Jack Gradwell: Heritage in the Balkans - the roots of conflict

Among other certainties in life are death, taxes and ethnic conflict in the Balkans. While relatively peaceful for the past few years, the long shadow of ethnic divisions in the territory of Kosovo continue to make themselves felt. The subject of a longstanding and unresolved territorial dispute between Serbia (which regards Kosovo a part of its own sovereign territory) and its majority Albanian population (which regards Kosovo as an independent state), the territorial dispute is predicated upon competing historical narratives and claims to its heritage.

Once the centre of the medieval Serbian empire and the site of their famous 1389 defeat in battle to the Ottoman Turks, the roots of Kosovo’s ethnic conflict stem from that conquest. Having taken control of the territory, the Ottomans introduced Islam to the region, privileging those that converted (including the Albanians) over those that did not (the Serbs). Finding their way into positions of power, the Albanian population in the region grew to a point where by the mid-19th century, they eventually constituted a majority.

With the 19th century growth of nationalism in the region came a series of irredentist claims. Adjacent to both ethnic groups demands for national independence, came claims for various territories, with Kosovo claimed by both. While the Serbs no longer constituted a majority in the region, they pointed that this was the result of policies of population replacement, and then to her strong historical ties to the region, evidenced in a series of churches, monuments and holy sites. Contrarily, the Albanians claimed the region on the basis of both constituting a demographic majority, and a (largely unevidenced) claim that the Albanians, were descended from the Ancient Illyrians and so predated the Serbs (who arrived in the region in the 6th century).

The site of a series of conflicts (sometimes overlapping with the World Wars) over the twentieth century, the most recent war over the region occurred between the Serbian army and Albanian guerrillas from 1998-1999. This concluded when Bill Clinton intervened, launching air strikes in support of the Albanians. The Serbs signed an agreement to place the territory under UN administration, and the hope was that would be the end of it.

Instead it was just the start. In 2004, under the nose of UN Peacekeepers, a pogrom took place, driving out several hundred thousand remaining Serbs from the region. In the process, several dozen churches listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites were destroyed by the Albanian mobs. Four years later, violence again returned when (the primarily Albanian authorities in) Kosovo unilaterally declared independence.

While the United States, France the UK and approximately 50% of the world’s UN members have since recognised Kosovo as an independent state, Serbia has opposed it. Supported by Russia, China, India and a host of others, the two parties (Serbia and Kosovo) have engaged in a diplomatic struggle for recognition of their competing claims to the territory.

This struggle has likewise extended to international organisations. So far, she has gained membership in the IMF and World Bank, as well as in Fifa (in accordance of an agreement with Serbia). However, one of the most pertinent issues at present is the question of whether she should gain membership in UNESCO. Following a failed application (by 3 votes) in 2015, Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci announced in 2017 that Kosovo would lodge a second UNESCO membership application.

Home to multiple UNESCO World Heritage Sites, most of them Serbian in origin, were Kosovo to obtain membership, recognition of ownership of the heritage sites would pass to Kosovo’s Albanian authorities. Claiming the right on the basis that she is first a sovereign state, and second that the churches were originally Dardanian (and thus Albanian) in origin (a largely pseudohistoric claim). Needless to say, Serbia has fiercely opposed this on the basis of first, her historical claims to heritage in the region, second, her continued claims to the territory and third, her accusation that many prominent figures within Kosovo’s authorities were complicit in the 2004 pogrom and destruction of heritage.

With the question of Kosovo’s heritage sites still front of mind, it is likely to play a significant role in the proceedings of the World Heritage Committee’s conference…

All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences.

Posted on July 8, 2017 and filed under World Heritage 2017.