Kosovo academics brace for controversial ethnic land swaps

Proposed land exchanges between Kosovo and Serbia could undermine efforts to rebuild multi-ethnic education and research.

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A girl walks past flags in Kosovo.

A NATO-led peace force still protects the fragile peace in Kosovo.Credit: Andrew Testa/Panos

A proposed land swap between Serbia and Kosovo, which is designed to help end a decades-long ethnic conflict in the region, could threaten rare attempts at multi-ethnic research collaboration and education.

The exchange aims to settle ownership of the remaining disputed areas between the two hostile neighbours, but it could also result in academic institutions finding themselves in a different, essentially enemy, country.

Two institutes in particular, located in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, have brought researchers and students from both sides together, and they now face uncertainty.

“There is very little cooperation between the two research and education systems, but even that could now be endangered by the land swaps,” says Dukagjin Pupovci, a mathematician who heads the Kosovo Education Center, a policy think-tank in Priština, Kosovo’s capital.

Remnants of the war

Kosovo sits between Serbia and Albania and is home to people of both ethnicities. A bloody war in the late 1990s between Serbs and Albanian Kosovars paved the way for Kosovo to declare independence from Serbia in 2008 — an act Serbia never officially recognized. That has left Kosovo’s goal of joining the United Nations, as well as Serbia’s ongoing aspirations to join the European Union, in limbo — and political tensions and violent clashes have continued.

Last year, in a bid to reach an agreement and end hostilities, the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo proposed a land swap in which Preševo Valley in southern Serbia, whose population is mostly ethnic Albanian, would join Kosovo — and north Kosovo, home to the city of Mitrovica, would join Serbia (see ‘Rethinking borders’).

Sources: Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia; Kosovo Agency of Statistics; UNESCO

Each of these disputed regions is home to universities that would find themselves in another country with a different language and different higher-education laws, if and when the swap now being negotiated goes ahead.

Mitrovica, which lies near the Serbian border, hosts two institutions that would feel the effects of a land swap keenly. One is the University of Priština, whose 1,500 employees and 16,000 students during the war in 1998–99 fled from Priština to Mitrovica; it is also the only university in Kosovo that still teaches in Serbian rather than Albanian. The second is the English-language International Business College–Mitrovica (IBCM), which is the only higher-education institution currently teaching Serbs and Kosovar Albanians — sworn enemies politically — under the same roof.

A divided city

Mitrovica was at the frontlines of the ethnic conflict and still sees enough violence to need protection by troops from a peacekeeping mission led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). But rather than being dragged down by these tensions, the University of Priština and IBCM have helped to ease them.

The University of Priština now has some 10,000 students across 10 faculties who come here from the wider region and other neighbouring countries, boosting the local population to around 15,000 — and in turn helping the local economy, says Dušan Radaković, who runs a non-governmental organization (NGO) called the Advocacy Center for Democratic Culture in Mitrovica. “The university has turned Mitrovica into a college town: the whole population lives from it,” he says.

The university has also been a source of confidence for Kosovo’s Serbs. It is located in a Serb enclave north of the river Ibar that is still not fully integrated into Kosovo and is funded by the Serbian government: professors get special bonuses as an incentive to work there, because north Kosovo is considered to be economically deprived and insecure. As a result, the university teaches in Serbian, despite being located in Kosovo, and that has encouraged Serb academics to stick around. It has even set the scene for some of them to start research collaborations with Albanian colleagues. Such collaboration was unheard of for decades, say several local academics.

Jelena Đokić, a technical scientist at the university who works on pollution and environmental protection, says that if things remain peaceful, more joint research projects could start in the next couple of years, especially if there is a push and support from the international community. She already has a joint project with an Albanian colleague to study local pollution from old smelters in the area.

Boys play in a river in Kosovo.

The river Ibar divides city of Mitrovica into Serbian north and Albanian South. Credit: Andrew Testa/Panos

It is unclear which country Mitrovica would end up in if the land swaps go ahead, but either way the university’s contributions to the local economy and to keeping Serbian researchers in the area, and thereby helping multi-ethnic collaboration, could be at risk.

Two futures

If Mitrovica is officially returned to Serbia, the university could lose its unique status as a Serbian bastion within Kosovo. It would become just another provincial university, says Aleksandar Ćorac, a medical researcher at the University of Priština, who studies the effects of soil and air pollution on health. And that in turn would threaten the multi-ethnic collaborations that depend on strong local research in both ethnic communities and could lead to a reduction in funds.

But if the university remains in Kosovo, yet outside Serbian control, the university would have to apply for Kosovo’s accreditation just to keep running — and it’s not clear if it would get it, given Kosovo’s animosity towards Serbia. Some think it would be a disaster for the local population if the university were closed. “If it were not for the university, the north Kosovo economy would crumble,” says Stefan Veljković, a student of English there. “Kosovo’s Serbs would not have a university of their own, and the local intelligentsia would practically disappear.”

Even if the accreditation were granted, some academics say, the university risks becoming an afterthought for Kosovo, which doesn’t even publish academic books in Serbian. Ćorac, who is against further divisions along ethnic lines, says that Serbian academics, including himself, are likely to leave if control over the region is officially handed to Kosovo.

Academics already feel they are being forgotten by politicians on both sides, who have become increasingly focused on politics instead of science and education, says Ćorac — providing a taste of what could come if the land swaps go ahead. “Nobody wants us,” says Đokić. “In Serbia, they want to save money,” she says, noting that the Kosovo bonuses for professors at the University of Priština have already declined.

Multi-ethnic hopes and fears

A unique experiment in multi-ethnic education also stands to lose in the land swaps. When the IBCM opened its doors in 2010, it hosted both Serbian and Kosovar students. Although the university was initially split into two campuses along ethnic lines, just having students from both ethnicities was considered both pioneering and controversial. “It was an achievement just having the students in the same school,” says Yannick du Pont, based in Istanbul, who directs a Dutch educational NGO, Spark, which managed the IBCM until last summer.

In 2016, the school took the integration further: staff and students from both ethnicities now work together at both campuses. “The last time I had seen Serbs and Albanians in the same classroom in Kosovo before this was when I was in kindergarten,” says Djokić, aged 54. Nenad Todorović, a public-relations officer at the IBCM, credits the success of the experiment to the institution’s ban on any talk of politics. “And English as the teaching language has helped.”

But if the land swap goes ahead, the motivation — even the need — for multi-ethnic education will disappear, leaving academics uncertain about the future.

“Nobody knows what will happen,” says Đokić. “Nobody asks us, and we have no power over such decisions.”

Nature 565, 546-547 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00293-9

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