To UNESCO or not to UNESCO: Serbian Cultural Heritage in Kosovo between Sovereignty and Protection

13 November, 2015

Written by:
  • Aleksandar Pavlović
To UNESCO or not to UNESCO: Serbian Cultural Heritage in Kosovo between Sovereignty and Protection

No event after Kosovo’s unilateral proclamation of independence in 2008 has attracted so much public attention in Serbia as its failed attempt to become the member of the UNESCO. Despite victorious headlines in several Serbian media outlets, one could easily describe the result as the Pyrrhic victory for Serbia. On October 21 the UNESCO Board agreed to vote on Kosovo, which is still not in the UN but recognized by 108 of its members, for the UNESCO membership. Serbian Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vučić,’s statement for the citizens to raise their heads despite the hardships implied that this must be a very difficult moment for the Serbs. In his view, the nation ought to feel as though their most valuable and sacred monuments in Kosovo have been taken away from them. On November 9, in a thrilling vote 92 member states voted in favour while 50 were against Kosovo membership in UNESCO and 29 refrained from voting. At the end, Kosovo’s UNESCO bid was three votes short from meeting the two-thirds majority entrance threshold.

Interestingly, throughout the process both Kosovar and Serbian state officials interchangeably talked about cultural heritage and state sovereignty. For Kosovo, the UNESCO membership represented an important step towards full international recognition which is still hampered by the Russian veto of the UN seat. Similarly, Serbian state officials and media commonly presented the question of Serbian cultural heritage in Kosovo as the matter of national sovereignty. Serbian president Tomislav Nikolić described the UNESCO vote as decisive for the destiny of Serbian cultural heritage.

The question of legal status that Serbian cultural heritage enjoys in Kosovo seems to be virtually absent from public discourse on both sides, although it is precisely the legal status of Serbian monasteries in Kosovo, rather than the sovereignty issue, that determines their destiny. Shifting the focus from the question of sovereignty to the legal status of cultural heritage in Kosovo thus seems to be the most productive option in the long run.

Who owns Cultural heritage in Kosovo?

The protection of cultural and religious sites in Kosovo has been guaranteed by the Constitution of Kosovo, the Law on Special Protective Zones, the Law on Historic Centre of Prizren, and the Law on the Village of Velika Hoča/ Hoçë e Madhe. These laws guarantee the preservation and protection of cultural and religious heritage: particularly Serbian Orthodox Monasteries, Churches, other religious sites, as well as historical and cultural sites of special significance for the Kosovo Serb community, as well as other communities in Republic of Kosovo.

In short, under the existing legal framework in Kosovo, Serbian monasteries and churches in Kosovo belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church and no activities related to its property are possible without its concession.

Legislation vs. implementation

As it appears, the real problem concerning Serbian cultural heritage in Kosovo is not the legal framework itself, but rather its forced adoption and the opposition to its implementation. The laws on Prizren and Velika Hoča were both proposed by the government and prepared in consultation with the International Civilian Office. They were discussed together in the Parliament and because of their similarity received similar objections and amendments.

The debate on the two laws was shaped around e two main arguments. A number of members of the Kosovo Assembly representing governing and opposition parties, Prizren and Orahovac Municipal Assemblies and the Prizren and Orahovac CSOs, saw this proposal as a “threat” to Kosovo. In their view, the main problem with these legislative proposals was inclusion of the Orthodox Church representatives in the municipal councils for protection of cultural heritage. Other issues raised in the debate involved discrimination against the non-Serb citizens, non-compliance with the Constitution, ownership over cultural heritage and inter-ethnic conflict. The threat frame was further developed through the portrayal of Serbs and the Orthodox Church as an enemy and collaborator in genocide. As such, granting protection to the Orthodox Church sites along with providing the Orthodox Church with special management rights over these sites was framed as an attack on the statehood of Kosovo.

