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Against the Odds, a Serbian Institute Protects World Heritage in Kosovo

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.balkanalysis.com/2008/01/05/against-the-odds-a-serbian-institute-protects-world-heritage-in-kosovo/ Against the Odds, a Serbian Institute Protects
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 5, 2008

      Against the Odds, a Serbian Institute Protects World Heritage in Kosovo
      1/5/2008 (Balkanalysis.com)

      By Christopher Deliso

      When they report on Kosovo, foreign media bodies
      often reiterate that the province is the
      ‘spiritual cradle’ of Serbia- without going into
      much detail about what this means, or what it
      might entail for the situation there today.

      And so, while the press has devoted considerable
      attention to the implications of Kosovo’s future
      political status, it has largely ignored the
      question of how the disputed province’s recent
      history is shaping its future social and cultural
      make-up- in the long run, arguably, even more important than politics.

      A Telling Misrepresentation

      After the NATO air war against Yugoslavia and
      installation of a UN caretaker administration in
      1999, the status of Kosovo’s Serbian Orthodox
      churches, the survival of which had already often
      required protection in the Albanian
      Muslim-dominated province, became extremely
      precarious. When explaining the Serbian people’s
      attachment to Kosovo, the Western media and
      governments frequently invoke the 1389 Battle of
      Kosovo against the Turks, while saying little of
      tangible heritage; the unstated implication is
      that the Serbs are deranged nostalgics whose
      attachment rests merely on folk legends. This
      tacit dismissal is useful for the Western media
      and governments, most of which argue that
      Kosovo’s Albanians deserve an independent state of their own.

      Nothing is said, therefore, of the tangible
      remains of cultural heritage in Kosovo. Further,
      the value of this cultural heritage is never
      linked to that of Christianity in general, or to
      Europe or the world as a whole. Serbian
      sentiments are thus passed off as hopelessly
      irrational, the deluded dreams of people who
      ended up on the wrong side of history and can be
      forgotten without a twinge of conscience on the part of anyone.

      Today, one organization is trying to change this
      misperception, while also carrying out vital work
      in the historical and cultural spheres.
      Mnemosyne, or the Center for Protection of
      Natural and Cultural Heritage of Kosovo and
      Metohija, a Serbian NGO devoted to cultural
      preservation, historical research and book
      publishing, grew out of the war in 1999, after
      which Albanian mob and paramilitary attacks led
      to the large-scale exodus of Kosovo’s Serbs.
      Institutions that hadn’t been destroyed
      altogether by NATO bombs or Albanian irregulars
      were evacuated to inner Serbia. Luckily, this was
      the case with the Kosovo Ethnographic Museum,
      whose minders escaped with their exhibits. The
      museum now resides ‘in exile’ in central Belgrade
      and continues its work under the banner of the NGO.

      Vital Work

      Mirjana Menkovic, Mnemosyne’s director and senior
      curator of the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade,
      presents the compelling story of Christian
      cultural heritage in Kosovo today. She and her
      colleagues are trying, despite the dire
      conditions, to continue historical research and
      publications on Serbia and Kosovo. The center’s
      books, such as the annotated presentation of
      Decani Monastery’s original charter in the
      original Old Church Slavonic and in translation,
      or the enormous historical account of Serbia
      during the First World War, to name just a couple
      of examples, are extraordinary historical
      documents and extremely well presented. Since
      they are not sold online and are very expensive
      to ship, however, researchers in other countries
      have to make extra efforts to acquire these works.

      In most countries, an institute such as Mnemosyne
      could devote all its efforts to research;
      however, in Serbia the many problems deriving
      from the Kosovo situation make the work of these
      academics much more complicated. Mirjana Menkovic
      is a specialist in the study of traditional dress
      and costumes by training, not a lobbyist.
      Nevertheless, circumstances have forced her to
      devote considerable time and effort to alerting
      the international community about the severity of the situation in Kosovo.

      “We simply do not have access to historical and
      monastic sites in Kosovo,” she attests. “Since
      1999, the only way Serbian academics can visit
      such places is under the heavy armed protection of KFOR troops.”

      Indeed, since the end of NATO’s air campaign in
      1999, over 150 Serbian Orthodox churches, some of
      them seven centuries old, have been destroyed or
      seriously damaged by Albanians. While a few of
      the most important churches still survive, such
      as Decani Monastery in western Kosovo and
      Gracanica Monastery near Pristina, they only
      continue to do so because they are under the
      constant armed protection of NATO soldiers.
      Without this protection, recent history
      indicates, they may well have been destroyed by now.

