Serbian cultural and religious heritage in Kosovo a sovereignty issue for both Belgrade and Pristina

The status of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo, as well as Serbian religious and cultural heritage, is a matter of status and sovereignty, both for Belgrade and Pristina – the majority of experts who attended the webinar on “Serbian Cultural and Religious Heritage in Kosovo, from Ahtisaari’s Special Zones to the Final Status” underlined. On the other hand, this fact politically burdens the key topic for the Serbian church and people in Kosovo, which is why the Eparchy of Raska-Prizren requested that the status of Serbian holy sites in Kosovo be discussed separately from any negotiations on the political status of Kosovo, the Abbot of the Visoki Decani monastery, Sava Janjic said.

A webinar on Serbian religious heritage, at which the key findings of the analysis “Serbian Cultural and Religious Heritage in Kosovo, from Ahtisaari’s Special Zones to the Final Status” were presented, was held last week. The two authors of the analysis Dr. Igor Novakovic (ISAC Fund) and Stefan Surlic (Faculty of Political Science) presented the findings. Other panel members were doc. Dr. Jelena Loncar from the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Belgrade and Dr. Milan Igrutinovic, a researcher at the Institute for European Studies, Dr. Jose Maria Arraiza, a researcher from Madrid and the Abbot of the Visoki Decani monastery, Sava Janjic.

The discussion was moderated by Dragisa Mijacic, director of the Institute for Territorial Development (InTER) and coordinator of the Working Group 35 of the National Convention on the European Union, within which the analysis was made and the webinar was organized.

You can read the analysis report on “Serbian Cultural and Religious Heritage in Kosovo, from Ahtisaari’s Special Zones to the Final Status” on InTER’s website.

Surlic: From religious intolerance to a stance that demands delimitation on a political level

The current situation regarding Serbian cultural heritage in Kosovo is unsustainable and it needs a new status, which should move on three levels, Stefan Surlic said.

Webinar srpsko kulturno nasleđe
Foto: InTER, YouTube, caption

„The first key problem is the narrative that was created in Kosovo. And this is the dominant one. Unfortunately, these are not individual occurrences, as we come across such an approach in serious analyzes of people dealing with cultural and religious heritage in Kosovo – the narrative of challenging the SOC’s right to those protection mechanisms decreed by the Ahtisaari package,“ Surlic said, adding that the narrative moves from disputing the Serbian Orthodox Church towards disputing the Serbian origin of that cultural heritage.

This narrative is accompanied by non-compliance with legal norms and protection mechanisms by the institutions themselves – especially when it comes to the Law on Special Protective Zones – the analysis also revealed. In addition to this law, there is a noticeable disrespect of court decisions by Kosovo institutions, specifically the decision of the Kosovo Constitutional Court to confirm Visoki Decani’s ownership over 24 ha of land in the vicinity of the monastery – which local authorities have refused to put into practice.
Institutional non-compliance with norms related to the protection of cultural and religious heritage is the second level of disrespect for the heritage, and the third is the level of values which is a consequence of the previous two.

These values created the idea among the Serbian and Albanian population that it is impossible to build a multiethnic society, that there can be no sense of jointly inheriting that cultural and religious wealth, instead we have the stance – what is ours, it is only ours, what is theirs is not deserving of respect

These values have already “drawn delimitation in people’s minds and they are only looking for a political level to implement it,“ said Surlic, warning that these values could lead to the consequence in which „any agreement in the future would be a dead letter on paper because we do not have a basic consensus between Serbs and Albanians on mutual trust, understanding and tolerance.“


When it comes to the analysis recommendations, Surlic stated that the first recommendation is for the status of cultural heritage to become a topic of dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina and that this topic should not be left aside because the dialogue is necessary to reach the right solution.

The authors of the analysis also propose to create a single legal solution that would incorporate all laws arising from the Ahtisaari package because many other laws are being announced that could derogate other laws and legal doubts could arise about what are the special rights of the SOC and the status of cultural and religious heritage.

The authors also believe that in addition to the agreement between Belgrade and Pristina, there must also be an agreement between the SOC and the Pristina authorities.

It should be defined de facto and de jure that the SOC with its headquarters in Belgrade, or the Eparchy of Raska and Prizren, has the jurisdiction over religious buildings, they added.

In the public socio-political discourse in Kosovo, pseudo-historical interpretations and various forms of pressure and denials of the legitimate rights of the SOC should be avoided.

In addition, there should be a discussion about the possibility of expropriating private land located within special protective zones which are defined by the law.

