, but not too often and that it did not have the symbolic significance it has today.

Until the end of the 19th century, „Kosovo“ and „Metohija“ were exclusively geographical terms. The word „Kosovo“ was first used as part of the name of an administrative area in 1877, when the province of Kosovo was formed on the then eastern border of the Ottoman Empire with the principalities of Serbia and Montenegro, its center was in Pristina for a short time, then in Skopje.

At the time of its formation, the vilayet (province, district) covered a vast territory from Prijepolje in the northwest, to Stip and Veles in today’s Northern Macedonia in the southeast. The area was formed as part of the administrative reform of the Ottoman Empire, and no ethnic or any other principle was taken into account during its formation.

The following year, part of the province of Kosovo in the vicinity of Nis became part of independent Serbia. During a little more than three decades of its existence, until 1912, the province underwent numerous territorial and administrative changes.

The name „Kosovo and Metohija“ was not used until the mid-1930s. In the 1930s, if a Serb or Albanian from Pristina, Gnjilane/Gjilan, or Prizren was asked about where the borders of „Kosovo and Metohija“ were, he would not understand what we were asking him. The name would be unknown to him, and he could not know the borders because the area was not a clearly defined territory.

Until the beginning of the Balkan wars, in 1912, for Serbs, this area was a part of a much wider territory called Old Serbia, the core of the former Serbian medieval state towards which the Serbian national liberation movement was focused.

In contrast, since 1878, the Albanians have declared the entire territory of the Kosovo province, together with the territories of the Skadar, Bitola, and Janjina provinces, the goal of their national movement, the future Greater, or as they call it, „ethnic Albania“.

In the period immediately after World War I, the newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was divided into seven areas. One of them was Serbia – within the borders from before 1913 – while the area of „Southern Serbia“ consisted of all areas occupied during the Balkan wars. In 1920, after the adoption of the Constitution, the state was divided into smaller administrative units.

The territory whose name this article speaks of was divided between five areas: Zeta, Raska, Kosovo, Vranje, and Skopje. After the administrative reorganization and division of the state into banates, in 1929, parts of the territory became part of three banates: Vardar, Moravia, and Zeta.

All these divisions indicate that it is not possible to talk about a clearly defined territory in this area. The daily life of people testifies to that, as the population of the area around Mitrovica gravitated towards the Raska area and towards Kraljevo, the population from Podujevo and the Lab valley gravitated towards Nis, the inhabitants of Metohija were directed to the area of today’s Montenegro, while those from Pristina, Urosevac/Ferizaj and Kosovo Pomoravlje gravitated towards Skopje and Macedonia.

In the period after the Balkan wars, primarily among Serbs in central Serbia, the term „Kosovo“ started to be used with a broader meaning. The name „Old Serbia“ gave way to the name „Southern Serbia“, but more and more often the entire territory south of the Lab Valley and the town of Podujevo was called „Kosovo“, without clear boundaries of what that area encompasses.

During all this time, the name „Kosovo and Metohija“ did not mean anything to any of the inhabitants of this territory, while the terms „Kosovo“ and „Metohija“ were still primarily geographical determinants, in addition to which many others were used: Lab, Sitnica, Sirinicka Zupa, Salja, Gora…

The name „Kosovo and Metohija“ was first used to describe the territory, which had no clearly defined borders at the time, in the plans of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia during the 1930s. At the Paris Peace Conference, the creation of Yugoslavia was supported by France and England as part of a plan to create a „sanitary cordon“ in Central Europe, to stop the penetration of communism further into the West.

In order to weaken this „cordon“ and create favorable conditions for a revolution, the Comintern demanded that the national communist parties support the separatist national movements in the countries of Central Europe.

Following directives from Moscow, the Yugoslav communists declared the struggle for the secession of Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia in the mid-1920s, while promising the people of Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Vojvodina the right to declare their own fate after the revolution. The Albanian national issue was to be resolved by annexing the initially unnamed and undefined „Albanian area“ to Albania. It was a kind of continuation of the ideas of the communists of the older generation, Dimitrij Tucovic, Filip Filipovic and others, who called the entire territory up to the city of Pristina „Northern Albania“.

In the mid-1930s, the communists began to refer to this „Albanian area“, still without clearly defined borders, as „Kosovo and Metohija.“ The CPY Regional Committee for Kosovo and Metohija was formed in 1937. Only two Albanians, Ramiz Sadiku and Ramiz Xhema, were part of its leadership. There were almost no Albanians among the communists, so in the entire pre-war and war period, the main goal of the party in these areas was „penetration into the Albanian masses“. They did not succeed in doing so until the end of the war.

