Kosovo 1999-2008 Milestones, Transfer of Power, and Parallel Education System
By Josephine Mintel – Nov. 30, 2020
Author’s note: At a meeting of the UN Security Council held October 15, 2021, The United States continued its call for an end to the mandate of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis said that UNMIK has fulfilled its purpose and the mission should close so that its resources could be redirected where they are most needed; at the same time, he endorsed the continued role of the NATO security Force in Kosovo (KFOR) saying their peacekeeping mission was still necessary. The U.S.’s preferred multilateral presence is the European Union’s Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX). Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani agreed with the position taken by the United States, saying that UNMIK has overstayed its mandate and was no longer needed. Support for UNMIK’s continued operation comes from Russia, China, and India. These recent events make the following case study relevant to current policymakers at the United Nations. Date: November 8. 2021
The United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) has ultimately failed to achieve its stated mandate of “ensuring conditions for a peaceful and normal life for all inhabitants of Kosovo and advance regional stability in the Western Balkans” (About UNMIK, 2016). Despite being one of the most intensive international interventions to date in terms of funding and staffing per capita, the mission in Kosovo has not created conditions for sustainable peace. After the 78-day North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombing campaign in 1999 that stopped the violence between the Yugoslavian Army (which was primarily Serbian) and the rebel group called the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the United Nations (U.N.) passed Resolution 1244 to create UNMIK and establish its mission. The mission was threefold: 1) to create an interim administration in Kosovo, 2) to transfer powers from the interim administration to an autonomous local government, and 3) to facilitate the process to determine Kosovo’s international status (Resolution 1244, 1999). Crucially, Russia, a historical ally to Serbia and carrying veto power on the U.N. National Security Council, insisted that the resolution remain neutral to Kosovo’s status, i.e., its potential independence as a sovereign nation (Antonenko, 2007). Thus, UNMIK’s mandate included the inherently incongruous and irreconcilable task of state-building where there may or may not be a state. The elusive status of independence for Kosovo Albanians on the one hand, and the fear of Albanian tyranny for Kosovo Serbs on the other, made UNMIK’s job even more difficult.
This case study includes an examination of the international intervention in Kosovo, focusing first on UNMIK and the NATO security force (KFOR) between the passage of U.N. Resolution 1244 in 1999 and Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008. While what follows is a critique of UNMIK and KFOR, it does not mean that international staff was ill-intentioned. On the contrary, as Iain King and Whit Mason, former UNMIK employees, write: “the failure of international efforts to transform Kosovo is tragic precisely because it occurred despite massive investment and serious efforts by thousands of imperfect, but well-meaning, committed, and generally competent people” (2006, 22). However, the stark contrast between UNMIK’s unelected and non-democratic authority over Kosovo and its simultaneous mission of creating a democracy proved to be untenable.
At the outset of their mission, UNMIK’s international staff suffered from what Nicolas Lemay-Hebert describes as an “empty shell” mindset towards Kosovo: “the common view at the time was that the challenge of these missions could be described as taking these territories from virtually nothing to practically everything in the next few years, given that these territories have to be invented from scratch” (2011, p. 195). It was precisely this fundamental misunderstanding of the situation on the ground that led to the bulk of UNMIK’s failures. Far from an empty shell, Kosovo’s historical landscape included almost 200 years of oscillating Albanian or Serb ethnocentric dominance in the region. Just before the war, Kosovo’s population had an Albanian majority (around 80%) and a Serb minority (around 10%) (Brunborg, 2002). This distribution of population did not reflect the fact that the 1998-99 conflict was “the latest stage in an old competition for territory between Serbs and Albanians, nor did it reflect the belief of both the Serbs living in Kosovo and those living in Serbia that Kosovo was rightly Serbian” (King and Mason, 2006, p. 261). Despite their minority status within Kosovo’s bounds, Serbs comprised a large proportion of the former Yugoslavia as a whole. They felt that their status in Kosovo should reflect this.
