Kosovo – These Days: Interview with Alastair Butchart Livingston on Minority Rights

Roadside sign with instructions for cross the Mitrovica Bridge, looking towards the southern side of the city. Mitrovica, Kosovo. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster https://bit.ly/2jU3uYP

Kosovo is facing a special situation with persistent struggles. Therefore, we will take a closer look on the country 20 years after the war in 1999. Kosovo is a multifaceted country and should clearly not be reduced to recentwar alone. We want to look beyond this event and ask ourselves, how is Kosovo doing These Days?

The aim of the Policy Blog is to capture a diverse range of voices from and about Kosovo. Thereby, we are able to provide recommendations for the broad field of policy making: from engagement of grassroots movements to decision-making by government officials. With this intention, we would like to offer knowledge and facilitate an open dialogue with policy actors from diverse perspectives and expertise from various fields of science.

Alastair Butchart Livingston is an international expert on Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding. He was Regional Director for the OSCE in Kosovo from 2000 to 2008. In 2014 the UK government appointed him as Senior Advisor in the office of Community Affairs for the Prime Minister of Kosovo; in this function, the interview has emerged.

What are the minority groups living in Kosovo and how are they reflected in the demographic characteristics of the country?

10% of the population are minorities in Kosovo and of those, the dominant group are Kosovar Serbs, amounting a share of only 3-5%.

20 years after the war, a major challenge to the societal cohesion of Kosovo is that the Serbian majority population is viewed with an amazing tolerance, which, if looked closer is expressed more with an indifference among different communities. Unlike other countries in the Balkans, there is not really any other link between the majority and minority populations than the love for the country. There are hardly any overlapping cultural identities that could help bringing the minorities back into society.

Before the war Kosovo resembled a colonial situation. The Serbs were in a much more dominant position, as Kosovo was a province of Serbia. In the ten years following the Milosevic decree, Albanian everyday realities became more regulated. Kosovo Albanians were required to swear an oath to the state if they were working in the public service, for example. However, Kosovo Albanians, by large, refused to do that and left their employment. For the next ten years, they were discriminated against until the war broke out – which was the culmination of this situation. And as a result, you have a society that is dominated by a community that used to be subordinate. This is very difficult to accept for the Serbs because it [accepting it] means they have lost [their power position as a numerical majority]. And to say, “I am fine with living in a country that is still mine, but it is not only mine, and if I want to survive and do well, I am going to have to speak the language of the majority.”


How are the other non-majority groups feeling about their minority status in Kosovo?

The other non-majority groups are Bosniak, Roma, Ashkali, Egyptia, Gorani and Turks. Egyptian and Ashkali, for instance have links to the majority population because they usually speak Albanian. If you talk about the Roma and Gorani, to a large degree, they have assimilated with the Kosovo Serbs. It is questionable of whether we can move on toward a situation where the minority populations are ready to accept the realities on the ground. At the moment, this is affected negatively by the relation between the state of Kosovo and the state of Serbia which is not entirely reflective of the political developments in the last decade.


How are minority rights constituted in Kosovo’s legal framework?

Kosovo has strong human rights provisions embedded in the constitution when compared to the other Balkan countries. The aim of this legal architecture is the preservation and the enhancement of minority rights in Kosovo. It is a question of ensuring that those rights are allowed to flourish and be put in effect in more rural areas. For instance, Serbian is an official language, but you cannot expect from the majority to learn the language of a minority that amounts 3-4% of the population. Especially so, when it is still viewed as the language of the oppressor because of what happened prior to the war and during the war.

The law as well as the language policy support minorities. However, the problem is its practicalities of a young population that does not speak the language of the minority and that the vast majority of official documents are not translated into Albanian and Serbian language because of a lack of capability. And to be perfect honest, the political situation with Serbia gets into the way. If you have different priorities as a government than as a municipality, you are not necessarily going to make the priority moving forward with the minority rights issues when the minority rights issues are linked inextricably with Belgrade. And the current situation is that Belgrade does not accept that southern province is no longer the southern province.

There are efforts being made, funded by the British embassy and being carried out by the international organization for migration, for an online language program called vocab. My understanding is that there are well over 16 000 enrollees because you can do it at home. So, there must be a number of Serbs who have an interest to learn Albanian. Yet, they do not necessarily want their neighbors to know that they are doing this. They don’t necessarily want the public to know that they are doing this but if you consider home as a place where you can do an online learning program of the other language, then this program is a real benefit. And these developments are part of the process, particularly south of the Ibar. Especially, if we get a normalization agreement with Serbia next year, these kinds of things will expand.

