Flags, Anthems and the Rio Olympics

As Kosovo competes in its first Olympics at Rio its athletes marched in under a flag no one uses and its medal winners will listen to an anthem with no words.  The flag and anthem arouse little emotion from the 92% of the population of Kosovo who are ethnic Albanians.  Far more evocative is the banner with the Albanian, black, double-headed eagle on a red background and the battle anthem of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA or in Albanian, UCK) which led the fight for independence in the 1999 war.  But neither the most popular flag nor the most resonant song represent this small state.  Why not?  Because the Albanian population shares the tiny state of Kosovo with other ethnic groups, most notably Serbs, but also Roma, Gorani, Ashkali, Egyptian and Bosniaks.

The Triumph of Civic over Ethnic Nationalism?

The ethnic nationalism which led to the fight for the independence of Kosovo in 1998-1999 and the solidarity of the Albanian people of Kosovo during a long and pacifist protest through the early 1990s took a more sinister turn after victory.  When the Serbian armed forces withdrew from Kosovo in 1999 after the NATO bombing, they left a vulnerable Serb population in Kosovo and an armed KLA.  Serb civilians were targets of retaliatory violence in 1999 and then again in 2004 during a period of ethnic riots.  As a result 220,000 Serbs left Kosovo and the United Nations Mission in Kosovo did all it could to turn the state to a more positive, encompassing, civic nationalism.  Civic nationalism is the attachment to the state, as opposed to ethnic nationalism which is the attachment to the ethnic group.  The Assembly of Kosovo, to demonstrate its inclusivity when it declared independence in 2008, adopted a flag with the image of the in yellow on a blue background (with the colors similar to the EU flag) and oversaw the choice of a national anthem entitled ‘Europa’ for which there are no words, chosen by the Assembly because it did not reference any ethnic group.

Ensuring that the symbols of the state are not considered the property of a single ethnic group is important everywhere.  But it does not lead to an embrace of multiethnic, or even civic, values.  While I was teaching in Kosovo in 2013, my students expressed the wish that the symbols of the state had a more distinctly Albanian character.  Yet, Kosovo struggles with ongoing low-level violence and harassment against its minority populations and the economy is characterized by what political scientist Edward Banfield referred to as ‘amoral familialism’ in which the material advantage of the family is privileged over the well-being of the community.  This, in a country which already has significant barriers to economic growth and opportunity.

Nothing makes people feel nationalism like the Olympics.  It is a chance to cheer on the best young athletes in our country and watch them challenge, hopefully triumph, over the greatest athletes in the world.  If Kosovo’s Majlinda Kelmendi wins an anticipated medal in judo, expect to see red and black Albanian flags waving in the stands.