Everything agreed upon must be implemented, and in case this does not happen, effective mechanisms of international sanctions should be established, the authors suggested.

Novakovic: International community must realize the importance of Serb religious and cultural heritage in Kosovo has for identity

Dr. Igor Novakovic explained that the reason behind the analysis was the repeatedly expressed fear of the representatives of the Kosovo Serb community over the status and state of religious and cultural heritage in Kosovo. Novakovic presented the part of the analysis referring to protection models that could be established in the future.

Foto: InTER, YouTube, caption

Two examples of protection models analyzed were Mount Athos (“the Holy Mountain”) and the Vatican City.

„Our intention was not to propose that either model should be implemented in Kosovo. We believe that there are no conditions for that as the historical development and the practical situation on the ground significantly differ, but some parallels can be drawn,“ he explained.

• The example of the Holy Mountain shows that it is possible for there to be a supreme religious authority over an autonomous territory whose seat is outside that state.

• Both the Holy Mountain and the Vatican define how foreigners who are monks, members of the clergy, or employees of churches and monasteries regulate their status in relation to the state of which they are part.

• While the Vatican City has a fully independent judiciary and full sovereignty, the Holy Mountain has legislative autonomy concerning religious matters as well as judicial autonomy in relation to monasticism and partially over the laymen.

• In addition to sovereignty over the Vatican City, the Holy See also owns a number of extraterritorial estates in and out of Rome which are not territorially connected to the city itself and several estates that do not have extraterritorial status.

• The sale of real estate in the Holy Mountain is prohibited, while in the Vatican, no conversion of parcels is allowed without the consent of Italy, while Italy is obliged to ensure a ban on new construction in the parts of Rome that surround the Vatican.

• The public parts of the Vatican City as well as the extraterritorial estates and property of the Holy See are integrated into its surroundings – Rome and other cities. In other words, there is a direct connection with the immediate surroundings; Italy is obliged to provide the Vatican with access to communication links as well as connection to all installations.

• Both the Vatican City and Mount Athos are included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

These parallels served as the basis for the recommendations presented in Novakovic’s and Surlic’s analysis. In addition, Novakovic underlined that several territorial solutions were observed that could be the basis for a future protection model.

„The first territorial solution we considered is an enclave or exclave – the existence of small fragments of territory within another entity that belong to the first entity. Examples of enclaves are not uncommon – for example the territory of Azerbaijan surrounded by Armenia or Baarle-Hertog in the Netherlands, the territory of the Russian Kaliningrad region surrounded by Lithuania and Poland and the example of the enclave in Serbia itself, the village of Sastavci surrounded by the municipality of Priboj but falling under the municipality of Rudo in BiH,” he said.

The second territorial principle taken into account was extraterritoriality.

„The territory in question remains under the sovereignty of the surrounding entity; however, its legislative framework is not applied in that territory, but the legislative framework of the second entity. That is the case with diplomatic missions and the headquarters of international organizations,“ he explained.

The third principle is dual sovereignty or condominium.

„A certain territory is defined as a common territory of two entities and usually that common territory has its autonomous law.“

One of the problems in protecting the religious heritage in Kosovo is the international community’s lack of understanding of its importance, Novakovic emphasized.

It seems to me that foreigners have no understanding of the importance the Serbian religious and cultural heritage in Kosovo has for the identity of Serbs outside Kosovo. This is a very important aspect that should be taken into account when we talk about future solutions and negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina

Loncar: The fate of the monasteries is decided by their position and not by state sovereignty

Dr. Jelena Loncar pointed out that cultural heritage is a sensitive topic for both Serbia and Kosovo, emphasizing that cultural heritage and its protection must be part of the talks on improving interethnic relations.

Webinar srpsko kulturno nasleđe
Foto: InTER, YouTube, caption

Loncar agreed with the assessment of the authors of the study that the topic of cultural heritage was not discussed at length. She estimated that the question remains whether such a topic, if it had been discussed earlier, because it was constructed as key to the identity and statehood of both sides, would have contributed to reconciliation or whether it would have increased the problem of interethnic relations.

On the other hand, the rule of law, the role of the international community, the focus on sovereignty and property issues and public discourses in Serbia and Kosovo insisting on deepening conflicts and tensions, and thus preventing attempts at dialogue, are factors which influence the future and position of cultural heritage, she assessed.

When it comes to the rule of law, Loncar said that in addition to Kosovo’s relatively good – though incomplete – laws, there is also contempt of the law by central and local institutions, attacks on church property involving demolition, theft and vandalism, illegal construction near protected areas, as well as many other examples of disrespect of the Orthodox heritage.

