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.

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.

Kosovo and Border Demarcation

In March an international commission released its report on the border demarcation between Kosovo and Montenegro and declared it to be accurate and consistent with the findings of the Kosovo Cadastral Agency. Kosovo opposition parties Vetëvendosje and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo objected to the findings, decrying the documentation flawed and process rigged.  They believe that the border lies elsewhere.  This would all just be entertaining political theater if the stakes were not so high.

The border demarcation issue has been one of the justifications for the violent anti-government demonstrations that have plagued Kosovo in the first part of 2016 and the nearly 6 month interruption in the functioning of the government.  In other countries, this sort of post-succession border demarcation conflict has erupted into war.  In 1998 Ethiopia and Eritrea began a two-year border war resulting in tens of thousands of deaths over a tiny triangle of land with a single small town.

At issue in Kosovo is whether the boundary with Montenegro is nearer the foot of the mountains dividing the two countries, or higher up along the ridgeline.  Multiple experts have been tasked with the verification of the border, and they agree that the border between Montenegro and Kosovo appropriately follows the municipal boundaries set by the 1974 Yugoslav Constitution.  With Kosovo’s independence in 2008, these municipal boundaries have now become a national border and need to be recognized as such.

The outcome of this conflict is more significant than the value of the land.  Border demarcation is a condition for a visa liberalization agreement with the EU; an agreement that would allow Kosovo’s citizens to travel more freely outside the country for medical care, education and business.

Kosovo’s citizens deserve both visa liberalization and a functioning government.  While the opposition has been busy organizing demonstrations and setting off tear gas in the assembly to prevent votes, the economy of the country stagnates and 40,000 young people each year finish their studies with little chance of finding meaningful work.  Not surprisingly, illegal migration from Kosovo to other parts of Europe has been a problem as young people look for work they cannot find at home.  Visa liberalization and the opportunity to join the EU at some point in the future are beacons of hope for this country challenged by a post-war economy and the transition from a socialist Yugoslav regime.

Nationalist sentiment propelled Kosovo’s ten-year pacifist struggle for autonomy and its short war for independence.  The idea of territorial loss, when the land itself has been hard fought for, is a difficult idea for a new state to stomach.  This is part of the reason why Ethiopia and Eritrea were willing to spend millions of dollars and the lives of their countrymen on an insignificant piece of scrubland.  The border demarcation issue in Kosovo has become so volatile because independence came at a high price.

As the opposition parties return to the assembly, they would do well to remember that a country is made up of people as well as territory.