By the time the CPY Regional Committee for Kosovo and Metohija was formed, the Yugoslav Communists, again following the directive of the Comintern, abandoned the policy of breaking up Yugoslavia, because Moscow believed that the entire state would strongly oppose the penetration of fascism towards the Soviet Union.

The defining of the still undefined territory of „Kosovo and Metohija“ was aimed at determining the area where the Albanian national issue would be resolved after the revolution, and separating it from the area of ​​the future republics of Macedonia and Montenegro, intended for resolving the Macedonian and Montenegrin national issues despite the significant number of Albanians who also lived in parts of that territory.

The direction in which this solution should have gone is indicated by the fact that the CPY Regional Committee for Kosovo and Metohija was directly connected to the Central Committee of the CPY, instead of some of the Provincial Committees (which were at a higher level in the organization). Among the communists of Kosovo and Metohija, this created the belief that, after the revolution, that area would become one of the republics within Yugoslavia.

During World War II, the partisan movement was extremely weak in the territory under the jurisdiction of the CPY Regional Committee for Kosovo and Metohija. Among the members of the committee, especially among the small number of Albanians, there was a strong yearning to join Albania after the war. As a reflection of that ambition, in November 1943, the Regional Committee first decided to change the name, and instead of the Serbian term „Metohija“, it used the term „Dukagjin“ in the name.

Then, in 1943-1944, at a Conference in Bujan, a decision was made to turn the Regional Committee into a Provincial Committee, which would equate it with other provincial committees for Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia… The leadership of the CPY annulled both decisions, underlining that the status of the territory would be resolved after the victory in the war and the revolution.

The area of ​​Kosovo and Metohija got its borders for the first time after World War II – in 1945. During a closed-door meeting, from which the minutes were not kept, the most influential Albanian communist, Fadil Hoxha, agreed with Josip Broz Tito, Edvard Kardelj and the first man of the Communist Party of Serbia, Blagoje Neskovic, to create an Autonomous Kosovo-Metohija region (AKMO).

The borders of the area were also defined behind closed doors, without clear criteria. During the talks there were rumors that Metohija would be annexed to Montenegro, the Macedonian leadership was requesting Kacanik and its surroundings for their republic, and there was an idea to annex Presevo and Novi Pazar to the autonomous area, even if it happened to reach all the way to Nis – in order to level out the number of Serbs and Albanians. How the boundaries were determined in the end is unknown. They got their present form fifteen years later, on the first day of 1960, when the territory around the settlements of Lesak and Leposavic, on the slopes of Kopaonik, was annexed.

After the war, Kosovo and Metohija received a lower status of an autonomous region, not an autonomous province, like Vojvodina, due to the mass cooperation of Albanians with the occupying regime during World War II and especially due to the armed rebellion under Shaban Polluzha in 1945. In 1945, the Assembly of Kosovo and Metohija formally declared that the autonomous region should become part of federal Serbia.

Immediately after the end of the war, the leadership of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia and the Labor Party of Albania held talks on the annexation of Autonomous Kosovo and Metohija Region to Albania.

The top of the CPY discussed two ideas – to cede the area to Albania and then, together with Bulgaria, it would have become part of the great Balkan federation, or to make Albania the seventh Yugoslav republic, which would eliminate the borders between Albanians.

The plans were abandoned after the Yugoslav leadership split with Stalin in 1948. Since then, there have been virtually continuous attacks on Yugoslavia from Albania for its alleged denial of the rights of Albanians. Claims that the Albanian people were inflicted with historical injustice during the formation of Albania in 1912 – because almost half of them remained outside the homeland – were rampant.

In communist Yugoslavia, Albanians were given many rights that they had previously been denied, primarily the right to education in their mother tongue. The membership of Albanians in the party was encouraged and it was ensured that there were always enough Albanians in leading positions.

However, during the 1950s, there was still great mistrust towards them due to their role in the war. The situation began to change at the end of the decade when the party encouraged greater participation of national minorities in government and the decision-making process.

The new course and the „warming“ of relations with the Albanians were reflected in the change of the name of the province, in 1963, after the adoption of the new constitution of Yugoslavia. The Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija is equal in name and competencies to another autonomous province within Serbia – Vojvodina.

The most noteworthy changes in the province began in the mid-1960s, especially after the dismissal of the Vice-President of the SFRY and the long-time first man of the secret service, Aleksandar Rankovic. With the amendments to the Constitution from 1967, 1968, and 1971, and then with the adoption of the new Constitution of the SFRY in 1974, the position of the provinces within Serbia was fundamentally changed. They became a federal category and republics in everything but name.

The constitutional changes were part of a deep reform of the federation whose basic idea was decentralization and the transfer of power from the federal center to the republics and provinces. After 1966, Albanian cadres played a dominant role in the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija.

The full national and political emancipation of the Albanians was announced as the goal of the leadership of the province. At rallies organized during a public discussion on proposed constitutional changes, Albanians in several parts of the province demanded the proclamation of a republic. The request was rejected, but most of the other requests presented at the rallies were met. One of them was removing the word „Metohija“ from the name of the province. Since the end of 1968, its official name has been the Socialist Autonomous Province (SAP) of Kosovo.

The Albanian-dominated SAP leadership of Kosovo had set the province’s goal of becoming a seventh Yugoslav republic since 1968, in the expected next round of constitutional changes. As preparation for realizing that goal, the gradual eradication of the Serbian identity and the lobbying for an Albanian identity in the entire province began. Changing the name and removing the Serbian term „Metohija“ was an important step in that direction.

During the 1970s, the Serb population in the province of Kosovo faced a system of institutional and extra-institutional discrimination. In such circumstances, the already difficult life in the poorest Yugoslav province had become too difficult for many. The mass emigration of Serbs from the province has been going on since the end of the 1960s.

Due to the relationship of political forces in the Yugoslav leadership, the illusion of an idyllic situation and interethnic relations in the province was officially maintained. The image began to change following mass demonstrations and attempted Albanian uprisings in 1981. Dissatisfied with poverty and affected by the national awakening, the Albanians demanded the Republic of Kosovo.

In response to the unrest, some Serbs in the province began protesting against discrimination that resulted in mass evictions. A series of demands were set, among which was the one to return the term „Metohija“ to the name of the province.

During the 1980s, as the pan-Yugoslav crisis deepened, the situation in Kosovo also deteriorated. In the conflict between the two leaderships, the republican – Serbian, and provincial – predominantly Albanian, the manipulation of citizens became a powerful tool. As a result, there was a deeper division and misunderstanding.

The conflict gradually spread to all fields. The request to return the term „Metohija“ to the name of the province became another point of disagreement.

Following the constitutional changes of 1989, which returned the province under the stronger auspices of the republic, relations between Serbs and Albanians were completely severed. The following year, 1990, the new constitution of Serbia was adopted, which definitively deprived the province of all elements of statehood and returned the name the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija.

Twenty days before the proclamation of the new constitution of Serbia, a number of the Albanian delegates of the then dissolved Assembly of SAP Kosovo brought the so-called Kacanik Constitution, as the constitution of the internationally unrecognized Republic of Kosovo.

The division was complete. The conflict between Serbs and Albanians was no longer just political, but a completely different interpretation of the past and present became part of it. The name dispute gained much greater, symbolic significance.

Today, Albanians see the use of the term „Metohija“ as a defiant and open denial of Kosovo’s statehood. On the other hand, for Serbs, the term Metohija became a question of identity. In removing this word from the name of the province in 1968, they saw the announcement of a period of discrimination and all the troubles they faced. They perceive today’s ban on those words as a denial of the Serbian identity of the entire territory.

In the end, it cannot be overlooked that the entire situation surrounding the name „Kosovo and Metohija“ is a sort of paradox. The name was coined by the communists to denote an area in which the Albanian national issue was to be resolved and perhaps even annexed to Albania.

On the other hand, the Serbs started using the term „Kosovo“ for a wider territory from Kopaonik to Shar Mountain. The name of Kosovo has always had great symbolic importance for them and, as a rule, it stood alone, thus the Kosovo epic poetry cycle and the Kosovo covenant are part of Serbian tradition.

Again, ironically, the Albanians in Kosovo today see the use of the name „Kosovo and Metohija“ as „spreading racial and religious intolerance,“ while a significant part of the Serbian public sees the use of the name „Kosovo“ as tacit support for Albanians.

Petar Ristanovic is a historian and a research associate on the project „Material and Spiritual Culture of Kosovo and Metohija“ of the Institute of Serbian Culture in Pristina/Leposavic. He is the author of the award-winning book „Kosovo issue 1974-1989“ and several scientific papers on the Kosovo issue, published in national and international scientific journals.


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