Parallel Structures, Intersecting Communities: “Swimming in the Water of Discrimination”

By Jacqueline Bhabha, FXB Director of Research

After the end of the brutal war between Serbia and Kosovo in 1999, the new Kosovo administration adopted a system of parallel Kosovo-Serbia entities to cater to the needs of the different communities living within Kosovo.  These entities included schools, police forces and hospitals.  The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) helpfully defines parallel structures as “bodies and institutions that have been or still are operational in Kosovo after 10 June 1999 and that are not mandated for under the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244,”[1] referring to the resolution that established the terms of the peace agreement following the conflict.

Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, and Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, continue to this day, 14 years after the end of the war, to operate these institutions in parallel, without cooperation or dialogue.  This situation, not surprisingly, creates a complex environment with significant ongoing impacts on the evolving Kosovan society.  School systems, for example, are conducted in different languages, teach different curricula (including, significantly, different histories), remunerate their teachers and staff at different rates, and observe different holidays.  Among the many consequences of this system are its impacts on the vulnerable Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian minorities (RAE).

Despite its shared history of membership with the Roma people across Europe, its use of Romane as a national language, its relatively positive experiences of the communist era and its phenotypical commonality, this tripartite minority is impacted differently by the new Kosovo reality, including by the parallel structure system.  The Roma population living in the northern and central part of Kosovo and in the Serbian enclaves speak Serb; their children attend Serb schools run from Belgrade, and, if they meet the eligibility criteria, as many do, they are recipients of Serbian welfare benefits. By contrast, Roma living in the South of Kosovo, together with the Ashkali and Egyptian communities, speak Albanian and shared the fate of the Kosovar Albanians during the war.  Their children attend Kosovan schools with the Albanian majority, and the only welfare support they can access is the much more limited social security provided by the Kosovo government.

The educational system in post-conflict Kosovo is, by common consensus, quite weak – lacking infrastructure, qualified personnel and adequate budgetary allocation.  At present it is in a very early stage of development, transitioning from home based schools under Milosevic’s rule (since all the Albanian schools were closed down, forced to offer instruction in Serbian only), to a period of brutal war, and only more recently to the reconstruction of a public space for education. The school system certainly has its limitations, including offering shortened classes to allow multiple sessions to be held in the same school building each day, underpaid teachers, and outmoded syllabi.

Compounding these deficiencies, the two systems depend on different documentary evidence to establish eligibility for receipt of services.  For the Serbian schooling system, Serbian identity documents are necessary prior to enrollment, documents that have to be issued by authorities in the Serb enclaves and are not readily available in municipal offices across the country. By contrast, children in the Albanian (Pristina-run) schools can enroll without documents and are given several months to submit them.  We also learnt, surprisingly, that some identity documents have limited validity – we were told by members of the Serbian speaking Roma community, for example, that their children’s birth certificates expired after 6 months and that renewal was too cumbersome, time consuming and expensive for them to undertake. The system of parallel structures underscores the complex history between Kosovo and Serbia. Now, as both countries cast their eyes towards EU accession, a window of opportunity for progress, negotiation and concession exists.  A new agreement between Kosovo and Serbia will be released soon addressing their relationship, but the issue of parallel structures for education and health is unlikely to be resolved in this new agreement.  We discussed the issue with many people, including politicians, community leaders, and activists.  A senior Kosovan politician suggested to us that the concessions of a dual system were, from the perspective of the Kosovan majority, a “small price to pay” for peace. “The Kosovo (Albanian) education curriculum is not that great anyway,” he added.

Another politically connected member of the Kosovan Albanian elite disagreed.  He argued that Kosovo should move towards supporting only one system – an Albanian system – and that Serbian speakers, whatever their community, should learn Albanian if they wished to succeed in the new society.  For the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities the issue of parallel education structures is equally divisive.  In both systems, primary school is free and secondary school is elusive for those who cannot afford textbooks and transport.  However, families receive stipends from the Serbian administration for each child who attends the parallel school.  We found that these stipends are a large incentive for some families to keep children enrolled in the parallel system.

In Mitrovica, a Serb controlled area in the northern part of Kosovo, some parents talked about the imperative of keeping their children enrolled in the parallel school. They explained that their children had always attended Serbian schools, and therefore knew how to read and write in Serbian. The fact that the Albanians had forced them out of their homes in the south during the war no doubt coloured their opinions.  Within the majority, “we always swim in the water of discrimination,” a Roma organizer told us.  And even if their children spoke Albanian, many could not read and write it, so attending school in Albanian would be difficult if not impossible.  A young Roma father-to- be told us: “I was educated in the Serbian system and of course my son will be too.”  But didn’t he want his son to be fluent in the majority language, we asked? In a nod to the complexities of this society, he answered: “Yes, of course, and in Romane and English too.”

Our experiences interacting with Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian community members, as well as their representatives, gave us a particular lens on the parallel administrative system, which has implications for Roma identity, both cultural and legal.  Different education systems reflect and in turn generate different affiliations, loyalties and attitudes.  A national symbol that to one community is a sign of safety and reassurance suggests hostility and threat to another.  This bifurcated reality creates obstacles to unity within the minority community and can, particularly in a tense post-conflict situation, pose challenges for the construction of the multicultural society that Kosovo aspires and claims to be.

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