Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Balkan Semantics: How Kosovo Dropped Two Words and Serbia Gained Europe

Kosovo and Serbia took a major step toward normalization this month, but they have not arrived there yet.  They are still engaged in a strange dance of onomastic gymnastics that is peculiarly Balkan.  But, given the bloody history of the Balkans, a little semantic hair-splitting is nothing to get upset about.

Ever since it declared independence in 2008 from Serbia, the Republic of Kosovo had been in a kind of limbo—midwifed into existence only through aggressive American diplomacy and under cover of a NATO bombing campaign, recognized by (as of 2012) eighty-eight out of the world’s 193-or-so sovereign states, and blocked from membership in the United Nations by unbudging veto threats from the two Security Council permanent members—Russia and China—with the most to fear from their own internal separatist movements.  Kosovo is in a small club of partially recognized states that nonetheless function as fully sovereign, economically engaged nations—a club that also includes pairs of countries claiming the same or overlapping territories—Israel and Palestine, China and Taiwan ... one could also add Western Sahara, Northern Cyprus, and Somaliland.

The flag of the Republic of Kosovo

And of course the loudest of those countries refusing to recognize Kosovo is Serbia itself, which continues to insist that Kosovo is a province within Serbia (and not even, as it used to be, an “autonomous” one).  Kosovo is fully governed from its capital, Pristina, a de facto fully independent state, except for a northern sliver by the Serbian border called North Kosovo, where in a referendum last month (as discussed in this blog) the Serbian majority (the rest of Kosovo is mostly ethnically Albanian) voted to reject Kosovo’s sovereignty over their communities—a sliver which the Kosovar government in Pristina doesn’t even try to administer.  For the most part, Kosovo is a frozen conflict, and such situations (think China, Korea, or Cyprus) can often stay frozen for decades.  But one factor was pushing the parties toward a potentially destabilizing thaw: Serbia was not permitted to move forward its quest for membership in the European Union (E.U.) without some sort of resolution of the Kosovo conflict.

Serbia, with Kosovo in yellow and orange and North Kosovo in orange.

That resolution came on February 24th (as reported in this blog at the time).  Negotiations under E.U. auspices crafted a working agreement, under which Serbia will recognize Kosovo as an entity (not a sovereign state, but no longer a United Nations ward, either) in international forums, so long as Kosovo agrees to drop Republic of from the beginning of its name.  Or, in any case, Serbian delegates have the right to refer to Kosovo as “Kosovo” instead of “the Republic of Kosovo.”  On February 28th, the E.U. admitted Serbia as a formal candidate.  Really?  That’s all it took?  Just like that, after tens of thousands dead in a bloody war in 1998-99 that divided European allies against one another?  Just drop two words?

European Union officials visiting Kosovo

In the first place, how does Kosovo sound less independent than Republic of Kosovo?  Before the Yugoslav Wars of Succession began in 1991, the different constituent units of Yugoslavia were known as republics—the Republic of Serbia, the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, etc.—analogous to the republics that made up the Soviet Union and much of the Russian Federative Soviet Socialist Republic within the Soviet Union.  In the old Communist world for which Serbian nationalists are so famously nostalgic—at least in the parts of it, like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, that were federative, and indeed in the Russian Federation even today—calling something Republic of is tantamount to saying not independent.  So why were those two words the problem?

Well, for the answer to that, you need to look at Kosovo’s onomastic history.  Kosovo once was a province in the Ottoman Empire called Kosovo Vilayet, until the Ottomans, Germans, and Austro-Hungarians lost the First World War and had their empires dismantled by the Treaty of Versailles.  Kosovo’s status was debated—it was almost attached to the newly independent Albania, since Kosovo’s population was and is mostly Albanian—but in 1945 Josip Brod Tito, who had been put in charge of post–World War II Yugoslavia, attached it to its constituent Republic of Serbia.  It was called the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija (the “and Metohija” was dropped in 1974), but was anything but autonomous: during that period it was ruled from Belgrade by Slavs, especially Serbs.  When Communism fell and first Slovenia, then Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, Kosovars began agitating not for independence but for their province to become a full-fledged Yugoslav republic—which, since the federation was clearly unravelling, implied secessionist designs nonetheless.  The Serbian government responded by erasing Kosovo’s regional government and placing the province under direct rule.  The dissolved Kosovar legislature met in secret in 1991 and declared an independent Republic of Kosova (that’s Kosova with an a, not Kosovo with an o—since in Albanian it is Kosovë, pronounced more like Kosova; Kosovo is a more Serbian pronunciation).  But the proclamation went little noticed amid the looming conflagrations in Croatia and Bosnia.  Only Albania recognized it, and Kosova used the exact same flag as Albania.  Kosovar separatists took no concrete actions to secure their independence for quite some time.

