The term Metohija is a matter of identity

Petar Ristanović

In May, 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.

The Kosovo public, political and media scene were recently disturbed by what was unanimously described as a ‘scandal’. It resulted from a photo of a meeting between EU Neighbourhood and Enlargement Commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi and Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic at the premises of the Serbian Mission to the EU in Brussels, in which a book titled „Christian Heritage of Kosovo and Metohija“ was visible on a table. The Kosovo Minister Meliza Haradinaj Stubla sent a note of protest to the EC alleging that it promotes „ethnic hatred with offensive content and it is an unacceptable term for Kosovo.“

These are more recent 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 published a series of op-eds on this issue.

Read previous texts:

Archimandrite Sava Janjic, Abbot of Visoki Decani monastery: Metohija: An expression of cultural heritage, not „territorial claims“

Agon Maliqi: Why “Kosovo i Metohija” offends

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

Fadil LepajaProfession, law, and justice

Stefan Surlic: What happened with Metohija?

By Petar Ristanovic

In the spring and autumn of 1988, at a time when trenches between Serbs and Albanians had already been dug and interethnic tensions ran rampant throughout Yugoslavia, Serb and Albanian writers organized two meetings – in Belgrade and Pristina, to lead a dialogue on the current issues in the relations between the two peoples. One of the dialogue participants, literary historian Predrag Palavestra described it as a „conversation of the deaf“. Such conversations soon stopped. Instead, it was the weapons that spoke on the ruins of Yugoslavia.

Today, more than 30 years later, initiatives like this one launched by Kossev are important because, parallel with the official dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, a much broader social dialogue between Serbs and Albanians is necessary (and looking at the futility of the dialogue, it seems it is even more important). Although this sentence has been uttered many times, little has been done in practice. The weapons have been quiet for a long time. Apart from rare meetings held under the auspices of international organizations and the non-governmental sector, there are still no talks, even the ones deemed „conversations of the deaf“.

Agon Maliqi’s text is important for Serb readers out of several reasons. Agon is considered an independent intellectual of the younger generation. He is part of the elite of Albanians with whom Serbs should (in fact, have to) talk to. On social networks, the text received almost uniform praise from numerous Albanian intellectuals, journalists, CSO representatives, and even some politicians, thus it can be said that it reflects the widespread views of the Pristina elite.

Agon clearly states why the use of the term Metohija is unacceptable and offensive to him – and obviously for many who think similarly. The position is clear. It should be heard and accepted as a fact.

Nonetheless, the arguments justifying such an attitude can and should be discussed. In the extensive argumentation presented in the text, two things are disputable: the selective and occasionally tendentious interpretation of the past, and the self-interpretation of the meaning of the term Metohija when it is used by Serbs.

Agon points out that the term Metohija is unacceptable for Albanians „because of the time and how it was used in the past to denote Serbian domination and repression.“ In a lengthy historical review, however, he speaks exclusively of periods of Serbian domination, completely ignoring the fact that the pendulum of domination had shifted. Not a word is said about the period before 1912, the years of World War II and the period from the end of the 1960s until 1989, during which that pendulum swung on the side of the Albanians.

I do not wish to go into meaningless and many times repeated discussions on the topic of „who is more to blame“, but I would like to point out that precisely because of that shift in the pendulum of domination and its consequences on people’s lives, the term Metohija gained symbolic significance it has for Serbs today.

Agon begins his argument by claiming that during the Ottoman period, as is the case today, the word Kosovo was „a term that encompassed the entire territory of Kosovo.“ Granted, along the way, he distances himself by saying that the Ottoman administrative unit called „Kosovo vilayet“ included a larger territory, but the impression remains that it calls for a kind of continuity of territory and name. It is true that the Kosovo vilayet, first founded under this name in 1878, „encompassed the entire territory of Kosovo,“ but it also included the cities of Prijepolje (in present-day western Serbia), Berane (in present-day Montenegro), Nis (in today’s southern Serbia), Skopje, Stip and Veles (in today’s Macedonia) and Elbasan (in today’s Albania). It is clear that this is a much wider territory than the one whose name we are now in disagreement about. There can be no question of any continuity, neither of the territory nor names. The Turkish vilayets were named after cities (Skadar, Thessaloniki, Monastir, etc.) or geographical terms (Danube, in the area of present-day Bulgaria), as was the case here. After only three years, Skopje replaced Pristina as the capital of the Kosovo vilayet.

Although Agon claims otherwise, the term Kosovo did not „encompass the entire territory of Kosovo“ for either Albanians or Serbs in the Ottoman period and during the time of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. What did it encompass? Only and exclusively a geographical area, a valley from Mitrovica to Urosevac/Ferizaj, just as Metohija was a geographical area, a plain from the foot of Prokletije to the Prizren valley.

