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21 Dec 17

Serbia Must Return Kosovo’s Cultural Treasures

Nora Weller

Kosovo needs to step up its campaign to ensure the return of important cultural artefacts that were removed before, during and after the war, and are now being kept by Serbia.

Some of the most valuable artefacts from National Museum of Kosovo today are kept in Belgrade. Photo: Aljabakphoto/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 4.0

The forced removal or displacement of national cultural heritage cuts to the bone of a nation’s identity and its soul.

This is all the more true where the people concerned were deprived of the opportunity to express their national cultural identity.

However, those who have acquired priceless artefacts that define the national identity of others are also faced with problems, be they political, legal or ethical. 

The reasons why objects of cultural heritage are hauled away and displaced from their places of origin can be numerous, but unfortunately many different examples point toward intentions that are not benevolent.

Previous historical examples show that cultural heritage is often removed in order to oppress a certain group of people. This is what happened during Serbia’s rule over Kosovo.

The very act of moving the cultural heritage away was meant to deprive Kosovo of its sense of national identity. Moreover, Serbia intended to glorify its own culture, which was dominant during the time of the Kosovo conflict.

Of course, many countries in the world have lost their cultural heritage during and after conflicts, but Kosovo’s case remains unique. As pressure on the ethnic Albanians increased sharply during the reign of Slobodan Milosevic, cultural symbols simultaneously became targets of repression.

During the armed confrontation that ensued, Serb armed forces and militias targeted Albanian historic sites systematically, including kullas (fortress houses), historic knocks and bazaars (such as the ones in Gjakova, Peja and Vushtrri), Islamic and monuments from the Ottoman era, including mosques, teque, tyrbe and medrese, and other objects that had dominated the landscape in certain areas for centuries.

This policy appeared to further a strategy of eradication of markers of ethnic Albanian identity affixed to territory claimed by Serbia as its own historic patrimony.

Some of the most prized archaeological and ethnological treasures - parts of a mobile cultural heritage, which, moreover, carries irreplaceable value for Kosovo’s national identity - are for the moment kept in Belgrade.

This collection consists of two parts. The first contains around 677 archeological artefacts, which, according to Serbia, have been “borrowed” by the Gallery of the Academy of Arts and Sciences of Serbia in 1999 for the ‘Archeological Treasures from Kosovo’ exhibition.

The second part of the collection contains ethnological treasures, around 571 artefacts that were ‘borrowed’ for the ‘Decorations and Gilding of Gold Works in Kosovo’ exhibition which in 1998 travelled to the museums of Novi Sad, Belgrade and Subotica.

Of course, at the time, Kosovo’s autonomy had been destroyed and the supposed ‘loan’ agreements for these exhibitions were not freely entered into by Kosovo.

In any event, it is decades since the objects were taken, and no effort has been made to return them.

In addition, a great number of artefacts have reportedly been taken from the museums of Prizren and Mitrovica.

It is presumed that many of these was taken by force from Kosovo’s museums and were sent to Belgrade during and after the Kosovo war, in June 1999. They were taken as booty of war, as it were.

Until now, these artefacts representing Kosovo’s identity and values, remained pretty much unclaimed. The issue has not been raised seriously, neither in the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, nor in the many meetings with the international community in Kosovo.

I learned of this during a several-months-long study of the legislation for the protection of cultural heritage in Kosovo.

These treasures are currently in Serbia, and if Kosovo does not ask for them, I do not believe they will be returned in the immediate future.

So how should Kosovo ask for the return of these artefacts?

Addendum V within the Ahtisaari Plan for the future status of Kosovo, published by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari in 2007, addresses in great detail the privileges of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo.

However, these privileges are balanced out by Article 1.1 which demands that each of the Church’s rights, privileges and immunities of the Church be subject to the obligations and responsibilities of Kosovo’s laws, and should not infringe upon the rights of others.

This is a very important provision which should not be overlooked, as critics of Addendum V of the Ahtisaari Plan often do.

The Ahtisaari Plan was a manifestation of the international demand that Kosovo behave like a democratic country that would advance towards building a functioning multi-ethnic society, and would recognise the Serbian Orthodox Church, including its name, the church’s internal organisation, hierarchy and activities.

Kosovo did this and - thanks to pressure from the international community - rarely opposed the interests of the Serbian Orthodox Church. In fact, Kosovo granted it its coveted special status.

