Interview 28 Dec 16

Balkan Schoolbooks Offer Conflicting Versions of Kosovo’s History

Shkelzen Gashi tells BIRN that his new report reveals how differently the history of Kosovo is taught all over the Western Balkans - with worrying implications for relations between neighbouring countries.

Rron Gjinovci BIRN Pristina
 Shkelzen Gashi. Photo: Zeri.info

Different interpretations of history often lead to conflicts, especially in the Balkans where the events of the past are the subject of bitter dispute even when they happened centuries ago.

A new report, “The History of Kosovo in the History Textbooks of Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia”, published in Kosovo this month and authored by political scientist Shkelzen Gashi, confirms this.

It explores how differently key events from the history of Kosovo are treated in elementary and high school textbooks in Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania and Serbia.

In an interview with BIRN, Gashi said he collected up the regional books and “compared the similarities and differences between them… and then faced them with internationally established historical facts. In this way the falsification came out”.

Gashi compared the “facts” of the textbooks of Kosovo and its neighbours with those presented by international authors such as Oliver Schmitt, Noel Malcolm and Peter Bartl.

He also consulted other reports and documents related to Kosovo’s history.

According to Gashi, there are two main parallel interpretations in the region.

“You notice two big divisions among these [regional] countries when it comes to Kosovo’s history – with Kosovo and Albania on one side and Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia on the other,” he said.

Pupils in Montenegro get most things factually correct, however, he noted.

“I must emphasize that Montenegro differs from all other countries with a higher dose of correctness towards the facts,” Gashi said.

Origin of the people of Kosovo

The debates start with “who came first to these lands?” - which for historians is often almost impossible to answer.

“The deeper as we go in researching the origin of nations, the more mysterious it becomes,” Gashi said, paraphrasing British writer Noel Malcolm.

“Origins are not relevant in resolving today’s political conflicts,” he added.

The possible Illyrian origin of the Albanian nation is one of those age-old contested topics.

“Kosovo and Albanian [textbooks] are categorical about the Illyrian origin of the people of Kosovo”, Gashi said.

However, “Serbia and Macedonia [textbooks] do not give any information about the origin of the Kosovo people, and in Montenegro they say the origin of Albanians living in Kosovo stems from any of the autochthonous tribes of the Balkans.”

Gashi noted that according to the international authors, there are two hypotheses: one is that Albanians descend from the Illyrians and the other is that they descend from the Thracians.

Illyrians are also presented in the history textbooks of Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro differently.

“Positive characterization without any factual basis is typical of Kosovo and Albania textbooks.

“On the other hand there is the opposite approach from the rest of Kosovo neighbours whose textbooks portray Illyrians as pirates or thieves,” Gashi noted.

Slavs arrive in the Balkans

Gashi notes that Kosovo and Albania try to push today’s political and territorial existence of Albanians back into Medieval and Ancient times.

Kosovo and Albania textbooks present “the arrival of the Slavs in Balkan as an invasion but the truth is that they simply moved to find better life conditions in these territories”, he said.

According to Gashi, following the Slavic influx into the Balkans, cultural assimilation happened on both sides.

“Albanian textbooks are correct in this direction, while Montenegro textbooks go further, saying that the Slavs and the natives lived in peace,” he said.

Medieval times and Battle of Kosovo

Gashi insists that “the main characteristics of people’s identity in Medieval times were property, religion and to some extent language” and that the current hostile relations between the peoples of Kosovo and Serbia did not exist in the past.

Gashi cites the example of Serbian’s famous ruler, Tsar Dusan, who established a medieval empire in today’s Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Greece.

“When he attacked his father, Stefan Decanski, in Kosovo, according to [Noel] Malcolm, the majority of his troops spoke Albanian,” Gashi noted.

“Furthermore, he called his kingdom The Serb-Greek-Arbanas Kingdom.

“Such events are not presented in the history textbooks of the respective countries,” he noted.

According to Gashi, no regional textbooks are factually correct when it comes to the Battle of Kosovo of 1389, a seminal date in Serbian history.

“When it comes to the Battle of Kosovo, [the textbooks] are in the domain of mythology more than in the domain of history,” he said.

“They don’t tell you that there were two divided groups of Albanian and Serb lords who fought on both sides.

There were lords who fought for the Balkan Alliance and others on the side of the Ottoman Empire,” he explained.

The Ottoman era in Kosovo

The Ottomans ruled Kosovo for five centuries, which Kosovo history textbooks present as a dark age.

But according to Gashi, historical facts suggest otherwise.

“The fact that 42 [Ottoman] head viziers [chief governors] were Albanian, including many Kosovo Albanians, tells of the real relationship between Albanians and the Ottoman Empire,” Gashi said.

