Capital Prishtina
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 377 (Monaco); 381 (Serbia)
Mobile Codes 44
Currency Euro
Land Area 10,908 sq km
Population 1.8 million
Language Albanian, Serbian, Turkish
Major Religions Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism

In Kosovo, the Issue of Refugee Returns still a Victim of Politicization

By Anita McKinna

The recent protests by local residents against the return of displaced persons from other ethnic communities in Ferizaj and Mitrovica highlights a problem that has plagued post-war Kosovo: the politicization of returns.

On 8 November 2011, it was reported that the planned visit by 12 Serb heads of families to their former village of Nerodime, Ferizaj, with a view to returning permanently, was met with protests from Albanian residents. The predominant reason given by the protestors for the disruption was that the Serbs had committed crimes in the village during the war.

The head of the village council, Hyzri Lekaj, was quoted in Koha Ditore as asserting that ‘those Serbs who have expressed the willingness to return here committed massacres, terror, maltreatment, burnt houses, against the unprotected Albanian population.’

Lekaj explained that ‘we will not allow Serbs to pass through, we are not against the return, but we are against their behaviour.’

While the issue of inadequate transitional justice is a legitimate concern in Kosovo, the residents politicized the issue by demanding not only that those who committed crimes in the village be punished accordingly, but also that Serb blockades in the north of Kosovo be removed.

Another recent example of the politicization of returns has been the reconstruction of Albanian-owned houses in Kroi i Vitakut, in North Mitrovica. These particular houses have been the subject of Serb protests for more than two years, due to their location in the Serb-dominated north of Kosovo, with some crossing the “yellow line” (a negotiated boundary line drawn west of North Mitrovica stemming from a 2002 agreement between KFOR and UNMIK that informally divides returning displaced persons into ethnic communities) from the Albanian-inhabited western side to the Serb-inhabited east.

Serbs protested in October after the Kosovo government announced that it would allocate €900,000 for the reconstruction of the houses. Given the tense situation in the north of Kosovo since the events of July this year, and the on-going negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade, sceptics may argue that the decision to invest so heavily in this particular returns project (Kosovo’s total 2011 budget for returns is €6,000,000) was designed either to promote an increased Albanian presence in northern Kosovo, or to provoke Serb retaliations in order to sway international opinion away from Serbia’s partition ambitions, or both.

Similarly, given the staunch opposition to Kosovo’s independence north of the Ibar River, it could be argued that the political motives for Serb protests against these returns outweigh concerns over safety.

It is not only Serbs who have drawn attention to political interest in this particular returns project. In December 2009, Balkan Insight reported that residents who had returned to this part of North Mitrovica with the help of government funding felt as though they were being manipulated for political gain, as they were only given enough money to reconstruct part of their homes to ensure their return, and were expected to fund the rest personally, thus leaving them with substantial financial problems.

The tensions surrounding this issue have escalated in recent weeks, with a violent incident unfolding the day after the Nerodime protest. It was reported by Telegraf  that late on 9 November three Serbs were shot after apparently attempting to steal doors and windows from one of the Albanian houses that was being reconstructed. One of those injured later died. After this incident, Kosova Press reported that the reconstruction process stalled for two weeks but then resumed, prompting new protests from local Serbs.

The politicization of the issue of returns has been a problem throughout the post-war period, and has contributed to the failure of the international administration, and Kosovo’s institutions, to realize significant numbers of permanent returnees to Kosovo.

This is the situation despite the issue of returns being an emphasized priority of the international administration of Kosovo throughout the post-war period. It was the fourth of eight standards set out in the 2003 Standards for Kosovo document, which aimed at bringing Kosovo in line with accepted European standards regarding democracy and multi-ethnicity.

The right of all refugees to return to Kosovo was also reaffirmed in Ahtisaari’s Comprehensive Proposal for Kosovo’s status settlement. Yet despite the issue gaining such attention, according to a report published by the OSCE late in 2010, only a small proportion of people displaced by the Kosovo war (mostly, from minority communities) have returned to their homes.

Given that it has been more than a decade since the end of the war, many of these people by now have made new lives for themselves outside Kosovo and are therefore unlikely to return. But those who still wish to return face serious obstacles, including a lack of employment prospects, concerns about the conditions in which some minority community members live (highlighted in a recent OSCE report on Croats living in Viti), and the fear of violence against minority communities (fuelled by incidents such as the murder in October of a Serb in Hoqa e Madhe, Rahovec, which was condemned by the Youth Initiative for Human Rights).

While obstacles to successful and sustainable returns are immense, the continued politicization of this issue by both Serb and Albanian communities, illuminated by these recent protests, only exacerbates these obstacles and damages Kosovo’s European and international reputation.

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