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In a late-October visit to Kosovo for the opening of a Turkish- and French-built terminal at Pristina airport, the Turkish prime minister told a crowd, “Turkey is Kosovo, and Kosovo is Turkey.”
The terminal project is part of Turkey’s growing economic footprint in the new state, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s choice of words reflects a campaign to make the relationship about much more than commerce.
That campaign has now hit upon one of the most sensitive areas for Kosovo, a nation still in its infancy and born from conflict: how its children are taught history.
Although its money is welcome in impoverished Kosovo, some charge that Turkey is seeking to improve its image in its former possession from the ground up, starting with whitewashing the history of the Ottoman Empire in school books.
For evidence, they point to recent revisions in textbooks for grades five through 12 that strike a conciliatory note toward the Balkans’ former imperial master.
Where last year’s eighth grade history textbook stated, “at the end of the 19th century, Albanians were still facing the cruel Ottoman rule,” this year, pupils learn that “at the end of the 19th century, Albanians were still under Ottoman rule.”
One sultan is described in the new 11th grade textbook as “strict and shrewd.” Last year, he was “cruel and shrewd.” Twelfth-graders used to read that the Ottomans, after dissolving the League of Prizren – a movement for Albanian autonomy within the empire – “waged previously unseen terror.” Terror has now been replaced by the much milder “political repression.”
Defenders of the changes say they are line with European standards and are intended to combat the tendency, prevalent in the region, to use textbooks to whip up nationalism and to stoke resentment of historical enemies.
PRESSURE FROM THE TOP
“It’s very important to understand that the empire wasn’t Turkish, but Ottoman,” said Shkelzen Raca, the chairman of a commission that recommended changes to primary and secondary school history texts this year.
Turkey, governed by Erdogan’s moderate Islamist AK Party, was among the first countries to recognize Kosovo’s unilateral split from Serbia in 2008. Shortly after independence, the first Turkish envoy to Kosovo told local media that Kosovo and Albanians ought to revise their view of the Ottoman period since “the Ottoman conquest was no invasion.” The same year, Turkey’s education minister asked that school books and other historical accounts revise their interpretations of the Ottoman period to show the empire in a less negative light, his Kosovo counterpart reported.
After similar urgings from other high-level Turkish officials, in 2011 Kosovo’s education minister, Rame Buja, tasked a commission with reviewing the presentation of Ottoman and Turkish history and culture in textbooks.
The commission delivered its report in mid-2012, in time for history textbooks to be revised for the current school year.
Supporters of the new textbooks argue that looking at the Ottoman period through glasses adapted to modern political ideology may result in a blurred image.
Some Balkan politicians have been too busy distancing their own “nations” from the old multiethnic empire, Raca suggests.
Raca, a historian, stressed that “representatives of the Ottoman Empire weren’t merely Turks, but Albanians, Greeks and many others.” More than 30 Albanians served as grand vizier, the empire’s prime minister, wielding a degree of authority second only to the sultan, he said.
But one of the textbook authors, Fehmi Rexhepi, said that although many Albanians did rise high in the imperial ranks, “they didn’t serve the Albanian people but the empire.” The Albanian grand viziers “only helped the Ottomans suppress the Albanians.”
Raca insists “nothing has basically changed” in the new books and said he was surprised at the strong public backlash when excerpts from the books appeared in the press.
The commission recommended that school books “should devote more space to features that bring Turkey and Kosovo closer together, emphasizing positive examples in Turkish-Albanian relations in the past.”
This more forgiving approach to the Ottoman period came about because of economic interests, Rexhepi said.
Turkish investment has climbed steeply in recent years, with Turkish companies investing more in Kosovo than those of any other country in 2012. Turkey is also among the largest exporters to Kosovo, and one of the handful of countries Kosovans can visit without a visa.
Apart from the airport terminal, Rexhepi says, a Turkish company recently acquired Kosovo’s electricity distribution company, KEDS. It was economic ties of that kind that made the Education Ministry “put pressure on us” textbook authors, he said.
“They kept calling, trying to convince us to accept certain specific textual changes,” he said. “We didn’t give in.”
For example, the authors held out for “Ottoman conquest” instead of the suggested “arrival,” he said: “The Ottomans came with soldiers and guns, after all, abolishing the political systems already there, killing people – that’s no ‘arrival.’ ”
Grumbles of protest were heard last winter when the press cited passages from the newly revised books. Education Ministry-approved changes included the deletion of the sentence “Ottomans killed many Albanians” in one book, while “They applied strict measures against non-Muslim people” in another became “All subjects in the countries conquered by the Ottoman Empire were equal before the law in everyday life.”
Erdogan’s “Kosovo is Turkey” remark, closely followed by, “Languages can be different. Religion, sects, faces can be different, but we are all children of the same country,” elicited angry reactions from Belgrade, which still claims Kosovo as a province and which threw off Ottoman rule in a string of uprisings that ended in Pristina in 1912.
And for once, some Albanians shared the Serbian irritation with Turkish policy – if for very different reasons.