The word Kosovo became part of the name of the territory with borders similar to the current borders in 1945, when the Autonomous Kosovo-Metohija region was formed, within the Republic of Serbia, which was part of federal Yugoslavia. Today’s borders were finally formed on January 1st, 1960, with the addition of the area around Leposavic, Lesak, and the southern slope of Kopaonik. Never before, in any period of history, has this territory formed a whole within similar boundaries: neither as an administrative area, nor as a territory whose population shared some kind of regional identity, nor as a defined area delimitated from the rest of the territory by a more or less clear ethnic line, in which members of one people made up a distinct majority. From the moment the area was formed at a closed meeting of a group of communist officials, the term Metohija was part of its name.

In the previous text, I explained that by forming the Autonomous Kosovo-Metohija region, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY) wanted to define the area where the Albanian issue in Yugoslavia would be resolved and separate it from the areas where the Macedonian and Montenegrin national issues would be resolved, although a significant number of Albanians lived in those areas as well. We can only guess how the name was chosen.

In the period between the two world wars, the term „Kosovo-Metohija“ was occasionally used in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, e.g. in linguistics, derived from the names of the two largest geographical areas, but the term did not denote a clearly defined territory. Possibly, the term Metohija found itself in the name of the CPY Regional Committee for Kosovo and Metohija in 1937, and then the Autonomous Region in 1945, because in the first half of the 1930s, according to regional party branches, the entire territory from Prokletije to Pristina was under the jurisdiction of the CPY Regional Committee for Metohija, based in Pec/Peja. That is why the name was preserved after the establishment of the single CPY Regional Committee for Kosovo and Metohija, remaining after the establishment of the autonomous region.

Yet, even before the autonomous region was formally created, a significant event for understanding the importance the term Metohija has for Serbs taken place. In November 1943, during World War II, after the capitulation of Italy, when the collapse of their protectorate of Greater Albania became certain, the CPY Regional Committee for Kosovo and Metohija decided to replace the word „Metohija“ with the Albanian word „Dukagjini“.

Two months later, at a conference in Bujan (present-day northern Albania), it was decided that the Regional Committee would become a Provincial Committee (which would equate it with other provincial committees within the CPY hierarchy, including the Provincial Committee for Serbia) and that the area in which it operates would belong to Albania after the end of the war. The decision was made by 49 delegates: 42 Albanians, one Muslim, and 6 Serbs. Among Albanians, 15 were from Albania. The CPY Central Committee annulled these decisions.

The episode is important for two reasons. First, because it shows the tendency of Albanians to remove the word Metohija before it became an official part of the name of the province, i.e. before the time of „Rankovic’s rule“, which is why, as Agon states, the term Metohija is abhorrent to Albanians today. The second reason why this war episode is significant is the fact that the removal of the word Metohija happened as direct preparation for the attempt to annex the area under the jurisdiction of the CPY Regional Committee for Kosovo and Metohija to Albania.

The leadership of the CPY annulled the decisions from Bujan, and the Autonomous Kosovo-Metohija Region was formed in 1945. The period of communist rule began, the „dark age“, as Agon calls it, „the continuation of the repressive colonial rule under communism, during which tens of thousands of Albanians were killed, persecuted and displaced in Turkey.“ Claims about the so-called „Rankovic’s age“ create the illusion that there was some kind of Serb domination in Yugoslavia until the fall of Rankovic, who was a Serb. That was simply not the case. In this period, Yugoslavia was a highly centralized state of a communist dictatorship. There is no doubt that Albanians bear scars from this period, but Serbs also bear deep scars.

It is indisputable that until the beginning of the 1960s, Albanians were discriminated against by the Yugoslav authorities, and that Serbs dominated on the field. The reasons for this were the deep-rooted ethnic intolerance as well as the massive participation of Albanians on the side of the occupiers in the war. Many Albanian families have bad memories of this time, but it is also a fact that the intensive development of the province began during this period and that Albanians gradually gained rights they had never had before. After all, if Agon is mentioning the participation of his ancestors in the war on the part of the partisans, he should also mention that they were part of the communist government in the entire period we are talking about, all the way into the 1980s.

Rankovic was dismissed in 1966 in a process of deep internal transformation of the Yugoslav federation. The two provinces within Serbia have acquired all state attributes. Agon states that the term Metohija was removed from the official name to „reflect how the majority of the population, which is now in power, refers to this territory in modern times.“ The reasons were much more complex.

During the public discussion on the upcoming constitutional changes, Albanians from the province made five main demands: for it to become a federal category and not a republican one (which would make it independent from Serbia in practice), for it to get a constitution instead of a statute (which only republics had until then); to allow the free use of the Albanian flag (identical to the flag of Albania), to remove the word Metohija from the name and, finally, to turn the province into a republic. It is clear that all the demands had a much deeper, political significance, and that it was not just a matter of simply changing the name to „reflect the way the majority population refers to the territory.“

The first four requirements have been met. The fifth, the proclamation of a republic, was not, -although Kosovo became a republic, in everything but its name. What followed was a series of demonstrations in 1968, during which, among other things, the proclamation of the republic was demanded, and calls for unification with Albania could be heard.

