A man and a horse in Prizen, Kosovo. Differing ethnic communities in Kosovo contest each other's historic claims to land ownership which places the new Kosovo administration pitted between warring groups. Charles Roffey / CC BY-NC-SA

I’m writing this from Kosovo, where I am forcefully reminded that disputes over property rights often are sources of violent conflict, with horrific consequences for thousands of people.

Conflict in Kosovo is to a significant degree fueled by contesting historical claims to territory by competing ethnic communities. While Kosovo’s population has for centuries been diverse — accommodating Orthodox Christian and Catholic Serbs and Albanians, Roma, Turks and Egyptians — ethnic Albanian Muslims, known as Kosovar Albanians, have constituted Kosovo’s majority since the 15th century. When Kosovo was absorbed into the Kingdom of Serbia, a largely Christian Orthodox polity, after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War (1912–1913), a growing Serb population within Kosovo tended to identify with Serbia. Ethnic conflict between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians has been a feature of political and social life ever since.

The dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991 gave birth to independence movements throughout the former Yugoslav republics. Kosovo’s independence movement gained momentum largely in response to the ethnic nationalist agenda of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic. Milosovic’s crimes against the Kosovar Albanian community ultimately led to NATO intervention in 1998 and 1999. Kosovo came under U.N. supervision at the end of the war and declared independence in 2008, a proclamation not recognized by Serbia.

Serbia’s defeat in the 1998–1999 war turned the tables against the Serbian population in Kosovo. Up to 200,000 Serbs left Kosovo for Serbia, abandoning homes, farms and businesses, many of which were legitimately secured during the years of relative peace from World War I through the communist era. Kosovar Albanians occupied thousands of abandoned Serb properties.

With the end of hostilities, the new Kosovo administration faced an important question: Should the new, mainly Kosovar Albanian occupants of Serb-owned properties be allowed to keep them, or should those properties be returned to their Serb owners?

Many Kosovar Albanians believed that the seizure of Serb properties was a just outcome — fair compensation for Serbia’s domination and Milosevic’s crimes against humanity. On the other hand, keeping the properties in Kosovar Albanian hands would exacerbate ethnic tensions and sanction the notion that ethnic identity is a legitimate basis for assigning property rights — the root of much of the region’s violent conflict.

Strong commitment, international Backing

Thankfully, Kosovo took a strong first step toward removing ethnic identity as a legitimate basis for assigning property rights. With international backing, Kosovo established the Kosovo Property Agency in December 2007, with the mandate to solve property claims arising from the war, most of which originated from dispossessed Serbs.

By December 2012, the KPA had processed 42,500 claims seeking restitution. Serbs filed 80 percent of the claims. Nearly 90 percent of the claims were for agricultural properties, 6 percent for houses or apartments, and 2 percent for businesses. Some 39,000 claims were adjudicated by the end of 2012, and 32,530 granted. About two-thirds of these properties have been returned to the claimants and the remaining third remain under KPA administration at the request of the claimants, many of whom are Serbs who have not yet returned to Kosovo. (About 3,500 claims were dismissed and a roughly equal number are under review, due to incomplete documentation and other reasons.)

Kosovo’s land restitution program, which has mainly addressed claims of the minority Serb population, has gone some distance toward removing property rights disputes and territorial claims as a driver of ethnic conflict. Surely, long memories of ethnic domination and injury still bedevil efforts to rebuild relations between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians. But the KPA’s restitution program suggests that new beginnings are possible.

Lingering land rights issues

Many land rights problems remain, however, some having their origins in communal divisions:

  • Kosovo has not yet fashioned a restitution policy for returning private properties confiscated during the communist era and converted to state farming enterprises or to housing for employees of socially owned enterprises. Since 1989, significant amounts of state-owned property have been privatized and sold to persons without pre-communist era claims — inequities that may complicate and delay Kosovo’s entry into the European Union.

  • Serb authorities took original cadaster records providing definitive documentation of current and past parcel ownership to Belgrade during the war. A building boom in Prishtina and other towns has proceeded without the benefit of definitive ownership records. Though a recent agreement provides that Serbia will return copies of cadaster records, questions of their accuracy and ultimate control over them remain unsettled.

  • Decentralized municipalities administer their own cadasters, and property transactions are not systematically reviewed and registered in the national cadaster. Municipalities controlled by ethnic Serbs are especially reluctant to share their cadaster data with the national agency, presumably out of a wish to regulate the amount of land made available to non-Serbs.

  • Long-established legislation gives women and men equal rights to property before the law. However, Kosovar Albanian and Serb women almost universally waive their rights to inherit property, as a matter of cultural practice but often in the face of severe social pressure. Helping women secure their property rights may or may not mitigate ethnic conflict. But it will likely contribute to a greater fairness in social relations and economic life that might help wear away the chauvinistic habits of ethnic politics.  

In sum, Kosovo has taken brave steps toward reducing property rights as a source of ethnic division. And the international community has been decisive in the progress made by Serbia and Kosovo in dealing with the land rights problems that contributed to the outbreak of hostilities and still impede the achievement of a secure peace.

The larger problem, of course, is the prominence given to ethnic identity in political and civic life.

Politicians who leverage ethnic identity to rally support invariably embrace policies based on ethnic division when they win power. These policies include granting privileged rights to land and other property to members of their own ethnic communities. Using property rights to divide and disadvantage communities is an example of what Amartya Sen calls “the terrible burden of narrowly defined identities.” Friends of Kosovo and Serbia can do great service by continuing to support land policy initiatives that take ethnicity out of property rights once and for all.

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About the author

  • Steven Lawry

    Steven Lawry is Global Practice Leader for Land Tenure and Property Rights at DAI. Dr. Lawry founded the program on tenure and natural resources management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Land Tenure Center and he led the Ford Foundation’s land policy and land reform initiatives in South Africa. He has lived and worked overseas for 16 years on long- and short-term assignments in Africa and Asia. Most recently, he led the USAID-funded Sudan Property Rights Program, based in Juba, South Sudan.

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