Forging Kosovo: Between Dependence, Independence, and Interdependence

by Arben Hajrullahu (Volume editor) Anton Vukpalaj (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 332 Pages

Table Of Content

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Arben Hajrullahu

Local Perspectives on Dependence, Independence, and Interdependence in Europe’s Newest State: An Introductory Remark

“Stay away from and fear murky waters, fire, and the state!”1

Fearing the repressive state apparatus is a long and understandable tradition in the “collective memory” of the ethnic Albanian majority population in Kosova/Kosovo.2 The international humanitarian intervention in 1999 and the subsequent declaration of independence in 2008 fulfilled the enduring political goal of achieving statehood, and shifted how the majority of people in Kosovo relate to the state. The hopes and aspirations of the Kosovar people are tangible expectations to be protected against exploitation, discrimination, and repression from the state apparatus.

This volume brings together a methodologically diverse set of local scholarly perspectives on contemporary political, legal, and societal developments in Kosovo. Put briefly, this is a book written by Kosovar scholars working on understanding how path-dependent historical legacies set in motion prior to and during the war for independence, coupled with contemporary processes of dependence on and interdependence with external actors, shaped contemporary Kosovo society and institutions.

Since the fall of communism, many books have been written on Kosovo. Regarding many areas of social science research, including conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and international state-building, Kosovo remains a uniquely interesting and relevant case. Many of these publications, however, tend to neglect the perspectives and views of local scholars. While enormously useful, such works have also disproportionately focused on a ←9 | 10→narrow set of topics or approaches that are more pertinent to wider academic audiences. This edited volume is motivated by the belief that there is much to be gained, analytically and empirically, from bringing together local scholarship that focuses on Kosovo-specific issues. Existing literature on Kosovo has largely neglected certain topics covered in this volume including, for example, how the legacy of the Yugoslav self-management socialism impacts contemporary social stratification in Kosovo (Mustafa). The same is true for the study of aggregate levels of civic and political participation in Kosovo (Kelmendi, P.), the challenges of education reform in Kosovo (Pupovci), or the analysis of the prevailing evidence on intimate partner violence and causes of violence against women in Kosovo (Kelmendi, K.).

To understand the context for the political, legal, and societal issues discussed in this volume, it is especially important to appreciate the complex relationship and long-lasting dispute with Serbia. Serbia’s attitude towards Kosovo remains unchanged, leading to the real risk of new tensions, conflicts, and wars. In this sense, the recognition of Kosovo’s independence by Serbia remains a crucial underlying factor in all key ongoing developments in Kosovo. It should also be understood in a regional and supra-regional context determined by interdependence. To overcome the lasting dispute between Serbia and Kosovo is the quintessence for establishing functioning constitutional states and integrated societies in both countries. This assumption is supported by past experiences and contemporary empirical evidence. Serbia’s and Kosovo’s diametrically opposed positions on Kosovo’s political status, however, show that the basic requirements for a “reconciliation process” as the prerequisite for integrated societies and states are still not in place.

International Intervention and State-Building in a Former “Apartheid-Like Society”

The most recent dispute between Serbia and Kosovo unfolded immediately after the death of the Yugoslav communist leader Josip Broz Tito, with the re-emergence of the idea of “[t]‌he removal of all Albanians from Kosovo – 90 per cent of the population of 2 million – the proclaimed aim of Serb ←10 | 11→leaders including Milosevic from 1980” (Calvocoressi, 2001, XVI.) The Serbian repressive and discriminatory policies applied against the ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo led to intense conflicts, as well as to a rapid decline in the value of life (Bellamy, 2000). Exposing entire communities to systematic state-driven discrimination and coercing people to leave their homes, aiming at changing demographic composition and expanding state territories, are not unknown phenomena for the world, including Europe’s history, for instance, throughout the 20th century. However, at the end of the second millennium, the Serbian policies in Kosovo confronted the international community with a serious dilemma, namely whether such an “apartheid-like society” (Independent International Commission on Kosovo, 2000, 1) should be further tolerated in the European soil or not.

Since World War II, the Kosovo people, composed mainly by an ethnic Albanian community, did not see themselves as a national minority, but as a people, as a polity, as Kosovo, with the right to internal and external self-determination. Yet, according to Serbian expansionist interpretation, Kosovars do not comprise a people according to constitutional or international law, but can at best be considered a minority. However, until the beginning of the 1990s, the demands of the Kosovo people were not aimed at secession. Instead, since the 1960s they focused exclusively on formal recognition of the Republic of Kosovo within the Yugoslav Federation. Only when martial law was imposed on Kosovo in the late 1980s and Kosovo was de facto and de jure occupied by Serbia, another constituent part of the joint Yugoslav federation, Kosovars demanded external self-determination (Marko, 1999).

Hence, the smallest country in the Balkan Peninsula, Kosovo, shows an outstanding history (Malcolm, 1998) and a bundle of contemporary difficulties in society and state transformation from various authoritarian regimes to an aspired functional state based on the rule of law (Beha and Hajrullahu, 2020). The 1990s “apartheid-like society” established by Serbia after the fall of communism ended with the 1999 international military and civil intervention.3 Following the 1999 international military intervention, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1244 (1999) called for “substantial autonomy and meaningful self-administration within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” until a solution to the status ←11 | 12→of Kosovo would be found. To that end, in 2005 the UNSC approved the initiation of talks on the future status of Kosovo. In March 2007, the UN special envoy on Kosovo status talks, the former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, proposed to the UNSC a monitored sovereignty for Kosovo as the only sustainable solution. The UN special envoy’s proposal on the Kosovo status settlement was, however, rejected by Serbia, backed by Russia, Serbia’s Orthodox Christian pan-Slavic ally. Thus, no political solution was agreed upon in subsequent rounds of negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade or in the UN Security Council. Nevertheless, based on the proposal made by the UN special envoy on Kosovo status talks, the representatives of the Kosovo people declared Kosovo’s independence on 17 February 2008, which has by now been recognized by the majority of the UN member states. After the declaration of independence, the European Union (EU) Council established the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (“EULEX Kosovo”) under the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) in 2008. The role and presence of United Nations Interim Administration (UNMIK),4 on the other hand, was reconfigured (UN, 2008a; UN, 2008b; UN, 2008d).

Moreover, upon Serbia’s 2008 request, the UN General Assembly addressed the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to provide an advisory opinion on declaration of independence of Kosovo (UN, 2008c). About two years later, in 2010 the ICJ concluded with the following three key findings: the declaration of independence did not violate UN-SCR Resolution 1244 (1999); the declaration of independence did not violate the Constitutional Framework5; and the adoption of the declaration of independence did not violate any applicable rule of international law (ICJ, 2010).

The 1999 international intervention in Kosovo played a significant role in transforming the political environment in the country, while at the same ←12 | 13→time shaping the international debate and policy on the European future of the broader Western Balkan region. Despite noteworthy improvements, however, peace and security in the region remain fragile and continue to be threatened by old divisions and new ones. During the two decades following the international intervention, Kosovo and countries in the region have avoided major armed conflicts and have taken some important steps towards cooperation and integration, aiming to establish lasting peace and achieve integration into the EU. Moreover, the international intervention in Kosovo reverberated beyond the region. International diplomats, policymakers, and scholars identify it as an event that has challenged and redefined past notions and perspectives on human rights, and has played a key role in shaping contemporary debates on the rights and responsibilities of nation-states and international organizations in the 21st century. Thus, the future of Serbia-Kosovo relations, and in particular the way how the lasting dispute between both countries is settled, depends on the fate of conflicting parties and the Western Balkan region itself. The relationship also depends on the redefinition of nation-states’ roles and responsibilities, on the one side. and geopolitics in Europe and beyond, on the other.

Demos versus Ethnos or Living in the Past versus EU-Integration

More than thirty years after the fall of communist regimes in South East Europe, and more than twenty years after the 1998–1999 war in Kosovo, the spectre of partition hovers over Kosovo (Jones, 2018). In the summer of 2018, new attempts to reach a partition, camouflaged as land swaps or territorial exchanges between Kosovo and Serbia, aimed at realizing, at least in part, some of the 1980s and 1990s Serbian policy goals towards Kosovo. Despite the widespread refusal of this latest partition attempt, the discussions enabled Serbia to continue to challenge Kosovo’s statehood by reducing it to an entity with disputed borders. Moreover, this Serbian strategy continued to prevent the integration of Kosovo-Serbs into Kosovo’s institutions, as well as to further dismantle the multi-ethnic society foundation upon which the constitutional order of the 2008 independent Kosovo is based. Likewise, the option of partitioning Kosovo raised the question of ←13 | 14→the integrational approach and state building policy that the international community has promoted in the post-conflict Western Balkans. Thus, Serbia acts today as revisionist state: it has managed, to some extent, to create frozen conflicts in Bosnia and Hercegovina; and in northern municipalities in Kosovo it follows a consistent and paramount aim to disable the functional state of Kosovo while promoting territorial and ethnically based divisions.

For Kosovo’s representatives, the 2008 independence of the country is already a huge compromise (Kraja, 2020), for example, to the ethno-nationalistic motivated pan-Albanian idea of unification with Albania. Serbia looks at the partition of Kosovo as the solution to the long-lasting dispute. Hence, as long as Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s statehood and cherishes certain parts or the entire territory of Kosovo under its control, it is difficult to imagine that peaceful and friendly relations between both countries can be established. Consequently, more than two decades after 1999, the positions and relations of both conflicting parties, Serbia and Kosovo, have not changed much. “As long as Albanians fear and Serbs hope that Belgrade’ s rule might return, each side will be preparing both psychologically and practically for the next war, deflecting attention from other pressing political, economic, and social problems” (ICG, 2001, VIII). A withdrawal of NATO peacekeeping forces from Kosovo could result easily in a war between Serbia and Kosovo (Sabbagh, 2019). In this respect, the situation in this dispute on the European soul in the 21st century continues to be more like a ceasefire than a state of “perpetual positive peace”.

The contemporary Serbian Kosovo policy took on a new shape with the 1986 memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (Pešić, 2007). Ten years later, in 1996, the former president of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Aleksander Despić, spoke in Belgrade about partitioning Kosovo (Večernje Novosti, 1996, 2). Serbia continues to operate based on territorial ambitions towards Kosovo and beyond, and its claim to worry about the future of the Kosovo-Serb community appears disingenuous. The non-majority communities in Kosovo enjoy substantially more constitutionally guaranteed rights than minorities in other Western Balkan countries, or even in the EU member states itself. Caplan shows that a “number of the same rights, it is interesting to note, are denied to minorities in many of the European states that are promoting respect for them so vigorously in Kosovo” (2002, 62–63).

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Consequently, the Serbia-Kosovo dispute is the litmus test of a European future in the Western Balkans. The European integration idea offers a peaceful and economically promising alternative to the Serbian and Albanian ethnically determined attempts at ethnic-based unifications. To achieve this, the quintessence is Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo’s statehood, which is based on a civic – demos, and not ethnos – approach. However, till today European states are divided and still unable to speak with a voice regarding key political developments in the Western Balkans as the issue of recognizing Kosovo’s statehood by all EU member states demonstrates. Moreover, despite the widely accepted assumption that the development of comprehensive functional networks and cooperation between countries represent a strategy for conflict resolution and peace establishment, the EU continues to be characterized by the lack of a tangible strategy on how to stabilize and integrate the Western Balkan countries in the foreseeable future.

The fundamental European idea of a common polity based on shared values and freedoms offers a real framework for solving the territorial and statehood disputes marking relations between Serbia and Kosovo (Hajrullahu, 2007). However, peace and cooperation among the countries presuppose a minimal common basis of political goals and interests, which in the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo are clearly still lacking. The mutual recognition between Serbia and Kosovo appears to be the prerequisite for sustainable cooperation processes and thus ultimately also for successful EU integration. In this respect, the main common goal of these countries, integration into the EU and into the common Euro-Atlantic security structures, should be pursued much more clearly and decisively. But in reality, that goal remains elusive. The reality is that Serbia, Kosovo, and the EU itself are involved in a “trilateral vicious circle” (Hajrullahu, 2019). Without a lasting solution of the political dispute between Serbia and Kosovo, the chances of integrating these countries into the EU are minimal.