Also often misunderstood by the international community were the deep ideological divides among Albanians themselves. Instead, internationals thought they were rescuing a “population of victims — who by definition, it was thought, must be either politically inert or benign” (King and Mason, 2006, p. 261). This could not have been farther from Kosovo’s political reality.
The first section in this case study focuses on the significant milestones and actors in the international intervention between 1999 and 2008. The second section discusses “local ownership” or the transfer of power from international actors to local authorities. The third section contains an in-depth discussion of education policy.
UNMIK stumbled out of the blocks in the summer of 1999. As Yugoslav forces retreated from the NATO bombing campaign, thousands of Albanians began returning to their homes from refugee camps in Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro. An U.N. Secretary-General report stated, “Kosovo Albanian paramilitaries have taken advantage of the lull in the fighting to reestablish their control over many villages in Kosovo as well as over some areas near urban centers and highways” (Independent International Commission on Kosovo, 2000). The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the guerilla group that had engaged in war against the Serbs moved swiftly to establish provisional governance in 27 of the then 29 municipalities in Kosovo, creating obstacles for UNMIK’s interim administration. A report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) said: “a painless takeover, which might have been possible in mid-June without opposition, is no longer possible now that the UCK structures [KLA-run provisional government] have gained strength and confidence” (ICG Waiting for UNMIK, 1999). According to King and Mason, the delay that allowed KLA to gain local control over the summer of 1999 was caused by the fact that many UNMIK staff were “distracted by the numerous high-profile and VIP visitors, media relations, and other roles essential to maintaining political and institutional support, but irrelevant to conditions on the ground” (56). Few were interacting with local people, and many municipalities were understaffed or ignored. One UNMIK staff member said: “We were very, very busy all the time, but it was mostly doing things with other internationals” (King and Mason, 2006, p. 56).
During this same summer of 1999, retaliatory attacks against Kosovo Serbs and other minorities were widespread, and UNMIK and KFOR’s inability to protect them significantly reduced trust at a time when it was vital to gain it. King and Mason write: “Tell-tale patterns emerged in the violence, suggestive of a period of planning or of terror cells operating in certain areas. Victims tended to be clustered by their demographic characteristics — at one time, victims were almost entirely elderly, then middle-aged, then the victims of grenade attacks were almost entirely women. The patterns were so obvious that, according to one OSCE [Operation for Security and Cooperation in Europe] insider, ‘the official record of the attacks deliberately presented them in a random order so as to obscure their clear pattern'” (2006, p. 54).
The “main objective” of the KFOR troops was to prevent the Yugoslav army from reneging on their agreement to cease hostilities, so most troops were stationed along the administrative boundary between Kosovo and Serbia. Said one KFOR soldier: “our mission was to create a safe and secure environment, not really to protect the Serbs, and our rules of engagement would have made that difficult anyway” (King and Mason, 1006, p. 55). It ultimately took six months for UNMIK and KFOR to establish international governance and disarm the KLA (Narten, 2008). This caused irreparable damage in the relationship between the international intervention and the Serb minority in Kosovo and the Serbian government in Belgrade.
On the other hand, the Albanian majority viewed UNMIK and KFOR as liberators, and as such, Kosovo Albanians held the international community in high regard. In 2001 Bernard Kouchner, the U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary (SRSG) in Kosovo, signed an agreement with three prominent Kosovo Albanian leaders (Ibrahim Rugova, Hashim Thaci, and Rexhep Qojsa) which formally disbanded informal provisional governance (Narten, 2008). The Special Representative also created space for local co-heads who could advise UNMIK called the Joint Interim Administrative Structure (JIAS). However, this was only the illusion of local participation. JIAS was exclusively composed of a small subset of Albanian political elites. Those chosen for JIAS membership were primarily former leaders of the KLA, a group that promoted violence and ethnic hatred. Given ideological divides among Albanian politicians, the disconnect between the priorities of these former KLA combatants and the Albanian population at large, and the full boycott of JIAS by Kosovo Serbs and Serbia, it failed to represent adequately all-important local voices.
