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18th Jan 2020

Kosovo artist gives alternative view on EU project

  • Kosovo landscape: commonly associated with little more than kalashnikovs and poverty (Photo: fco.gov.uk)

The story of Kosovo, a story intimately linked with the EU project to pacify Europe, is often told in the language of UN resolutions or acronyms such as Eulex, the name of the EU's Kosovo police mission. But it can also be seen through the eyes of one Kosovo Albanian, his love of the Lupc landscape and the previously unpublished words of the Kosovo national anthem.

The Anthem of Kosovo (translated from Albanian by Ekrem Krasniqi)

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Kosovo our motherland,

Country of bravery, of pride,

Eyrie of love,

Where the sun is warm, the stars shine,

The country of our ancestors,

May you be blessed,

For ages long (for always),

We adore you,

We stand by your side.

Composer Mendi Mengjiqi wrote the lines at his farm in the village of Lupc i Eperm, in northeastern Kosovo, on 9 February 2008, shortly before his instrumental piece, entitled Europe, was performed for the first time as Kosovo's national anthem at Pristina's declaration of independence on 18 February last year.

In a place commonly associated with little more than kalashnikovs and poverty, Mr Mengjiqi's words were inspired by walks in the Forests of Lupc, which see heavy snow in the winter, hot sunshine in summer and which are home to a native population of rare Booted Eagles.

Until now, he kept the text to himself because he believed that an administration designed to accommodate ethnic Albanians, Serbs, Turks and Roma, would consider any words too provocative to give them official approval.

The "frustration" which led him to speak out is an aspect of Kosovo's broader existential angst: 18 months down the line there is no prospect of recognition by five EU states or of a seat at the UN, the economy is moving backwards under a new ruling class and suicide rates are soaring.

"I became a man without a voice," Mr Mengjiqi told EUobserver in a recent interview. "Logically you would think that since 90 percent of people are Albanian the anthem should be in one language. But you would have to have it in three or four. Even in this remote place where I live, where there has not been a single Serb for centuries, all the signs have to be in two languages [Albanian and Serb] because of the formalities imposed upon us."

Mr Mengjiqi was born in Lupc i Eperm in 1958. He left Kosovo in 1991, when Serb authorities closed Pristina's Music Academy, to study in Krakow with the eminent Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. He returned to Kosovo after the war in 1999 and now teaches at Pristina University. During the conflict, he lost contact for months with his parents when they fled into the countryside. His uncle's family was killed by Serb paramilitaries.

Man of peace

Above all, Mr Mengjiqi sees himself as a man of peace. His major work is a tribute to the Kosovo Albanian nun, Mother Teresa. The music of Europe stands out among the other anthems of the former Yugoslav countries by its absence of martial references.

"I wanted to share a feeling of peace, pride, solemnity and joy. It's a plea for peace," he said. "Usually anthems have a military format and character. I didn't want that. Spiritually, we are tired of wars here in the Balkans."

Unaccustomed to political commentary, the musician is sympathetic to the complexities of life for Serbs in the new Kosovo.

"For the Serbs [reconciliation] will take time because they used to feel that they own the place and now it's like they've lost a part of themselves," he said. "It's hard, because you don't have a sign on your head saying whether you were a criminal or just a decent citizen who did nothing wrong."

But he also feels aggrieved at what he sees as the EU's privileged treatment of Serbia in the face of its unrepentant attitude to war crimes and its attempts to sow division in Kosovo.

The EU plans in January 2010 to grant visa-free travel to Serb passport holders and has encouraged its formal application for EU accession. Meanwhile, Kosovo citizens have just a vague promise that EU officials will draft a "strategy" for new visa rules at an unspecified future date.

"People have this horrible feeling, they say 'OK, so the criminals are being rewarded. They can go to Europe without a visa. But the victims cannot'," Mr Mengjiqi said. "They [Serbs] still have all the power. They have the diplomacy. And European politicians prefer to side with whoever is strong instead of looking for justice."

When the composer becomes "depressed" over double-dealing in international politics, corruption in Pristina and his own guilt for spending the war in Poland, he escapes to his farm and his work. "Sometimes I lose it hard. I just shut down and go to my music and do what I know best," he said.

Shades of optimism

The turn is reminiscent of the story Candide by the French philosopher Voltaire, in which an optimist becomes disillusioned by world affairs and decides that human happiness can only be found in tending one's own garden. But the comparison would be unfair to Mr Mengjiqi, who left the salons of Krakow and Vienna to return to war-torn Kosovo and who sees "darkness" creep into his music even in the sanctuary of his Lupc attic.

"An anthem is a short piece. But when I compose larger pieces I cannot avoid that [darkness]. I want to change it. But somehow as an artist I have these imprints deep down in my feelings and I cannot avoid them," he said.

The optimism voiced in The Anthem of Kosovo remains a greater part of Mr Mengjiqi than his bitterness. The changes in Kosovo and its far-off perspective of EU membership nourish his positive side.

"I feel good now. At least I'm not scared. I feel free. There's lots of problems here but at least when I walk down the street in Pristina I'm not scared that some policeman will harass me, or interrogate me and beat me up," he told EUobserver.

"I will die with shame and regret if I don't see my dreams come true: To complete my opera on Gjergj Kastrioti, to see it performed in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and to see Kosovo become a full member of this wonderful project called the European Union."

Gjergj Kastrioti Skandenberg was an Albanian convert to Christianity who rebelled against the Ottoman empire and defeated an Ottoman army at the Battle of Torvioll in 1444.

"In a way, I wish I lived in a more developed country. But this landscape is fixed in my heart. It feels like home," Mr Mengjiqi said. "In this valley, the seasons are perfect. It's green in spring. Then the hills are full of colour in autumn. And in winter, there's so much snow. It's so white."

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