Kosovo and Serbia were never able to reach an agreement on the status of Kosovo, and the change of governments in post-1999 Serbia has not altered its position towards Kosovo. Despite the fact that Serbia is traditionally ruled by ethno-nationalist political elites, in order to make the European perspective reality, it must recognize Kosovo’s statehood and establish good and peaceful neighbourly relations with it. Any other alternative and any possible provisional (semi-) solution to the Serbia-Kosovo ←15 | 16→long-lasting dispute would de facto mean a continuation of the “Cold War” between both parties, and thus it would jeopardise peace efforts and the European perspective of the entire region itself.

Remarkably, the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo appears to be a paradox in itself for the interests of both conflicting parties and beyond. On the one hand, Kosovo needs recognition by Serbia. Without Serbia’s recognition, Russia and China are not expected to accept Kosovo’s UN membership. On the other hand, Serbia needs to solve the dispute with Kosovo to achieve membership status in the EU. As long as Serbia has a de facto and de jure open dispute over the territory of Kosovo, it is almost impossible to be established as a functioning democratic state with a defined territory, which is inter alia a condition for Serbia’s aspired EU membership.

Since Serbia and Kosovo have roughly the same rational interests to achieve their European perspective, EU membership, why is this not happening? The reasons can be many. In attempting to address this question, the following two reasons should be taken into consideration: First, Kosovo fails to establish a relationship based on reciprocity with Serbia; Second, Serbia is not yet fully convinced that it actually should recognize Kosovo, since a part of the international community applies a kind of preferential treatment towards Serbia’s non-recognizing position. For example, in this spirit after the 1999 NATO bombings, Serbia is often considered not as the main instigator of wars and aggressions against other former Yugoslav federal units, but primarily as a victim of the dissolution process of the former Yugoslavia.

Meanwhile, Serbia’s government has sought to advance its aspirations for EU membership, but has continued to not recognize Kosovo’s statehood. Kosovo prefers to implement the 2007 proposal made by the UN special envoy followed by an economic development plan as a solution for ethnic divisions within Kosovo. Thus, for all involved parties in the Serb-Kosovar dispute one question remains perpetually unanswered: how can a lasting normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo occur in the absence of mutual recognition and the divided EU policy on the same matter? In fact, currently the real perspective of using the EU integration process as a tool for more inclusive societies and of overcoming conflict between Serbia and Kosovo appears to be a kind of an imaginary vision. Every government in Belgrade before and after 1999 states that the recognition of an independent and sovereign ←16 | 17→state of Kosovo will not happen. This policy of non-recognition is inter alia (mis-) used as blackmail versus the Western world and against all efforts to build a functioning state based on inclusion and rule of law in Kosovo.

The EU’s 2018 Strategy on the Western Balkans calls for Serbia and Kosovo to conclude a legally binding normalization agreement as an urgent and crucial step towards EU membership (EC 2018). However, by taking a status-neutral position regarding Kosovo’s statehood, the EU has become part of the vicious circle of Serbia and Kosovo’s EU membership aspirations. Thus, Kosovo lacks a real EU membership perspective. The EU’s “creative ambiguity” and its “status neutrality” towards Kosovo’s statehood have reached its limits, and it is facing difficult political realities on the ground.

Not only for Serbia and for Kosovo, but also for the EU as a whole, the 2010 ICJ advisory opinion on the legality of the Kosovo’s independence declaration remains a missed opportunity. The EU’s “neutral position” on Kosovo’s statehood has resulted in a trilateral vicious circle, consisting of Serbia’s revisionist foreign policy, Kosovo’s inability to focus on internal governance reform and rule of law, and the EU’s lack of coherent vision for the region. Moreover, by de facto enabling the conflicting parties the possibility for divergent and conflicting interpretations, the EU keeps the entire region in limbo. This makes it easier for local politicians to maintain state capture structures and oppose the much-needed genuine pro-European local elites as agents of the Europeanization process (Istrefi and Hajrullahu 2020). The Europeanization and future EU membership projects need genuine local pro-European functional elites who would delineate the opposite types of politicians, maintain power in Kosovo and in the region, and are led by the international community, including the EU.

At this end, as long as Serbia and Kosovo operate based on the logic of living in the past, it remains a matter of time before the next cycle of confrontation arises, as it happened several times throughout the 20th century and continues till now. Political leaders in Serbia promote revisionist foreign policy, and some adventurous politicians in Albania, in Kosovo, as well as in Europe and beyond speak of a “historic agreement between the Serbs and the Albanians”. The dispute is, however, between two successor states, federal units, of the former Yugoslav Federation, namely between Serbia and of Kosovo, and not between Serbia and Albania.

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Education as a Last Resort to Decline in the Value of Life

Whereas Serbia and Kosovo continue not to be able to establish a lasting peace, the “population of every Balkan country is shrinking because of emigration and low fertility” (The Economist, 2020). In addition to educational system’s transition through troubled political and economic circumstances, Kosovo, like the rest of the region, faces critical demographic and societal challenges caused by the phenomenon of “brain drain” and the general decline of population (Vračić, 2018).

The poor economic situation makes it more difficult to bridge the gap between human and non-majority community rights guaranteed by law as well as individual rights. And, as if the lack of liberal democratic tradition and social hardship were not enough, more than two decades after the war, Serbia still continues to undermine Kosovo’s statehood and to pressure Kosovo-Serbs to demonstrate their loyalty by undermining public institutions of Kosovo.

People in Kosovo, and in particular those from non-majority communities, encounter additional difficulties because many public sectors such as healthcare or education often continue to be segregated. As in the 1990s, the education system in Kosovo continues to be divided along ethnic lines, in particular between the Kosovo-Albanian and Kosovo-Serb communities. Moreover, school textbooks present largely a biased view of the Balkan conflicts. Thus, university and school curricula, for example, in the subject of history, are often not established on scientific and objective facts. Similarly, selective information incorporated in school textbooks usually present war crimes committed during the 1990s in a superficial and biased manner, ignore the suffering of other ethnic groups or the responsibilities, and fail to mention crimes where members of other ethnic groups were victims. On the one hand, in the history textbooks of Serbia, which are in use by the Kosovo-Serb community in Kosovo, Serbs are represented as the main victims of war crimes, ignoring victims from other ethnic groups (Stojanovic, 2020). Kosovo is often described as a part of Serbia and Serbian schoolteachers in Kosovo report that: “What they cook [in Belgrade], we should eat. There is no other option. Sometimes the textbooks are not compatible with the situation” (Haxhiaj, 2019). On the other hand, the history textbooks taught in Kosovo-Albanian schools present selective, biased information as well as historical myths that glorify their ←18 | 19→“own heroic” liberation war (Gashi 2012). Moreover, attempts to provide educators with multi-perspective textbooks on Balkan history undertaken by international and regional initiatives have often failed greatly to offer a non-biased, objective and fact-based comprehensive version of school textbooks (Gashi, 2019).

The general political and social situation plays an essential role for the success or failure of the democratization process, human rights, and minority rights implementation in a given country. Those processes are connected with economic growth and a modern and competitive education system, which would have to establish a stable link between research, development, and economy. Recent research analysis of survey results suggests that non-democratic tendencies in the Western Balkans can better be explained by the economic insecurity thesis than by the cultural backlash thesis (Lavrič and Bieber 2020). Societies, for example, the Kosovar, face many challenges and troubles which lack political certainty and economic perspectives. The society and the educational system in Kosovo are still divided because of the lack of a common political will between the majority and the people in a non-majority situation. This fact makes the strengthening of an integrated society and the state based on rule of law more difficult. Hence, the lack of a coherent and consistent common will provides a basis for a society in which people in fundamentally similar situations are treated differently to this day due to their political background, financial and social status, ethnicity, gender, physical capacity or appearance. Thus, Kosovo is experiencing a multi-faced transition and a state- and society-building process at the same time, accompanied with the lack of real accountability of both local and international authorities and the arbitrary implementation of the rule of law.

A Brief Overview of the Succeeding Book Chapters and a Conceivably Hypothetical Remark

The purpose of this peer reviewed book is to present local scholarly perspectives analysing contemporary political, legal, and societal issues and developments in Kosovo. Hence, this book is an interdisciplinary volume, focusing on the most pressing questions in contemporary Kosovo studies. ←19 | 20→The following twelve book chapters deal with the respective topics from various angles, creating a multi-faceted picture of Kosovo and uncovering new research agendas by analysing contemporary developments related to its political, legal, and societal challenges.

Bekim Baliqi shows how in post 1999-Kosovo there are two incompatible tendencies of collective memory in shaping identity: remembering and commemorating the war events in a strictly ethnic-nationalist manner and attempting to forge a civic and multi-ethnic identity beyond ethnic belonging. War atrocities of the 1990s continue to adorn the contemporary “living collective memory” of the people, raising the question of how (im-) possible it is to establish lasting peace without bringing justice to the people. Or without at least offering an official apology from the state where perpetrators come from. By analysing public documents from the trials of the Serbian leadership by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), similar operations conducted by Serb forces in Srebrenica in 1995 as well as operations of the Nazis during the World War II, Anton Vukpalaj sheds light on the 1999 reburial operations of the Serbian forces in Kosovo conducted under the coded name asanacija (sanitization). Vukpalaj concludes that by having gone defensive after NATO bombing, the concealment of crimes contributed to the overall objective of Serbia to change the ethnic structure of Kosovo by killing, deporting, and horrifying the civilians, the vast majority of Kosovo-Albanian population.

Urban versus rural and centre versus periphery divides are analysed by Artan Mustafa, who demonstrates how the legacy of the Yugoslav self-management socialism in Kosovo still impacts social stratification outcomes. Mustafa analyses how in post 1999 Kosovo the social conflict was reflected in a conflict over distribution of resources between the “war wing”, which represented the poorer, more rural population, and the more urban population whose interests were neglected in policy design and implementation.

Determinants of civic and political participation in the context of Kosovo are investigated by Pëllumb Kelmendi in “Individual-Level Determinants of Civic and Political Participation in Kosovo”. In his chapter, Kelmendi poses the following two questions: first, how do aggregate levels of civic and political participation in Kosovo compare with the rest of Europe? and second, what are the determinants of variation in individual participation in Kosovo? Kelmendi finds that education is a strong predictor of the likelihood of individual participation in all forms of civic and political ←20 | 21→activities, indicating that unequal participation in civic voluntarism and institutionalized forms of political participation in Kosovo are mainly driven by intangible resources and skills that enable the effective use of the right to take part in the political process.

By examining the relationship between consociational and power-dividing mechanisms, Arben Qirezi assesses the effectiveness of complex power-sharing. Qirezi’s findings that the interaction between consociational and power-dividing mechanisms does not provide for effective functioning of institutions, in particular regarding non-majority communities’ veto decisions, show some key constitutional and functional encounters which the new independent state of Kosovo is facing. Further, Rinor Beka’s analysis elaborates on the approaches and constitutional choices introduced to recognize, accommodate, and integrate non-majority communities in Kosovo. Beka brings to mind that Kosovo’s statehood and international recognition were largely based on the commitment and legal guarantees to introduce and respect highest minority rights not only in Europe but worldwide.

Liridon Lika and Blerim Reka analyse the 2008 to 2020 relations between the EU and the Republic of Kosovo. On the one hand, Kosovo has continuously declared the EU membership as a national priority, whereas on the other hand the EU itself has no common position on Kosovo’s statehood and continues its relation towards Kosovo with ambiguity and ambivalence. Getoar Mjeku analyses Kosovo’s history tied to a popular struggle for constitutionalism and independence, and he describes the unique aspects of the country’s constitutional identity. Kosovo’s constitution embodying a mix of the German and Spanish models of constitutional identity is assessed by Mjeku as a progressive yet militant document firmly imposing notions of multi-ethnicity against the overwhelming ethnic Kosovo-Albanian majority. What is more, analysing the presence in Kosovo of an obsolete United Nations (UN) peacebuilding mission (UNMIK), the interaction of Kosovo with the UN Headquarters in New York, and the prospects for admission of Kosovo to the UN makes Bekim Sejdiu in his chapter on “Kosovo and the United Nations: An Unusual Relation” to characterize Kosovo-UN relations as atypical.

