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06 Jun 08

South Serbia Albanians Divided over Homeland

A newly independent Kosovo has left ethnic Albanians in south Serbia soul-searching on whether Pristina can out do Albania as the centre of their national conscience.

By Baki Rexhepi in Bujanovac

Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia on February 17 has contributed to the dilemma among Albanians living in Presevo and Bujanovac whether to look at Kosovo or Albania as their fatherland.

Shaqir Shaqiri, a former ethnic Albanian rebel commander from the Presevo valley, site of a 2000-2001 uprising against Serbian authorities, has no doubts.

“The homeland of the Albanians of Presevo Valley has been and is the Republic of Albania,” he says.

“The state of Kosovo was not the goal of the centuries-long efforts and wars that were fought by Albanians. We were, are and will remain Albanians, whether we are from Presevo, or whether we come from Prishtina, Tetovo, Ulcinj, Tirana, Arta or Preveza.”

Unlike Shaqiri, who dreams about Greater Albania, most Kosovo Albanians and leaders in Tirana dismiss the idea as unlikely, and few foresee the possibility of such a concept ever being acceptable to the international community, let alone to Serbia and other countries in the region which have minority Albanian populations.

Belgezim Kamberi, a Presevo-based analyst, says that the dilemma of southern Serbia's Albanians over allegiances is linked closely to the problems and identity confusion faced by many ethnic groups in a region in transition, many of which are still going through deep social and political transformations.

“Despite the tendencies for feeding common national awareness and officially considering Albania as a homeland, there’s an impression that in the collective conscience of the Albanians in the (Presevo) Valley, Kosovo is being gradually transformed into a parallel focal point of the Albanian national conscience,” he said.

Kosovo`s declaration of independence in February, where Albanians make up almost a 90 per cent majority has been backed by almost 40 nations including the US and most major countries in the European Union.

Mufail Limani, a Pristina-based analyst says he does not believe “in the concept of homeland,” but added that “geographic, economic, social and family ties objectively link the (Presevo) Valley to Kosovo.”

“Therefore in this case Kosovo should play the role of an international protector of national interests of the Albanian community living in Presevo Valley,” Limani said.

In the Serbia elections May, Albanians from the south Serbia won one place in Serbian parliament. Riza Halimi will be the representative of the Albanian minority. His list Coalition of the Albanians of the Presevo Valley was supported with 18.000 votes.

The majority on local elections in Presevo is held by two parties: the Party for Democratic Action, PDA, and Albanian Democratic Party, ADP, which did not take part in the general Serbian elections and will not be able to present Albanian interests in the Serbian parliament.

For many Albanians in southern Serbia and elsewhere in the Balkans the more realistic hope is that protection of minorities under the umbrella of a Balkan region linked to the European Union might provide the freedom and protections they are seeking.

When pressed, even an advocate of a greater Albania like Shaqiri, sees Brussels as the best way forward, at least in the mid-term.

Albania and Kosovo “have optimal chances for cooperation in all spheres of life, like social, political, economic, cultural and educational. Albanians of Presevo Valley can only hope that very soon both will be part of the European Union and the UN,” he says.

Arben, a 40 old citizen of Presevo says he has no dilemma that “Albania is the homeland of Albanians,” he said.

But Sokol, a 30 year old entrepreneur from the southern Serbian town of Medvedja puts it differently “Albania is the homeland and Kosovo is and will remain the spiritual land of Albanians,” he said.

Baki Rexhepi is a journalist of RTV Spektri from Bujanovac. Balkan Insight is BIRN`s online publication.

This article was published with the support of the British embassy in Belgrade and National Endowment for Democracy - NED, as part of BIRN's Minority Media Training and Reporting Project.

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