After the changes at the end of the 1960s, a period of Albanian domination began, which Agon completely skips over in his historical review. However, it is important because without it, the meaning that the word Metohija has for Serbs, especially Serbs from Kosovo, cannot be understood.

During this period, Serbs were the target of discrimination: institutional, similar to that faced by Albanians in previous years (during employment, before the authorities, police, etc.) and non-institutional, in everyday life, (in the markets, in transport, at the workplace).

During that time, the full national emancipation of Albanians in Yugoslavia took place. They were given all possible rights, wider autonomy than any other in Europe and they became fully involved in state governing (Fadil Hoxha was the vice president of the SFRY in 1978-1979, which was the highest political position behind Tito).

However, it was at this time that the mass organization of the Albanian national movement, from which the KLA emerged during the 1990s, began. The majority of those persons considered as the founders of the national movement in Kosovo today, whether they have died in the meantime and are celebrated as heroes (Jusuf Gervalla, Kadri Zeka, Rexhep Malaj, and others), or participated in the KLA fight and later in Kosovo political life (Jakup Krasniqi, Hidayet Hyseni, Xhavit Haliti, Xhafer Shatri, Mehmet Hajrizi, Bajram Kosumi, and others), started operating in the late 1960s and 1970s. Their goal, clearly expressed in the organizations’ program documents and papers published today, was to prepare a mass armed uprising of Albanians, to secede Kosovo from Yugoslavia and annex it to Albania.

Due to this situation in the province of Kosovo, from the mid-1960s to the end of the 1980s, two out of five Serbs emigrated, according to the data of provincial and federal institutions. While the majority was moving away, after new violent Albanian demonstrations in 1981, in which they again demanded the proclamation of a republic and unification with Albania, some Serbs from Kosovo began to organize themselves. The Serb movement, organized long before Milosevic became a relevant political factor, made several demands. Some were quite reasonable, others completely unacceptable. One of the demands was to return the word Metohija to the name of the province.

The request did not come from Belgrade, from the circle around Milosevic, who later abused the movement, but from the Serb population from Kosovo. For Milosevic, the request was of little importance, as evidenced by the fact that the amendments to the 1989 constitution, which narrowed the autonomy of the provinces, did not return the word Metohija to its name. This was done the following year, in 1990, in the new constitution of Serbia, following the pressure from Serbs from Kosovo to do so. That is when the period of Milosevic’s rule began, during which Albanians in Kosovo were turned into second-class citizens. The name of the province played no role in that.

Why is the word Metohija so important to Serbs? Not because of the religious character, as Agon states. The word Metohija is derived from church terminology, as are many other names everywhere in the world. For Serbs, the word acquired a much broader, symbolic meaning because in its removal they saw the beginning of a period that brought discrimination and mass emigration. The removal of that word in 1943, and again in 1968, was directly related to the demands that the territory of Kosovo be separated from Serbia, for its Serbian identity to be completely denied (which is indubitable, as is the Albanian one) and for it to be annexed to Albania.

Agon writes that when a Serb uses the term „Kosovo and Metohija“ today, he „at best“ wants to „prolong the colonial relationship“ and treat Albanians as „intruders“ on their own land. Not only is this not true, but it is an obvious example of self-interpretation. Just as Serbs should not interpret how Albanians understand a controversial topic, including the use of the term Metohija, the same stands for the other side.

There are great differences in the meaning of the term Metohija when it is used by state officials of Serbia, different groups of Serbs from central Serbia, and when it is done by Serbs who live in Kosovo today. For the majority of Serbs in central Serbia, it is a way to express state sovereignty. Still, the reason for this series of texts was the use of that term by a journalist, a Serb, employed in Pristina, so it is much more important to point out what the use of that term means for Kosovo Serbs. For them, it is a matter of identity, symbolic proof that they are not intruders on the land where they have lived for generations. For them, the persecution of the word Metohija is a symbol of continuous attempts to erase the Serbian identity in Kosovo, such as persistent attempts to rename Serbian cultural heritage into Byzantine heritage. The use of the word Metohija is symbolic proof that they are at home, that they are not „intruders“ because one knows what happens to intruders.

In the text, I refrained from using terms such as racism, fascism, and colonialism, which abound public discourse today, and which are not lacking in Agon’s text. In addition to the fact that I believe that their use will not contribute to the dialogue, even if it was a „conversation of the deaf“, I also think that in most cases they are used lightly and inappropriately. In the end, though, I have to make an exception. Because Kosovo Serbs today, in a situation of complete Albanian domination, see pure racism in the ban on the use of the term Metohija.

Petar Ristanovic is an 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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