Dina Milovanović analyses implications of representative bureaucracy in Kosovo, and she argues that affirmative policies and practices do not inevitably benefit the non-majority communities. Furthermore, Kosovo’s educational system faces notable differences between proclaimed or approved ←21 | 22→policies, on one side, and policy implementation measures, on the other. Thus, Dukagjin Pupovci asserts that all levels of education in Kosovo failed to meet expectations of policymakers and general public for significant improvement of education quality. And last but not least, Kaltrina Kelmendi in her chapter “An Overview of Intimate Partner Violence Against Women in Kosovo” offers a synopsis of one key human rights violation, the dimension of serious abuses caused by violence against women in Kosovo.

For a very long time, Kosovo’s society and politics have been dominated by the issue of the political status of the country. This has made it difficult to establish an integrated society based on sustainable economic and societal development. Presumably, if Serbia had shown political maturity to recognize the Republic of Kosovo in 1968, 1981, or latest in 1989, both countries would be most likely, if not by now, EU member states, at least in a peaceful and stable condition without fearing each other’s actions and policies.

More than thirty years after the anticipated “wind of change,” all involved parties in the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo should pursue a rational and pragmatic interest in settling the conflict. Unlike a “Cold War” style situation, both countries are in much greater need for a “perpetual positive peace”. In the event of failure to establish and secure long-term “positive peace”, which can be coined only by a political, cultural, and religious cohabitation in an interdependent era of states, all parties in the Serbian-Kosovar conflict would lose. This would result in immense uncertainties embodied by fear from a repressive state apparatus as the tradition in the “collective memory” of the ethnic Albanian majority population in Kosovo during the 20th century has continuously shown.


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Bellamy, Alex J. (2000), Human Wrongs in Kosovo: 1974–99, The International Journal of Human Rights, 4:3–4, 105–126.

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Sabbagh, Dan (2019, 12 Jun), ‘Still Needed’: Nato Marks 20 Years in Kosovo, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/12/nato-marks-20-years-kosovo-kfor-serbia (accessed 26 September 2020).

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Stojanovic, Milica (2015, September 8), Serbian History Textbooks ‘Give One-Sided View’ of 1990s Wars BIRN, Belgrade, https://balkaninsight.com/2020/09/08/serbian-history-textbooks-give-one-sided-view-of-1990s-wars/, (accessed 13 September 2020).

The Economist (2020, 22 August) Balking at Balkan Babies. The Balkans Are Getting Short of People. The Demography of South-Eastern Europe Threatens Its Hopes of Prosperity, https://www.economist.com/europe/2020/08/22/the-balkans-are-getting-short-of-people (accessed 26 August 2020).

UN (2008a, 26 November), Statement by the President of the Security Council, S/PRST/2008/44, https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/Kos%20SPRST%202008%2044.pdf (accessed 25 September 2020).

UN (2008b, 24 November), Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, S/2008/692, https://undocs.org/S/2008/692 (accessed 25 September 2020).

UN (2008c, 8 October), United Nations, A/RES/63/3, Request for an Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on Whether the Unilateral Declaration of Independence of Kosovo is in Accordance with International Law, Resolution adopted by the General Assembly, http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/63/3 (accessed 26 August 2020).

UN (2008d, 12 June), United Nations Security Council Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, S/2008/354, https://unmik.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/s-2008-354.pdf (accessed 25 September 2020).

UN-SCR (1999, 10 June), United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244, http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/kos%20SRES%201244.pdf (accessed 25 September 2020).

Večernje Novosti (1996, 7. Jun)

Vračić, Alida (2018), The Way Back: Brain Drain and Prosperity in the Western Balkans, The European Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/the_way_back_brain_drain_and_prosperity_in_the_western_balkans (accessed 28 September 2020).

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1A saying anchored in the “collective memory” of the Kosovo-Albanian population.

2All names in this book are written just as they are usually in use and written in English, for example, Kosovo instead of Kosova, the name form in use by the majority population. Otherwise, individual names in this book are written as they are in use in their respective native language.

3After Serbia refused to sign the Rambouillet Agreement, NATO forces launched air strikes against Serbia between 24 March and 9 July 1999.

4In Kosovo, first the UNMIK administration and then the EULEX, together with Kosovar institutions, failed often to guarantee effective rule of law and legal security. For instance, the stated purpose of the EULEX mission was to assist Kosovo authorities in further developing and strengthening an independent judiciary, police and customs service in line with European best practices. The reality is that even the EULEX Mission is suspected of involvement in corrupt practices (Borger, 2014).

5The Constitutional Framework for Provisional Self-Government entered into force on 15 May 2001 representing a surrogate “constitution” of Kosovo under the UNMIK administration. More about the Constitutional Framework see Hajrullahu and Salamun (2002).

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Bekim Baliqi

State and Belonging: Collective Memory and Identity Formation in Post-War Kosovo

Abstract This chapter aims to explore the impact of collective memory in shaping identity in the post-war context through its political, social and cultural representations. It raises, therefore, a central question: how the memory of war, in terms of prevalent narratives, rituals and commemorations, shapes the emerging of shared political and state identity formation? In this sense, I assume that there are two incompatible tendencies, namely to remember and commemorate the war events in the strictly ethnic-nationalist manner and to forge a civic and multi-ethnic identity that goes beyond ethnic belonging. These contradictions are explored through discourse analysis of prevalent narratives on war and their symbolic articulation and also by content analysis of constitutional and other legal-political frameworks. It focuses on the discussions of the relations between memories and identity formation, and further between efforts in dealing with the past and promoting political legitimacy of the power elites. Finally, the conclusions are presented and summarized, and at the same time, the questions of identity formation and state-building in Kosovo are discussed.

Keywords: Identity, collective memory, ethnic relations, state, Kosovo


When we pose the question “Who are we?” it appears often to be more a rhetorical question that needs no clear answer than a sincere scientific or political issue which has to be addressed properly. Because it is supposed that every society should “know” who they are, or at least the state must provide them with a collective identity and a sense of belonging. Is that usually the case? Of course not, belonging and identity are far more complex and challenging than a formal binding of the citizens to the statehood and obeys to the authority of the state. Moreover, the sense of belonging, which derives from the notion of identity, has become omnipresent, and it involves so many facets that it is used by everyone in their everyday discussions for various phenomena and often with different connotations. When the Kosovo government, after the declaration of independence on ←27 | 28→17 February 2008, began to issue passports and identity cards, a campaign with a brief slogan “I have now an identity” was broadly promoted throughout the country. Ever since, more than a decade has gone, and some inevitable questions, such as if Kosovo’s citizens truly have a common identity and what kind of identity they have, are not adequately addressed and even less got any plausible answers.

At the time when many scholars, including those of nationalism studies like Eric Hobsbawm (1992), claimed that nationalism could decline and the twenty-first century might experience new entities and forms of common belonging other than national ones, the new waves of nationalism erupted in an unpredicted way in most of the former post-communist states. This echoed what the wars in former Yugoslavia exposed tragically, that ethnicity and nationality are fundamental components of the identity formation. As a consequence, the rigid ethnic belonging resulted in increasing ethnonational resentments. And this proved to be one of the most challenging issues in peace- and state-building efforts in the post-conflict societies. The issue of state belonging and identity formation in some Western Balkan countries, like in Kosovo, in North Macedonia or Bosnia and Herzegovina, has so far been discussed more on political milieus, than in scientific communities and treated in research projects. One of the reasons for this approach is certainly the enduring ethnic animosities and the different aims that are inevitably linked to political and territorial ambitions. Other factors include the legacy of the past, mutual distrust and the fear of being dominated or discriminated by the other ethnic group. Therefore, dealing with the identity issue in Kosovo and other abovementioned states is often neglected or tabooed, with the justification that it exposes a political threat for the stability or even that it is a betrayal of the “national” cause. Compared to a relatively large number of publications and discussions that deal with the war in Kosovo or with the development of self-governing institutions and the topic of state-building, there are only a few studies that focus on the identity formation or the collective memory of the Kosovo society.

Post-conflict and multi-ethnic states face immense difficulties to build sustainable peace and to establish democratic institutions (Chesterman, 2004). Because, among other influential factors, ethnonational belonging remains to be perceived and to function as the basis for political loyalty, which in turn can also reinforce resentment between ethnic groups and against the state. In the peace and conflict research literature, there are ←28 | 29→various approaches or theories on nature, causes, and consequences of the armed conflicts. However, the research objective of this chapter is to highlight the importance of collective memory in the process of identity formation, and not on the conflict itself. Moreover, core intention is to explore the role the state plays in constituting politics of memory that transform contested and ethnic identities into a shared political community. The main thesis here is that the crucial factor for peace and democracy in a post-conflict society is how the sense of belonging to the state might develop. In this sense, relations between state and society need to be institutionalized to develop mutual trust and loyalty that result in the formation of a sense of common belonging and identity. Moreover, it raises the question of the impact of the memories of the violent past to ethnic relations and the dynamics of identity formation. Since the issues of collective memory and identity are interchangeable aspects of post-conflict transformation and state consolidation, they are not explored as separated processes or different notions from each other.

This chapter will explore and discuss the impact of collective memory in shaping collective identity in the post-war context through its political representations by raising the main research questions: How do war memories, in terms of prevalent narratives, rituals, and commemorations shape identity in Kosovo? And does the memorialization of the violent past contribute in the emerging of political community that corresponds with its institutional provisions and constitutional principles? In this context, my main hypothesis is that there are two incompatible tendencies, namely to remember and commemorate the war events in a strictly ethnocentric manner and to forge a civic identity based on state belonging. These contradictions will be explored through discourse analysis of prevalent narratives on war and their symbolic articulation and also by contents analysis of constitutional and other legal-political frameworks. It focuses on the discussions of the relations between memories and identity formation, and further between efforts in dealing with the past and promoting political legitimacy of the power elites. Finally, the conclusions will be presented and summarized, and the questions of identity formation and state-building in Kosovo discussed. But in the first place, the key concepts are outlined and a literature review concerning the politics of identity and issue of collective memory is undertaken.

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Literature Review

With the fall of the Berlin wall and collapse of the communist regimes, issues of ideological antagonisms and struggles between social classes were not anymore in the forefront of political disputes and academic discussions. The author of the seminal book The Clash of Civilizations (1996) Samuel Huntington, who proclaimed that religious (as civilizations) conflicts will occur after the Cold War, many years later (Huntington 2014), has gone further by writing a new book with a significant title Who are we?, fearing that traditional values and “true” American identity are being threatened by new global trends and multiculturalism.

Likewise, the author of the very influential book The End of History (1989), Francis Fukuyama devoted himself to address the question of Identity with the new book titled aptly Identity: The Demand for Dignity and Politics of Resentment (2018). Contrary to Huntington, who is afraid of loosing traditional and pure values of the national identity, Fukuyama believes that not emigration or globalization but the race of the different groups on victimization and the mistaken approach of political parties (particularly from the left spectrum) to stimulate partial and subunits of social politics of identity, based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. He proposes instead promoting a shared Leitkultur of the whole society and not a group-based one. As a result, it has created an Identity based on differentiation and struggle for victimization among different parts of society.

