Date: 24 September 2018    Author: Robert Rajczyk, PhD

The Balkan Melting Pot

Talks about current border pluralize between the Republic of Serbia and the Republic of Kosovo risk escalating the simmering ethnic conflict between the two. Following its unilateral declaration of independence 10 years ago, Kosovo has been indefatigable in its effort to become a full-fledged member of the international community.

In Mitrovica, the cult of the leader of Serb Chetniks lives on. © Author’s own archives

While the Poles have their Jasna Góra Monastery and Gniezno, the Serbs and the Albanians revere the Kosovo field. It is a mythical cradle of the Serbian state. Except for the fact that it is located within the territory of the Republic of Kosovo. In mid-June 1389, it became the theater of battle between the Ottoman Empire and the Serbs, supported by their Slavic allies. According to some historical sources, Polish knights might have even joined the Serbs. That would then be the first of many confrontations between the Poles and the Turks.  While the battle decimated both armies and claimed the lives of both rulers, it was won by the Turks. Nonetheless, some accounts claim that it has never been settled. What is certain, though, is the battle’s importance for the Serbian national myth. Prince Lazar (Serbian for Lazarus), who commanded the Serbian army, is worshipped as a martyr and the knight Miloš Obilić holds the status of a national hero. While there are no historical accounts confirming his existence, legend has it that, when in battle, he pretended to be a converted Muslim. He was then led before Sultan Murad I to perform the traditional ritual of kissing his feet. He stabbed the Sultan with a tainted dagger, thus assassinating him, and lost his life forthwith. His legend turned into a cult reaching as far as Greek Mount Athos, which enjoys autonomy within Greece and is an important center of the Orthodox Church.

The legend of Miloš Obilić lived on thanks to two men: a Montenegrin ruler who established the highest military decoration named after him and a local bishop who extolled the courageous knight in his sermons. Interestingly, there is an Albanian version of that legend according to which Miloš Obilić was indeed Albanian. The lost battle established permanent dominance of the Ottomans over the region for the next 500 years. This important moment in Serbian history is commemorated by a memorial in the shape of a medieval tower known as Gazimestan, which was erected in the 1950s. A nearby mausoleum is said to accommodate the remains of Sultan Murad I, who perished in the battle. In 1987, Slobodan Milošević, so far only locally known as the leader of Serbian communists, gave a speech that came to be one of the most important throughout his career. He appeared as a defender of the Serbs, who complained about the discrimination they experienced from Albanians. As hundreds were trying to get through to hear the speech, they were attacked by the police. Milošević was quick to comment on the situation: Niko ne sme da vas bije (roughly translating into: ‘no one will beat you again’). Quite symbolically, Milošević arrived in a helicopter, which was supposed to parallel the myth of Prince Lazar’s assumption. Gazimestan and the Kosovo field in general is what brings the Serbs and the Albanians together all the while bitterly dividing them.

Albanians or Kosovars?

The Kosovars much like the Albanians derive their roots from the Dardani, an ancient Illyrian tribe. This hypothesis, as well as the resultant linguistic community, is the very foundation of Albanian identity. It is worth mentioning that modern Kosovar identity is built upon recent political events. From calls for granting Kosovo equal republican status within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to demanding its actual independence. One of the mightiest mythmoteurs of Kosovo was the armed struggle for independence as performed by the Kosovo Liberation Army (UÇK) and its resultant ethos. Part of this myth is holding fallen soldiers of the UÇK in reverence, which translates into much attention and care for military cemeteries. Numerous public facilities are named after Adem Jeshari, one of the commanders of the UÇK. The list includes a sports stadium in Mitrovica (or Kosovska Mitrovica for the Serbs) and the main airport in Pristina, the country’s capital.

The Serbs are the largest minority of the Republic of Kosovo. They are Orthodox and inhabit several enclaves (communes located in the northern part of Kosovo – author’s note). Other ethnic minorities include the Bosniaks, the Turks, the Ashkali (Albanized Romani), the Balkan Egyptians (of Romani descent and deriving their origin from ancient Egyptians) and the Romani.

