Why “Kosovo i Metohija” offends

Foto: BSF

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:

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: Agon Maliqi

As human beings, we may find ourselves sometimes surprised when someone reacts negatively to the use of words which come to us naturally and which we view as harmless. This is a moment when we should stop and check whether we may be blind to power relations and historical grievances that others might have against us, or blind to what our words and actions signify to others. MeToo or Black Lives Matter are precisely the kind of examples of global movements contesting behaviors and public forms of expression that were long considered normal, yet whose continued use is believed to entrench historical inequalities and injustices.

The way in which many Serbs get surprised by how Albanians react to terms such as “Kosovo i Metohija” is a sign of a broader blindness towards Albanian perspectives on pretty much anything, if not of a denial that that perspective has any right to exist. The colonial reflex remains very much alive and is largely unaware of its existence. While I am happy that media such as KoSSev invited me to explain why the term sparks such reactions, I doubt that many Serbs in Serbia or Kosovo will care to change their views and behaviors after reading this, much like I don’t expect Albanians to change their perceptions of Serbia as an inherently racist and fascist society when I write about the progressive parts of its history.

To answer your question: to Albanians, the term “Kosovo i Metohija” represents a loaded and politically charged term because of when and how it was used in history to signify Serbian domination and repression. Therefore, it is not perceived only as a term that Serbs use to describe the territory, but also a symbol of continued claims over Kosovo and a desire to dominate and violate it. Thus, the mere uttering of the term is generally perceived as an act of aggression, regardless of the intentions of its user, for the reasons outlined below.

Albanians in Kosovo overwhelmingly view the post-1913 period as representing various stages and degrees of colonization and contest the idea that modern Serbia has any historical (let alone divine) right over Kosovo’s territory because of what is essentially Byzantine pre-nation state cultural heritage. In fact, in the fascist race that this medieval and mythological claim over land triggered, Albanian nationalism reciprocated by contesting even the use of the name Kosovo, proposing the Illyrian “Dardania” as a more appropriate way to indicate that the ancestors of Albanians were here first.

But these are silly infantile ethno-nationalist games. Some things like territorial and administrative names become historical realities and get embraced with time, regardless of origin. Kosovo was the administrative name of the Albanian-majority Ottoman Villayet that, in the view of its Albanian majority population at the time, Serbia occupied. Albanians at the time did not have a specific term to distinguish the part of Kosovo that Serbs call “Metohija”. Kosovo was and continues to be a term that encapsulates the entirety of today’s Kosovo (in fact, the Villayet extended further). The term “Rrafshi i Dukagjinit” that Albanians today widely use to describe approximately the area that Serbs consider “Metohija” is a more recent term that perhaps came as a response to the distinction that Serbia made for that part of Kosovo’s territory.

The term “Metohija” got officially introduced in the post-WWII period as part of the name of the symbolic autonomous province under Serbia’s rule. Although Albanians (including my grandparents) took part in the Partisan resistance and the communist period is the only one in the “Yugoslav century” in which there is some division among Albanians over how it is seen, the “Rankovic era” is nonetheless homogenously seen as “The Dark Age”, as a continuation of repressive colonial rule under communism, during which tens of thousands of Albanians were murdered, persecuted and displaced to Turkey. So the first association of the term Metohija is with Rankovic’s rule, which means with Serbia’s domination and repression.

But this is probably more of a later negative association because I’m not sure that the term was as problematic at the time as it is now. In fact, you can find Kosovar Albanian poets of that period using that term as a mere geographic reference, which does not mean there was any affinity to it, but simply that the term was not seen as loaded with offensive meaning as it is today but simply useful to mark a part of Kosovo. The key dynamic that explains why and how the term gained its offensive status has today come with the rise of Milosevic. After Rankovic’s dismissal, when Tito changed course and Kosovo effectively got its Republic-level autonomy, the term Metohija was removed from the official name to also reflect the way in which the majority population, now in charge, referred to the territory in modern times and have officially called it ever since.