Back in 1991, an eminent scholar of nationalism studies Anthony D. Smith focused on identity, aiming to explore nature and the formation of national identity in a book with the same title, as a historical process and as a collective phenomenon. Whereby, according to him, “a historic territory or homeland; common myths and historical memories; a common, mass public culture; common legal rights and duties; and a common economy with territorial mobility for its members” (1991: 14) are core criteria and fundamental components of national identity. Although initially critical to the Smith’s approach to and definition of national identity, Monserrat Guibernau in her book The Identity of Nations recognized five important dimensions of what constitutes a nation, these being cultural, historical, territorial, psychological, and political dimensions. And she defines national identity as “a collective sentiment upon the belief of belonging to the same nation and of sharing most of the attributes that make it distinct ←30 | 31→from other nations” (2007: 11). She makes a clear distinction between a national and state identity, which for this research is of great importance. That is why there are multinational states like Great Britain consisting of different nations like Scottish or Spain with Catalans and so on. In this point, she explains an attempt of these states to construct a nation-state identity through the education system, official symbols, ceremonies, common enemies and citizenship as tools in building a political unity and shared identity. In another book entitled Belonging: Solidarity and Division in Modern Societies Guibernau (2013) tries to address issues of belonging of contemporary modern societies in the historical, cultural, and political context. She explores the interplay between the nation and state in providing citizens with certain identity and underlines that the dilemma of freedom and belonging in liberal democratic states is resolved by principles of what she calls “belonging by choice”, which enables developing and eventually consolidation of a shared political community, even in diverse and plural societies. Joel Migdal is another influential and, for this chapter, a relevant author. His state-in-society approach contributes to understand their complementarity and how these two institutions constantly influence and reshape one another, thus identities being the result of their interference. In this sense, he stated: “Belonging, then, has both a formal, instrumental sense attached to it – that is, one’s status – and an informal, affective component – that is, one’s sense of identity” (2004: 15). Thus, the past and the way it is remembered and interpreted play a crucial role in the formation of identities. Collective memory, be it through narratives, oral histories, myths, and public spaces, refers to common perceptions of the past, where societies aim to ensure continuity by linking the past, present, and the future. Just as memory helps to shape individual belonging, collective memory serves to build and preserve a common identity. Hence, both types of memory are relational, and individual memory is possible only in a social framework. The renowned memory study scholar Aleida Assmann (2006) goes even further in distinguishing four levels of memory: individual, social, political, and cultural. While individual and social memories are grounded in lived experience, political and cultural memories, on the other hand, are founded on symbolic and material representations as well as education and collective participation (Assmann, 2006: 215).

In the process of state-building, key political actors and groups are involved in reconstructing the past. They all seek to articulate collective memory in a way that could be useful to identity formation. In this political ←31 | 32→process, Ashplant, Dawson, and Roper (2000: 16–32) distinguish three key aspects of the struggle to articulate war memories: its narratives, arenas, and agencies. Whereas narratives of articulation refer to common formulation and discourses, arenas represent social-political spaces within actors contain and promote claim for the recognition of their war memories. As the last dimension, agencies of articulation refer to those institutions, organizations, or movements through which social actors seek and preserve recognition for their war memories. Thus, a memory of past events for every ethnic group has different connotations. These conflicting views and difficulties in dealing with the past affect a group’s wider attitudes and perceptions, whereby both communities demand dignity and compete for the status of the “true and real” victim. They also perpetuate mistrust and exclusion, hindering trust-building and reconciliation.

Collective Memory in Kosovo

In the aftermath of the 1998/1999 war, the role of international administration, represented by the United Nations Interim Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), was more about peace-building and political stability than dealing with the past and reconciliation (Ò’Neill, 2002: 30–31). Thus, the international community had limited impact in the most significant issues that affect dealing with the past, such as missing persons, transitional justice, and prosecution of war crimes (Burema, 2012: 14–16). In one of the earliest studies on collective memory in Kosovo, a historian Valur Ingimundarson acknowledged an obvious link between national symbolic reinterpretation of the past and state formation by illustrating this relationship with an example of one of the significant public commemoration: “The crucial recurring date in this mythic narrative is 28 November, Flag Day – the Albanian national holiday – and Jashari’s supposed birthday. This is not only a meta-narrative serving the purpose of legitimizing a new state; it is also a cult that is enacted, fixed and performed” (2007: 104). In another research of collective memory and commemoration practices in post-war Kosovo conducted by the anthropologist Gerold (2014), admiration of heroism, along with the glorification of epic events, values, and figures of the “liberation war” (lufta ҫlirimtare) were emphasized as key ←32 | 33→components in the post-war narrative. The fallen fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) are honoured as national martyrs (dëshmorët e kombit) and commemorated in public and often in private memorials. The sacrifices of the KLA fighters are often glorified in folk songs, poems, and radio or film documentaries. This narrative of war is connected with the enduring struggle for independence. The Kosovo political elites emerged mainly from among former KLA fighters and broadly utilized the war narrative as the “KLA ethos,” thus becoming “guardians” of national values and political struggle (Schneider and Schneider, 2011: 116–117). In contrast to the “heroism” narrative of the majority of the population, Kosovo Serb memory is filled with victimhood. According to Zdravković-Zonta (2009: 679), perceptions of Kosovo Serbs as historical victims were particularly reinforced after the NATO intervention. Not surprisingly, Serbs remember the war in Kosovo as an act of “aggression” and “terrorism”.

Different ethnic groups’ memories of wartime events clash not only in their narratives but also through their commemoration sites and practices. As McDowell and Braniff write: “Commemoration remains highly contested in Kosovo, which is unsurprising given the relationship with its statehood and the brief interlude since war engulfed it at the close of the 20th century” (2014: 143). Contested memories, thus, provoke political resentment and ethnic estrangement, in that it not only emphasizes symbolical gaps but also results in spatial division. In other words, the symbolic boundaries of memory and identity also became territorial markers. This kind of “competitive victimhood” and historical victimization, by presenting one’s ethnic groups as a victim and the other as aggressor, is also very well evidenced in other comparative studies (Zdravković-Zonta, 2009). Lack of inclusive politics of remembrance is one of the key factors that enable biased victimization.

However, dealing with the past beyond ethnocentric lenses is emerging mostly by civil society organizations by including all sides of the conflict and by constructing a bottom-up and virtual memorialization. Virtual spaces like social media have made it possible to engage across territorial borders, and create innovative ways in which young activists are looking for alternative forms of addressing these contentious issues. In his study on the role of youth activism in post-conflict societies of former Yugoslavia, Arnaud Kurze (2016) describes innovative ways and performances of younger generations in which they deal with the violent past, going beyond competing for victimhood and rival narratives, aiming to promote public ←33 | 34→engagement and inclusive reconciliatory efforts. The attempt of inclusive commemorations initiated from civil society organizations through public performance in the centre of Prishtina to honour the missing persons, by including names of Serb missing persons in addition to Albanian victims, was harshly criticized and disapproved by various organizations and victims’ community in Kosovo (Kurze, 2016: 14). Also essential to identity formation is the memory of war events from the personal experience of survivors to the memory of their descendants. War remembrance has an excessive impact on the identity and political maturation of younger people (Barber, 2009). Those born before and especially during the 1990s in Kosovo are shaped by war remembrance in various ways – from family or personal experiences, in the sense that their memory of war is lived through narratives of witnesses and survivors of war, as well as from history textbooks that have constructed and consolidated a particular version of war remembrance (Baliqi, 2017). The historical narratives in education and political discourse, public memorials and commemoration events, aim to enhance social cohesion and political legitimacy and to solidify the sense of belonging. In this way, the state might play a crucial role in articulating and transmitting the memory of the past and thus shaping a shared identity. Division of the society along ethnic lines is nowhere more evident than in the current schools and universities of Kosovo. Kosovar pupils and students are taught in different educational systems and separate facilities. The Kosovo-Albanian and other ethnic communities are taught in the curriculum of the Kosovo state, while the Serb community is mostly taught the Serbian curriculum in schools managed by the Serbian state. Besides being separated in different schools and taught according to different curricula, courses are often incompatible and conflicting, as the case with the history textbooks very clearly illustrates (Gashi, 2016). A strong emphasis on ethnic belonging, discrepant political attitudes, divergent public discourses, contested collective memories, and a divided education system are some of the obstacles that hinder the formation of a multi-ethnic and common identity. An identity that can overcome ethnic division and animosities can emerge only if there are strong political commitments from all sides to deal with the past and promote a common future. Lack of sufficient efforts to deal with the past, especially through transitional justice, contributes additionally to the contesting collective memory, consequently to the lack of reconciliation and to further ethnic cleavages.

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Identity Formation in Kosovo

Identities always exist due to common characteristics that social groups have because without certain shared similarities societies and communities cannot exist or emerge. In most cases, constitutive components for the respective national identity formation were language, political unity, and a common history (Smith, 1991). For post-conflict societies, one of the biggest challenges is to implement a complementary and often parallel process of state-building and identity formation, which is a difficult effort particularly in persisted divided societies. It is precisely the development of a shared identity that provides the possibility to consolidate a democratic and peaceful society, as well as stable and effective state institutions.

There are no surveys or related studies conducted in Kosovo that would provide empirical evidence about how or to what extent ethnic relations, collective memory, or state institutions have influenced identity or belonging of the society in the post-war period. Because of that, this research aims to outline a narrative, social-political context and content of legal framework about identity and belonging. But, first, let us see how emerging of political community and identity of the Kosovars have been developed during the different historical trajectories. To understand this historical process, four development phases can be categorized here: the first period during the former Yugoslavia, when Kosovo-Albanians were not seen as an integral part of the state but subjected to socio-economic and political segregation; in the latter part of this period, from the late 1960s until the late 1980s Kosovo experienced remarkable development in many cultural, economic, and social spheres (Spyros, 1996). The second phase begins with Milosevic’s regime, the abolition of the autonomous status of Kosovo and the political repression against Albanians during the 1990s until the end of the war in 1999. This period is characterized by deep ethnic polarization, but Albanians engaged in peaceful resistance and constituted then the unrecognized “Republic of Kosovo” that resulted in the development of the political unity and objectives among Kosovars (Clark, 2000). The third phase includes the post-war period under international administration of Kosovo by UNMIK until the declaration of independence. During this period, the main objective of international administration was to create a peaceful and multi-ethnic society through stable and democratic polity. The fourth and last period is the post-independent one, ←35 | 36→on which state institutions, symbols, images, sports events, and citizenship were provided for citizens of Kosovo as a societal and structural framework for a common identity (Baliqi, 2009).

The identity formation process is influenced not only by past events and historical circumstances, but determined also by the present political constellations and relations between ethnic groups inside Kosovo (Albanians, Serbs, and other minority groups) and by relations with other nation-states outside Kosovo (particularly Albania and Serbia). Therefore, in examining identity formation in Kosovo at least three relevant dimensions or relationships can be distinguished. The first dimension concerns the relationship of Kosovo Albanians to other Albanians in the region (Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia) and those in the Diaspora (Schuber, 2003). The role of Albanian Diaspora is not only because of its magnitude, since emigration makes a large part of the population – estimated more than a quarter of the entire population – but also because of their immense economic and socio-cultural influence. Also, as a predominant majority of the country’s population, relations of Albanians to other ethnic communities define to a great extent the kind and identity in Kosovo. The second dimension concerns the relationship of Kosovo Serbs to Serbia but also to Kosovo Albanians and other ethnic communities living in Kosovo, as Kosovo Turks, Bosniaks, Gorani, Ashkali, and Roma. This dimension is of crucial importance for the development of state identity because it can overcome ethnopolitical tensions and contestation, thus helping in the consolidation of the state (Matveeva and Paes, 2003). Finally, there is the question of the role and influence of the international community to the development of a political community and state identity. Identity formation process thus is influenced not from ethnic relations or between majorities and minorities, but it also depends on the role that these relations have towards external powers and vice versa.

This intended state identity does not imply loss of existing ethnic or cultural identities of communities, as in the case of Kosovo Albanians Ingimundarson rightly explicates: “While they can identify culturally with the Albanians of Albania as well as with those of Macedonia, Montenegro and Southern Serbia, their political entity has to be confined to a territorial notion of Kosovo” (2007: 115). Furthermore, this political identity does not replace prevalent national cultures and consciousness but emphasizes the concept of identity consisting beyond the sense of national belonging. It is that only through the state collective identity, political legitimacy and a ←36 | 37→sense of political belonging might be gained. On the other hand, the states constitute and shape the identities of political entities as the only legitimate authority.

Citizenship and Identity Formation

There is a wide consensus that citizenship and identities, though not identical concepts, are complementary and in permanent correlations. Both concepts, which can have numerous definitions, are understood here the way Isin and Wood differentiate them: “The affinity between citizenship and identity is that they are both group markers. Citizenship marks out the members of a polity from another as well as members of a polity from non-members. Identity marks out groups from each other as well as allowing for the constitution of groups as targets of assistance, hatred, animosity, sympathy or allegiance” (1999: 20).