The defeat of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia’s 2000 presidential election by the moderate and pro-Western Zoran Djindjic should have paved the way for better relations between the international administration in Kosovo and Serbians. However, while UNMIK stressed the inclusion of local voices through JIAS, they failed to realize that to Kosovo Serbs, the government in Belgrade is a “local actor” in Kosovo. UNMIK’s failure to include powerful Serbian voices as a priority and recognize the Serbian government as an essential “local” would have serious consequences. Also, UNMIK did not do enough to make up for their initial failure to protect Serbs from retaliatory attacks in 1999. One UNMIK official for the European Union (E.U.) said that “…something went wrong with Belgrade. Once the regime changed in October 2000, we should have been able to get them behaving better towards Kosovo than they did” (King and Mason, 2006, p. 114).
In May 2001, UNMIK created a Constitutional Framework for Provisional Institutions Self-Government (PISG) in Kosovo. The framework delineated a 120-seat parliament, which would elect a president and a prime minister. Ten seats were reserved for Kosovo Serbs, and ten were reserved for other minorities in Kosovo (Roma, Ashkali, Egyptian, Bosniak, Gorani, and Turks) (Constitutional Framework, 2001). While the reserved seats for minorities were a credible attempt to ensure representation in the nascent Kosovo government, this ended up highlighting ethnic divisions in Kosovo instead of fostering political collaboration based on common interests. Despite a tenuous relationship between UNMIK and Belgrade, Serbian President Zoran Djindjic did convince many Serbs in Kosovo to participate in the first elections in November 2001. However, Djindjic was assassinated in 2003, which helped reverse what little progress UNMIK had made with Belgrade to regain Serb trust.
The relationship between UNMIK and Kosovo Albanians, which had been relatively good, started to deteriorate after the 2001 elections. Albanian politicians had an almost single-minded pursuit of status as a sovereign nation. Although the Constitutional Framework gave PISG control of things like trade, public services, finances, education, health and environment, social welfare, agriculture, and rural development, it did reinforce the general framework in Resolution 1244, giving the SRSG ultimate veto power against PISG legislation. It also left UNMIK in control of security, the economy, and “external” (foreign) affairs. Discontent grew among Kosovo Albanians with what they viewed as limited power —the power to declare independence and ensure Kosovo’s recognition as an independent nation.
To clarify benchmarks for democratic progress in Kosovo, Michael Steiner, SRSG from 2002-2003, created the “Standards before Status” policy (Narten, 2007, p. 123). This policy provided a roadmap with eight critical preconditions (democratic institutions, the rule of law, rights of communities, returns of displaced persons, the economy, dialogue with Belgrade, property rights, and the Kosovo Protection Corps) with a particular emphasis on protecting Kosovo’s minorities (King and Mason, 2006, p. 146). The policy established benchmarks that the PISG needed to reach before the sovereign status issue could be addressed. However, the benchmarks were loosely defined and hard to measure. Some standards also fell under UNMIK’s umbrella rather than the PISG, so it made little sense for UNMIK to deny Kosovo status talks if UNMIK could not meet a standard.
All of this culminated in March 2004 when several days of violent riots ensued among frustrated and mostly unemployed Kosovo Albanians. It is estimated that more than 700 Serb homes and 36 Serbian Orthodox Churches were damaged or destroyed. 4,000 Serbs and other minorities were forced to flee. Nineteen people died, and more than 1,000 were injured, including KFOR peacekeepers (ICG Collapse in Kosovo, 2004). This event, above all else, underlines the failure of the U.N. peacebuilding mission in Kosovo. While the riots were partially ethnically motivated, there was no doubt that the Albanians also targeted UNMIK. King and Mason write that the Albanians “turned their collective fury on their international overlords, throwing rocks at U.N. buildings, burning U.N. Flags and destroying more than 100 of the administration’s ubiquitous white Toyota 4Runner 4x4s” (6). As the International Crisis Group Reported: “anger against the internationals was palpable. The pro-Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) newspaper Epoka e Re reproduced on its front page the next morning a slogan that attracted cheers from the crowd in Peja: “UNMIK watch your step, the KLA has gunpowder for you too” (ICG Collapse in Kosovo, 2004).