Kosovo is marked by significant religious and ethnic diversity. Ninety-two percent of its inhabitants identify themselves as ethnic Albanians (Kosovars – author’s note). Islam is the dominant religion. While they share an ethnicity, the Albanians from Kosovo differ from the Albanians of Albania. This is especially true in the case of religion. The Kosovars are Sunni while the Albanians are Bektashi, with a considerable number of atheists as well.

Together and apart

The history of Kosovo has been influenced by the Serbian-Albanian conflict ever since the Albanian mass migration began in the 15th century and continued for over 200 years. It is connected with the Serbian Great Migration Period, as it is called. As of 1690 200,000 people emigrated. As the Orthodox Serbs fled Turkish expansion, they were replaced by Albanians who were converting to Islam. This gave them a better social and economic standing (mostly thanks to tax exemptions). Kosovo, but for Metohija, became part of the Kingdom of Serbia as late as 1912, when the First Balkan War came to a halt. One must bear in mind that Kosovo is of particular importance to the Serbs also for religious reasons. Three historic monasteries are located in Peć, Prizren and Gračanica, all within the territory of Kosovo. The latter is a great Balkan phenomenon as both Muslim Romani and Orthodox Serbs make pilgrimages there. Moreover, one of Islam’s denominations, Bektashi Order, recognizes several Catholic celebrations and the cult of saints, which are popular mostly in Albania and Turkey.

The dominance of Serbian landowners was much felt under the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (SHS) created on 1st December 1918 and as of 1929 under the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In 1943, shortly after the Italian occupation, Kosovo and Metohija came under German rule. That period was marked by ever stronger Albanian extermination of Romani and Jews as well as the banishing of Serbs from their homes. The League of Prizren was founded at the time whose political agenda included the notion of the Great Albania, the creation of which would result from joining all Albanian lands.

Conflicted forever?

Historically, the Serbian-Albanian conflict in Kosovo is divided into three stages. The first stage, occurring in the years 1944-1945, is connected with the policies imposed first by the Italian and then the German occupier. The second stage was marked by the events of 1968, when Kosovo-based Albanians pushed for recognizing Kosovo as an equal constituent of the Republic.

Politically controlled by the socialist state and dominated by the Serbs both culturally and economically, in 1968, the Albanians started voicing their dissatisfaction ever louder. Josip Broz Tito, then leader of the state, conceded under pressure and granted the Autonomous Region of Kosovo-Metohija more freedoms. The name Metohija was dropped as many Albanians opposed it due to its controversial sounding (Metohija in Greek means as much as monastic estates). Albanian national symbols were allowed in public. The year 1969 saw the foundation of the University of Pristina, which turned out to be key in strengthening the position of the Albanian language and culture. One of the direct consequences of its existence was the push for equalizing Kosovo’s status with Yugoslavia’s constituent republics. Such call had existed ever since the end of WWII, which marked the incorporation of Kosovo into the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Yet it was only in 1974 that the newly adopted constitution established local government and parliament for Kosovo. In reality, it meant as much as reporting to Serb authorities.

The third stage of the Albanian rebellion began in 1981. Further disintegration of Yugoslavia had encouraged the Serbs to strive for political dominance aimed at keeping the country’s federal character. In 1989, the autonomy of Kosovo was significantly limited only to be abolished one year later, after a new Serbian constitution was adopted.

Independent Kosovo

In the historical process of Kosovo’s struggle for independence the late 1980s are of paramount importance. The beginning of Yugoslavia’s final decline incited a wave of nationalism, so far successfully suppressed among other things by the personal authority of Marshall Tito who away in early May of 1980. Seven years later Serbia saw the onset of nationalistic rhetoric while Slobodan Milošević, president of the League of Communists of Serbia, rose to political leadership, even though he did not hold the office of the Republic’s president.

The cult surrounding UÇK is part and parcel of the Kosovar national myth. © Author’s own archives

In September 1990, in Kaçanik, members of the Kosovar parliament adopted a new constitution of Kosovo. A year later, a referendum was held between 26th and 30th September. As a result, 87% of voters said yes to independence. The plebiscite was boycotted by local Serbs and Montenegrins while Belgrade declared it as illegal. By virtue of the referendum’s result the parliament of Kosovo declared independence from Yugoslavia. In the elections held on 24th May 1992, Kosovo’s Democratic League came first, with its leader Ibrahim Rugova appointed president. From then on a period of double-government ensued. Next to the official Serbian government bodies, there existed an underground government of independent Kosovo. This was due to the fact that the Republic of Serbia did not recognize the results of the elections as valid. President Rugova’s policy of non-aggression with regard to the political and ethnic conflict was rather fruitless. In 1994, in wake of growing disenchantment with his policies, the Kosovo Liberation Army was created, which pledged an armed battle for independence.