„All this can be linked to the role of the international community and the Kosovo state-building project. We know that the laws in Kosovo are a consequence of the conditioning of the international community, and not an expression of local agreements, decisions or wishes of the citizens living in Kosovo,“ she said, adding that such an approach has often been criticized in the existing literature.

„One of the flaws of this approach is that it implies that local actors will adapt to the institutional environment and, at the same time, local voices, interests and perceptions are neglected, which further leads to increased dissatisfaction,“ she explained, warning that “citizens are not passive recipients of values, but they actively react through various and often visible or invisible forms of resistance – this includes different interpretations of regulations that may harm the other party, the church, in this case, attempts may be made not to comply with regulations or institutions may fail to respond in case of violations.“
All these forms of resistance to external values have been observed on the example of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo, underlined Loncar.

She also criticized what she sees as a problematic relationship both Kosovo and Serbia have with cultural heritage.

„Research shows that in statements of politicians from both sides, religious and cultural heritage is used for the purpose of affirming the right to sovereignty, and not in the context of preserving and protecting cultural heritage,“ she explained, adding that this was the case with Kosovo’s attempt to joint UNESCO in 2015.

„For Kosovo, the UNESCO membership was an important step towards full international recognition of their independence, and any sort of rights given to the Serbian Orthodox Church was seen as a blow to Kosovo’s independence. In a similar way, Serbian officials and media presented the issue of cultural heritage as an issue of state sovereignty. It seems that the issue of the status of Serbian cultural heritage in Kosovo was absent in the discussions on both sides. Although the position of the monasteries in Kosovo is what actually decides their fate, rather than state sovereignty. The fact that Kosovo was not admitted to UNESCO did not improve the position of Decani and other monasteries, nor did Serbia get the opportunity to exercise sovereignty over them. The monasteries still remain where they are, in the same position, and Kosovo laws are exclusively applied over them,“ Loncar explained the reason why she believes it is important to focus on heritage status, and not on issues of sovereignty.

According to her, one of the negotiation problems is “the orientalist discourse” when speaking of Albanians.

„Albanians are often presented as people who are not at the same civilization level. We can hear that in the statements of politicians from Serbia – who have not created anything valuable and good and do not have the ability to protect cultural goods, nor understand their importance,“ said Loncar. This, together with the fact that the Kosovo side represents the Serbian side as the enemy, reduces the space for compromise.

Loncar believes that, if talks do take place, the topic of cultural heritage should be separated from political negotiations – bearing in mind that in that way a greater focus would be placed on cultural heritage sites.

Arraiza: Kosovo authorities accepted Ahtisaari’s plan out of a desire to gain status

As a witness to the early post-war events in Kosovo, Arraiza recalled the 2004 violence against the Serb, Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities and the Serbian religious and cultural heritage, as well as discussions with the International Civilian Office on Annex V of Ahtisaari’s plan. Arraiza underlined that it was accepted only because of the status.

The political will of the Kosovo Albanian government institutions to accept Annex V of Ahtisaari’s proposal and the Law on Special Protective Zones did not stem from their desire to protect cultural heritage, it came from the desire to gain status and move the process forward. This is the problem of legitimacy that accompanies this process

This problem has been transferred from a central to a local level, which, according to Arraiza, is the key to resolving disputes at a micro-level, especially when it comes to property rights. In addition, the perception that the Orthodox community is privileged represents another problem.

Webinar srpsko kulturno nasleđe
Foto: InTER, YouTube, caption

„There is a general impression that the framework for special protective zones refers only to the heritage of the SOC. Although Ahtisaari tried not to leave such an impression and included the Ottoman, Catholic and Muslim heritage, the general impression is that this measure was introduced only to pacify the SOC and Serbia,“ Arraiza explained.

Igrutinovic: The status of the SOC is a deed to the territory and a question of historical law for Kosovo and Serbia

According to Igrutinovic, the solutions to the status of Serbian cultural heritage in Kosovo should be similar to the Brcko District.

Webinar srpsko kulturno nasleđe
Foto: InTER, YouTube, caption

„There would have to be some kind of life with the local community. Those churches can live from tourism, they can be real churches, but there is a danger that they will become only museums or stone buildings without contact with the immediate reality around them,“ said Igrutinovic, adding that any kind of agreement must be based on the local community and local self-government.

Igrutinovic also emphasized that the status of the SOC in Kosovo is a matter of sovereignty for both sides.