Under the authority of the UN Security Council Resolution 1244, Kosovo gradually began to build governing institutions, while not dealing with the legal status of the country and its citizens. All documents issued by UNMIK have defined Kosovars only as “residents” and not as “citizens” of Kosovo. Therefore, the citizenship issue was related to the final status and became one of the highest priorities for Kosovo policymakers. Immediately after the declaration of independence, the Kosovo Assembly adopted the Law on Citizenship, which allows dual and multiple citizenships and does not include any ethnic, religious, or racial requirements. The Law is based on a multicultural or pluralist model that aspires to political and legal integration of diverse ethnic communities in conformity with the constitution (Doli and Korenica, 2013). In line with this approach, it refers to “communities” to include not only larger ethnic groups but also smaller and other groups, defining minorities as “non-majority” communities. Indeed, the Kosovo Law on Citizenship regarding ethnicity is neutral, addressing only the issue of citizenship (shtetësia, državljanstvo). This policy is in line with the Comprehensive Proposal for Kosovo Status Settlement, known also as “Ahtisaari Plan” principles for an inclusive society, and reflects attempts of the international community to build a democratic and multi-ethnic society. However, its controversy lies in the ←37 | 38→fact that it defines citizens based exclusively on ethnic belonging rather than on political or civic affiliation. For instance, this legislation does not use the term “Kosovar” as a common denominator for all Kosovo citizens in any of its provisions. The basic provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Kosovo state the following: “The Republic of Kosovo is a multi-ethnic society consisting of Albanian and other Communities, governed democratically with full respect for the rule of law through its legislative, executive and judicial institutions” (2008, Art. 3).

There is a constitutional formulation that proclaims the civic character of the Kosovo state. Moreover, participation and representation in political life are possible only as a member of a particular ethnicity. This inconsistency does not provide incentives by encouraging citizenship as membership or sense of belonging to the state, especially among “non-majority” communities. Besides these conceptual ambiguities, the focal challenge to the citizenship policy is related to a citizen’s commitment to the state. Under existing ethnic relations and power-sharing arrangements, the Kosovo society may share common citizenship, but as Smooha (2002: 424) argues, these relationships might “constitute a community, [but] lack common goals, do not feel solidarity with fellow citizens and do not have a moral commitment to the state”.

Bearing in mind the de facto statelessness during the period of the “parallel system” in the 1990s and de jure statelessness during the UNMIK administration until 2008, the citizenship regime, in the newly independent state, provides an opportunity to develop a political community and state unity. Although Kosovo’s state-building has followed an approach of multi-ethnicity and provided an inclusive citizenship policy, it is neither a nation-state of the overwhelming Albanian majority nor a civic state of all its citizens. Instead, as Landau (2017: 14–17) describes it, it is as a “state of communities” which remains contested, and for different reasons continues to challenge the legitimacy of the state. The construction of a shared identity and enhancement of state legitimacy requires a comprehensive process of transitional justice, dealing with the past and integrative ideology in constructing a shared identity. The present identity formation, as a result of existing power-sharing provisions and instrumentalism of ethnopolitical elites, does not promote citizenship as truly part of them belonging to the state, hindering thus emerging of a common political community. On the contrary, it has resulted merely in the institutionalization of ethnicity and loyalty exclusively to the respective ethnic group.

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Collective Memory and Identity

If we had to simplify and illustrate the past of Kosovo, it could be described commonly as the continuous struggle for freedom and self-determination. Being discriminated and persecuted for a relatively long time and from different perpetrators have caused an inherent memory of the suffering and of, what I will define as, “imposed solidarity”. In this sense, the past and narratives on and about these events are not only the field of historical studies and topics of scientific researches, moreover, but they are also used and interpreted constantly in the actual political and public discourses by evoking strong sentimental link in the identity formation endeavours. The absence of the legitimate state, until the proclamation of independence, has had an impact on the promotion and establishment of certain unofficial politics of memory and memorialization practices. In this regard, the collective memory of past was articulated largely from academic and intellectual milieus, and it was the domain of media and civil society organizations but also the family of victims or associations of the missing persons.

The collective memory serves to honour the victims and other losses, by providing the certain meaning of it, and to learn lessons about the past for upcoming generations (Arthur, 2011). Thus, the collective memories of the 1998/1999 war, through commemorating sacrifices, victims and heroism, and its symbolic settings in everyday life, have influenced significantly identity formation in Kosovo, especially among Kosovo Albanians. These traumatic events and experiences are treated artistically in photography exhibitions, novels, and memoirs of witnesses and documented in a dozen films and short films and documentaries. Some of the internationally prominent films that deal with this issue from different perspectives alike are: Kukumi, Agnus Dei, Three Windows and a hanging and short films Column, and an Oscar-nominated one from 2015 Shok. Certainly, as a personal and collective experience, and as war trauma, this event has an ongoing influence on political attitudes and identity of the Kosovar society. Also essential to identity formation is the legacy of war remembrance from the personal experiences of survivors to the memories of their descendants. The young generations born during the 1990s and 2000s in Kosovo are shaped by memory of war in several ways – from family or personal experiences, in the sense that their memory of war is lived through narratives ←39 | 40→of witnesses and survivors of war, as well as from history textbooks that have constructed and consolidated a particular version of war remembrance (Baliqi, 2017).

The role of the past is influential particularly in the initial phase of state identity formation, because the sense of belonging and sameness is sustained by remembering and what will be remembered is defined by the identity of that group. Collective memory reconstructs the past based on the current references and interests of the most influential and dominant political forces. The historical narratives, combined with public space, memorials, and commemoration events, aim to enhance social cohesion, political legitimacy and to solidify the sense of belonging. In this process, state institutions have a central role to play in articulating and transmitting the memory of the past. Their ability to establish and shape certain collective memory is decisive in the formation of a shared identity and belonging to the state. In this sense, the capacity of the state to establish certain politics of memory that promote belonging to the state could increase not only state legitimacy and improve significantly ethnic relations among different communities but develop political unity and shared identity.


To organize a peaceful and democratic society, besides the state authority and its functionality, also crucial is having a consolidated common identity to ensure legitimacy and thereby create loyalty and belonging to the state. The development of a unified political community is therefore crucial to long-term stability and sustainable democratic society. In this context, one of the major challenges for the multi-ethnic and post-conflict states remains the issue of ethnopolitical divisions and contested memories. And the challenge is whether it is possible that the sense of belonging to the state might be stronger than ethno-nationalist sentiments. The proper answer to this question depends not only on social integration and interethnic relations but also on the capacities and abilities of the state to establish politics of memory that support the stronger bond between society and the state. The state in this regard has to set some foundations of the appropriate politics and culture of memory that could affect positively ←40 | 41→identity formation and sense of belonging to the state. This includes official ceremonials like national liberation or Independence Day, Museums, Archives, certain historical narratives, commemorative rituals, public places, school programmes, history textbooks, and other repertoires that strengthen a link between a state and society. Because the past is not only important as a basis and content of collective memory, furthermore it is the precondition for the formation of state identity. The state-promoted politics of memory has an impact also on the way it is articulated and passed on succeeding generations. Further, it may encourage transitional justice, and rebuild mutual trust and reconciliation between ethnic communities. But initially dealing with war crimes, atrocities, and other violent acts is a precondition for effective dealing with the past and of inclusive collective memory. It requires a strong political will and commitment of the prevalent political elites, and comprehensive support from civil society, media and academic world to promote a culture of collective memory that goes beyond ethnocentric lenses in both mitigating integrative approaches and in strengthening a sense of belonging to the state. Because identities are evolving continually and contain various layers, it is most likely that Kosovo citizens may sustain both cultural identity and ethnicity, in one hand, and political identity and state belonging, on the other hand. The issue if these identities can be congruent depends very much if the sentiment of belonging, based on political inclusiveness, common social values, and shared history, can be developed and maintained sufficiently from the state and its politics of memory. Political elites must promote a collective memory that improves exchange relationships between the state and its citizens that, over time, can be developed into a sense of state belonging and shared identity.


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Anton Vukpalaj

“No Bodies-No Crimes”: The Reburial Operations of the Serbian Forces in Kosovo in 1999

Abstract This chapter analyses the specific operation of the Serbian forces named asanacija (sanitization) decided by Slobodan Milošević and his most trusted subordinates at the end of March 1999 which consisted on exhumation and reburial of at least 944 bodies of Kosovo-Albanian civilians massacred in Kosovo by Serbian forces. After the massacres of civilians, Serbian forces proceeded with exhumation of the bodies from the mass graves where they have been initially buried. Bodies were exhumed by heavy machinery, transported by trucks and reburied in different locations in Serbia, more than 400 kilometres from the initial mass graves. The chapter analyses public documents from the trials of the Serbian leadership by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and compares the operation to the similar operations conducted by Serb forces in Srebrenica in 1995 as well as to the similar operations of the Nazis during the Second World War. The chapter alleges that the aim of operation asanacija was to debunk claims of the international community that Serbian forces committed ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and to maintain Serbia’s supremacy over the coming negotiations on Kosovo. The chapter concludes by showing that having gone defensive after NATO bombing, the concealment of crimes contributed to the overall objective of the Serbian regime consisting of ethnically “cleansing” Kosovo from its vast majority Kosovo-Albanian population.

Keywords: Kosovo, Serbia, reburial operations, mass graves


From March to June 1999, Serbian forces had orchestrated an operation under the cover name asanacija which consisted of moving the victims’ bodies from what was named “primary” mass graves, the graves found near the places where the massacres had taken place, to “secondary” mass graves which contained bodies that were disinterred from primary mass graves, transported and reburied in different locations in Serbia (Groen et al., 2015; Jugo, 2017). This operation was revealed on 1 May 2001, after a Serbian regional newspaper, Timocka Krimi Revija, revealed that on 5 April ←45 | 46→1999, ten days after the beginning of the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, a refrigerator truck full with bodies of Kosovo-Albanian civilians was pulled out from the River Danube near Tekija in Eastern Serbia, close to the Romanian border (Racin, 2001). The revelation of this operation was deliberately divulged by the Serbian government in an attempt to prepare the Serbian public for transfer of former president Milošević to The Hague. In her book published in 2008, the former Chief Prosecutor of the ICTY, Carla Del Ponte, wrote that she was informed about the Kosovo reburial operations at the end of January 2001 by the then Serbian Prime Minister, Zoran Đinđić, when discussing with him the cooperation of Serbia with the ICTY (Del Ponte and Sudetic, 2008, 110). Milošević, who had been indicted by the ICTY in May 1999, had lost elections in October 2000 and the new prime minister of Serbia Đinđić was interested in transferring Milošević to The Hague (Vukpalaj, 2018, 38). During his encounter with Del Ponte in January 2001, Đinđić informed the ICTY Chief Prosecutor of the reburial operations while they were discussing Milošević’s transfer to The Hague. Đinđić told Del Ponte that reburial operations were “a bombshell” that he thought to drop by revealing “the secret reports he had received that Serbian police forces, in their pains to destroy evidence of killings of civilians in Kosovo, had shipped the bodies of some of their victims, including women and children, to Belgrade, and secretly buried them within the confines of the Yugoslav Army airfield at Batajnica, just outside the capital city” (Kerr, 2003, 125; Del Ponte and Sudetic, 2008; Ostojić, 2014, 122).