The flag of Albania, and of the short-lived Republic of Kosova (with an a)

In 1995, after much bloodletting, Bosnia was pacified by the internationally sponsored Dayton Accords, and that fledgling nation was carved up into a jigsaw puzzle of cease-fire lines, but the international community seemed to have no interest in addressing nascent or dormant conflicts elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia, like Kosovo.  In frustration, the Kosovo Liberation Army (K.L.A.) grew in popularity and soon edged gradualists out of power in the Kosovar resistance.  The K.L.A. began pushing back, with force, against Serbian administration of the territory—now more often called Kosovo with an o—and the much better armed Serbia, desperate to hold on to what it could of its whittled-away empire, carried out brutal reprisals.  This led to the spring 1999 bombing campaign by NATO to provide safe cover to Kosovars, though this was used as a rationalization for NATO to cripple Serbia’s civilian infrastructure from the air.  The Republic of Kosovo was gradually born.

Belgrade during NATO bombing

For Serbs, who are still nursing the wounds of that humiliating defeat by the West, Kosovo is the sorest of all sore points, and in their minds the problems all began when Kosovo requested being upgraded to a republic in 1991.  For Serb nationalists, dropping Republic of from Kosovo is a way of asserting that to them it is still the Province of Kosovo (though of course they could never convince anyone to join them in calling it that), so Kosovo, plain old Kosovo, it is.

But this is far from the only example of hair-splitting over names in this part of the world.  With the dissolution of Yugoslavia (or, more properly the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, formerly the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, formerly the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and later renamed the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro after all the other republics had fled), it was difficult to keep track of all of the different entities attempting to establish themselves.  The Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (not to be confused with the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a completely different, and subsidiary, entity) was, during the long Bosnian War, divided not into Bosnia and Herzegovina, as you would think, but into two entities called the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosna and Republika Srpska—or even three entities, if you count those Bosniak areas still calling themselves the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosna (not to be confused with the Republic of Croatia or the Serb Republic of Krajina in Croatia—which included parts of Slavonia but none of Slovenia and certainly none of Slovakia) was run by Croats who were not really Croatians and who were Bosnians but certainly not Bosniaks.  In territory, Herzeg-Bosna included most of Bosnia (except for the Autonomous Republic of Western Bosnia, which was Serb) but very little of Herzegovina.  Republika Srpska, on the other hand, translates to “Republic of Serbia,” but it was definitely not to be confused with the Republic of Serbia, with its capital in Belgrade, which is the Republika Srbija—even though both used the same flag, and the original idea was to merge the two.  I guess you could call Republika Srbija the Republic of Serbia and Republika Srpska the Serb Republic, but everyone just calls Republika Srpska Republika Srpska in English, and calls Republika Srbija Serbia.  Serbs in Republika Srbija are actually Serbians, whereas those in Republika Srpska are just Serbs.  There are other ethnic groups—such as some Croats—in Republika Srpska, too, of course, so some of these would be Croats but not Croatians, and “Srpskans” but definitely not Serbs or Serbians.  Got it?  Pop quiz tomorrow.

Now you understand why, even before the wars, citizens of Sarajevo tended to fill out the “ethnicity” line on census forms with “Yugoslavian,” “European,” “human,” or “?”.

But wars over names never reached the same depths of pettiness as during the long, and still ongoing, squabble over what to call the Republic of Macedonia, the old Yugoslavia’s southernmost subdivision.  After Macedonia declared independence in 1991, it saw Slovenia and Croatia and Bosnia coast along into the United Nations while its own admission to that body was held up for almost two years by a protracted, screaming, biting, and scratching hissie-fit by Greece (more properly, the Hellenic Republic) over the name Macedonia.  You see, Macedonia is also the name of an ancient kingdom which included much of northern Greece and originally almost none of what is now the Slav-dominated Republic of Macedonia, though as it grew in the fourth century B.C.E., under Alexander the Great (who was definitely Greek), from a modest city-state called Macedon to a sprawling Kingdom of Macedonia, it swallowed up most of the southern Balkans, including all of what is today the Republic of Macedonia.  Macedonia is also the name Greeks give to their northern region comprising fourteen provinces (plus, the self-governing ecclesiastical mini-state of Mount Athos) and almost two and a half million people.  So Greece’s position—in the paranoid style which characterizes Greek foreign policy—was that, by calling itself Macedonia, the new nation was implying that it had designs on some of Greece’s territory as well.

Map showing the Macedonia region with dotted line
and two black dots for the Kingdom of Macedonia’s ancient capitals

At least some of Greece’s anxieties over the idea of a non-Greek Macedonia can be traced to the existence of something called the Principality of the Pindus, named after a mountain range stretching from northwestern Greece into what is today southern Albania and the Republic of Macedonia—a region which was home to a group of Vlach (Wallachian) or Romanian-related people called the Aromanians.  Nationalists in Romania since the nineteenth century had dreamed of setting up an Aromanian statelet within Greece that would be loyal to Romania as a fellow member in the brotherhood of nations speaking Romance (Latin-derived) languages.  That opportunity came during the First World War, when the (Romance-speaking) Kingdom of Italy occupied southern Albania, and Italian and Romanian partisans tried to place an Aromanian nationalist named Alchiviad Diamandi di Samarina as head of the Principality of the Pindus—but it only lasted only one day.

Having tasted power, however, Diamandi bided his time until the Second World War, with Italians again, now under Benito Mussolini, occupying Albania and part of Greece.  The Italian Fascists supported the Principality of the Pindus idea, but it was opposed by the hypernationalist, Axis-collaborating government running Greece at the time.  Hopelessly outnumbered in the region by patriotic ethnic-Greeks, Diamandi forged an alliance with the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), a pro-Slavic ethnic insurgency group which had operated since the period when Macedonia was in the Ottoman Empire.  IMRO in 1942 tried to set up an independent Voivodeship of Macedonia, with its capital in Skopje (the Republic of Macedonia’s current capital) and territory extending well into Greece and Albania, as a refuge for both Slavic and Aromanian minorities in the region.  IMRO installed Diamandi as voivod, or prince—choosing an Aromanian so that the principality would seem more inclusive.

Flag of the Principality of the Pindus and Voivodeship of Macedonia

Under different circumstances, Greeks might have tolerated a plan that siphoned off troublesome Slav and Aromanian minorities into an independent state centered fairly far north, but IMRO made the mistake of allying itself with the Axis too strongly—and overtly welcomed the Axis-aligned army of Bulgaria, when it invaded Greece, as liberators.  The Greek government was playing the Axis game as a survival strategy, but the Bulgarians were serious Nazis.  And if you ever want to make Greeks mad, just side against them with the Bulgarians and you’ve done it.  It didn’t even help that the Aromanians and Macedonian Slavs were, like the Greeks, rabidly anti-Turkish.  I mean, the Greeks were collaborating with the Nazis and the Fascisti, sure, why not, right?, but, jeez, at least they weren’t collaborating with the Bulgarians.

Well, after the Second World War, Greeks were appalled to see Tito, newly installed by the Allies to head Yugoslavia, inviting members of IMRO to help establish the new local government in the Republic of Macedonia—fearing, without much foundation, that Tito’s Macedonia would harbor irredentists.  IMRO barely exists anymore, but when Macedonia declared independence in 1991 it began holding up some IMRO figures as its own founding national heroes, and, to rub salt in the wound, began treating Alexander the Great as its own son as well.  So, for Greeks, the whole Macedonia issue brings up all of the guilt and the junk from Greece’s—it must be granted—miserable experience through the long dark night of Balkan conflict in two world wars.

Macedonian Slavs enjoyed pushing Greece’s buttons by erecting
a giant statue of Alexander the Great in downtown Skopje in 2011.

But Greek nationalists need a reality check.  The Republic of Macedonia, after all, had just watched NATO carpet-bomb Serbia, without a direct threat to a NATO member-state.  Imagine what would happen if Macedonia marched an army into Greece—which, Greece being a NATO member-state, would require NATO to stop them.  It could never happen.  But Greeks never seem capable of being reassured that western Europe has their back (cf. Euro-zone crisis), and, ever since they won independence from the crippled Ottoman Empire (with western European help), most threats to their territory have indeed come from the north and west.

