The flight of Kosovo's minorities

The EU insists that Kosovo is a tolerant and multi-ethnic society. So why are its minorities leaving?

By Ian Bancroft

A highly critical report by Minority Rights Group International (MRG) maintains that members of minority communities are beginning to leave Kosovo over a year after its unilateral declaration of independence, due to persistent exclusion and discrimination. In contradicting the conclusions of the EU’s general affairs and external relations council, the report once again demonstrates the emptiness and evasiveness of statements by members of the international community asserting Kosovo’s supposedly multi-ethnic character. Without urgent measures to improve the position of minorities in Kosovo, such a discourse will increasingly serve only to parody, not portray, the reality on the ground.

The report, Filling the Vacuum: Ensuring Protection and Legal Remedies for Minorities in Kosovo, concludes that Kosovo “lacks effective international protection for minorities, which is worsening the situation for smaller minorities and forcing some to leave the country for good”. These minorities include not only Kosovo’s Serbs, but also Ashkali, Bosniaks, Croats, Egyptians, Gorani, Roma and Turks, who together make up around 5% of the population of Kosovo according to local estimates.

MRG’s conclusions clearly contradict those of the recent meeting of the EU’s general affairs and external relations council, which “noted with satisfaction the initial results achieved by EULEX in assisting the Kosovo authorities in consolidating the rule of law and in contributing to a safe and secure environment for all inhabitants, regardless of their ethnic origins”. The divergence between such statements and the reports of human rights organisations such as MRG has become a distinctive feature of the international community’s efforts to provide positive assessments of Kosovo’s institutions. The result is policies that are insufficient to contend with the substantive problems faced by local communities.

Though the government of Kosovo have often been commended for its stated commitment to upholding minority rights, MRG’s report goes on to describe how “a lack of political will among majority Albanians and poor investment in protection mechanisms have resulted in minority rights being eroded or compromised in the post-independence period”. According to MRG, Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence has left “a vacuum in effective international protection for minorities”; a vacuum that the Kosovo government seems both unwilling and unable to fill. Without tackling deficiencies in the area of the rule of law – reconfirmed by a newly released report by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), which describes Kosovo’s courts as being “inefficient, opaque, and hampered by persistent institutional obstacles” – the plight of minorities will continue to be of secondary importance to the apparent need to proclaim Kosovo an example of a tolerant and multi-ethnic society.

Indeed, Mark Lattimer, the executive director of MRG, also emphasised how “restrictions of movement and political, social and economic exclusion are particularly experienced by smaller minorities”. Such conditions are only likely to be further aggravated by the worsening economic situation in Kosovo, especially for the Ashkali, Egyptian and Roma communities that suffer from deeply ingrained poverty and marginalisation.

MRG has long drawn attention to the many failures to uphold the rights of minority communities in Kosovo, with a 2006 report, Minority Rights in Kosovo under International Rule, describing the situation of minorities as the worst in Europe and “little short of disastrous”; the international community having allowed “a segregated society to develop and become entrenched”. Despite these and other warnings from human rights organisations, the international community has continued to not only ignore the difficulties faced by minority communities in Kosovo, but to regularly proclaim success with respect to minority rights protection.

While both the international community and the Kosovo government insist that minority rights are guaranteed and conform to the highest international standards, MRG’s report instead highlights how the segregation of Kosovo continues unabated. Indeed, it is increasingly clear that the litany of failures with respect to minority rights has been further exacerbated and entrenched by Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence. In sidelining the imperatives of re-integration, the international community’s approach towards Kosovo is likely to have ramifications elsewhere in the Western Balkans. Without immediate and substantial steps to tackle minority rights issues, especially the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, Kosovo will remain the most segregated territory in Europe and a constant source of tension and instability for the entire region.

This article first appeared on The Guardian’s Comment is Free (CiF) section on Wednesday 3 June.

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