More details of the operation were published on May 10, 2001, by the Serbian weekly Vreme (Anastasijević, 2001). Soon after the first revelations, the Serbian government set up a Working Group to investigate the reburial claims; on 25 May 2001, this Working Group reached its first conclusions on the operation (The Government of Serbia Working Group Report 1, 2001). This report focused on the refrigerator truck discovered on the Danube and gave details about how these bodies had been handled (Hubrecht, 2001). However, this first report – which happened to be the first public report ever carried out by the Serbian government on crimes committed by Serbian forces in Kosovo – did not provide information on where the Danube-uncovered bodies had ended up, nor where the other presumptive bodies of Kosovo-Albanians transported in trucks from Kosovo to Serbia had been hidden. On 26 June 2001, two days before Slobodan Milošević was transferred to The Hague, the Working Group ←46 | 47→issued a second more detailed report which revealed the existence of other mass graves (The Government of Serbia Working Group Report 2, 2001). This second report mentioned that reburial operations were organized from late March until early June 1999 across different locations in Serbia. Two reburial sites were explicitly mentioned: Batajnica on the outskirts of the Serbian capital Belgrade and Petrovo Selo near the city of Kladovo in Eastern Serbia. In July 2001, the Serbian government released information about the existence of another mass grave near the artificial Lake of Perućac in Western Serbia, close to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina (HLC, 2017, 133). Another mass grave was discovered in 2010 in Rudnica, near Serbia’s border with Kosovo (HLC, 2015, 14). After the publication of the reports of the Working Group, Radomir Marković, the former Head of the Serbian Secret Services (Resor Državne Bezbednosti-RDB) who used to be one of the most important officials of the Milošević regime, sent a letter to the press from his prison cell in Belgrade confirming most of the Working Group’s findings (Statement of Radomir Marković, 2001).

In addition to the relevant local sources describing asanacija, reliable sources for this study were public documents of the ICTY examining the trials of the Serbian leadership that were conducted in the The Hague from 2002 to 2015 as well as local and international reports that analysed the operation asanacija. In the first part of the chapter, I will analyse the reburial operations in Kosovo in a broader context and compare it to similar operations organized by Nazis during the Second World War as well as to the reburial operations conducted by Bosnian Serb Army in Srebrenica in autumn 1995. The second part of the chapter analyses how the word asanacija, a technical-military term, which refers to the obligation of all parties in a conflict to find, identify, and bury the dead after battle (Tromp, 2016, 232), was exclusively used by Serbian officials to order the reburial operations. During his trial in The Hague, Milošević and his subordinates contested that this word designated reburial operations. Indeed, the true meaning of asanacija became an argument for Milošević in his trial to try to discredit the operation. The third part of the chapter focuses on the organizational aspects of the operation asanacija and the political and security structures such as police, army, secret services, as well as civilians who were connected to it. In the fourth and last part here are analysed political goals of the operation asanacija. The political context of the operation is closely linked to the situation in which the Milošević regime ←47 | 48→found itself after the beginning of the NATO intervention. The injunction to conceal the bodies preceded the intensification of the mass atrocities that followed this intervention.

Concealing the Evidence of the Mass Killing: From the Nazi-Germany and Bosnia and Hercegovina to Kosovo

Reburial operations are not common practices to be found in the past wars. The Milošević-Regime, however, shared the common effort of many regimes to cover-up the crime. In the Nazi concentration camps, after the victims were killed, they were either buried in mass graves or burned with the intent to eradicate evidence of crimes. There was not a common pattern of behaviour concerning the treatment of the victims’ dead bodies. According to Pokimes and Symes (2013, 252), in Auschwitz, the destruction of victims’ bodily remains was carried out through the industrial burning of victims’ bodies and then their ashes were transported by trucks and dumped into the Vistula River near the camp whereas in Belzek, Sobibor, and Treblinka, the Nazis attempted to disguise their crimes by planting trees over mass graves. The different armed conflicts that took place in the former Yugoslavia resulted in a great number of mass graves. In Croatia, the mass grave of Ovčara uncovered in the suburbs of the city of Vukovar, in October 1991, was until then the largest mass grave in Europe after the Second World War (Bideleux and Jeffries, 2007). Bodies of 261 people, mostly ethnic Croats, killed by Serbian forces after the fall of the city were exhumed from the Ovčara graveyard. In Bosnia and Hercegovina, most of the mass graves were concentrated in the Eastern part of the country, in particular in the region of Srebrenica, where the most recent data speak about 6982 body remains found in 94 mass graves (Balkan Insight, 2019). At the end of the Kosovo war in 1999, the former Chief Prosecutor of the ICTY, Carla Del Ponte, told the U.N. Security Council that her office had received reports of 529 reported mass graves and killing sites in Kosovo (UN SC/6749, 1999). As of August 2020, according to the United Nations Interim Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) there are still 1,643 missing persons related to the conflict in Kosovo (UNMIK, 2020).

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Four years before the reburial operations were organized in Kosovo, a similar operation was organized in Bosnia and Hercegovina. After the war was finished, in the area of the city of Srebrenica were discovered twenty-six “secondary mass graves”. From August to November 1995, several thousand Bosnian Muslim men who were machine-gunned outside the town of Srebrenica in July 1995 in five execution sites and buried in (primary) mass graves were in the following months removed and reburied in other locations (Wright, 1998; Jugo and Wastell, 2014, 142–174). Jean René Ruez (2012), who led the inquiry into the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, claimed that the Army of the Republika Srpska had “launched an effort to camouflage evidence of their crimes that was logistically as great as the extermination operation itself”. According to Jennings, the remains of the thousands of executed men were buried “in dozens of secondary mass graves in a twenty-mile radius of Srebrenica, over some 300 square miles of countryside […] and years later, parts of one man’s body were found in four different mass graves miles apart” (2015, 6). These secondary mass graves, in contrast to the primary mass graves that Bosnian Serbs had placed along major roads in open areas, reflect the “deliberate attempt to better hide corpses from investigators: near tertiary roads, further from residential areas and most of the time in forest areas” (Pokimes and Symes, 2013, 263).

In this sense, the transport of bodies of Kosovo-Albanian civilians in refrigerated trucks, hundreds of kilometres away from the crime scenes, and their reburial in the terrains of the Serbian police share the same objective of the removal of the bodies in inaccessible locations. A distance of more than 400 kilometres from the places of massacres and the training field of the Serbian police units in Batajnica and Petrovo Selo was supposed to ensure the secrecy of the reinterment location. According to Gow (2003), these locations were considered among the most secret and secured places in Serbia. Nevertheless, the transportation of bodies hundreds of kilometres away from Kosovo used to be more complex than the organizers of these operations had thought. The dumping of the trucks on the river Danube and on the artificial Lake of Perucac shows that the organizers had difficulties in accomplishing the operation. In a study of the Batajnica secondary mass graves, Tuller et al. state that the “the perpetrators, however, were not as methodological in the destruction of the bodies as they had planned” (2008, 9). The reason, according to these authors, was the fear of ongoing NATO bombing strikes in the area at the ←49 | 50→time, and the lack of enthusiasm of those who carried out the operation. In his testimony in 2001, the Head of the Serbian secret services (RDB), Radomir Marković, stated that the person in charge of the operation “complained to him […] on several occasions of the difficulty of the job he was doing, his lack of preparation for such horrors and the resistance he was meeting in the field from people who were supposed to assist in revealing the locations of the bodies of Albanian civilians” (2001, 2).

Depending if a mass grave is primary or secondary, it can be helpful to better understand institutions and persons who committed the crimes. This is illustrative of the organized character of these operations. Bodies were sent to primary mass graves by trucks or other means and thrown into the pits opened for that purpose. In some cases, victims were still alive when thrown into the pits or executed before the pit was closed (Delpla et al., 2012, 26). Secondary mass graves on the other hand do not contain full body remains of the victims, because of their deliberate destruction during exhumation and because of bone breakage by the heavy machinery used to exhume them (Jugo, 2017). According to Ferrándiz and Robben (2015, 11), commissions that exhume body remains from secondary mass graves face the difficult task to “transform the disappeared into individual victims, and put them on a trajectory from dispersed remains to individualized identities and finally to restoration to their community and family”.1 In this respect, the bodies of Kosovo-Albanian civilians exhumed from the secondary mass graves of Batajnica represented an additional challenge of identification since body remains were damaged by fires that had been ignited between the five deposits of bodies (Đorđević, 2011, 1481–1514). The difficult identification of bodies explains why the victim estimates advanced by different commissions are so different. For example, the Forensic Office of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) published a report on 24 November 2005 in which initially were reported 705 ←50 | 51→bodies recovered from Batajnica. After the remains were repatriated to Kosovo and handed over to the UNMIK’s Office for Missing Persons and Forensics (OMPF), which performed forensic analysis and re-examined the human remains, it was concluded that there were in fact remains of 39 more people, namely of 744 bodies (ICMP, 2004; HLC, 2017, 11). The same discrepancy occurred with human remains of Kosovo-Albanians exhumed from the secondary mass grave of the Lake Perućac in Western Serbia (Đorđević, 2011, 1459–1460). Among the 86 bodies of Kosovo-Albanians discovered on the refrigerated truck that floated in the Danube in April 1999, there were three human heads without bodies (ICTY Prosecutor v Milutinović et al., 2009, para. 1294).

Destruction and concealment of victims’ bodies have a dual purpose: not only does it enable criminals to hide the evidence of crimes committed but it also enables them to continue perpetrating them (Anstett and Dreyfus, 2014, 66–67). Someone “who never existed” can never be gone. According to Brossat and Deotte (2000, 103), it is a negationist and anti-existentialist policy that requires victims’ parents to prove that their children have existed. Similarly, Rozett and Schmuel (2000, 103) argue that the destruction of the mass graves of Jews in Eastern Europe was intended to make it impossible to know the exact number of people killed and to support the denial of the Holocaust. Weizmann contends that the extermination of Europe’s Jews and the concealment of crimes were central pillars of Nazi policy and were, essentially, tantamount to state crimes (Weizmann, 2005, 84). Further, Rozett and Shmuel (2000, 103) consider that the concealment of bodies impedes the inclusion of these persons in the human race and that “any trace of their passage to the earth will disappear with their corpses. This disappearance calls into question the very existence of the group in the sense that, if there are no victims, there can no longer be an original group and furthermore descendants. How can the group continue to exist in the younger generations if there has never been a group?” In a similar vein, Hannah Arendt (1966, 442) stated that:

… [m]‌urder is only a limited evil. The murderer who kills a man – a man who has to die anyway – still moves within the realm of life and death familiar to us; both have indeed a necessary connection on which the dialectic is founded, even if it is not always conscious of it. The murderer leaves a corpse behind and does not pretend that his victim has never existed; if he wipes out any traces, they are those of his own identity, and not the memory and grief of the persons who loved his victim; he destroys a life, but he does not destroy the fact of existence itself.

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According to Ferrándiz and Robben (2015, 1), “graves containing caches of bones from diverse modalities of extreme violence and destruction are crucial testimony to the wounds of history, and a key element in understanding both foundations and consequences of violence.” In their view, “the deliberate commingling of human remains in unmarked graves bewilders survivors and heightens the disorder, anxiety, and division of the citizenry” (ibid.) According to Jugo (2017), the “robbing” of bodies of the victims has serious social consequences. One of them involves keeping the societies in question in a long-term mourning state due to the inability to find out the date, the conditions of death, and the location of their relative’s burial. The crimes in which the bodies disappear as opposed to crimes where bodies are found continue until the victim’s body is found (Anstett, 2013).

The Operation asanacija, Sanitization or Reburial

When reburial operations of Kosovo-Albanian civilians were discussed during the Milošević trial before the ICTY in May and June 2005, Milošević contested that his order given to his subordinaes to proceede with asanacija was used for reburial operations. He tried to show that his order has been a legitimate measure, and he referred to the Geneva and Vienna Conventions. He also referred to the manuals of the Yugoslav army where it was written that this term captures a number of measures taken such as “caring for the wounded after the battle, finding and identifying corpses, weapons and other potentially harmful items” (ICTY Prosecutor v Milutinović et al., 2009, footnote 1951, 289). However, the ICTY prosecution possessed several documents and testimonies that proved that Serbian officials deliberately used this term to designate the reburial operations. According to the Report of the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC), the available documents from that time “clearly suggest that the term ‘clearing up the terrain’ or ‘sanitization’ was abundantly used by politicians and military and police forces to refer to the illegal removal of bodies and their burial in clandestine mass graves in order to cover up the crimes committed” (HLC, 2017, 9–10).