In response to the violence, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan commissioned Kai Eide, a Norwegian diplomat, to write a report on whether talks about Kosovo’s final status should be initiated. Eide’s reports paint a harrowing portrait of UNMIK’s progress in Kosovo: “The current economic situation remains bleak, respect for the rule of law is inadequately entrenched, and the mechanisms to enforce it are not sufficiently developed. concerning the foundation of a multi-ethnic society, the situation is grim” (Eide, 2004).
However, in the second report in June 2005, Eide concluded: “There will not be any good time for addressing Kosovo’s status. Nevertheless, an overall assessment leads us to the conclusion that the time has come to commence this process” (Eide, 2005). The international community, fearing that the tensions that led to the riots in 2004 would explode again, decided there was no other choice but to begin status talks. The “standards before status” approach was dismantled and replaced by a “standards and status” approach, whereby UNMIK and PISG worked towards the standards set out in the previous policy. However, negotiations about Kosovo’s status would begin concurrently. Kofi Annan then appointed former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari as Special Envoy for Kosovo to lead the negotiations.
In 2006, Ahtisaari facilitated 15 rounds of negotiations between Belgrade and Prishtina. These talks also included the representatives from the “Contact Group” (France, Russia, United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, and Italy), local Kosovo Serb representatives, and a “Unity Team” of Kosovo Albanians, which included most political parties represented in the parliament (Narten, 2008). However, negotiations quickly stalled: the Serbs insisted that Kosovo should remain an autonomous region in Serbia, and the Albanians would take nothing short of independence. However, Albanians did agree to decentralization and allowing self-governance of Serb municipalities if it meant Kosovo could be independent. Thus, Ahtisaari presented a proposal to the U.N. Security Council for Kosovo’s future status, which outlined a quasi-independent Kosovo under continued international and E.U. supervision and substantial autonomy for Kosovo Serb municipalities. This compromise outraged the government of Serbia, Kosovo Serbs, and Albanian civil society. Serbia rejected the plan entirely calling it ‘illegitimate’ and ‘unacceptable,’ and counted on a Russian veto of this compromise in the Security Council (Government of Serbia, 2007). There were mass demonstrations of Kosovo Serbs in Mitrovica protesting the plan. The Serbs had no goodwill left for UNMIK or the PISG. The Albanian civil society movement “Vetëvendosje” [Self- Determination] also led to mass riots in Prishtina to protest Ahtisaari’s proposal. The leader of the movement, Albin Kurti, said the plan “divides Kosovo into two entities: one with an Albanian majority, ruled by the E.U.; the other with a Serb majority, ruled by Belgrade” (Robinson, 2007). For Vetëvendosje, UNMIK and its “undemocratic regime” was no different from the Milosevic rule in the 1990s; the international intervention had not included this Albanian civil society group or others; they repeatedly ignored (or failed to hear) their voices from the beginning, excluding them from the first “local voice” advisory board, the JIAS.
Following the failure to secure U.N. Security Council approval of the Ahtisaari Plan, the PISG unilaterally declared independence on February 17, 2008. To date, Kosovo’s status remains unclear. This pseudo-independence, combined with Serb municipalities’ autonomy, has perpetuated ethnic tensions between Albanians and Serbs and further entrenched the divides among Albanian political leaders.
Two specific areas of international intervention in Kosovo further illustrate the failure of UNMIK to advance its goal of “ensuring conditions for a peaceful and normal life for all inhabitants of Kosovo and advance regional stability in the Western Balkans” from 1999 to 2008 (About UNMIK, 2016). These two areas are the transfer of power and the parallel education system.
It is clear from the March 2004 riots that the Kosovo Albanians had gone from viewing UNMIK and KFOR as liberators to viewing them as an authoritarian regime. UNMIK’s mandate to provide an unelected interim government on the one hand and build up a local and democratic government on the other proved to be a daunting task. How, when, and to whom should power be transferred?
