Last week, I had the pleasure of watching a Serbian wedding in full flow. The bells, the flags, the smells, the songs, the smiles, the Chanel – it was a scene as Serbian a scene as one can imagine. Standing in the courtyard of the 14th century Gračanica monastery ten kilometres east of Pristina, it was rather difficult to imagine I was in a state where ethnic Albanians constitute more than 90% and where Islam – albeit a permissive a form as is possible – dominates.
It was a rare, joyful moment for the small Serbian community struggling for survival in a country whose leaders are seem as increasingly intransigent or indeed antagonistic towards their community and its culture.
I have long been of the view that the impact of Slobodan Milošević and his murderous campaign against ethnic Albanians has resulted in an overlooking or, in some cases, excusing of the crimes committed against both Serbs as people and their religious sites.
The expulsion in 1999 of 165,000 ethnic minority residents of Kosovo (most of them Serb) from their homes and destruction of more than 150 religious sites, some of which saw their 700-year history “semtexed” to little more than piles of rubble, is one of the great, overlooked crimes of post-Second World War European history. Furthermore, it ought to be a stain on the consciousness of the international troops stationed in Kosovo that they stood by in March 2004 as thirty-four churches were burned to the ground and 935 private homes damaged.
The latest flashpoint - albeit only a diplomatic one - between Belgrade and Pristina is the prospect of Kosovo’s membership of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) whose preamble commits to the “protection of the world’s inheritance of books, works of art and monuments of history and science” and “co-operation among the nations in all branches of intellectual activity”. Predictably, this has led to a clash about the status and protection of Serbian cultural and religious history in the region.
The government of Serbia is, in my opinion, guilty of overdramatising the significance of the issue while the largely ethnic Albanian administration in Pristina has failed to communicate how and why membership could be of benefit to the defence of Kosovo’s Serbian heritage.
For Belgrade, the granting of UNESCO membership would represent yet another inextricable step towards full international recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. I would argue, though, that the reality of United States, British, German and French recognition of the country makes it a reality rather than merely a prospect – regardless of how painful that realisation may be.
Concerns also appear to exist in respect of the Kosovo Government’s commitment to “taking care” of Orthodox sites and historical interpretations as to the “true” religious identity of those who built the religious sites. I would argue that both of these fears are misplaced.
The welfare of the four sites already identified by UNESCO as being “at risk” – the Monastery of Dečani, Patriarchate of Peć, Gračanica and Bogorodica Ljeviška Church – would arguably receive far greater attention and scrutiny by the international community when placed under the UNESCO banner than they do presently. Interpretations of history are, of course, often hotly contested in ethnic flashpoints such as Kosovo. While denial of Kosovo’s Christian heritage may exist in some quarters, there is a disconnect between feelings of febrile Vetevendosje (an extremist, pan-Albanian movement that has gained some ground in recent Kosovo elections) activists and the country’s political and academic leaders who accept the country’s Orthodox heritage.
Friends of mine should not have had to exhume relatives from graveyards in non-Serbian areas in order to be content their bodies are safe. The St Uroš Orthodox Cathedral in Uroševac/Ferizaj that stands in the same courtyards as the Mulla Veseli Mosque ought to serve as an example of Albanian and Serbian coexistence rather than being shuttered. The half-built Serbian church built in the shadow of the library of the University of Pristina and the Catholic Cathedral of Blessed Mother Teresa should be completed, rather than crumbling.
I would, with the greatest of respect, suggest to Serbia and Serbians that past examples of cruel and senseless desecration and destruction of Orthodox Serbian sites ought not to be a reason to reject a mechanism that would help protect what remains and reconstruct what’s a risk.
It is impossible for either Serbs or Albanians to turn back the clock and bring back either loved-ones lost in war or cultural heritage desecrated and destroyed over the past two decades.
UNESCO membership would, however, be a solid step towards boosting the accountability of Kosovo’s leaders. Sites judged to be “at risk” would be subject to inspection, with demands for improvements in the protection of Christian heritage elevated to the international stage. UNESCO membership takes nothing away from Serbs or Serbian culture – but instead grants protections that were not previously there.
For those reasons, Serbia and Serbians should support Kosovo’s UNESCO bid.