In distinction, government representatives advocated for the adoption of these laws in the name of Kosovo independence. The independence argument was constructed around the problems that the potential rejection of the two draft laws would cause abroad. Rejection of the laws was thus seen as an obstacle for Kosovo’s full independence and respect by the international community. The debate required the involvement of the former Prime Minister, Hashim Thaçi, and Minister Dardan Gashi, both in favour of the adoption of the laws. The adoption of the two laws was thus one of the last conditions to end the supervised independence of Kosovo.

Under international pressure, the laws were finally adopted in April 2012. However, more than three years later, the laws have still not been implemented. There are still continuing incidents of demolition, theft and vandalism against cultural and religious sites, particularly Serb cultural heritage, as well as the lack of cooperation between local authorities and national government in the implementation of the laws. Implementation of the laws has either been boycotted or regularly by-passed by the local Prizren or Orahovac authorities. The major problem is illegal construction around the protected sites often caused by the municipal authorities. UN Security Council has also pointed to the limited financial and logistical support for implementation of the laws and lack of political commitment by municipal Prizren and Orahovac authorities.

Battle for “hearts” and “minds”

In summary, the laws were eventually passed, but only due to the international pressure and conditionality for gaining full independence. However, while international actors had crucial role in initiating and passing the laws, they were not successful in changing the hearts and minds of the Kosovar citizens and their attitudes towards minorities. It is a paradox sui generis that nowadays foreign soldiers are protecting cultural and sacred monuments in Kosovo from its own citizens, while in the centuries under the Ottoman rule notable Albanians families and clans from Metohija/Dukadjin protected Decani from destruction in the more perilous times. What remains is the hope that the question of Serbian cultural heritage will transform from a sovereignty issue to one of legal (and cultural) framework, and that eventually the hearts and minds of all Kosovo communities will follow.

The broader political implications of the UNESCO affair could turn out to be quite severe. After signing the Brussels agreement in 2013, Kosovo and Serbian officials agreed that neither side will block, or encourage others to block, the other side's progress in their respective EU paths. Whereas this, strictly speaking, applies only to Kosovo’s membership in regional and EU bodies, broader interpretation could also stretch to its status in international organisations in general. However, while Kosovo’s appearance at the next Olympic Games and other sport competitions has been reluctantly accepted in Serbia, it seems that the UN institutions have been established as the red line for Kosovo. This particularly applied to the UNESCO case, as it concerns churches and monasteries with huge symbolic significance for the Serbs. Thus, while the Brussels agreement as such has not been formally violated nor invalidated, it is hard not to see this campaign as hampering the process of improving neighbouring relations and fostering EU integration. Equally hard is not to see the decision of Kosovo Supreme Court to suspend the process of establishing the association of Serb municipalities, which came the very next day, as much more than a retaliatory measure. As the association is one of the pillars of the Agreement, this can in effect mean the suspension of the entire agreement, and several Serbian officials immediately described it as an infringement of the Agreement and a treat to regional security. As it appears, the process of normalization seems to be at its lowest point since the ratification of the Agreement in 2013. Inasmuch as neither side can profit from the current standstill, what remains is, again, strengthened EU pressure on them to implement their obligations of the Brussels Agreement.

Prepared within the framework of the Regional Research Promotion Programme in the Western Balkans (RRPP), implemented by the University of Fribourg upon a mandate of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, SDC, Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

Written by:
  • Aleksandar Pavlović Aleksandar Pavlović is a visiting fellow at the Centre for Southeast European Studies in Graz and a coordinator on the project "Figuring out the Enemy: Re-imagining Serbian-Albanian Relations" at the Institute of Philosophy and Social Theory of the University of Belgrade. His main areas of interest are Balkan oral tradition, Serbian-Albanian relations, gender and traditional Balkan society, literature and culture. He published a book Epika i politika (Epics and Politics, Beograd: XX vek, 2014) and co-edited a volume Figura neprijatelja: preosmišljavanje srpsko-albanskih odnosa (Beograd: IFDT/Beton, 2015).
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