      While this armed deterrent is thus indispensable,
      the very fact that such widespread damage has
      occurred indicates a rather mixed legacy for NATO
      in Kosovo. Since the installation of the UN
      regime in August 1999, Mnemosyne’s research
      teams, sometimes accompanied by foreign experts,
      have gone into the field several times to conduct
      research on medieval churches- before, and sadly
      sometimes after, they’ve been destroyed. In all
      cases, they have required NATO protection to
      ensure that they will not come under attack by
      local Albanians. Former UNMIK chief Michael
      Steiner’s golden rule for Kosovo – ‘standards
      before status’ – has been conveniently forgotten
      in the Great Powers’ rush to reach greater geopolitical solutions.

      Creating a Nation

      The international community, in other words, has
      tolerated and now seems to be rewarding the kind
      of deliberate cultural eradication from Kosovo’s
      Muslim Albanians as was previously practiced by
      Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime, when it blew
      up the Bamiyan Buddha, so as to remove any
      tangible traces of the country’s ancient Buddhist
      identity. In Kosovo as well, attests Menkovic,
      churches have not just been toppled: in some
      cases, they have been completely obliterated,
      with all traces of their existence thus
      vanishing. The purpose, she attests, is the
      denial of historical existence; this is
      politically useful too, as it expedites the
      denial of any Serbian right to the land. Once a
      church has been destroyed, she says, the
      Albanians “remove all the stones to use for their
      own building works, and either use the site to
      dump their garbage, or smooth over the land so
      that you would never know anything had been there.”

      The historian recounts one experience in which,
      upon entering one village in southern Kosovo, her
      team’s KFOR escort was told by the Albanian
      locals that there had never been a church in
      their village- despite the fact that they
      themselves had participated in its destruction.
      “But there was no trace left,’ she says, sadly
      recalling other instances of desecration, even of
      Serbian cemeteries. Indeed, “while everyone in
      Europe is preserving Christian medieval heritage,
      it is only in Kosovo, site of some of the most
      important Christian heritage in Europe, that they
      refuse to do so… The animosity between Serbs and
      Albanians has been going on for centuries, and
      cannot just be blamed on Milosevic. Still, I
      don’t know how we can explain the Albanians’
      irrational hatred, as seen in the destruction of churches and cemeteries.”

      The issue of collective denial has serious
      implications as a social and educative one for
      the future of Kosovo. The revisionist history of
      Kosovo already enforced by the Albanian civil
      administration, in which the abundant Serbian
      contributions to local history have been
      forgotten or at least strongly minimized, will
      become more complete as the nation-building
      project continues. Those Albanians who, in the
      above anecdote, denied the existence of any
      church in their village before the KFOR escort
      can be accused of lying; however, their
      grandchildren and then theirs will grow up
      honestly believing that no church had ever
      existed. Slowly, over time, the denial of any
      Christian heritage in Kosovo will become
      institutionalized to the point that one will be
      ridiculed and attacked for bringing it up. There
      are many scenarios by which a predominantly
      Muslim country becomes an exclusively Islamic
      one, and this is the most likely one for Kosovo.
      In Kosovo, it has begun with the deliberate lies
      of one generation, and will be ossified through
      the selective education, the mental cleansing, of subsequent ones.

      Indeed, whether or not the majority of Albanians
      are, or ever will be interested in Islamic
      fundamentalism, the wholesale destruction of
      Kosovo’s Christian identity perfectly serves the
      interests of Wahhabi and other Islamic extremists
      from abroad who would like to impose their own
      intolerant belief systems on Kosovo society and
      who have even destroyed Ottoman Muslim shrines
      and built up hundreds of alien, Saudi-style mosques across the province.

      International Recognition

      The plight of Kosovo’s Orthodox heritage,
      especially after March 2004, caused alarm among
      the international community of historians and
      archaeologists who specialize in the Byzantine
      and mediaeval Serbian periods in the region.
      Serbian professional institutions like Mnemosyne
      intensified cooperation with like-minded bodies
      in European nations such as France, Russia,
      Greece and Bulgaria. Acknowledgement of the
      severity of the issue, grudgingly at times, came
      from human rights watchdogs like the Council of Europe.

