|Serbs placed photographs outside the Gracanica monastery church spelling out the slogan “No Kosovo in UNESCO”. Photo: BIRN.|
Serbs protested on Wednesday at an Orthodox monastery in Gracanica and in the north of the divided town of Mitrovica north ahead of Wednesday’s crucial UNESCO executive board meeting which will decide if Pristina’s bid for membership is put to a final vote at a conference in November.
Dozens of Serbs gathered inside the Gracanica monastery and placed photographs of destroyed Serbian Orthodox churches on the ground to spell out the slogan “No Kosovo in UNESCO”.
Igor Simic, a politician from Mitrovica who took part in the protest, recalled the destruction of Serbian Orthodox churches during unrest across Kosovo in 2004.
“Kosovo’s membership of UNESCO will not protect Serbian churches,” Simic told media.
Around 200 Serb students also rallied in Mitrovica in protest, marching from the university to the main bridge over Ibar River that divides the town’s Serb and Albanian population.
“As students do not accept the Republic of Kosovo, they are also against Kosovo’s acceptance into UNESCO,” said student representative Milan Savic.
Serbia opposes any international recognition of Kosovo and argues that Pristina does not have the will to protect Serb religious monuments.
In recent weeks, Kosovo’s Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi has been travelling the world, trying to drum up support for Kosovo’s UNESCO membership bid.
At home, Selimi has continued to lobby for the cause on social media, such as Twitter, creating the #KosovoinUNESCO hashtag.
However, Kosovars have not been making all the running on social networks. Serbs opposed to Kosovo’s UNESCO bid have responded with their own #NoKosovoUNESCO hashtag.
One user of the latter is Serbian President, Tomislav Nikolic, who has tweeted that Kosovo does not deserve to be a member of the UN’s cultural wing because Albanians destroyed many Serbian Orthodox churches in Kosovo in 2004.
“Those requesting UNESCO membership today are those who expose it to danger. Even today we can hear no words of condemnation of such crimes, or detect readiness to find and punish the perpetrators,” Nikolic tweeted.
Father Sava Janjic, Archimandrite at the Serbian monastery of Visoki Decani in Kosovo, who also opposes Kosovo being part of UNESCO, tweeted an allegation that Kosovo is run by criminals.
“Petrit [Selimi] Everyone knows Kosovo is in the claws of organized crime clans but fear of Neonazis and Islamists lets them stay in power,” Father Sava said.
“Wow. Shocked at Father Sava’s lethal language. ‘Neonazis, Islamists or Organized Crime Clans govern Kosovo,’” Selimi tweeted back.
This is not the first time that Selimi and Janjic have exchanged political barbs on Twitter.
In 2014, Janjic said the Serbian Church should ask the new special war crimes court to investigate the destruction of churches by Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, in 1999-2000.
Selimi tweeted back: “In 2000 there was no KLA. But you can make a request to Serbian government to respond by investigating the destruction of 325 mosques”.
“As I said, heads of Serbian police and military are charged and sentenced. For KLA with or without uniforms there was impunity,” Janjic said.
“There was no single church, I repeat, no single church that was touched by KLA during the war in Kosovo,” Selimi replied.
Meanwhile, both Serbia and Kosovo have launched online petitions and websites supporting their pro- and anti- campaigns.
Serbia’s petition has obtained some 34,000 signatures, while the one supporting Kosovo has some 3,500. The Kosovo Foreign Ministry has also launched its campaign website www.kosovoinunesco.com
On Wednesday, the executive council will decide if UNESCO’s general conference will vote on Kosovo’s request during its session in November.
Kosovo needs the votes of two-thirds of the 195 member countries to become a member.
In ethnic unrest across Kosovo in March 2004, 19 people were killed and more than 800 buildings were destroyed or damaged, including 29 churches or monasteries, according to an OSCE report.
International courts in Pristina have since convicted several people of destroying Serbian Orthodox churches, handing down jail sentences ranging from 21 months to 16 years.
Many of the most significant Serbian Orthodox monasteries and churches lie in Kosovo, including the monastery churches of Gracanica and Decani and the Patriarchal complex in Pec/Peje, which are already on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites.
Belgrade accuses Pristina of not looking after them properly and of colluding in the destruction of some sites.
Serbia also opposes the UNESCO bid because it sees it as a move by Kosovo to further its campaign to win international recognition of its independence.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and Serbia has vowed never to recognise the statehood of its former province. Most EU states long ago recognised Kosovo but five do not – Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Romania and Slovakia.
Serbia has no right of veto over Kosovo’s UNESCO membership bid, and Kosovo will be able to join even though it is not a UN member state.