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Yugoslavia: What's In A Name? In Kosovo, It's History, Tradition, And Patriotism

  • Jolyon Naegele

The UN-administered protectorate of Kosovo is undergoing a subtle transformation as Albanian residents replace place names of Slavic origin with Illyrian and Albanian names. As RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports, changing toponyms in the Balkans is a centuries-old tradition.

Pristina, 19 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Ever since the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo two and a half years ago, a move has been under way by local politicians and intellectuals to change Slavic toponyms to names of Illyrian origin or to patriotic-sounding Albanian names.

The first thing to go were street names that the Serbs had named after Serbian and Yugoslav towns and national heroes. Soon, whole cities, towns and villages began changing their names.

Adem Demaci, the province's leading Albanian dissident and a prominent human rights activist, says historical grounds exist for the name changes.

"The arrival of the Slavs in the Balkans [in the eighth century] was closely connected with changing toponyms. So I don't feel that people are taking the wrong step now if they are changing names that remind them of the occupation. What surprises me is that the international community is trying to prevent people from choosing names for their own hometowns or even their streets."

The Ottoman Turks renamed many places during their more than five centuries of rule in the Balkans, but the Turkish names largely vanished or were modified with the gradual collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Serb authorities -- in their effort to colonize Kosovo between the two world wars with settlers from Serbia and Montenegro -- founded villages that exist to this day with Serbian patriotic names, including Srbobran, Srbovac, Sumadija, and Devet Jugovica. Moreover, the Serbs changed a number of town names. Ferizaj became Urosevac and Skenderaj became Srbica.

The Albanians are descended, at least in part, from the Illyrians and possibly from the Dardanians, an Illyrian tribe also related to the Thracians, who inhabited parts of present-day Kosovo.

Illyrian names, while existing in the region for more than two millennia, are now being adopted by places other than the locations they originally described. Among the changes of Slavic to Illyrian toponyms -- Kamenica was renamed Dardana, Novoberda/Novo Brdo became Artana, and Suhareka/Suva Reka became Theranda.

Other new toponyms include Drenas, after the surrounding Drenica region, for Gllogoc; Burim, meaning "spring" or "source," for Istog; Sharr, after the nearby mountain range, for Dragash; Qendresa, or "center," for Bellacerkva; and Miras, "well" or "fine," for Dobratin.

Even overwhelmingly Serb-inhabited towns in the north of the province have received new Albanian names -- Caber for Zubin Potok and Albanik for Leposaviq.

At least one community has opted to use its old Latin name on official seals rather than the Albanian or Serb equivalents. Vushtrri/Vucitrn is calling itself by its Latin name, Vicianum.

The new Albanian patriotic place names include Besiana after the Albanian "besa," or pledge, for Podujeva; Shqiponija or "eagle" -- the Albanian national symbol -- for Jabllanica; and Kastriot after the Albanian national hero Gjergj Kastriot, best known as Skenderbeg, for Obiliq, which in turn Serbs had named after a Serbian deserter, Milos Obilic, who murdered the Turkish sultan hours before the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, which launched Turkish rule in much of the Balkans.

While the name changes had the backing of the self-styled government of Hashim Thaci in the first months after the Serb withdrawal, the joint administration of local political leaders and international community representatives, established in December 1999, did not accept the new toponyms.

About a year ago, academics discussed a systematic Albanianization of toponyms at a seminar at the University of Pristina's Institute of Albanology.

However, Kosovo is an international protectorate, and the international community continues to use the standard Albanian and Serbian equivalent toponyms in effect prior to the Serb military withdrawal. Last March, the UN civil administration, or UNMIK, demanded a halt to the name changes. Nevertheless, the new names are gaining currency in daily use in the local Albanian-language news media and in conversation.

Human rights activist Demaci says the international community may be acting under Yugoslav pressure in refusing to accept the new toponyms.

"I am surprised that the international community would block [the new names].... Maybe Yugoslavia is insisting and the international community may be making major concessions to the Yugoslav government."

