Return Migration of Serbs to Kosovo

Serb Returnees and Population Distribution (Joireman 2017)

There are a few things we know about return migration after violent conflict, and quite a bit we have yet to learn.  Many people who are forcibly displaced by violence have no desire to go back home, particularly if they were part of a minority group.  Indeed, Adelman and Barkman (2011) have noted that while minority return is an expectation it is rarely a reality.  Instead when we see large populations returns after violent conflict it is usually the majority population returning or in those very few circumstances where both the government and returnees are happy with the outcome of the conflict.  Even then, they do not necessarily return to their communities of origin, but often to urban areas.

Hundreds of thousands of Serbs were forcibly displaced by the Kosovo War in 1998-1999.  Efforts to promote their return to Kosovo have not met with much success.  My recent article in International Migration investigates minority Serb returns to Kosovo, examining the question of where they return.  The analysis identifies a pattern of preference for return to traditionally Serb rural areas in Kosovo.  This is somewhat unusual.  Based on what has happened in other countries, we would expect returnees to come back to cities, particularly since large numbers of Serbs were displaced from urban areas.  But this is not what is happening.

Serb Returns

When we exclude the four northern Serb municipalities which do not function as part of the state of Kosovo, the municipalities with the highest numbers of Serb returnees are rural.  Surprisingly, of the three municipalities with the highest number of returnees (Klinë/Klina, Novobërdë/Novo Brde, and Istog/Istok) only Novobërdë/Novo Brde is a Serb-majority municipality created under the Ahtisaari Plan.  This is a little puzzling.  One might expect that Serbs would return to areas where they had political control and protection.  Also strange is the fact that people are returning to areas with some of the highest rates of retaliatory violence during the war.  So what could be happening, why might people be returning to these rural municipalities?

Some of the recent work on civil wars suggests that the violence is often localized, enacted within a larger narrative of conflict, but often with personal and local motivations.  Return migration might have somewhat similar characteristics in which the local community is more important than the wider political environment.  In rural ethnic enclaves Serbs can enjoy the society of their co-ethnics in relative security and isolated from the national political context.   In some of the interviews I conducted for this project people talked about the importance of Serbian schools, churches, and ‘girls for the boys to marry’.

While this may not seem desirable in terms of longer term reconciliation between ethnic groups, in the short term it enables people to feel secure in their daily environment.  Like in Bosnia, ethnic enclaves in Kosovo isolate people from the ethnic other, providing a safe option for return after ethnic conflict.  The decision to return to an enclave community meets the public policy goal of return, but is far from a restoration of communities to what they were before the conflict.

Religious Symbols, War, and Peace-building

This is Christ the Savior Cathedral, which stands on the campus of the University of Pristina in Kosovo. It is odd for a church to be on this campus – the university is secular and 95% of the people of Kosovo are Muslim.

How it Came to be There

Kosovo fought a war with Serbia in 1998-1999 later declaring independence in 2008. Tensions were high during the decade before the war, Kosovans wanted greater autonomy and the Serbian controlled government resisted their demands.  In the midst of that turbulent era, the Serbian Orthodox Church started construction on a new cathedral, Christ the Savior, in the middle of the campus of the University of Pristina.  Construction began in 1995 and was never completed because of the war.  Building the church there was an affront to the Muslim, Albanian population.  Yet, it was legal.  The title to the land belongs to the Orthodox Church (indeed, they controversially own most of the land on which the University of Pristina sits).

The timing and location of this particular religious building make it presence less than irenic. Serbs, and everyone else in Kosovo, should have the right to freely express their faith and meet together for worship. Yet, as is clear from other countries, the peaceful practice of multiple religions demands sensitivity to image and intent.

And now….

The church has remained unfinished, deserted, and boarded up – an icon of the conflict and ongoing religious cleavages in Kosovo. Then this month, some Orthodox Serbs started to clean the church. Students reacted immediately, staging sit-ins and protesting the presence of the church on campus.

