Eric Sutton, Pitt Law '09, files from Prishtina:
When discussing independence, the property rights of Serbian internally-displaced people are an understated cause of conflict between Kosovo and Serbia. As the war raged on, many Serbians understandably fled north to escape the crossfire. They left behind a great deal of real property, and they have had great difficulty in returning to reclaim their land since the United Nations and NATO stepped in to resolve the situation. I talked to a member of the UN team that has worked extensively on minority issues in Kosovo. They estimate that at the onset of the 1998 conflict, Serbians owned 70-80% of the land in Kosovo. Today, that number is estimated at 50-60%. The number of Serbs that actually live on and utilize the land is assumed to be disproportionate to how much property they possess.
The Serbian government has set up a website that provides a comprehensive view of the grievances the Kostunica regime seeks to address. The website states, "The FRY-UNMIK Common Document of November 5, 2001 confirmed the priority to âensure a safe and unimpeded return of displaced persons to their homes in Kosovo' (UNSCR 1244: 11k)." The ability of Serbs to return to their homes has been hampered by various processes: slow turnaround time for title claims in Kosovo courts, Albanian hostility, and the simple fact that they have made an investment of several years in Serbia that they may find hard to let go.
Upon its arrival, the United Nations mission here set up a service that allowed displaced citizens to assert their legal claim to the property. Many Serbs have taken advantage of this service. For example, a case presented to the court was in regards to a deed of sale between a Serb and an Albanian. The complaint asserted that the sale was fraudulent; the Serb that allegedly sold the property had in fact been deceased for three years. However, even seven years after the cessation of hostilities, some claims are still hung up in the courts. Given the ongoing media reports of corruption in the courts, and the anger that many Albanians still have toward Serbians, these claims may not be resolved for a long while hence.
Destruction of property has also been an ongoing problem. In May 2004, Albanians took to the streets for two days of anti-Serbian (and probably anti-minority generally) violence. Serbian Orthodox churches were destroyed and houses were burned. The Kosovo Forces (KFOR) did not have the mandate to intervene on internal matters, and retreated to their bases. There has been a great deal of effort to curb reprisals against minority populations, and great efforts to include Serbians and other minorities in the new government, but it does not take long to realize that very few offices have minority staff.
The Serbians are not blind to what is occurring. They continue to leave rather than face what they perceive as the inevitable: second-class status. For the same reason, Serbians are not returning. The inability to reintegrate Kosovo will be one of the larger failures of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo. However, right now it appears to be unstoppable.