„The existence of monasteries and the functioning of the SOC in Kosovo are considered in Serbia a kind of deed to the territory or at least a part of it, a kind of historical right, and its validation in the 21st century. On the other hand, for the Pristina political elite, it is a kind of obstacle to the final steps of political emancipation in terms of the final confirmation of Kosovo’s independence in the broadest possible sense,“ he stressed, adding that he does not expect that to change any time soon.

Looking back at the two possible ways to negotiate on cultural heritage – as part of a broader agreement or as a separate topic, as Surlic and Novakovic pointed out in the analysis; Igrutinovic emphasized that how Serbian cultural heritage will be discussed will depend on how close the final agreement is.

„One of the fundamental reasons why this has not been discussed at length is because, if we take the position that Kosovo is a province within Serbia or that it is not an internationally recognized state, any extraterritoriality of the SOC in Kosovo or any specific solution would derogate that political attitude… On the other hand, if this issue happens to be resolved separately, as a topic narrower than the overall agreement, it would essentially mean that we are far from a broader agreement. If this topic is resolved in 2022 or 2023, it would mean that we are still years away from a broader agreement.“

Igrutinovic shared his belief that the issue of the SOC in Kosovo will be resolved within the framework of an umbrella agreement because this issue has been used as “a chip in the game of international relations.”

„It was a chip in the game – why just the SOC, why not the Islamic cultural heritage, certain Catholic churches, anything else… Because it was a courtesy to Belgrade in order to somehow appease Belgrade to agree to the Ahtisaari agreement, which was not done in the end. We are met with the hard political logic of international relations.“

According to Igrutinovic, if this issue is resolved as a separate one, it will be the result of political will stemming from the „growth of the profile of church policy“ and the parallelism incurred with the events related to the SOC in Montenegro.

„These issues of church policy are no longer just church issues, they spill over – on the one hand, into the relations between Serbia and Montenegro, on the other hand, they also affect the divisions in society within Montenegro.“

This situation is used by Serbian President Vucic, he stressed, adding that Vucic is placing himself in the role of „protector of Serbs, protector of national interests“.

These religious themes spill over into relations and this may not be so visible today, but I think it will contribute to this logic with which it would be difficult to be flexible in the future and with seeing a permanent threat to it at every step in the neighborhood, you could not make some flexible negotiated combination and have one comprehensive approach to Kosovo. That is, the topic of the SOC, the position of the SOC in Kosovo is not only part of the relations between Belgrade and Pristina but also the relations in wider regional policy, the policy of peripheral Serbs which is partly endangered in the field, depending on the position they are in. On the other hand, it also has a utilitarian function

Janjic: Negotiations on cultural and religious heritage should not be tied with resolving Kosovo’s political status

The Abbot of the Visoki Decani monastery, Sava Janjic said that the Eparchy of Raska-Prizren has worked on resolving the issues of Serbian religious and cultural heritage for years. Janjic, however, also warned that this topic was tossed aside in the public, which is why the church and society are concerned over this issue.

Webinar srpsko kulturno nasleđe
Foto: InTER, YouTube, caption

„At this moment, it is necessary not to link the resolution of the political status to the resolution and regulation of the issue of protection of the religious and cultural heritage of our church in Kosovo. At one time, the SOC participated in Ahtisaari’s talks on a non-status basis. For us, that is not something that means changing the status, and it is very important to separate that issue from politics,“ said Abbot Sava.

When it comes to the status of Serbian cultural heritage in Kosovo, Abbot Sava believes that the Ahtisaari package is only a basis that should be worked on further. He also recalled that part of the provisions from Annex V of the Ahtisaari plan was not adopted in Kosovo legislation, which created additional problems in its implementation.

Speaking about the status of Kosovo, Janjic said that the position of the SOC in Kosovo is well-known; adding that it would be dangerous if there was „a hasty agreement in which there would be no adequate protection of our church and people.“ Such an agreement would even worsen the position of the church and the people, having in mind the previous non-compliance with the Ahtisaari’s package by the Kosovo institutions.

He emphasized that regardless of how the status of Kosovo is resolved, the fact remains that the legal framework in Kosovo is specific and will remain so.

