May 7, 2011

Heritage Handover to Kosovo Police Embitters Serbs

As protection of Orthodox churches and monasteries shifts from NATO to Kosovo Police, many in the Serbian community complain that their cultural and religious monuments are not in safe hands.

Besiana Xharra
May 4, 2011
Blakan Insight

The theft last month of lead roofing from a UNESCO world heritage site church in Prizren has reignited the row over protection of Serbian patrimony in Kosovo.

While Pristina officials argue that the sites will be safe under the watch of the Kosovo Police, Serbian Church and political leaders disagree.

Kosovo is home to many of the Orthodox Church’s holiest sites, leading off with the Patriarchal church complex in Pec/Peja, official seat of the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the monastery churches of Decani and Gracanica.

Six years after riots left dozens of churches and monasteries badly damaged, following days of ethnically motivated violence, NATO’s Kosovo force, KFOR, last year began handing over control of 10 protected sites of importance to Serbs to Kosovo Police.

The first was Gazimestan, the site of the legendary Battle of Kosovo of 1389 between the Ottoman and Serbian armies as well as the location of one of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic’s most notorious speeches, marking the battle’s 600th anniversary.

Since then, Kosovo Police has taken over protection of the Gracanica monastery, another world heritage site, as well as the churches of Zociste, Budicavci and Gorioc.

KFOR remains responsible for the safety of four other monasteries: Holy Archangels in Prizren, Devic, Decani and the Pec Patriarchate. But it intends to hand over protection of them as well, as it reduces troop numbers.
The move has raised hackles in Belgrade, and despite a reduction in tension since KFOR’s decision was announced, Serbia continues to protest.

Serbia’s President, Boris Tadic, was quoted in the Belgrade media in April as saying that he did not want to see Serbian monasteries “in the hands of Albanian extremists”.

The remarks came during a visit to the Serbia by a senior member of the Russian Orthodox Church, a key foreign backer of Serbia’s hard-line policy towards Kosovo.

Soon after the meeting, news emerged that thieves had stolen part of the lead roof of the Church of the Mother of God of Ljevis in Prizren, known as the Bogorodica Ljeviska, in Serbian.

Although it is not one of the sites protected by KFOR, Belgrade officials quickly protested over the Kosovo Police’s failure to protect the building.

According to Church experts, 20 square metres of roof have disappeared, allowing in damp, which will damage the UNESCO-protected frescos.

The Church says it is the third time in five years that bits of the roof have been stolen.

Oliver Ivanovic, Belgrade’s minister for Kosovo, told Balkan Insight that Serbia had opposed the transfer of responsibilities from KFOR to Kosovo Police from the start.

“Here we see the consequences of this,” he said. “The international community urgently needs to change its approach and not allow Kosovo Police to protect the Serbian monasteries,” he said.

Marko Jaksic, a hard-line Serb representative in the divided northern town of Mitrovica, said the incident showed that ethnic Albanians did not want to protect the Serbian nation’s historic sites.

“We are in contact with the Serbian government and we believe that very soon there will be a solution for the Serbian monasteries in Kosovo, because in the hands of the Kosovo police they are always threatened,” Jaksic said.

According to a report last year by the International Crisis Group, ICG, a think tank, some Serbian Church officials would like to see a small force looking after their religious sites, modelled on the Swiss Guards who protect the Vatican.

According to the same to ICG report, Belgrade officials agree, hoping to force Pristina to grant Orthodox monasteries the same extraterritorial status that the Vatican enjoys from Italy.

Under the Ahtisaari Package, the blueprint for Kosovo’s independence, which is enshrined in the constitution, important Orthodox sites enjoy special status and a degree of autonomy - but not extra-territorial status.

KFOR told Balkan Insight that it sees the Kosovo Police as capable of protecting the sites, and it intend to continue to hand over responsibilities to Kosovo’s institutions.

“The task of guarding four monasteries and one monument has been handed over [already] to Kosovo Police,” Alexander Feja, deputy chief of public affairs in KFOR, said.

“Depending on the security situation on the ground, KFOR intends to hand over responsibilities [for the rest] to the respective institutions of Kosovo,” he added.

Feja said he understood the concerns felt by many Serbs: “In Kosovo, following the destruction and damage of some of the most valuable sites in 2004, the Church is understandably sensitive to potential threats to these cultural treasures.”

Kosovo’s government said that the incident in Prizren did not mean that Serbian Orthodox churches generally were under threat.

“Kosovo police are diligently protecting these monasteries,” Hajredin Kuci, the deputy prime minister, said. “The latest case [in Prizren] doesn’t mean that Albanians are extremists – we don’t even know yet who was responsible.”

The Interior Minister, Bajram Rexhepi, said that Serbia was using the plight of the church for it own political capital.
“Serbia is using these monasteries to make Kosovo appear extremist in its policies,” he said. “But Serbia should know that Kosovo protects not only Serbian monasteries but also other religious objects.”

The minister said that Kosovo would not allow Serbia to make acts of theft as an excuse to intervene in Kosovo’s internal affairs.

Behxhet Shala, director of the Council for the Protection of Rights and Freedoms in Kosovo, a civil society group, said Serbian churches, monasteries and monuments were a wing of Serbian foreign policy.

“Gazimestan was a centre of [Serbian] political empowerment at the time of Slobodan Milosevic, and now it is protected by Kosovo Police,” Shala noted.

“On the other hand, at Decani monastery, people living there are not allowed onto their own private property [because of security measures] and don’t even dare to speak out about it,” he said.

The idea that monasteries were being handed over to “Albanian extremists” was nonsense, he added. In the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, Serbian churches were routinely used to store weapons for Serbian forces, he claimed.

“Yet now those churches are proclaimed as protected areas and Serbia uses them to present Kosovo as an extremist country,” he scoffed. Serbia was “playing a terrible game”, he concluded.