Religion and Reconciliation

One of the characteristics of the Serbian Orthodox faith is the way in which church spaces – interiors and architecture – educate those present about the relationship between God and human beings. The mosaics and paintings recount biblical stories and historic events; the temporal links to the spiritual through the aesthetics of space and beauty.  Worshippers have a full sensory experience in services through the paintings and icons, music and incense.  For a tradition that places such value on place in its worship, it is a pity that this space of worship has become so politicized.

As others have noted before me, there is an ambivalence to religion’s role in conflict. Religion can resolve and ameliorate conflicts or make them worse. In this case, the latter is the accurate description. The church reminds people of the dominance of Serbia over Kosovo and the dark days leading up to the war. There are few Serbs left in the city after the war who could use the cathedral as a place of worship even if it were to be completed.

Orthodox religious leaders could model the reconciling nature of Christ should they use the occasion of the recent demonstrations to build peace, rather than reinforce the existing divisions. It would be healing if Orthodox Church leaders would initiate an open and public discussion about what should be done with the unfinished cathedral, acknowledging the manner and context in which the church was built and considering alternative purposes for the building, such as museum, lecture hall, or campus gathering space.

Serbian Orthodox churches are designed to connect the temporal and spiritual. This cathedral could serve as a symbol of healing and reconciliation in a divided and politicized society, rather than a symbol of the conflict.

Flags, Anthems and the Rio Olympics

As Kosovo competes in its first Olympics at Rio its athletes marched in under a flag no one uses and its medal winners will listen to an anthem with no words.  The flag and anthem arouse little emotion from the 92% of the population of Kosovo who are ethnic Albanians.  Far more evocative is the banner with the Albanian, black, double-headed eagle on a red background and the battle anthem of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA or in Albanian, UCK) which led the fight for independence in the 1999 war.  But neither the most popular flag nor the most resonant song represent this small state.  Why not?  Because the Albanian population shares the tiny state of Kosovo with other ethnic groups, most notably Serbs, but also Roma, Gorani, Ashkali, Egyptian and Bosniaks.

The Triumph of Civic over Ethnic Nationalism?

The ethnic nationalism which led to the fight for the independence of Kosovo in 1998-1999 and the solidarity of the Albanian people of Kosovo during a long and pacifist protest through the early 1990s took a more sinister turn after victory.  When the Serbian armed forces withdrew from Kosovo in 1999 after the NATO bombing, they left a vulnerable Serb population in Kosovo and an armed KLA.  Serb civilians were targets of retaliatory violence in 1999 and then again in 2004 during a period of ethnic riots.  As a result 220,000 Serbs left Kosovo and the United Nations Mission in Kosovo did all it could to turn the state to a more positive, encompassing, civic nationalism.  Civic nationalism is the attachment to the state, as opposed to ethnic nationalism which is the attachment to the ethnic group.  The Assembly of Kosovo, to demonstrate its inclusivity when it declared independence in 2008, adopted a flag with the image of the in yellow on a blue background (with the colors similar to the EU flag) and oversaw the choice of a national anthem entitled ‘Europa’ for which there are no words, chosen by the Assembly because it did not reference any ethnic group.

Ensuring that the symbols of the state are not considered the property of a single ethnic group is important everywhere.  But it does not lead to an embrace of multiethnic, or even civic, values.  While I was teaching in Kosovo in 2013, my students expressed the wish that the symbols of the state had a more distinctly Albanian character.  Yet, Kosovo struggles with ongoing low-level violence and harassment against its minority populations and the economy is characterized by what political scientist Edward Banfield referred to as ‘amoral familialism’ in which the material advantage of the family is privileged over the well-being of the community.  This, in a country which already has significant barriers to economic growth and opportunity.

Nothing makes people feel nationalism like the Olympics.  It is a chance to cheer on the best young athletes in our country and watch them challenge, hopefully triumph, over the greatest athletes in the world.  If Kosovo’s Majlinda Kelmendi wins an anticipated medal in judo, expect to see red and black Albanian flags waving in the stands.