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Laugesen and Gehrmann (2020, 188) consider that the challenge of the interpretation of the term asanacija by the accused Serbian officials in The Hague aimed to relativize their involvement in the operation. They compare this situation to the euphemisms of Nazi language in the Nuremberg Trials when “the difference between the terms komandir and komandant [commander] was discussed by interpreters with regard to the significance of these positions in the early trials, and the negotiation of these terms was brought up by the defence in the later years.” They contend that this had the effect of reducing the involving of the accused and their implication.

In order to prove the true meaning of the term asanacija, the ICTY prosecution had already the experience of several trials of the Bosnian Serbs who had organized the reburial operations in Bosnia and Hecegovina in autumn 1995. The Bosnian Serb, Momir Nikolić, has been one of them. He has been tasked with the organization of the operation and testified as a prosecution witness in the trial of General Zdravko Tolimir, who was alleged to have masterminded the reburial operations in Bosnia and had advised Milosević and his subordinates on the Kosovo operation (Hartmann, 2007, 103; Vukpalaj, 2010, 245–246). In his testimony on 6 April 2001, Nikolić had explained that in Srebrenica, the term asanacija was a cover word that was used for the “exhumation operations of corpses from primary to secondary mass graves” (ICTY Momir Nikolić, T. 12430–12432). Nikolić confirmed that the reburial operations were referred in his unit as asanacija. When a document issued by his brigade was discussed, Nikolić explained in his testimony in front of the ICTY how asanacija was used as follows:

When the Kosovo reburial operations were examined before the ICTY in 2005, the accused former Serbian President contested the operation. He had invited one of his former subordinates, General Obrad Stevanović, as a defence witness (Tromp, 2016, 232; Milošević, T. 39908–39913, 26 May 2005). Stevanović had served as Serbia’s Deputy interior Minister and had commanded the Special Police units of the Republic of Serbia in Kosovo in 1999 (Human Right Watch, 2001, 16). It is during Stevanović’s cross-examination that Milošević tried to cast doubt on the reburial operations by trying to prove that the order he had given to his minister to proceed with “sanitization” had been completely in accordance with what has to be done when there are civilian casualties. He quoted documents, books as well as dispositions of the International Geneva Convention to prove that this term had nothing to do with exhumations and reburials of war victims. After having explained the meaning of the word asanacija, when cross-examined by Milošević, Stevanović testified that this word could not be used to cover up crimes. Stevanović claimed that: “Someone from the state or military security service warned about the perfidious activities of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) terrorists, who removed the victims of their crimes and their dead, burying them in mass graves to pin the blame on the VJ or MUP” (Tromp, 2016). However, according to Tromp, Stevanović could not explain to the prosecution how KLA “was able to move the bodies dug up from a mass grave from the MUP training area in Prizren (Kosovo) to a mass grave in the MUP training area in Batajnica”. And Milošević tried to argue in a conspiratorial fashion that it was NATO that supported the reburial operation since it avoided to bomb the area surrounding the police centre in Batajnica where the bodies were reburied while it bombed abundantly the Batajnica airport (Milošević, T. 39908–39913, 26 May 2005).

Evidence of the existence of reburial sites emerged from Stevanović’s notebook which came into the hands of the prosecution of the ICTY and which contained notes Stevanović had taken in May 1999 during a meeting with Milošević. This notebook was shown to General Stevanović and contained several notes that proved that the discussions with the President had turned around the reburial operations which were taking place at that time. At the top of the notebook, Stevanović wrote that the notes were taken in the Office of the President (Tromp, 2016). After his initial refusal, ←54 | 55→Stevanović admitted that the notebook contained his signature. This notebook was among the few written documents about the operation asanacija in Kosovo. One of the phrases in Stevanović’s notebook while meeting in May 1999 his chief Milošević was “no body – no crime!” This notebook constituted evidence that sanitization of the terrain contained the clearing of the ground from any material proof of crimes committed against the civilian population in Kosovo. This notebook also included a number of other short phrases which alluded to the reburial operation, for instance:

They work arduously on that issue (the original word for “arduously” may in fact reads “in an underhanded manner”).

They will justify the aggression with evidence of crimes Clean-up Simultaneous, clean-up of the territory. We will find it harder (illegible) once the mission arrives. The clean-up of the terrain is the most important (Sense Agency, 2019).

Stevanović’s notebook shows that the Serbian regime was aware that a new international mission would “arrive” and that “the most important” was “the clean-up of the terrain”, and that the discovery of crime scenes could be used as an “evidence of crimes”.

The Organization of the Reburial Operations

The reburial operations are not isolated actions that can be explained separately from the other actions of Serbian forces in Kosovo. The reburial operations represent particular sequences of a process which started with massacres, the removing of the corpses from crime scenes, their interment in primary mass graves in Kosovo, followed by their exhumation, their loading onto trucks, transportation to Serbia, and reinterment in secret mass graves (HLC, 2017, 65). In each of the phases of the reburial operations, different Serbian institutions took part, starting from “a great number of policemen, VJ [Vojska Jugoslavia/Yougoslav army] and Territorial Defence staff, members of the Civil Defence under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence, and civilians” (HLC, 2017). The Trial Chamber in the Đorđević verdict (2011, 2103) revealed a consistent pattern of conduct of the Serbian forces to prevent the discovery of killings. The verdict specifies that “typically, bodies of Kosovo Albanians killed by Serbian forces were removed from the crime scenes ←55 | 56→and, in most cases, buried in temporary graves in other locations, before being disinterred and clandestinely transported hundreds of kilometres to isolated locations in Serbia where they were reburied in unmarked mass graves, or, in a few cases, clandestinely transported directly to isolated locations in Serbia for burial in unmarked mass graves” (2011, para. 2103).

But how were these operations organized? Several layers of Serbian state institutions and leadership were involved in the organization and accomplishment of these crime hiding operations. And to this leadership were subordinated “hundreds, possibly thousands of individuals from various organisations who took part in this process” (HLC, 2017, 65). It is clear that there were coordinated actions of different state institutions. For instance, after the massacres were committed, the Civil Protection Units commanded by the Federal Ministry of Defence was responsible for “clearing” the terrain (Milutinović et al. 2009, 752). These units moved the bodies of Kosovo-Albanian civilians to primary mass graves digged up near the sites where these civilians were killed. Occasionally, this Unit recruited employees of the local public utility companies or members of the Civil Protection Unit to remove the corpses from the scene of the crime (HLC, 2017, 21). When it comes to the exhumation phase, police forces played a crucial role and were supported by Serbian secret services.2 In many locations, witnesses have identified individuals belonging to marginalized communities such as the Roma who were tasked with exhumations and loading of bodies onto trucks. In Đorđević (2011, 1276), the testimony of the protected witness, K72, a Kosovo Serb from the city of Gjakova, who was an excavator operator working for a private construction company, reads regarding the exhumation process as follows:

During the evening on an unspecified day in late April or early May 1999, at around 2000 or 2100 hour, a man introducing himself as an officer and wearing a blue camouflage police uniform came to K72’s house and told him he had a “delicate” job for him. K72 was ←56 | 57→taken to the police station in Dakovica/Gjakovë where he picked up his excavator. From there, he followed the police officer, heading towards Prizren; they stopped just before the Bistražin/Bishtazhin Bridge. As directed, K72 drove his excavator to a clearing about 100 metres from the road. Some digging appeared already to have been done at the location; there was a strong stench and K72 could see corpses.

The protected witness K72 declared that, in all three cases he was hired to exhume the bodies with his excavator, uniformed police officers came to his home in the evening and took him to the locations where the corpses were buried (Sense Agency, 2009; HLC, 2017, 23). In one of the cases of his engagement, police vehicles were parked near the place where he had to exhume the bodies and the policemen moved around the area with torches. He testified that “the road leading up to where they were digging was blocked and no access was allowed to anyone during the process of removing the bodies” (Đorđević, 2011, 1276). After the exhumation of bodies from primary mass graves and their loading onto trucks, policemen led them to designated places before they were driven to Serbia. In this last phase, police forces were continuously supported by RDB who were in charge of accompanying the trucks to different locations across Serbia. The drivers of trucks worked for the MUP. In his testimony in The Hague, one of the truck drivers declared that during each of his four trips to Kosovo, policemen directed him to the places where the bodies were collected and then loaded onto trucks. He testified that, in one of his last trips “when he went to the Rilindija he was met by police officers who gave him a confiscated refrigerated truck with some 500 bodies inside to drive to Batajnica” (Milutinović et al., 2009, para. 1317).3

The organization of the operation “Depth 2” (Dubina 2), which consisted of dealing with the refrigerated truck full of bodies that floated in the Danube, in Eastern Serbia in April 1999 tells us how people and institutions who were not involved in the Kosovo war obeyed to their hierarchy. The HLC report mentions 110 persons as having been involved in it (2017). In Milutinvić et al. figures that when the above mentioned floating truck was brought to the Danube shore, several members of the Serbian state police, judiciary, and medical institutions were present on the scene. ←57 | 58→The verdict also points out that, when the judge who was present on the scene refused to investigate the matter, the team informed their superiors and took measures to “prevent any leaks of information”. Measures were taken to paint the inscription on the truck that showed it came from Prizren (Kosovo), and the team suggested that people should be told that the bodies belonged to Kurds who were crossing into Serbia illegally from Romania. After the meeting, “one local policeman went back to the scene to work on disguising the truck as discussed” (Milutinvić et al. verdict, 2009, para. 1285). Similar to the way the operation was carried out in Kosovo, people from the Kladovo communal enterprise were engaged in moving the corpses from one truck to another. Other people were charged to take the bodies near Belgrade where members of the RDB took over the trucks and drove them to Batajnica (HLC, 2017). HLC report, relying on sources from the archive of the RDB and ICTY, states that in the operation “Depth 2” members of RDB played a crucial role. They were present in each phase of the operation, taking part in all local meetings informing their hierarchy. Parallel to that, local police head informed Vlastimir Đorđević who ordered the judges and prosecutors as well police officers to “stop all work and secure the area” (HLC, 2017, 40). Đorđević himself was given the order by the Serbian Interior Minister, Vlajko Stojilković (Milutinović et al., 2009, para. 1286). Considering the information Milošević received on a daily basis from different persons he had put at the top of state institutions, there is no doubt that he was informed about the refrigerated truck carrying bodies of Kosovo-Albanian victims. Đorđević, together with the former Prime Minister of Serbia, Nikola Sainović, and the former Chief of State Security of the Serbian Interior Ministry, Rade Marković, were “the most trusted people of the late Minister of Police (of Serbia) Vlajko Stojiljković who was from the same city as Milošević and his wife, Mira Marković” (Thomas, 1999, 329). Thus, these heads of Serbian state institutions were tasked by Milošević to organize and accomplish the second phase of the process of concealment of bodies that consisted on their exhumation, loading onto trucks, transfer to Serbia, and reinternment in secret mass graves (HLC, 2017, 65). At this end, the involvement of the different institutions led by key Serbian state officials is proved by the presence on the ground of their subordinates by the River Danube near Tekija in Eastern Serbia and their participation in different roles and phases of the operations.

←58 | 59→

The Political Goal of the Reburial Operations

According to Gow, by hiding the evidence of crimes the ultimate aim of Milošević was political and he nourished the Serbian propaganda “perfectly-playing to both domestic and international audiences that had been sceptical of NATO action over Kosovo: everything would be seen to have been a fabrication and could have been dismissed as NATO lies, as Belgrade and its apologists had claimed all along” (2003, 7). Gow considers that the aim was to inflict a post-conflict embarrassment on NATO and “mock any international calls to investigate suspected mass grave locations by allowing them to access, only to find nothing” (ibid., 7). The Trial Chamber of the ICTY in Milutinović et al. case states that “the Chamber is convinced that the purpose of this operation was to conceal over 700 bodies scattered throughout Kosovo from both citizens of the FRY and Serbia, and from the international community, including this Tribunal and NATO ground forces, whose presence on the ground in Kosovo was anticipated following the NATO bombing” (2009, para. 1357). In the Đorđević verdict the Trial Chamber of the ICTY found that “the planning for the concealment of hundreds of bodies of Kosovo Albanian civilians killed during joint VJ-MUP actions is strong evidence that killings were part of the common plan to terrorise a significant part of the Kosovo Albanian population into leaving Kosovo” (2011, para. 2025). It was part of a larger project that was the “solution to the Kosovo question” (Ibid.). Therefore, the reburial operations were part of state-organized violence against civilians, ordered in a moment when the massacres were intensifying. In this respect, the violence against Kosovo-Albanian civilians was beforehand and thoughtfully calculated.