In a widely reported 2009 speech, Davutoglu outlined past and future Turkish policy toward the former Ottoman territories as one of “political dialogue, economic cooperation, reciprocal support, and cultural harmony and tolerance.”
In his address to a conference in Sarajevo on the Ottoman legacy for Muslims in the Balkans, Davutoglu sought to reframe the common view of the region as peripheral to world centers of power. At the apex of Ottoman power in the 16th century, “the Balkans was at the center of world politics,” he said. “That was the golden age of the Balkans. This is a historical fact. Who created world policy in the 16th century? Your ancestors! They weren't all Turks. Some were of Albanian origin, others were Greek converts.”
A decade ago Davutoglu, a political scientist, outlined a new geopolitical direction for Turkey in an influential book, Strategic Depth, which established him as a prime mover in the movement sometimes known as “neo-Ottomanism,” although Davutoglu rejects the term.
The guiding idea is that Turkey today should capitalize economically, as well as politically, on its deep historical and cultural ties with the former Ottoman possessions that trace a vast arc from the Balkans to the Caucasus and Middle East and across North Africa.
Many Albanians heard Erdogan’s statement as another instance of the former colonial power wishing to keep pulling the strings. When rumors surfaced in Albania last spring that Turkey had made similar requests regarding that country’s textbooks, the Albanian-language press published a letter signed by 127 intellectuals from Kosovo and Albania.
“We can’t cover up historical truths,” the letter said. “The proposed changes to history textbooks represent a form of cultural aggression against the essence of our nation.”
Politicians tried to calm the waters. In an effort to reassure critics, Deputy Education Minister Nehaj Mustafa said, “The ministry does not write history – historians write history.”
Yet, as the gulf between Raca and Rexhepi shows, historians may interpret the Ottoman legacy in dramatically diverging ways.
Turkey’s requests to revise history teaching set off a debate among educators and historians, Kosovo teachers’ union head Ali Shabanaj said.
Some historians argue that against the backdrop of the late Ottoman state’s accelerating decline, Albanian elites deliberately constructed a new, avowedly Western identity to distance themselves from the imploding empire, presenting Ottoman rule as more vicious than it actually was.
According to that argument, then, the effort to modify the historical narrative taught in schools makes sense, especially when what Shabanaj called “European factors” are added in – recommendations from the EU and other bodies to make textbooks more diverse and tolerant.
“In all Balkan countries they’ve made efforts to remove nationalist content from history textbooks in order to promote communication and coexistence,” he said.
PEACE, LOVE, AND UNDERSTANDING
The changes to this year’s textbooks were motivated by the aim of “removing hate speech from textbooks,” ministry official Avni Rexha said. Rexha was also the secretary of Raca’s commission.
Rexhepi insists the changes are only “cosmetic,” thanks to the stout defense he and other authors raised against the ministry’s initial, more aggressive list of suggested edits.
When Kosovo historians turned to the Georg Eckert Institute in Germany for expert advice on their textbook conundrum, they heard that “we use history too much for arousing national pride, and that might make it hateful toward others,” Raca said.
Regarding the Ottoman Empire, the Education Ministry’s chief political adviser Arber Morina said the heated public debate was “caused by a false alarm, as no one wants to change history. We just wish to change some negative terms that could have a negative impact on the psyche of the children.”
Noting that Poland and Germany have also reviewed textbooks regarding mutual relations, Morina called the revision in Kosovo “a normal European process.”
Although the new textbooks don’t mention the “cultural harmony and tolerance” that Davutoglu sees as characteristic of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks might have made gains in Kosovo.
The new Page 154 in the 12th-grade textbook quotes the seminal Albanian national leader, Ismail Qemali. During the Balkan Wars, students are told, he tried to convince his compatriots of one basic truth: “The only road to salvation is to separate Albania from the Ottoman Empire.”
In prior editions of the textbook, the quote used “Turkey” instead of Ottoman Empire, undermining Erdogan’s “Turkey is Kosovo” line and subverting the policy of “strategic depth” the Turkish government is seeking to implement across the Balkans.
For Ankara, it’s important that Albanians don’t “separate from Turkey” – and after a five-year battle, they no longer do in Kosovo textbooks.
But while most other changes in the textbooks are a question of interpretation, Qemali’s should be a question of fact. But pinning down what he really said is not easy. His speech appears in both versions, although it’s hard to find him quoted as saying Albania should split from the Ottoman Empire. Except in Kosovo 12th graders’ new textbook. Through that text, future generations will see the past, and, Turkey hopes, the future, too.
The fall of communism brought with it expectations of an unfettered press safeguarding the young democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. But for the region's media, the past quarter-century has turned out to be much less uplifting. From oligarch-controlled television stations to politically partisan newspapers, from woeful ethical standards to outright corruption, the media often fall far short of acting as independent watchdogs over their societies, despite the existence of some scrappy publications and feisty reporters willing to uncover official wrongdoing and expose poor governance. If that weren't enough, the region's press has been hit hard by the same trends transforming the media around the world, including an explosion of alternative forms of entertainment, the growth of social media, decreased advertising revenues associated with the rise of the Internet, and general economic malaise. Get your copy here.