Uprisings that took place for different reasons, according to Gashi, are incorrectly presented as a consistent liberation movement stretching over several centuries.

“Three uprisings like the one in 1444 led by Skanderbeg, another one by Pjetër Bogdani in 1689, and the League of Prizren in 1878 are portrayed in Kosovo and Albania history textbooks as a consistent liberation movement against Ottoman rule,” Gashi explained.

The spread of Islam in Kosovo and Albania is also represented as a repressive and violent process.

Gashi says this is dubious. Referring to the international authors, Gashi says the main factor that affected the conversion of Albanians to Islam was not pressure but prestige and the weakness of the Church.

“It was the political factor - the sense of gaining prestige, followed by the small number of Catholic priests in Kosovo and Albania at that time”.

Serbian rule over Kosovo until 1945

According to Gashi, the period from 1912 - when Serbia seized Kosovo - until World War Two is characterized in Kosovo and Albania as one of great Serbian crimes.

“The crimes of 1912-1913 committed by Serbs against Albanians are mentioned only by Kosovo history textbooks and briefly by Montenegrin history textbooks, but not in Serbia,” Gashi said.

Gashi continued that Serbian crimes from 1918 to 1919 against Albanians are well presented by Kosovo history textbooks but not in Serbia’s.”

“Again during 1941 to 1944, [during the German occupation] the crimes committed by Albanians are presented in Serbia’s history textbooks but not in Kosovo or Albania history textbooks,” Gashi noted.

Kosovo in the Yugoslav era

According to Gashi, Kosovo’s textbooks ignore the cooperation that took place between Kosovo Albanian Communists and Tito’s Yugoslav Partisan army - and the cooperation between Kosovo Albanian nationalists and the Fascist occupation forces.

In Kosovo, he noted, the whole Yugoslav era is represented as a repressive time of occupation.

But Gashi insists the facts show differently.

“From 1968 to 1981, having in mind developments in different sectors, such as opening of the University of Pristina, Academy of Sciences and Arts, factories and other developments, one cannot call it an occupation,” he said.

Gashi detects a tendency to claim victim status by both Kosovo and Serbia when it comes to the Yugoslav era.

“Kosovo’s advance during this period is presented in Serbian history textbooks as a tendency by Tito to divide Serbia”, Gashi said.

“Kosovo textbooks meanwhile try to minimize the rights that Kosovo gained by the [Yugoslav] constitution of 1974,” he added.

The conflict of 1989 to 1998

Even about such recent events as those in the 1990s, there is no consensus in regional textbooks.

According to Gashi, when Balkan countries are not ready to face some undeniable facts, they just ignore them.

“The abolition of the autonomy of [the then province of] Kosovo [by Serbia] is not mentioned in Serbian and Macedonian textbooks while Albanian and Montenegrin textbooks talk about it only briefly,” Gashi said.

On the other hand, “Kosovo textbooks talk about it at length”.

According to Gashi, Kosovo textbooks present the famous miners’ strike in Kosovo in 1989 as a drive for independence when in reality the miners only sought the return of Kosovo’s autonomy.

“It is interesting that all the miners’ declarations were within the discourse of the [Yugoslav Communist slogan] ‘Brotherhood and unity’, while photographs of Tito were present all the time,” Gashi recalled.

Gashi explains that Serbia’s subsequent repression of the Kosovo Albanians in education, economy and healthcare is not mentioned in any regional textbooks, except, of course, in Kosovo.

Differences are worrying for future

For Gashi, despite the existence of facts that are already established internationally, for which there are documents, Kosovo and Serbian history textbooks contain a lot of false information.

Gashi noted that Kosovo textbooks say during the NATO bombing of Serbian forces in Kosovo, Serbian forces killed 15,000 Albanians.

But he notes that the “Kosovo Memory Book 1998-2000” gives a total number of 7,864 Albanian civilians killed in the period January 1998 to December 2000.

On the other hand, Serbian textbooks, without clarifying the ethnicity of those victims, “say that there were 1,200 to 2,500 victims, while Human Rights Watch reports say that there were 489 to 528 civilian victims, among them 279 to 318 killed in Kosovo”.

Gashi says the highly contrasting “facts” in the school history textbooks of Kosovo, Albanian, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro are worrying for the future peace and security of the Balkans.

“It terrifies me that these history textbooks are certified by the respective ministries of all the countries mentioned and also massively spread since these are schoolbooks,” Gashi said.

“Allowing these textbooks to be spread and to serve as the first source of information means that we suggest hostile relations with neighbours to new generations. We even suggest new wars,” he concluded.

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