However, the changes do not enjoy universal support in the Kosovar Albanian community, and there has been some moderate criticism from the province's largest political party, Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK).

LDK deputies have abstained when the issue has come up for a vote in municipal assembly sessions. The party won the largest share of seats in local elections last year and in parliamentary elections on 17 November. The LDK does not use the new toponyms, and so LDK-led towns continue to use the original Albanian names -- Podujeva rather than Besiana, Novoberda rather than Artana, and Kamenica rather than Dardana.

Ramush Haradinaj is a former commander of the insurgent Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). He heads the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, the third-largest Albanian political party in the province. Haradinaj sees the name changes as a popular attempt to "repair" past injustices.

"[Over] a period of let's say 15 years [during Slobodan Milosevic's rule], there were some injustices. There were names being changed. There were identities being forced or damaged, and I think people are [trying to impose] justice, to repair things done wrongly. They [opted for] changing the names. I'm not always in favor of that, but I think in a few cases there was a need."

But Haradinaj says that while some changes were justified, such as dropping the adjective "Tito's" from Mitrovica, others were unnecessary.

"I don't justify all of the changes, but there was a need for a few changes, and they probably went too far."

Haradinaj notes that two villages close to each other in western Kosovo have the same name -- Gllogjan. After the residents of one of the two Gllogjans decided to change the name of the village, some residents of the other Gllogjan also called for a change. However, Haradinaj -- who is a native of the second Gllogjan -- persuaded his neighbors not to change the name on the grounds that "we are used to the old name."

The Serb policy of modifying or changing toponyms was not limited to Kosovo nor to the interwar period. During the rule of Josip Broz Tito in the decades after World War II, every Yugoslav republic and province named a town or village after Tito. In addition to Titova Mitrovica in Kosovo, Vojvodina had Titov Vrbas, and Slovenia had Titovo Velenje. There was Titova Korenica in Croatia, Titov Drvar in Bosnia, Titovo Uzice in Serbia, Titograd in Montenegro, and Titov Veles in Macedonia.

With the breakup of Yugoslavia a decade ago, all eight towns and villages shed the Tito appellation and reverted to their pre-Titoist names. Titograd is once again Podgorica.

Then, during the 1991-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Bosnian Serbs dropped the prefix Bosanska/Bosanski that had been used to differentiate the Bosnian half of towns that straddled the northern border with Croatia. In Serb eyes, the term Bosnian had taken on an ethnic connotation, implying the unwanted presence of Muslims.

Suddenly there were two Krupas, two Kostajnicas, two Gradiskas, and two Brods with the exact same names facing each other across the Una and Sava rivers. A few of these place names were further modified, so Bosanski Novi became Novi Grad and Bosanska Dubica became Kozarska Dubica.

Bosnian Serbs also renamed towns that had Turkish-sounding names as a part of a program of ethnic cleansing that included destroying virtually all mosques and killing or sending into exile the overwhelming majority of the non-Serb population from Serb-controlled areas. Thus Foca became Srbinje and Gornji Vakuf became Uskoplje.

The name Uskoplje fell into disuse after Croat troops forced the Serbs to withdraw from the town during the war. Some postwar Serb maps of Republika Srpska show Uskoplje blacked out and the name Gornji Vakuf restored, since after the war it found it had been awarded to Bosnia's Muslim-Croat entity.

Nevertheless, last 15 September, the international community's high representative in Bosnia, Wolfgang Petritsch, issued a decision declaring: "The name of the municipality of Gornji Vakuf and the name of the settlement of Gornji Vakuf shall be changed to Gornji Vakuf-Uskoplje."

The decision was part of an attempt to engage Bosnian Serbs in the municipality's administration. Petritsch appointed 16 Serb councilors, in addition to 23 non-Serbs elected by the existing municipal council.

This form of compromise or quid pro quo is reminiscent of the arrangement worked out by UNMIK chief Hans Haekkerup in his successful attempt to get Belgrade to back Serb participation in the 17 November parliamentary elections in Kosovo. And Petritsch's declaration could conceivably serve as a model for communities in Kosovo with multiple names.

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