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Controversy Rages Over Kosovo's UNESCO Membership

  • RFE/RL's Balkan Service

Students protest against Kosovo's membership in UNESCO in the Kosovo Serb enclave of North Mitrovica on October 21.

Students protest against Kosovo's membership in UNESCO in the Kosovo Serb enclave of North Mitrovica on October 21.

A diplomatic battle between Belgrade and Pristina continues unabated as Kosovo moves closer to membership in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

A majority of UNESCO's 58-member executive board voted behind closed doors in Paris on October 21 to recommend Kosovo as a full member state, despite fierce opposition from Serbia and its allies.

The membership bid is to be put to a final vote at UNESCO's general conference next month, when Kosovo will need two-thirds of the UN agency's 195 members' votes in order to join the organization. No member has veto power.

That would constitute a diplomatic victory for Kosovo, where the ethnic Albanian majority declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

Kosovo's foreign minister, Hashim Thaci, said on Twitter that 27 countries voted in favor of the UNESCO recommendation, 14 were opposed, and 14 abstained.

Earlier in the day, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said the executive board's decision would "certainly not be good for Serbia," and that Serbia wanted the issue to be tabled until 2017 and discussed as part of EU-brokered negotiations to improve ties between Belgrade and Pristina.

Whatever UNESCO's executive board decides, "Serbia will continue the fight for the recommendation to be rejected," Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said.

Kosovo's sovereignty has been recognized by more than 110 countries, including the United States and a majority of EU member states.

Belgrade, however, continues to oppose Kosovo's independence, as well as any kind of international recognition of its former province.

Serbia enjoys backing from numerous countries, including its close ally, Russia, which has blocked Kosovo from becoming a UN member state.

Serbian Cultural Heritage

Belgrade has launched an active campaign to undermine Pristina's membership bid in UNESCO, which, like other UN agencies, is a part of the world body but has separate membership procedures and can make its own decisions about which countries to admit.

Serbia says Kosovo does not qualify for UNESCO membership because it is a UN-administered territory that cannot be considered a state under international law.

It also argues that Pristina has failed to protect Serbian cultural and religious heritage since the 1998-99 war in Kosovo, in which NATO bombed Serbia to force it to leave the province and halt a crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

Kosovo, which Serbs consider the cradle of their statehood, is home to many of the most significant Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries.

These include all of the four medieval sites in Kosovo that are listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List -- the Gracanica and Decani monasteries, the patriarchal complex in Pec/Peje, and the Church of the Virgin of Ljevisa.

The four edifices, mainly dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, were also placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger "due to difficulties and conservation stemming from the region's political instability."

Nikolic accused the Pristina authorities on October 16 of allowing attacks on Serbian cultural monuments and intentionally neglecting their upkeep.

"The aim is to falsify history and to create a new state, a national and cultural identity which implies the total extinction of everything that testifies about the Serb presence [in Kosovo]," Nikolic told foreign ambassadors in Belgrade.

He said more than 200 Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries have been attacked since 1999, while around 10,000 icons and other pieces of church property have been stolen.

At a press conference earlier this month, Dacic said Kosovo's bid to join the UN's cultural agency is as absurd as if the Islamic State extremist group, which has destroyed a number of historical sites in Iraq and Syria, were to seek membership.

The Serbian Orthodox Church has backed Belgrade's campaign. On October 16, it posted a video on its website titled Why Kosovo Cannot Join UNESCO.

The video purports to show images of ethnically motivated unrest that occurred across Kosovo in March 2004, during which it said that 35 Orthodox churches and monasteries were destroyed or damaged, along with hundreds of Serbian houses and public buildings.

By 2010, Pristina said it had spent about 10 million euros ($11.3 million) to repair 30 religious buildings affected by the unrest, pledging to reconstruct the remaining damaged sites.

‘Safer Than In The Last 1,000 Years'

There have been no reports of destruction of Christian religious buildings since the 2004 violence, during which none of the four sites included on the UNESCO World Heritage List were damaged.

Pristina has defended its bid to join UNESCO, saying it is eligible to become a member before it becomes a UN member state -- if the organization's executive board recommends it and two-thirds of its members approve.

It also has responded to Serbian accusations, with Thaci, Kosovo's foreign minister, saying UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kosovo were "safe, or safer, than they have been in the last 1,000 years."

"Our police force protects 95 percent of the sites of the Serbian Orthodox Church," he told the UN Security Council on August 21.

"Kosovo's membership in UNESCO will only improve the position of the Serb heritage in Kosovo," Kosovo's deputy foreign minister, Petrit Selimi, told RFE/RL. "This will be the bridge between Serbia and Kosovo, not the dividing line."

"However, I hope that Serbia will stop this policy of blockade and isolation," Selimi added.

Kosovo is a member of several other international organizations, including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.