„That is why special protection measures in accordance with that system are needed. We cannot simply say, as it was once said, we do not need protected zones because this is Serbia. I believe that protected zones are very necessary and useful and we have big problems with the implementation of these principles, especially because the Council for the Implementation of Protected Areas, which our eparchy is part of, together with representatives of the OSCE, the EU and two Kosovo ministries, is constantly dealing with the issue on how the lack of implementation of the decision of the Constitutional Court should be resolved,“ he said, reminding that on the last anniversary of the decision to confirm ownership of the Decani monastery over 24 ha of land in the vicinity of the monastery, the then Kosovo Prime Minister, Ramush Haradinaj also opposed the decision of the Kosovo Constitutional Court.

The position of the church is that its representatives must be included in the talks on the protection of holy sites, but also the protection of the people.

„The church is conceptually organized so that both the holy sites and the people form one organic whole. Our people who live here, but also the numerous believers who come and visit our monasteries, form one organic whole, and it is very important that the holy sites remain places of liturgical life,“ he said.

Judging by the previous experience with the implementation of special regulations related to the protection of religious sites, which, especially in the case of Decani Monastery, did not work properly, as seen in the example of the lack of implementation of the decision of the Kosovo Constitutional Court, but also the continuation of a highway construction near the protected zone, the active role of the international community is a necessity, Father Sava emphasized.

„International influence is very important. Without the support of the EU Office, the OSCE and foreign embassies, especially the Quinta countries, it would be difficult for us to do anything that was accepted by Ahtisaari’s plan. There must be an international incentive that would enable and motivate political representatives to adhere to certain principles and agreements.“

The nationalist narrative in Kosovo and attempts to change the understanding of history, which do not correspond – not only to the interpretations of Serb historians, but also to internationally recognized historians, contribute to such a situation, i.e. the necessity of involvement of the international community.

Abbot Sava Janjic also emphasized the church’s understanding of the need for dialogue with the local community. This is something the church has always encouraged – he added.
Referring to the proposals of the analysis, Janjic underlined that the examples of the City of the Vatican and the Holy Mountain are also examples of religious communities surrounded by a majority Orthodox or Roman Catholic population.

„Here we have a more specific situation where our cultural and historical objects, our holy sites, are in an environment which does not even show adequate consideration. In some municipalities, this is not the case, for example in the municipality of Pec/Peja, the situation is much more favorable and there is good cooperation with the mayor. So it largely depends on the municipal authorities.“

Abbot Sava, however, believes that the proposals in the analysis contain elements that could be applied in further discussion.

He also emphasized that the preservation of Serbian religious and cultural sites in Kosovo is much broader than just the issue of protection of cultural and historical sites.

„We do not underestimate the importance of Islamic and Roman Catholic sites, but in historical relevance, the buildings of the SOC are of special importance. After all, four Serbian Orthodox monasteries are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.“

Janjic also mentioned positive examples, such as the fact that the SOC is recognized under that name in the Kosovo constitution, as well as the adoption of the Law on Religious Freedoms, which is in the making, but it faced certain setbacks.

„The original draft is quite favorable, we worked in coordination with the Venice Commission, which gave constructive proposals, however, everything turned into a bureaucratic confusion and the law was not passed.“

On the other hand, he warned that in 2015 the Law on Cultural Heritage together with Kosovo’s request to join UNESCO caused concern for the SOC, since it proposed a type of nationalization – for all cultural and historical buildings in Kosovo to fall under the ownership of the state of Kosovo.

It is crucial for the SOC that the church is the one in charge of the maintenance and renovation of religious and cultural sites in its ownership, which was cited, among other things, in Ahtisaari’s Annex V. But this is one of the provisions which were eventually omitted from Kosovo legislation, Janjic said.

Restitution before privatization

Father Sava also expressed fears regarding the restitution process, or the possibility of privatizing public property before the adoption of the Law on Restitution, which would enable the church to claim its former property.

„There is a tendency to use the absence of the Law on Restitution for privatization, which happens often here and in an uncontrolled manner, without international supervision. This is especially the case with the previously confiscated church property, which was confiscated from our largest monasteries by the Law on Agrarian Reform of 1946,“ he said, adding that it is in the church’s interest to regain ownership of the land around the monastery as it is also, together with the monastery, part of the cultural and social heritage.

„We once asked UNMIK for a general embargo on privatization in protected zones, which is not in Ahtisaari’s plan, but it is one of the important elements for preserving the entire ambiance. We are not only talking about the site, specifically the monastery, but also about its surroundings and the forest, nature and everything that makes such a place an oasis of peace and that attracts tourists and brings peace to people who want to see and experience something beautiful.“

The webinar was supported by the Open Society Foundation, Serbia, as part of the project to support the work of the Working Group 35 of the National Convention on the European Union, implemented by InTER.

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