In her study of the civilians targeting, Jessica Stanton suggests that, before engaging in violence, “governments calculate the extent to which violence against civilians will help them to accomplish their political goals” and that they “make these calculations with the knowledge that violence can cost them the support of both domestic and international constituencies” (2016, 24–25). She argues that when targeting civilians, belligerents use violence “(1) to control civilians and thereby control territory, or (2) to cleanse territory of a particular ethnic or religious group, or (3) to terrorize the opponent’s civilian constituents and thereby coerce the opponent into making concessions” (ibid.) Each of these violence dynamics uncovered by ←59 | 60→the existing literature are relevant when analysing Serbia’s policies towards Kosovo. Similarly, Stathis Kalyvas (1999, 251), in a study of the massacres in Algeria during the 1990s, argues that contrary to the conventional explanation that massacres in this country in the 1990s were the result of a blind, irrational, and barbaric violence inspired by radical Islamist ideology, perpetrators of these massacres displayed a high degree of rationality and carefully calculated their actions. Benjamin Valentino argues that “war, mass killing can be a powerful political and military tool” and that “unfortunately, leaders throughout history have proved all too ready to use this tool when it seemed to serve their purposes” (2004, 3). Serbia’s strategy of civilian targeting in Kosovo is best shown by the statement of one of Milošević’s acolytes in Kosovo, Nikola Sainović, who stated at the Joint Command meeting on 29 September 1998 that “the FRY authorities/Serbia had to ‘demoralize’ Kosovo Albanians” (HRW, 2001, 34–35; Milutinović et al., 2009, para. 463). The attacks against civilians, especially in the first months of the armed conflict, and the public display of violence were aimed at controlling territory and civilians through terror. With the beginning of the NATO military intervention in March 1999 Serbian forces intensified their terror against the civil population aiming to change permanently the ethnic structure in Kosovo. And the reburial operations were only a part of a larger strategy devised to terrorize the Kosovo-Albanian population and hasten their deportation from Kosovo’s territory.

Previous studies suggest that regimes are more likely to perpetrate heinous crimes against certain segments of the population when they start to lose ground. Mass atrocities are often contemplated as a last-ditch attempt to keep the situation under control. Christopher Browning, for example, found that the intensification of Jewish extermination came at a time when German efforts to win the war in Russia faded away, before ending in a catastrophic defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943 (1992, XII–XIV). Evidence indicates that the Nazis accelerated the extermination programs as military defeats intensified and as it become clear that a country that had been under their control might be lost (Semelin, 2003, 194). Totten and Bartrop claim that “all over Eastern Europe, the Nazis had victims dig their own mass graves on the assumption that they would never be found. Only when the tide of war shifted in favour of the Soviet Union (USSR), in 1943, did the Germans think of digging up the half-decomposed bodies and cremating them. The process proved too slow, however, and had to be abandoned” (2000, 271). In the camp of Natzweiler in Alsace in France, ←60 | 61→the Nazis demolished the camp and dynamited the mass graves as they were retreating and managed to destroy all bodies right before they left their positions (Pokimes and Symes, 2013, 252). According to Jacques Semelin, in 1994 in Rwanda, massacres intensified when the Hutu regime felt insecure because of the attacks of the Rwandan Patriotic Front who was targeting governmental forces from neighbouring countries. He claims that the extermination of Tutsis was considered by Hutus in power as an “imperative” for not losing the war; this had to be achieved through “the total destruction of this internal threat”. In his view, similar developments occurred in the case of the Armenian genocide during which “the massacres followed the severe defeat of the Turks by the Russians in a context of war in which the Armenian minority in the Ottoman Empire was perceived by the Young Turks government as an accomplice and ally of Russia.” Further, the large-scale massacres perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia are often explained by the fact that “they perceived themselves as an extreme minority” (Semelin, 2003, 194–195).

In August 1995, Serbs in Bosnia and Hercegovina were on the defensive after NATO attacked their army positions around Sarajevo. At the same time, the offensives (Storm and Flash) by the Croatian army against the Croatian Serb army in Krajina posed a grave danger for the territories controlled by Serbs in Western Bosnia. There was a risk that, if Serbs in Bosnia and Hercegovina refuse to negotiate a peace agreement, they could have the same fate as the Croatian-Serbs who had lost the war in Croatia. Therefore, in the two months that preceded the beginning of the negotiations in Dayton, Serbs returned to the primary mass graves around Srebrenica to “clean” the body remains of the Bosniak civilians (Nettelfield and Wagner, 2014).

In both cases, in 1995 in Bosnia and Hercegovina and in 1999 in Kosovo, Serbs were acutely aware that the discovery of mass graves would weaken their negotiating position. And in both cases, the decision to conceal the crime was taken in moments when the regime structures were weakened and negotiations had become inevitable. Therefore, the intensification of crimes against Kosovo-Albanian civilians, followed by the reburial operations conducted by Serbian forces in Kosovo, was organized in a moment that Holsti (1996) considers as “a deep crisis of the power system”.

Cover up operations in Kosovo were closely linked to the intensification of crimes perpetrated by the Serbian forces after the beginning of the NATO bombing campaign on 24 March, 1999. Only in the first week ←61 | 62→following NATO’s intervention, 24–31 of March 1999, 2067 Kosovo-Albanian civilians were killed by Serbian forces. This represented almost double the number of all civilians killed during the previous year 1998 (1099) and indicated that the Milošević regime had entered a deep crisis which precipitated the rate of civilian killings (HLC, 2017). And Serbia was already isolated “as a pariah state in the eyes of the international community” (Stone, 2010, 108). By the time NATO intervention begun, Milošević had already lost the support he used to enjoy abroad when he signed the 1995 Dayton Agreement, ending the war in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Thus, when the war escalated in Kosovo three years later, Milošević’s portrayal as the “the man of peace” dissipated quickly. Moreover, Milošević could not rely on Russian support and, despite appearances, his legitimacy in Serbia had begun to erode (Gow, 2003, 296). His power was now seriously endangered. The Milošević regime regarded Kosovo-Albanians as NATO allies and internal threats to the regime. He was supported by Vojislav Šešelj, the leader of the Radical Party of Serbia and Serbia’s Deputy Prime Minister who, less than a month before NATO’s intervention (27 February 1999), in an address to sympathizers of his, had declared that “if there will be a NATO bombing, if there is American aggression, we Serbs will suffer a lot, but there will be no more Albanians in Kosovo” (Ingrao and Thomas, 2010, 317). This propaganda, which aimed to disqualify the victims that would be killed in the near future, was tantamount to “prior killing with words” (Semelin, 2001, 284). The Đorđević Trial Chamber’s verdict (2011, para. 2025) underlines that, after the beginning of NATO bombing campaign, the Serbian senior leadership was “aware that crimes would be committed by VJ and MUP forces during these operations”. Therefore, the meeting in Milošević’s office at the end of March 1999, where the order was given to remove the bodies of massacred Kosovo-Albanian civilians from Kosovo to Serbia, portended a piece of the Serbian crimes’ mosaic.

The decision to “clean” the evidence of crimes through the disappearance of bodies was preceded by the departure of the OSCE’s Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM), a few days before the beginning of NATO military intervention. This enabled the Serbian forces to organize the operation asanacija without being observed, mainly by mobilizing “field cleaners” at night until early morning hours without worrying of being observed by international monitors. A similar tactic was used by Serbs in Bosnia and Hercegovina four years before when they conducted the reburial operations in Srebrenica (Tolimir, 2012, para. 559).

←62 |


Carried out at a particular stage of the armed conflict, the short-term objective of state-organized crimes, for example, the operation asanacija (sanitization) in this case, was to maintain a perceived negotiation advantage during upcoming negotiations. Essentially, these exhumation operations were considered necessary by the Serbs in order to avoid entering negotiations from a weakened position. In the verdict on the Serbian leadership, the Trial Chamber of the ICTY stated that the purpose of this operation was to conceal the bodies of Kosovo-Albanian civilians both from the people at home and from the international community, “including the ICTY and NATO ground forces, whose presence on the ground in Kosovo was anticipated following the NATO bombing” (Milutinović et al., 2009, 1357). In this respect, the exhumation operations of Kosovo-Albanian civilian victims in 1999 shared many common characteristics with the cover-up operations conducted four years before in Srebrenica by Bosnian Serbs. In both operations, Serbs systematically obstructed any attempt to investigate the mass graves before an agreement was reached. Only after the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed and NATO troops were deployed on the ground investigators could begin to investigate the atrocities.

The transport of bodies from Kosovo to Serbia was part of a concerted strategy aimed at preserving the public image of the perpetrators of crimes and of the Milošević regime. The regime was aware that the discovery of the burial sites would have substantially damaged Serbs’ negotiation position that was already weakened after the NATO military intervention. Cover-up operations were supposed to prevent the further weakening of its position. Furthermore, Serbia had justified the crimes committed against Kosovo-Albanian civilians as part of its fight against the “terrorists” and any discovery of mass graves would have gravely endangered these claims. The cover-up of bodies allowed the regime to disqualify the testimony of the refugees in neighbouring countries who had conveyed to the international investigators the crimes and places where the mass graves were concealed. In this respect, the Milošević regime succeeded in keeping this operation secret long after the agreement on Kosovo was reached since secondary mass graves in Serbia were discovered in June 2001, when the regime was overthrown and the former Serbian president was in prison in Serbia.

←63 |

Another factor that may have played a role in setting up the operation at that specific moment was the mobilization of the ICTY prosecution (HLC 2017, 11). On 26 March 1999, two days after the beginning of the NATO bombing campaign, the Chief Prosecutor of the ICTY, Louise Arbour, sent a letter to Slobodan Milošević and other Serbian high officials in which she expressed her concern about the crimes that were committed (ICTY Press Release, JL/PIU/389-E, 1999). In this respect, the Milošević regime succeeded in keeping this operation a secret long after the agreement on Kosovo was reached. The secondary mass graves in Serbia were discovered after the fall of the Milošević regime, and the revelation of these operations was closely linked to his extradition to the ICTY. Bearing in mind that the reburial operations occurred in parallel with the intensification of massacres against civilian populations, this strong position from the ICTY was reflective of the new balance of power created after the NATO intervention and the inevitability of the deployment of an international force on the ground.


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1According to Groen et al. (2015, 29) “if a body can be identified and collected intact, then the examination is straightforward and the sampling for DNA limited to one or two samples. If a body is collected as several body parts, or is mixed up with other bodies, then a longer time is required to examine the remains, and more samples need to be taken”. According to forensic and anthropological experts “an undisturbed primary grave with 50 complete bodies is straightforward. A secondary grave of commingled remains may have 50 bodies, but they might be recovered as 150 body parts, which have to be re-associated, and sampled”. (Ibid.).


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (June)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 332 pp., 3 fig. col., 2 fig. b/w, 13 tables.

Biographical notes

Arben Hajrullahu (Volume editor) Anton Vukpalaj (Volume editor)

Arben Hajrullahu is a professor of political science at the University of Prishtina. He holds a PhD from Vienna University and he was a Humphrey Fulbright Fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. In 2009 he founded the Centre for Political Courage (CPC). His current research interests focus on European Union and geopolitical forces shaping Euro-Atlantic integration in the Western Balkans, illiberal and authoritarian tendencies in new democracies, transitional justice and human and minority rights. Anton Vukpalaj is a professor of political science at the University of Prishtina. He holds a PhD from University of Paris 10. His current research interests focus on the study of judicial and non-judicial transitional justice mechanisms in South-Eastern Europe, more precisely on questions of reconciliation and policies implemented locally and nationally.


Title: Forging Kosovo: Between Dependence, Independence, and Interdependence