Their phenomenon was significant not due to the number of this minority, but because they signified the remnants of a great world power that ruled the European southeast for centuries. The status of the Turkish minority in Kosovo became an issue of argument once again after the former province of Serbia declared independence last February.
At that time some Kosovar Turks were expressing certain concerns regarding their minority rights in the new state. Some Turkish newspapers were expressing suspicions, quoting Turkish activists, such as İrfan Şekerci, president of the Doru Yol Association in Prizren. He said he personally believed the independence of Kosovo "will be good," while at the same time adding, "Obviously there is a fear of Albanian nationalism."
It is estimated that of the approximately 2.1 million population of Kosovo, 92 percent are Albanians. In addition around 5 percent are Serbs, while the rest are Bosniaks, Turks, Pomaks, Goranis and gypsies. Around 97 percent of the population is Muslim. The Turkish minority is estimated at 30-50,000.
Is it then possible that 1-2 percent of Turks could harm this absolute Albanian majority in Kosovo and is it really feared that they could be the target of an "Albanization"?
There are Turkish scholars and Balkan experts, such as Dr. Şule Kut from İstanbul Bilgi University and Dr. Nazif Mandacı from İzmir's Dokuz Eylül University, as well as some Western experts on the Turkish and other ethnic minorities in the Balkans. In regard to the Kosovar Turks, there is a common view that they were for many years -- in particular when Kosovo was part of Yugoslavia and of Serbia -- "caught between two nationalisms." One was of the majority Serbs and other one of the "major minority" Albanians.
Serb nationalists used Turks
Serbian nationalists used Turks and other minorities in their political manipulations with Albanians. Serbs favored Turks in order to minimize the position of Kosovar Albanians, who were granted almost equal rights to other Yugoslav national communities and federal units by Tito. In addition to Serbian and Albanian, Turkish was declared the third official language in Kosovo by the new Yugoslav Constitution in 1974. It was considered a disproportionate right compared to the participation of the ethnic Turks in the total population. The same policy continued even during Milosevic's regime, so that many Turks were considered his collaborators.
Kosovar Albanians resorted to different kinds of pressure on Turks and other Muslim ethnicities to get them to declare themselves Albanians with the sole intention of strengthening their own position and number. It so happened that Turks were relieved of such pressure only when Milosevic abolished Kosovo autonomy.
We, the other Yugoslavs, were not aware enough of these delicate relations among the Kosovo ethnic communities. We instead accepted the simplified propagandistic illustration created by Serbians in which Serbs had always been powerful and dominant over the Albanian poverty and primitivism, which the latter inherited from Ottoman times, of course.
Sometimes, as happened to me, we would receive indirect input on the Kosovo internal complexities. There were two Kosovar Turks -- one was named Orhan -- studying with my brother at Sarajevo University at the beginning of the 1980s, when one of the Albanian national revolts took place. Once they told us they had to leave for Turkey with their families. Serbs were suppressing Albanians by many means, they said, but Albanians "were not gentle with us at all." Due to the extreme pressure from Albanians to renounce their Turkish ethnicity and accept an Albanian one, a couple of entire villages around Prizren inhabited by the Turkish minority had to migrate to Turkey. More than a decade later, I had a touching meeting with Orhan in Bursa, who was already settled and married there.
This was one of the hundreds of thousands of Orhans from the Balkans of Turkish and Slav Muslim origin who had sought refuge in Anatolia from different kinds of pressure and torture. Just between 1956 and 1968 about 175,000 people migrated from the Balkans to Turkey.
A few years ago I had another experience in Kosovo itself, where I was a member of a semi-official American mission for promoting the local Kosovo government. We had visited a number of towns, but Prizren was the most interesting: pressed against a mountain, very much like the hamlets of Bursa or Sarajevo. The volume, architectural harmony and a high, slender minaret of the Sinan Pasa Mosque still bore witness to the fact that it was once an imperial city. Next to the mosque were the grimy walls of St. George Orthodox Church, set ablaze during the Albanian-Serb ethnic violence in April 2004. During our meeting with the local authorities in the municipality, the mayor was joined by his deputy, a Kosovar Turk. Roughly a third of Kosovar Turks live in Prizren itself, while a nearby town called Mamusha is an entirely Turkish place. There were also Kosovar Slav Muslims -- the majority of them identify themselves as Bosniaks. Some of them complained to me that Turks in Kosovo have been given more priority by everybody in spite of their comparatively smaller number. "Look at the Turkish deputy mayor, he is very active," said one Bosniak. "The role of the Turkish government is important in that regard," he noted, adding, "It supports its minority here, while nobody from Bosnia cares about us." I was told as well that Bosniak students from Kosovo are receiving scholarships from Turkey "so that they could become Turks there."
Turks in independent Kosovo
Kosovar Turks, however, now have their own objections regarding their position in the independent Kosovo. They are generally satisfied. They have a minister, as do the Bosniaks, in the government. They have political and cultural associations, schools and newspapers in Turkish. Their main complaint to the new Kosovo authorities and the international supervisors is connected only to the language issue. They want Turkish to be one of the official languages recognized in the independent Kosovo, as it was stipulated when Kosovo was part of the socialist Yugoslavia. The government as well as the UN and European representatives in Kosovo thinks the Turkish minority should be satisfied that Turkish was accepted as an official language in Prizren and as a working language in the municipalities where a sizable number of Turks live.
I do not wonder why Kosovar Turks insist on the language as an essential minority right. The mother tongue is the core of one's identity, and in Kosovo it is the main feature differentiating Turks from Albanians, both belonging to the same religion and tradition. That's why their concerns to preserve the language should be respected by all; otherwise in the future they could lose their distinct identity and become Albanians. However, I agree with Dr. Mandacı that the demographic disadvantage of the Turkish community in Kosovo "deprives them of sufficient political leverage to claim the status of a full fledged party, sharing political power equally with the ethnic Albanians." I would add that this goes for Serbs as well, keeping in mind their historical and present political weight in the region and the fact that Serbs see rudiments of their national identity in the myth created around the Kosovo battle of 1389.
The Balkans had been for centuries -- and hopefully it will not be so much so in the future - a place of major persecutions, forced migrations and assimilation efforts. The Turkish minority in Kosovo could not be exempted from that rule.
* Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey.