If Kosovo Albanians get their own state, it will need its own flag. The problem is, many Albanians don't want one
By: Jeta Xharra and Zana Limani in Pristina
Less than a month away from the start of negotiations on Kosovo's final status, its majority Albanians have yet to agree on a flag or coat of arms for the state they hope will emerge from these crucial talks.
So far Kosovo Albanians have flown the flag and symbols of neighbouring Albania, which became independent in 1912.
Now seeking independence from Serbia and a state of their own, they are reluctant to jettison the emblems they are familiar with.
An attempt by Kosovo's President, Ibrahim Rugova, to introduce a new Kosovo flag a few years back was unsuccessful and it was never made official.
This issue of identity and symbols was the subject of much discussion after it was raised on November 9 in a televised debate organised by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Kosovo. Over 120 public letters and numerous news reports followed the show, which was broadcast on Radio Television Kosova, RTK.
Migjen Kelmendi, editor of the weekly Java magazine, says people shy away from accepting a specifically Kosovar identity, fearing it might be used to keep Kosovo inside Serbia.
"As an Albanian, I want my flag to be red and black. I don't want to change my identity," said Rexhep Selimi, a former member of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, which fought the Serbian army in the 1990s.
Selimi reflects most people's sentiments when he says the flag of the future state of Kosovo should look just like the one they fought under in the Nineties.
That was the black two-headed eagle on a red background - the national symbol of all Albanians in the Balkans for at least a century.
Genc Prelvukaj, a pop musician in Kosovo, says all Albanians cherish the old flag as a symbol of unity.
His last number-one hit, "Proud to be an Albanian", underscores how conscious young Kosovars remain of their Albanian identity.
"Red and black here and red and black there [in Albania]," Prelvukaj said during BIRN's televised debate. "I don't want to be called a Kosovar, I'm an Albanian."
Emrush Xhemajli, head of the nationalist National Movement of Kosovo, LPK, agreed. Any move to foist a specifically Kosovar identity on Kosovo Albanians will fail, he predicted.
"There were many attempts during Tito's rule to create a Kosovar identity separate from the Albanian one but they were all unsuccessful," Xhemajli said. "They will be this time, also."
Xhemajli and Prelvukaj represent mainstream opinion in Kosovo. But some intellectuals - and a few politicians - take a different line.
They feel that a separate Kosovo state must develop its own separate identity, which means new flags and symbols, too.
Nexhmedin Spahiu, author of a recent book, "Towards a Kosovar Identity", says Kosovo Albanians are edging towards a new identity, though they haven't realised it.
"Our identity is Albanian but in the process of creating our state we have to create a Kosovar nation," he said.
"This Kosovar nation does not exist yet but we are heading towards it, as you can't create a state without creating a nation," he added.
Linda Gusia, a sociology professor at Pristina University, feels the process may have gone even further than Spahiu realises.
Whereas Spahiu says a new identity should exist, she says a Kosovar identity exists already - forged by the different historic experiences of Albanians in Albania and Albanians in Kosovo over past decades.
"The fact that many people in Kosovo feel and perceive themselves as Kosovars indicates that this identity exists," Gusia said. "It is an emotion and a reality."
Nazim Rashidi, a BBC correspondent in Albania, also believes Albanians and Kosovars are now essentially separate peoples.
"Kosovars differ from the rest of Albanians as they have lived a different reality from ours," he said. "That's why they already have a different identity. The Kosovar identity already exists."
There is some support on the street for this idea, even if it is a minority stand point.
Krenar Gashi, a sociology student in his twenties, said he was happy with the notion that a Kosovar identity was still in the process of evolution.
"We are ethnically Albanian and are still part of the Albanian nation but soon we will have to start changing that," he said.
Kujtim Salihu, a 29-year-old from Pristina, is also not fussed about the symbols of statehood - having lived already in two different states.
"Today I am an Albanian citizen of Kosovo but before I was an Albanian citizen of Yugoslavia and in the future I will be an Albanian citizen of Albania," Salihu said.
"It could be just like with the Germans in Switzerland," said Betim Hashani, aged 20, taking a different tack. "They identify as Germans but they have their own flag."
Kosovo's politicians are slowly travelling in the same direction, albeit for pragmatic reasons.
Less interested in the question of Albanian identity, they admit it will be difficult for two states to share flags and symbols without creating confusion.
Eqrem Kryeziu, of the Kosovo Democratic League, LDK, said a Kosovo state will need its own emblems, though he is hardly enthusiastic about it.
"Kosovo Albanians are emotionally attached to the national Albanian flag," said Kryeziu. "But we will have to have a separate state flag, although we don't have to love it".
While local politicians, intellectuals and members of the public leisurely ponder the various options, some international observers feel the debate has started too late.
If Kosovars do not get a move on and agree on their emblems, then the international community will do it for them, they say.
Alex Anderson, head of the International Crisis Group in Kosovo, says Kosovo Albanians are under an illusion if they think they can simply transfer their own ethnic symbols onto a state that is supposed to be multi-ethnic and represent a variety of communities.
"Many Kosovo Albanians have not woken up to that yet," he said. "Kosovo's debate on its symbols is starting very late," he added.
Anderson says the need to find a new, completely different, flag, will come as a shock to many people, though it may have long-term benefits.
"The need for a new and different flag may have positive side-effects, as the imagery will compel people to see that an ethnic Albanian identity and a future Kosovo state identity are two different things," he said.
Jeta Xharra is BIRN Kosovo director and Balkan Insight editor in Kosovo. Zana Limani is BIRN Kosovo project coordinator and a regular contributor to Balkan Insight.