Are multi-lingual schools a plausibility in Kosovo?

I doubt that we will ever see a multi-lingual education system in Kosovo. There is reluctance on part of Kosovo Serbs to put their education systems within the MEST (Ministry of Education, Science and Technology) system. I have to admit, that this is also not a priority for Kosovo itself. We cope with the issues of university certificates recognition. Those who have a university diploma issued by a Serbian university, other than that in Mitrovica, and are Kosovo Serb seeking a work here run into the issue that their diploma is not accepted in Kosovo. The reason is not because of Kosovo, but it is due to the constitutional court of Serbia order when the original agreement was made in Brussels that there would be reciprocity between the University of Prishtina and the Serbian University. In this order, the court ruled that university diplomas issued by the University of Prishtina will not be acknowledged because in their view Kosovo is still a part of Serbia since 1244. In response, Kosovo’s constitutional court ruled that Serbian diplomas will be equally unrecognized by Kosovo’s public institutions.


How are the current talks about land swaps between Kosovo and Serbia posing a threat to minority protection in Kosovo and are we not falling back into the trap of a primordial understanding of society?

The prime minister himself is very genuine himself in saying that he wants to reach and try to bring Serbs and other minority communities back into the mainstream of society.

The idea of a land swap – cannot really be considered as a land swap. There are elements that the governments say, “we won’t under no circumstances accept any realignment of the border.” The president has had a real hard job with selling this idea. Nevertheless, it is an indispensable part to negotiate some sort of deal with the state of Serbia sooner or later. Not an exact mutual recognition but a normalization of relationships because Serbia has to obtain something in exchange. A face save deal is the only way for a sustainable conflict settlement. I think it was in 1959, when a number of villages in the north of Zapovic were transferred from the state of Serbia to the autonomous province of Kosovo. They might have been eight to ten municipalities.  If those ten villages were sent back to Serbia, there would not be much of a change.

A possible consequence could be that a number of Serbs would leave more regularly than they are doing now, particularly those living in the North. Recently a small triple of Serbs leaving Kosovo and never return permanently. This trend will continue because the parallel structures in Serbian enclaves in southern Kosovo are not good, the education system and the health system for Serbs are not good. Since Kosovo is not recognized by Belgrade, the Kosovo Serbs are caught between the stools. The North is different because they never really have accepted the reality on the ground, while those in the south acknowledge that if you are living in Gracanica/Gračanica or Shtërpcë/Štrpce you know that you are living in the sovereign state of Kosovo. There won’t be anything else. As for the relationships between minorities and majority population in Kosovo, a normalization will calm the situation down. The land swap will not make any difference anywhere in the Balkans. In regard to what everyone is saying – It does not open a pandora box. It is a realignment where borders have been, in fact, temporarily reassigned in 1959.


What impact does the EU pre-accession framework have on Kosovo’s minority rights and their implementation?

There are two areas; the ensuring that the rights of the Orthodox church are embedded, however, there is no effort by local municipalities to do so, as is the case in Decani in the Peja region. And there is the effort by the EU to stabilize the situation in the long-term. However, this is not sustainable.

20 years ago, the international forces UNMIK came in, to stabilize the situation after conflict and to ensure that violence will not continue as Albanians became the dominant population of the territory. In the following years, the international organizations, including the EU, sought to establish a multiethnic democracy. Nevertheless, the demographic data illustrate, 20 years later we ended up with a mono-ethnic country. Though this is happening by the choice of the minority groups who decided to leave. This is the main challenge resulting from foreign influence of Kosovo’s state building and minority framework.

The circumstances for minority groups are not bad in Kosovo, even though Serbian lead media supplier would like to create the impression. And this is the thing, if you are a Kosovo Serb, Gorani or Bosniak, most of your media is from local radio station which is Serb or Bosnian. And where do they get their media fix from? From radio, television stations based in Belgrade. If you are reading print media, you are reading Serbian newspapers from Belgrade. These outlets are for the most part controlled by the government in Serbia, putting out distorted or fake news about Kosovo to the local population in Belgrade. And the sad thing is that through one-sided or incomplete reporting has an enormous impact on the population in Kosovo.

Overall, this structural and politicized environment maintains the polarization between Serbs and Albanian Kosovars and encourages Serbian Kosovars to leave the country despite ongoing efforts by institutional bodies to ensure and protect the minority rights of Serbs.


Please notice that we needed to shorten and paraphrase the interview for the sake of clarity and brevity.