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State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Kosovo

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 11 March 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Kosovo, 11 March 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/48a7eaeec.html [accessed 25 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

On 17 February 2008, Kosovo's parliament declared independence. The move was swiftly backed by the US and some European states, including Britain, France and Germany, but attracted the opposition of others, including Spain, Cyprus, Greece and Bulgaria. Russia vehemently opposed the declaration, urging the UN Security Council to declare the move 'illegal', and signalling that it would block Kosovo's membership of the UN. In Serbia, there was anger and resentment, boiling over into attacks against a number of foreign embassies seen to have supported independence. While the declaration marks the end of one phase of Kosovo's existence, there is grave uncertainty for the future, particularly for minorities in the self-declared state, which for the time being will largely be administered by the EU.

Kosovo Albanians make up an overwhelming majority of the population. Ever since the Serbian assault of 1998–9, which cost around 10,000 mostly civilian Albanian lives, they have insisted that they could never again be ruled from Belgrade. However, the minority Serb population – thought to number about 120,000 – bitterly oppose an independent Kosovo. In the predominantly Serbian north-western corner of the country, daily demonstrations were organized against the move and NATO troops sealed the northern borders after hundreds of protesters stormed two crossing points. There have been mutterings that the Serbian stronghold in the north-west might secede from Kosovo.

In the run-up to the independence declaration, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci vowed to protect the rights of all minorities. But the concerns remain acute. Apart from Serbs, Kosovo's other minority groups include Ashkali, Bosniacs, Croats, Egyptians, Gorani, Roma and Turks and. These latter groups have been completely excluded from international discussions on Kosovo's status.

The minority situation in Kosovo is complex. Serbs and other minorities in Kosovo, including pockets of Albanians in majority-Serb northern Kosovo, face some of the most hostile conditions of any minorities in Europe. Following the withdrawal of Serbian forces in 1999, radicalized Albanians turned on minority communities, especially Serb and Roma. Pogroms in March 2004, hardly contained by NATO peacekeepers and UN police, claimed the lives of over 28 civilians and one NATO soldier, and wounded hundreds; 3,600 Serbs were displaced and 30 Serb churches destroyed, along with 200 Serb houses. Many minorities have fled Kosovo. Most Serbs who remain are still confined for their own protection to ethnically homogenized enclaves under international armed guard, or live north of the Ibar river in a Serb-controlled area that maintains close connections with Belgrade. Christian Orthodox churches south of the Ibar have required the protection of NATO peacekeepers in order to prevent vandalism by Albanian nationalists. Serbs and other minorities face harassment and physical violence for being who they are, for living in their own homes if they belong to the 'wrong' community, and for speaking their own language. Kosovo government authorities, UN administrators and police, and NATO peacekeepers have been unwilling or unable to bring to justice many perpetrators of crimes directed at minorities.

Several years after the conflict, minority return to pre-war homes has barely occurred. In June 2007 the mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Kosovo cited several reasons for this, including the failure to rebuild over 10,000 residential properties destroyed during or after the conflict, bureaucratic inefficiency in processing property and compensation claims, and widespread security fears among would-be returnees. Those who did return faced not only physical threats, but also widespread economic exclusion, including through discrimination in employment and provision of social benefits. In June 2007 the non-governmental organization Humanitarian Law Centre (HLC) released a survey of ethnic minorities conducted during 2006. While it found progress in majority Albanian acceptance of Ashkali, Bosniac, Egyptian and Turkish, minorities, including their improved freedom of movement, there was little improvement with regard to Serbs and Roma. The HLC survey reported that Kosovo's government had made no attempt to integrate Serb pupils into Kosovo's educational system; Serb and some Gorani children were attending a parallel school system financed and controlled by the Serbian government. Turkish and Bosniac children were being afforded education in their own languages within Kosovo-run schools, but in practice this has proved difficult due to an acute lack of textbooks and trained teachers. Roma-language education was unavailable in either the government or parallel Serb school systems.

In education and other areas, government and international UN administrators found it difficult to develop long-term policies due to the lack of clarity on Kosovo's final status. The status limbo has also had a more directly negative effect on minority rights by encouraging extremists on both sides of the Albanian-Serb divide to stake out maximalist positions and jockey for control of territory by driving out the other. Since 1999 the divided northern city of Mitrovica/Mitrovicë has been a particular flashpoint in this regard.

After eight years of international rule, Kosovo's Albanian and Serbian communities remain as divided as ever. As the UN mission in Kosovo starts to wind up, the European Union will begin to assume an even more important role. Their involvement will be based on the plan unveiled by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari in February 2007. EU administrators will replace UN administrators, and extensive decentralization is planned, which will lead to six autonomous Serb districts, some of which would include majority Albanian villages. But much will depend on whether Kosovan Serbian leaders will cooperate with this plan, or whether they will continue to press for secession.

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