The revisionist and nationalist rhetoric that exploded in Serbian media and academia in the 1980’s, that culminated with Milosevic taking power, was also associated with calls and references to the territory as Kosovo i Metohija. It was not just simply an attempt to contest an established and unified entity by merely reducing it into separate regions, but also part of a broader nationalist mythologizing effort. Serbian nationalism not only weaponized the history of the Battle of Kosovo and projected a historical continuity, but also appropriated and ethno-nationalized Kosovo’s medieval Christian heritage – effectively claiming that the presence of this heritage gave stronger claim to legitimacy over the land than the majority people who lived there. This now gave extra weight and political connotations to the term “Metohija” because it also attached to the name of the territory an ecclesiastical meaning (literally meaning: “monastic estates”). Basically, the discourse that claimed to be about defending Serbian rights in Kosovo was in essence building the moral logic of the ethno-religious crusade that was to later ravage not just Kosovar Albanians but also Bosnian Muslims.

When Milosevic revoked Kosovo’s high degree of autonomy in ex-Yugoslavia by force, he also changed the official administrative name back to Rankovic’s “Kosovo i Metohija”. This is when Metohija took on the fully toxic meaning it has in Albanian’s minds today and the one I remember feeling repulsed with as a child. It’s the weaponization of the term by Milosevic’s project that made it offensive. It came to symbolize Serbia’s nationalist revisionism, the violent dispossession, the desire to dominate and repeal the hard fought status of Kosovo in Yugoslavia based on medieval ethno-religious myths. It is thus now associated with the legacy of both Rankovic and Milosevic – namely, with Serbia’s two most recent attempts to dominate Kosovo by oppressing the majority population and eventually ending-up by attempting to annihilate it.

So when a Serb says “Kosovo i Metohija” – especially a government official – an Albanian gets triggered because he/she experiences the full range of emotions that Serbia’s past and continued aggression sparks. A Serb who says Kosovo i Metohija is at best someone who still wants to extend the colonial relation, treats you as “an intruder” in your own country and sees Churches and medieval myths as more important than your life. In the worst case scenario, he/she is someone blind to or having no regrets about the history that ravaged your village, killed your family and made you a refugee. Because this has by and large been the Albanian experience of Serbia’s domination over Kosovo that the term Metohija has come to symbolize.

The degree of offensiveness is also determined by the context in which someone uses it. A Serbian government official going to the European Union with a book on the Christian heritage of “Kosovo i Metohija” is not only continuing the bogus nationalist mythological narrative behind Serbia’s claims over Kosovo, but at the same time he/she is also “othering” Kosovo’s population and dog whistling right-wingers in Europe who see the EU as a Christian club.

I personally understand that many Serbs who today use the term as individuals might not necessarily have evil intentions and use the term reflexively and as a matter of habit, without putting much thought to its origins and impact, or because in some cases it is required legally. Yet to me the use of the term also signifies the speaker embracing the colonial dynamic of Serbian-Albanian relations and failing to abandon what is in essence a Milosevic-era legacy and a clerical-fascist understanding of the nation that wreaked havoc in the region. The same mindset which, among other things, continues to keep Serbia itself hostage and drowning in the past, as witnessed by the fascist crowds usurping recent Belgrade protests.

At an individual level, with the passage of time, as an Albanian I have learned to hear the term and to mostly shrug it off when it is used by individuals. Finding offense in it sometimes also means accepting the colonial dynamic and projecting a sense of unnecessary insecurity. For all I care, other people may call this land Venus and Christiania! Yet as an anti-fascist and a human being who has experienced the history behind the use and abuse of the term, I can’t say that I don’t see its continued prevalence as disappointing and toxic to attempts to deal with the past.

Agon Maliqi is a policy analyst, civil society activist and media writer from Prishtina, Kosovo. He is the creator and co-founding editor of sbunker.net, an opinions and analysis blog gathering a young generation of academics, think tankers and activists from Kosovo.

Preuzimanje i objavljivanje tekstova sa portala KoSSev nije dozvoljeno bez navođenja izvora. Hvala na poštovanju etike novinarske profesije.