      However, Menkovic recalls a somewhat difficult
      relationship with the CoE in relation to working
      with the UN administration in Kosovo. From a
      number of colorful incidents, a similar theme
      emerges: that the two preferred symbolic gestures
      to actual results. “They were frequently annoyed
      with us,” she recalls, “because we were not the
      typical NGO that collects money and does nothing-
      we actually work, and work professionally.”

      Nevertheless, the activities of Mnemosyne have
      been noted and received international praise.
      Since 2002, the Pan-European Federation for
      Heritage (Europa Nostra) has given awards to
      those organizations which have made the greatest
      achievements to heritage protection in Europe. In
      March 2006, Kosovo came into the spotlight when
      Mnemosyne was among those awarded, for its
      documentation of the province’s churches.

      Institutional Flaws and Failures

      The UN Mission in Kosovo has been frequently
      found guilty by journalists, watchdog groups,
      human rights advocates and governmental reports
      of having failed right across the full spectrum
      of its supposed competencies. It’s therefore
      little surprise that its execution in terms of
      cultural heritage have been found wanting as well.

      The basic problem now, says Mirjana Menkovic, is
      that the UN’s mandated decentralization of power
      programme in Kosovo – supposedly, something that
      would empower endangered minorities such as the
      Serbs – has actually impeded efforts for cultural
      heritage preservation. “By decentralizing power
      in this regard, the UN in Pristina has made it
      impossible for us to gain access to vital sites,”
      she states. “The most critical sites are those
      located in majority or exclusively
      Albanian-populated municipalities- the places
      that are least likely to assist requests from the Serbian side.”

      A series of reports have confirmed the charges of
      flawed implementation made by Mirjana Menkovic
      and others. As far back as January 18, 2001, a
      Council of Europe report entitled Study on the
      state of the cultural heritage in Kosovo. Part I
      noted that, despite the leading role and mandate
      of the United Nations in the province, “there is
      no global vision at the political, strategic and
      methodological level for the management of the
      cultural heritage. The absence of integration of
      fields, the administrative compartmentalisation
      inhibit the consideration of proper and effective
      reform process to be carried out within a
      transitional phase and organised over a middle term period.”

      The report went on to note that “in the field of
      cultural heritage, the international community as
      a whole and each potential partner (NGOs or Gos)
      presently act outside any concerted or
      coordinated framework. Each stakeholder looks to
      immediate objectives defined in regards to
      specific interest, often far from the real needs
      on site.” Unfortunately, this tepid situation continues to exist today.

      A large part of the problem can be attributed,
      according to an explanatory document from
      Mnemosyne, to poor decision-making from the very
      beginning of the UN mission. “Despite the correct
      interpretation of the Convention for the
      Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of
      Armed Conflict (The Hague, 1954), in reality, it
      was against the background of UNESCO’s
      inefficiency during 1999 and 2000 that the
      precedent was set when an interim UN mission took
      the right to interpret an international
      convention in such a way as to (quoting the
      Council of Europe report) ‘ignore the
      interpretation endorsed by the responsible
      institution in a situation when its
      implementation offers lasting evidence of the
      destruction of one country’s cultural heritage.’”

      However, despite the widespread destruction and
      vandalism of the past eight years, it is still
      not too late to save Kosovo’s cultural heritage.
      According to detailed lists compiled by
      Mnemosyne, there are still over 120 cultural
      monuments, including churches, castles,
      cemeteries and traditional houses that have not
      yet been destroyed. With sounder policy and wiser
      implementation, such structures may yet live on
      to the benefit of future researchers, tourists
      and other visitors. Indeed, it has long been
      pointed out that when Serbian medieval monuments
      are destroyed, those who lose out the most will
      be local Albanians, who thus rob themselves of
      significant potential tourist attractions- not
      particularly wise in a country with an unemployment rate of around 60 percent.

      In the end, the key question becomes whether the
      foreign media, governments and publics will see
      more than rhetoric and nostalgia in the Serbian
      position. Among those trying to highlight this
      necessity is Mnemosyne, which avows that the
      spiritual significance of Kosovo and its holy
      places for the Serbs “must not be understood as
      an anachronism or a non-European obsession with
      the past – it must be respected as a right of
      each people to maintain its traditions
      contributing to the preservation of cultural
      diversity and intangible heritage.” The future
      will show whether Europe’s emerging Muslim state,
      and the Western powers backing it, subscribe to these universal values.
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