Within the Ahtisaari Plan, when it comes to cultural heritage, Kosovo made one single demand of Serbia.Article 6.1 required that Serbia return Kosovo’s displaced cultural heritage, the return of archaeological and ethnological artefacts which were removed during the time of active conflict in Kosovo in 1998-99.

According to the Ahtisaari Plan, the return of artefacts should have happened within 120 days from the time the agreement took effect.

This provision represented a balancing act vis-a-vis provisions involving the Serbian Orthodox Church throughout the entire agreement.

Of course, Serbia did not sign up to the Ahtisaari document. Still, Kosovo was required to comply with it in all its aspects, which are reflected in Kosovo legislation.

Belgrade did not sign up to the Ahtisaari Plan, however the Serbian Orthodox Church relies greatly on the Addendum V of the Ahtisaari Plan, when it comes to the core protection of its property in Kosovo.

It is now time that Serbia makes a dignified step and follows its moral obligation, which also transcends the Ahtisaari document, and returns the artefacts to where they belong, in Kosovo.

The return of displaced cultural heritage is a norm within the international law. Therefore, the international community - which constantly pressures Kosovo one way or another in regards to Serbia - should have also pressured Serbia to return the artefacts.

However, this expected pressure from the international community has been minimal or non-existent since Michael Steiner, the UN Secretary-General’s former special representative, in 2002 managed to secure the return of a figurine called the ‘Goddess on a Throne’ from Belgrade.

The act of returning this symbol of Kosovo’s antiquity shows that Serbia is holding those artefacts hostage and is doing so while fully aware of its actions; only the right kind of pressure from a high-ranking international official at the time got Serbia to return the 6,000 year-old figurine, the symbol of Kosovo’s entire cultural treasure which is also featured in the emblem of Kosovo’s capital, Pristina.

Kosovo should be more active in this regard. This is now a diplomatic matter, since the return of this cultural heritage should be sought in an official and public way. The issue has to be raised time and time again, in all available international forums.

Take the case of Greece. The Pantheon marbles, also known as the ‘Elgin Marbles’, include a collection of classical Greek sculptures from 480 BC to 430 BC by Pheidias, a sculptor, artist, and architect in ancient Greece.

Pheidias’s statue of Zeus in Olympus is considered as one of the ‘seven wonders of the world’ and the importance of ‘Elgin Marbles’ is undeniable for Greece.

The ‘Elgin Marbles’ were removed from the Pantheon and taken by Lord Elgin with a special permission from the Ottoman administration of the time, and eventually sold to the British Museum in 1816.

While legal circles still debate whether the displacement of the marbles was in complete accordance with the agreement (or the permit taken by the Ottoman occupiers at the time), the document of the agreement in question is lost.

After much legal analysis and debate, Greece abandoned its legal disputes and publicly declared that it will attempt to get the collection back through diplomacy.

It is clear that these sculptures were taken in an unethical way, and the criticism of Lord Elgin’s role has been immortalised in Lord Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’.

Accordingly, Greece lobbied non-stop, officially and unofficially. The issue was initially presented at the World Conference for Policy and Culture in Mexico in 1982; it was raised again in 1997, and was made part of the campaign during the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

The last attempt was made in 2015 by raising the issue with the well-known attorney Amal Clooney of London’s Doughty Street Chambers.

Having just married George Clooney, the famous Hollywood actor, her every step in the affair was followed by the international media, and so the issue of Pantheon’s marbles got the attention anticipated by Greece.

Examples from different countries attest that a great number of the forcefully displaced artefacts and cultural heritage were not taken in good faith, for instance to preserve them or make then publicly available.

In the case of Kosovo it is clear that Serbia did not seek a temporary loan, but rather took the artefacts in order to strip the people of Kosovo of their culture with the intent of depriving them of it and damaging their national identity further.

Kosovo has legal and moral obligations to demand the return of its cultural heritage displaced in Serbia.

The demand for their return is not only based on the morality of the way in which Serbia took them. It is about the ethics of such an action.

The relationship that these artefacts have with the people remains broken as long as they remain outside of Kosovo.

It is exactly this dispossession that creates the urgent need to finally act and bring these artefacts back to their national home.

Nora Weller is the Founding Director of the Cambridge Academy of Global Affairs, and a legal expert in cultural heritage protection.

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