One striking feature of UNMIK’s mandate was the “virtually unlimited powers” given to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) (Mertus, 2003). There was no separation in the international interim administration; legislative, executive, and judicial powers were all under UNMIK’s umbrella, with ultimate control left to the SRSG. Bernard Kouchner, SRSG from July 1999 to January 2001, even brought in his own group of political advisors, circumventing the U.N.’s Department of Political Affairs (Lemay-Hebert, 2009). There was no good way for the local population to voice their grievances to UNMIK or contest internationally mandated decisions. There was also a lack of transparency in communications between UNMIK and local populations. While the Office of the Ombudsperson was established in 2000 to investigate any human rights violations and abuses of authority by UNMIK or any other institution, it was only allowed to make recommendations. UNMIK’s cooperation in implementing those recommendations was required. Far from doing that, UNMIK often ignored these recommendations, and two months after the Office of the Ombudsperson was established, UNMIK created a regulation granting legal immunity to its mission (Lemay-Hebert, 2009). In 2006, another regulation was adopted to mandate that the Ombudsperson could no longer investigate complaints against international administrative bodies in Kosovo. This highlighted UNMIK’s failure to create an environment for local participation. It also enabled a rift between UNMIK’s vision and policies for Kosovo and its practical reality as perceived by locals.
There are two competing theories of why the international administration in Kosovo was unsuccessful in creating a multi-ethnic, law-abiding democracy. The first is in Iain King and Whit Mason’s book Peace at Any Price: How the World Failed Kosovo. These two former UNMIK employees write about UNMIK’s failure to use their authority to change local behaviors to create a multi-ethnic government worthy of consolidated power. They argue that UNMIK did not understand Kosovo’s complex historical context and did not do enough to use its power to induce changes in local beliefs and ideology. They argue that this is not a neocolonial imposition, but rather that any society that tacitly supports or promotes ethnic hatred must be nipped in the bud. On the other hand, scholars like Jens Narten and Nicolas Lemay-Hebert argue that the transfer of power in Kosovo was too slow and that UNMIK’s tight hold on Kosovo’s provisional government led to a loss of UNMIK’s legitimacy, which in turn led to the March 2004 riots (Narten, 2008; Lemay-Hebert, 2009). Narten and Lemay-Herbert argue that a “light footprint” is the best approach: international authority should be as limited as possible in the peacebuilding process to allow local governance to flourish.
There is some truth in both theories. While King and Mason are correct that UNMIK did not appreciate Kosovo’s political context or history and, therefore, failed in addressing ethnic hatred and changing local ideologies, the argument that this is not neocolonial is not worthy of a lot of credence. Forcing the transformation of local beliefs and culture is not only inadvisable; it is likely impossible for a fleeting international presence. However, the way UNMIK effected the transfer of power in Kosovo resulted in the solidification of power for a subset of Albanian elites with nationalistic and ethnocentric tendencies to the detriment of minorities and Albanians with different more tolerant values and ideologies.
UNMIK’s significant failures in the exercise of power in Kosovo involved not only its failure to take immediate control as the conflict ended but also in how long it took after the end of the conflict to transfer power and to whom that power was transferred. UNMIK and KFOR should have had a more robust security presence from the beginning of their mandate in 1999 to prevent the KLA from taking control of municipalities and engaging in retaliatory attacks on Serbs. Protection of minorities against violence could have ensured a better subsequent buy-in to the peacebuilding process. UNMIK should have also focused efforts on creating transparency and accountability by establishing a proper system for all local voices to be able to air their grievances about UNMIK’s interim administration (including the general population of Albanians, Serbs, and other minorities, as well as different political factions among those groups). Finally, UNMIK should have been more careful about selecting local leadership to assume power. Naturally, this likely would have created some slowdown of the transfer of powers from the international administration to a local authority, as time must be taken to ensure holistic representation.