Flag of the Republic of Macedonia

For this reason, Greece said it would not allow the Republic of Macedonia to establish itself with that name, and the Macedonians, being Slavs, dug in their heels and refused to budge.  Different names were suggested—North Macedonia, South Yugoslavia (redundant since Yugoslavia already means South-Slavia), the Republic of Skopje—but finally what was agreed upon was the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or Fyrom for short.  Well, I guess, when in Fyrom, do as the Greeks demand, eh?  Greek diplomats still call it Fyrom in international contexts.  Personally, I think the country should have called itself the Country Formerly Known as Macedonia and adopted this as their flag:

So, back to Serbia, which has now been designated as a formal candidate for European Union membership.  In this, it joins the ranks of Turkey, Montenegro, Macedonia—oh, sorry, Fyrom—and Iceland (which used to think it didn’t need the E.U., until its economy imploded).  (Croatia is slated to join in 2013.)  Does this mean that Serbia will be joining the E.U. any time soon?  Isn’t it too soon after it was cast as the medieval, authoritarian villain and the enemy of Europe?  Well, not necessarily; after all, Germany was co-founder of the E.U. (then known as the European Common Market) back in 1958, a mere thirteen years after the liberation of Auschwitz.  And it’s been seventeen years now since the end of hostilities in Bosnia and almost thirteen years since the end of hostilities in Kosovo.  Serbia is a full democracy now.  (Though, granted, the Germans did hand over their war criminals for trial with a tad more alacrity after World War II ended than Serbs managed to do after 1995.)  Moreover, Serbia has—quite sincerely, it seems—abandoned all visions of a Greater Serbia.  Irredentist Serbs in North Kosovo, Macedonia, Croatia’s Krajina region, and even Republika Srpska are getting absolutely no encouragement from Belgrade.  Serbia seems to genuinely want nothing more than what it has, and to share it with the rest of Europe.

Possible future E.U. members

Really, the only barrier to Serbia’s admission has been the Kosovo question, and, to be honest, that sort of thing doesn’t even have to be a problem at all if the E.U. chooses to overlook it.  Cyprus, for example, is an E.U. member, and not only isn’t it in Europe at all (yup, sorry, that’s Asia), but the northern third of the country is the de facto independent Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a client state of Turkey (even more of a client state than the Republic of Cyprus proper is a client state of Greece; Northern Cyprus practically is Turkey).  If the E.U. can overlook that, they should have been able to overlook the Kosovo question even earlier.  Clearly, they wanted to make Serbia jump through some more hoops just for the hell of it.

As for Turkey, the less said the better.  This mostly Asian country does indeed have a token Thracian toehold on the European continent, but is far less European in its culture than Cyprus or, say, Georgia or Armenia, or even, in some ways, Israel or Lebanon.  This isn’t just about Islam, either: Albania is well on the way to E.U. candidacy, and so, theoretically, are Kosovo and Bosnia, all of them to varying degrees Muslim-run.  It’s mostly about human rights.  Turkey’s record in its Kurdistan region is no small matter: Turkey routinely murders and tortures innocent Kurds and arrests people for speaking the Kurdish language or criticizing the Turkish state.  The Turkish government’s attempts to clean up its act are quite cosmetic—and its recent threats to annex Northern Cyprus, plus its continuing oppression of its Kurds, are a clear indication that it regards E.U. admission as so hopeless that it might as well not even try to act civilized.  Might as well just bring back Fez hats, seraglios, and guillotines, right?—for all the impression it will make on Brussels.  Plus, does the E.U. really want to have a shared border with Iraq?

Turkey’s Kurdish policy

On the whole, this blog welcomes Serbia’s further integration into the community of free nations.  Just think: as recently as 1991, when Croatia declared independence, the Serb nationalist Vojislav Šešelj—now on trial for war crimes—was announcing that he wanted to gouge Croats’ eyes out with rusty shoehorns so that coroners wouldn’t know whether to blame tetanus or blood loss.  So if Serb nationalism today just means a little bit of aggressive quibbling over a country’s name, that’s progress indeed.  Welcome to Europe, Serbia.

Flag of the Republic of Serbia
[You can read more about many of these and other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this special announcement for more information on the book.]


  1. Serbia is openly supporting Serbs in north Kosovo, actually it runs life there, it is under de facto Serbian control with security apparatus, civil registration and everything. and is Tacitly ensuring close ties with Republika Srpska making roads, bridges, common infrastructure and power grids, so when the time comes - although they are not in a hurry for it.

  2. The picture doesn't show Alchiviad Diamandi di Samarina, but the Albanian-American priest and politician Fan Noli.

  3. Thank you! I have corrected it, and replaced that image with a map.

  4. Problem so called "Greater Serbia" is no longer a threat. Now, the new danger in the Balkans is Albanian desire to create so called "Greater Albania", encouraged by the support of USA about Kosovo issue.
    Greater Albania=Albania+Kosovo+part of FYROM+part of Montenegro+part of Greece+part of southern Serbia.
    Albanian nationalism is as dangerous as Serbian nationalism and Croatian nationalism.

  5. Bathed Macedonian this is pure Bulgarian

    1. And bathed bulgarian is a non-existing entity. (I wanted to put "tatar", but that's just insulting to the tatars.


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