Two years later, in response to Serbian repression and persecution from the police, the Kosovo Liberation Army undertook partisan activity. Following the conclusion of the Dayton Accords in 1995, support for Rugova’s non-violent policy had plummeted. The Dayton Accords put an end to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the Dayton Accords, the international community ruled the problem of Kosovo to be an internal affair of Serbia. In 1997, Serbia offered Kosovo limited autonomy. While the proposal was backed by Rugova, the Kosovo Liberation army refused to accept it.

As the international community engaged in the resolution of the Serbian-Kosovar conflict, the UN adopted Security Council Resolution 1244 in 1999. Consequently, Kosovo’s unofficial government bodies were forced to comply with the UN’s mission in Kosovo (UNMIK – United Nations Interim Mission in Kosovo) which took over the country. It took control of the legislative, judiciary and executive. This double-government situation (UNMIK on the one side and the underground Kosovar authorities on the other) led to the establishment of the Joint Interim Administrative Structure (JIAS).

The Joint Interim Administrative Structure (JIAS) comprised four administrative bodies: Special Representative of the Secretary-General who exercised general supervision, Interim Administrative Council composed of four UNMIK officials and four representatives of the Kosovars, a 36-member Kosovo Transnational Council representing Kosovo’s ethnic structure as well as administrative departments of de facto ministries.

In 2001, a constitutional framework was promulgated thus laying the groundwork for the establishment of state institutions known as the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government (PISG). It divided competencies between UNMIK and PISG. It also established a ‘self-governing geopolitical entity under temporary international control’. To guarantee their participation, the minorities were granted 20 parliamentary seats as well as three ministries. The PISG enjoyed a three-year mandate. This included the Assembly of Kosovo, which was a parliamentary body. Its legislative acts, however, had to be approved by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Kosovo. The Assembly actively participated in the procedure of government election through a vote of confidence. Meanwhile, the president held representative functions only.

Due to a lack of progress in Serbian-Kosovar talks on the status of the province, the Kosovars unilaterally commenced the execution of constitutional solutions as formulated by the UN Special Envoy for the Kosovo Status Process. According to Martti Ahtisaari’s plan, UNMIK was to cease its activity and gradually pass on its competencies to Kosovo’s administrative bodies under the supervision of the International Civil Representative, who also held the function of EU Special Envoy.

On 8th April 2008, Kosovo’s new constitution was carried by acclamation. It entered into force on 15th June and comprised 142 articles.

One of its key features is its republican nature. When it comes to the organization of power, the constitution established a parliamentary system of government with a rather strong position of prime minister, who is independent in his personal decisions regarding the cabinet without having to ask for presidential consent. The government is appointed by the Assembly of the Republic of Kosovo. The cabinet members take an oath of office before the Assembly and are politically responsible before the Assembly. The president holds representative functions and is elected indirectly by the Assembly. The judiciary is executed by common courts while the execution of the constitution is supervised by the Constitutional Court. The constitution’s elementary provisions include state secularism, equality before the law (including gender equality and positive discrimination of national minorities), and sovereignty (the people as sovereign, without reference to a given national community, but to a multiethnic society). The constitution rules out the possibility of accession to another state or any border changes without the consent of the Serbian community.

Questioned sovereignty

In its advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice in The Hague did not question the legitimacy of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, which means that Kosovo’s parliament validly proclaimed the declaration of independence. What remains questioned is the independence itself. Kosovo based its independence on the principle of the self-determination of nations as mentioned in international law. It refers, however, to postcolonial regions rather than secession through violation of territorial integrity. Undoubtedly, the active engagement on the part of international organizations in the process of Kosovo’s creation may prove to be a significant obstacle in Kosovo’s struggle for international recognition under international law. For what happened was that a state, that is, a primary legal entity, was created by an international organization, that, a secondary legal entity.