Therefore, clear long-term goals like Michael Steiner’s “Standards” should have been created from the start; minority safety and rights should have been more of a priority and the Serbian government in Belgrade should have been recognized as a significant local actor. Also, Kosovo Albanians needed the promised pseudo-independence proposed by the Ahtisaari Plan from the beginning of UNMIK’s mandate in 1999 to facilitate Kosovo’s transition to democracy. These approaches could have helped to resolve some of the uncertainty and frustrations that led to the riots in 2004 and their aftermath, creating an impasse that still proves insurmountable today.
The two competing theories used to analyze how UNMIK transferred governing power to local authorities can also be applied to the analysis of the international intervention in the Kosovo education system from 1999-2008. UNMIK was too slow to prevent the school system’s politicization as education was restarted in Kosovo after the war. Then, although UNMIK’s transfer of power to local school authorities was relatively rapid, control was vested in a non-representative group of locals who used the school system to promote their ethnocentric interests to the detriment of others. This caused the rise of the exact type of parallel education system that UNMIK had pledged to avoid and contributed to the “negative peace” that now exists. If UNMIK had acted more rapidly to prevent the politicization of education and the transfer of power over the education system had been more considered, it might have been more conducive to peacebuilding even if it took a little longer.
The international intervention in Kosovo has perpetuated and even exacerbated ethnic divides through legitimizing and entrenching the very type of parallel education system that initially led to the outbreak of war in 1998-99. As Sommers and Buckland write: “Kosovo lies at the core of the break-up of Yugoslavia, and education lies at the center of Kosovo’s conflict” (34). Understanding education as a “locus of resistance” in Kosovo is vital to understanding the inadequacies in UNMIK’s approach to peacebuilding after the war.
In 1969, Yugoslavian constitutional reforms allowed Kosovo autonomy over education, and the University of Prishtina was founded. Primary, secondary, and university teachers had more freedom to teach classes in the Albanian language, music, history, and culture. The University of Prishtina symbolized Albanian national identity and allowed for more intellectual and cultural exchanges with Albania (Kostovicova, 2005).
However, these exchanges had political consequences, resulting in increased Albanian nationalism, and fueling a desire by some in Kosovo to join a “greater Albania.” Soon after the death of Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s President from 1953-1980, riots broke out among Kosovo Albanians protesting poor conditions at the University and lack of jobs for graduates. The Serbian government, perceiving a security threat in Kosovo, began re-centralizing control over education and implementing progressively repressive measures. School buildings became segregated by ethnicity, and curricula dealing with Albanian language, history, and culture were reduced. If teachers resisted the new policies, they were dismissed (Selenica, 2018).
In response, Kosovo Albanians created the ‘Republic of Kosova’ in 1990, a shadow government boycotting the re-centralization and “Serbianization” of Kosovo. The only functioning system in this new “government” was the parallel education system. Classes were taught in living rooms, garages, and basements (Sommers and Buckland, 2004, p. 43). Ibrahim Rugova, a prominent Kosovo Albanian politician stressing non-violent means of resistance against Serbia, was a strong proponent of the parallel education system, helping finance it by raising funds both from locals and the Albanian diaspora. It is estimated that around 267,000 Kosovo Albanians attended parallel institutions, with an annual budget of [U.S.] $45 million (Sommers and Buckland, 2004, p. 45).
As the “Serbanization” efforts of the government in Belgrade intensified, disagreements developed among the “Republic of Kosova” leaders as to how the funds raised to support the education system should be spent. Ultimately, the money was used to finance the formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the guerilla group that took up arms against the Serbs (Sommers and Buckland, 2004, p. 52).
In the aftermath of the war, UNMIK took control of managing education reforms (Søbjerg, 2006). These reforms were carried out in three “phases.” Phase one included “emergency efforts” until March 2000. Phase two saw the creation of the UNMIK-controlled Department of Education and Science (DoES), and phase three encompassed the transfer of authority from UNMIK’s DoES to Kosovo’s Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology (MEST) from 2001-2002.
UNMIK considered parallel education objectionable and moved to dismantle it. UNMIK’s goal was to “promote a pluralist and multicultural society” (Sommers and Buckland, 2004, p. 35; UNICEF and DoES-UNMIK, 2001). However, due to what was perceived as other pressing security issues, there was a failure to provide sufficient security when two primary schools (in Fushë Kosovë/Kosovo Polje and Kamenicë/Kamenica) made the first attempt to integrate their student bodies. A United Nations Commission for Refugees report from 2003 also described the unmet need for international protection for Serb, Roma, and other minorities. Minority mistreatment was characterized by “acute discrimination, marginalization, and restricted freedom of movement,” while “few of the vast majority of Kosovo Albanians who returned home after the 1999 crisis face protection problems” (U.N. Reports, 2003).
UNMIK also made no effort to prevent the development of an overtly political education curriculum in the direct aftermath of the war in 1999. The perpetuation of ethnocentric historical narratives stirring interethnic hatred was endemic in newly restarted schools. King and Mason write: “Albanian members of an educational advisory group set up and closed in the mission’s first year were dismayed that UNMIK made no effort to depoliticize the school system, instead of leaving it in the hands of political party bosses who used it as an enormous patronage network” (85). Furthermore, UNMIK did not prioritize education reform or view the ethnically divided system as potentially obstructive to progressive change. They only cared about getting schools back up and running, and the donors, “seeing reopened schools as a photo opportunity, were happy to oblige” (King and Mason, 2006, p. 85).
The UNMIK-facilitated establishment of Kosovo’s ministry of education (MEST) was purported to “promote non-discriminatory, relevant, and quality lifelong learning” (UNICEF and DoES-UNMIK, 2001). However, Albanian’s MEST leadership catered to Albanian demands with little to no participation from Kosovo’s minorities, including Serbs. This contradiction is apparent in MEST’s first annual report, which repeatedly states the lofty and pluralistic goals of the society of “Kosova” (Sommers and Buckland, 2004, p. 63). However, Serbs view the term “Kosova” as derogatory, and UNMIK resolution 1444 mandated the use of “Kosovo,” not “Kosova.” MEST repeatedly flouted this rule and other similar rules without consequence, solidifying themselves as an “Albanian” institution, with UNMIK’s tacit support.
Thus, as UNMIK “dismantled” one parallel system, it allowed the rise of its twin. By 2000, Kosovo Serbs had created their parallel education system, funded by the Serbian Ministry of Education in Belgrade; they abandoned Kosovo government school buildings, building their own, and rejected Kosovo education management (Sommers and Buckland, 2004, p. 68). While MEST created the curriculum for Albanian students, without any instruction in Serbian, the Serbian Ministry of Education provided the curriculum for Kosovo Serbs, without any instruction in Albanian (OSCE, 2009a, p. 2). To date, Kosovo’s curriculum and textbooks have not been translated into Serbian, demonstrating MEST’s continuing resistance to any hint of integrating the Serbian parallel system (OSCE, 2003, 2006, 2009b). Furthermore, King and Mason write that many Albanian public school teachers urged their students to participate in the violent riots in March 2004, indicating the education system’s potential for sinister influence (221).
UNMIK further divided the education systems in Kosovo when it sought to provide access to higher education for Slavic-speaking minorities. Part of the Serbian parallel education system was the University in Mitrovica, located in Kosovo’s northern region, where many Serbs resettled after the 1999 war. The Serbs called this the “University of Prishtina in exile,” while Kosovo Albanians continued to manage their “University of Prishtina, Hasan Prishtina” in the capital. UNMIK offered formal recognition of the University in Mitrovica, attempting to adopt the policy of “two schools, one system,” after they failed to integrate them into one multi-ethnic institution (Nelles, 2006). However, this circumvented Kosovo’s provisional government and MEST authority over higher education in Kosovo. By legitimizing an Albanian-run MEST and subsequent recognition of the Serbian University in Mitrovica, UNMIK reinforced ethnic divides in Kosovo’s education system, circling back to creating the same type of parallel system that sparked the conflict in 1999.