Serbian national symbols dominate the divided town of Mitrovica. © Author’s own archives
A few years back, the Ibar River Bridge was blocked and thus a symbol of the
town’s division. © Author’s own archives

Kosovo is recognized as an integral part of the Republic of Serbia. It is included in the Republic’s administrative division comprising five regions and the Autonomous Region of Kosovo and Metohija. It is further divided into five districts: Kosovo, Peć, Prizren, Kosovska Mitrovica and Kosovo-Pomoravlje.

Under the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo on the regulation of government and on the normalization of their relations, concluded on 19th April 2013, the Community of Serb Municipalities was established. In these municipalities, along local Kosovar authorities, consisting of all Kosovo’s 34 municipalities, there exist parallel local government authorities, which have competence over local budget, health care, education, and landscape planning. Under the agreement, parallel structures exist in the police force. It is organized in accordance with the ethnic structure of four majority Serb municipalities, including local chief officers. Regarding the judiciary, the Appeal Court in Pristina is to include a special chamber dedicated to the cases concerning Serb enclaves and ruled by Serbian judges. Given Serbia’s efforts to join the community of the European Union, the agreement on mutual relations was concluded under the auspices of the EU. This general agreement was complimented in 2015 by five additional agreements, which laid out the cooperation provisions in further details. They concerned such topics as the functioning of the Community of Serb Municipalities, energy provisions, car circulation on the Ibar River Bridge as well as Kosovo’s own telephone prefix.

Toward the future

Following Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, it has since been mainly preoccupied with its recognition by the international community. So far, Kosovo has been recognized by over 100 states all over the world, that is, more than a half of all members of the UN. Kosovo’s potential UN membership seems to belong to the distant future, as it will surely meet strong opposition on the part of two permanent members of the UN’s Security Council, namely the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, which openly question the country’s sovereignty. The Republic of Kosovo is neither a member of the Council of Europe, nor of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). It does though feature among the members of the IMF and the World Bank. In December 2015, the Republic of Kosovo officially joined the International Olympic Committee, which means that its national team can now compete in the Olympic Games.

When it comes to the economy, the Kosovars need to tackle numerous challenges: dramatic economic situations, unfavorable economic structures, a high unemployment rate, as well as significant dependency on foreign aid. Furthermore, the country deals with rampant corruption and organized crime. With a total area of 11,000 square meters, it is one of the poorest regions in Europe. Its population is estimated at 1.8 million, one third of whom lives below the poverty threshold while over 30% of the active population is unemployed. Among those aged 15-24 years, as many as two-thirds are deprived of stable employment. Kosovo’s GDP per capita stands at $3,500 USD. The economy is dominated by mining, agriculture, forestry and cattle husbandry. The main natural resources are brown coal, zinc, lead, and nickel.

In politics, one of the challenges Kosovo’s current leaders face is that of their past, and in particular those in the ranks of the Kosovo Liberation Army. This has generated much controversy as the army has been accused of organized crime, drug and arms dealing, as well as selling transplant organs in the years 1998-2000.

Reconciliation and laying a foundation for a common state call for reliable investigations and due justice for the crimes committed on both sides. Obtaining such consensus will likely pave the way for Kosovo’s international recognition. Until June 2018, the most serious criminal cases were handled by EULEX, the EU’s police mission, co-responsible for the security and protection of the northern borders in cooperation with Serbian border guards.

The ongoing border talks between presidents Aleksandar Vucić (Serbia) and Hashim Thaçi (Kosovo) were the subject of heated debates among members of the international community with such well-known figures like Federica Mogherini taking a stance. Trading northern parts of Kosovo with its center in Kosovska Mitrovica for the now Serbian Preševo Valley is hoped to remedy current border tensions. Interestingly, the proposal seems to have caused more controversy among the third parties than the two countries involved. At present, Mitrovica, or Kosovska Mitrovica for the Serbs, is a symbol of a divided country. This half-Kosovar and half-Serbian town is the centerpiece of this long-lasting conflict, which was touchingly epitomized by the case of the Ibar River Bridge, until-recently blocked, thus dividing not only two river banks, but also ethnic communities.

All texts published by the Warsaw Institute Foundation may be disseminated on the condition that their origin is credited. Images may not be used without permission.


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