Moreover, when UNMIK scrambled to prevent the new Serbian parallel system’s entrenchment, UNMIK officials repeatedly excluded local actors from crucial talks causing long-term damage to peacebuilding efforts. In a 2001 meeting in Geneva organized by UNMIK to discuss the education curriculum in Kosovo and attended by over 70 internationals and Kosovo Albanians, Serbs were not invited: “This event was part of a broader international technical assistance effort that has effectively reinforced Albanian control over Kosovo’s education policy (Nelles, 2006). Michael Daxner, the international co-head of UNMIK’s Department of Education and Science, attempted to coax Serbian schools into the Kosovo system by negotiating with the Serbian Ministry of Education early in his tenure in 2002. According to Sommers and Buckland:
“Officials interviewed about this process indicated that [meetings between UNMIK and Serbian Ministry of Education] did not include Kosovar Albanian contributions or involvement, and even months after UNMIK’s handover of control to Kosovo’s new education ministry [MEST], Kosovar Albanian ministry officials appeared to be working the margins of this issue. At a meeting to discuss questions of Serbian school directors in the autumn of 2002, for example, chaired and hosted by UNMIK officials working on Serb issues, invited Albanian education officials declined (perhaps intentionally) to attend. The meeting then simply proceeded without them” (126).
After the failure of the talks with Serbia’s Ministry of Education, no further attempts by UNMIK (or MEST) were made to include Serbian schools under Kosovo’s auspices.
The ethnic segregation of the schools in Kosovo is still perpetuated today. From the first-moment children in Kosovo enter primary school, they are taught ethnonationalism histories and even myths that perpetuate social divisions. In an Albanian village in Kosovo, a child enters a preschool hung with red Albanian flags and surrounded by statues of Albanian national war heroes. In a Serbian village in the same country, a child enters a preschool hung with tri-colored Serbian flags and surrounded by statues of Serbian military heroes and nationalist leaders. The curricula in both schools have different names for the same places, push different historical narratives, and teach children to identify with one national or ethnic group to the exclusion or detriment of others. UNMIK’s parochial focus on creating separate but “equal” rights for both Albanians and Serbs combined with a decentralized and ethnocentric government has paralyzed peacebuilding efforts by creating a whole new generation of people infused with ethnonationalist opinions and beliefs. This is despite the internationally guided “liberal peace” agenda, which attempted to create a multicultural and inclusive society. Furthermore, competing priorities with local actors and UNMIK’s refusal to include them in relevant education talks fortified these divides.
The case in Kosovo demonstrates how post-conflict education reform promoted by UNMIK magnifies ethnic divisions in society. Instead of providing a means to address the root causes of conflict, the education system in Kosovo perpetuates a “negative” peace; while violence has ceased, the root causes of the conflict are not addressed, rendering the very process of state-building more difficult to achieve. As Selenica writes: “While inter-ethnic interaction and integration remains a chimera, the ‘reversed pattern’ of ethnic and spatial segregation has turned education into one of the most problematic foundations of a socially just peace and a functioning, yet largely externally envisioned, multi-ethnic state” (2018, p. 254).
International organizations such as UNMIK and KFOR were given near Herculean tasks in post-conflict Kosovo. Their failures were human failures based on doing things too quickly and not quickly enough with little understanding of realities on the ground. By not taking swift control of Kosovo’s municipalities after the fighting, they allowed retaliatory attacks on Serbs, damaging trust, and leading to the creation of a new set of parallel institutions in Kosovo. By choosing which locals to work with quickly, they excluded some local actors who proved to be necessary for mission legitimacy and success. UNMIK also missed an opportunity to foster progressive culture through education reform, leaving a system in place that has ultimately perpetuated a segregated society. While UNMIK saw itself as building democracy from the ground up, they were accidental tourists, viewing Kosovo from the outside in.
November 30, 2020
This article was written as a part of work with the University of Chicago Committee on International Relations
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