Kosovo yields over Decani monastery to pursue Council of Europe membership

Kosovo yields over Decani monastery to pursue Council of Europe membership
Tourists pass a KFOR military vehicle as they visit Decani monastery in western Kosovo. / Valentina Dimitrievska
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje March 14, 2024

The profound sense of peace that pervades the Visoki Decani (High Decani) monastery is in stark contrast to the heavily fortified exterior. The Serbian Orthodox monastery, deep inside Kosovo, is guarded by soldiers from Nato’s KFOR mission to prevent potential inter-ethnic tensions and clashes as the site has long been the subject of disputes between Kosovo and neighbouring Serbia. 

However, on March 13 Kosovo's Prime Minister Albin Kurti — no friend of Serbia — unexpectedly announced that a constitutional court ruling awarding 24 hectares of land to the monastery must be implemented. The government’s decision to finally acknowledge the contested land rights of the monastery, listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in Danger, is in an important step towards Kosovo's accession to the Council of Europe (CoE).

Historic site 

Situated by the Decani Bistrica river gorge at the base of the Albanian Alps, the monastery complex is surrounded by towering mountains, creating a striking frame for the Church of the Ascension, which stands at its centre.

UNESCO describes Visoki Decani monastery as the zenith of Byzantine-Romanesque ecclesiastical culture, characterised by its distinctive wall painting style that flourished in the Balkans from the 13th to the 17th centuries.

The monastery is also the mausoleum of Serbian king Stefan Decanski, who ruled from January 1322 to September 1331. He earned the epithet ‘Decanski’ in honour of the magnificent Visoki Decani monastery, which he built. The principal architect behind the monastery's construction was Vito of Kotor, a Franciscan friar.

Visoki Decani spreads across a vast area, encompassing multiple buildings, and its treasury is the richest of the Serbian Orthodox Church, boasting approximately 60 icons dating from the 14th to the 17th centuries. 

Located about 2 km from the town of Decan, the medieval monastery is in the western part of Kosovo in an area mainly populated by Kosovo Albanians, who are primarily followers of the Islamic faith.

It is one of several important Serbian Orthodox monasteries now outside of Serbia, after Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Belgrade in 2008. These monasteries, also including the Pecka Patrijarsija and Gracanica monasteries, hold significant cultural and historical value for the Serbian community. The sites are not only revered for their religious importance but also cherished as symbols of Serbian heritage.

Contested land

Following the bloody conflict between Kosovo Albanian rebels and Serbia forces in 1998-99, Kosovo, a former Serbian province and part of former Yugoslavia, unilaterally declared independence in 2008, but has not been recognised as a separate country by Belgrade. 

Belgrade and Pristina have participated in EU-mediated discussions since 2011 aimed at normalising their relations. However, tensions still persist between the two countries, with the status of the Serbian monasteries now located within independent Kosovo being one of the sources of contention. 

In 1946, Visoki Decani monastery had 700 hectares of land confiscated. However, in 1997, the Serbian authorities restored 24 hectares to the monastery, augmenting its existing 20 hectares to a total of 55 hectares.

The returned 24 hectares were recorded in the cadastre. However, after the Kosovo independence war in 1999, local authorities in Kosovo refused to recognise them.

Despite the monastery's continued use of the land, municipal authorities have challenged its ownership of the additional 24 hectares of land, asserting that the property is owned by the enterprises Apiko and Iliria.

In 2016, the Constitutional Court of Kosovo issued a ruling in favour of the monastery, but the decision was never implemented or enforced.

The lack of legal status was one of the reasons behind UNESCO’s decision to add all medieval monuments in Kosovo, including Visoki Decani, to the World Heritage in Danger list back in 2006. Other factors include the challenges in monitoring caused by political instability, and inadequate conservation and maintenance efforts.

In 2021, Europa Nostra, a pan-European Federation for Cultural Heritage recognised Visoki Decani as one of the seven most endangered cultural heritage sites in Europe.

War and peace  

Since the conflict in Kosovo from 1998-99, Nato-led peacekeeping mission KFOR has provided protection to the Visoki Decani monastery.

Approaching the monastery, it looks like a well-secured fortress surrounded by hills. The sight is somewhat unsettling due to the strong presence of KFOR soldiers armed with assault rifles; on the day I visited in August 2023, it was guarded by soldiers from neighbouring North Macedonia, serving under KFOR. 

The monastery is heavily fortified, and entry was permitted only after we surrendered personal documents such as passports at the entrance — although we were warmly greeted by the soldiers.

The military presence is understandable, given that since 1999, the monastery has experienced five notable attacks and near-miss incidents. In February 2013 the monastery was cordoned off by a significant police and KFOR presence in response to threats from the leadership of the municipality of Decani and Albanian extremist groups due to the decision of the Supreme Court to uphold the property rights of the monastery. There were also two grenade attacks in February and June 2020.

Despite this turbulent recent history — and the lively presence of numerous visitors including Serbian believers and a handful of Italian tourists — inside the monastery there was a profound sense of peace. 

The visitors were captivated by the grandeur of the frescoes and Orthodox rituals performed by the priests. To honour our arrival, the priests unveiled the relics of Stevan Decanski, believed to possess healing powers, revealing the saint's perfectly preserved body. As a gesture of hospitality, the monastery personnel offered us coffee, tea and sweets. 

Kurti yields to Western pressure

At that time, the monastery was still one of the many issues dividing Belgrade and Pristina, as Kosovo had been reluctant to execute the constitutional court ruling recognising the land rights of the 14th-century Orthodox monastery.

The change of heart from Pristina followed Western pressure, as Kurti made clear when announcing the decision. The Kosovan prime minister stressed that implementing what he deemed as the "harmful" court decision is the sole pathway for the country to achieve membership in the Council of Europe.

Recognition of monastery land rights is one of the key conditions for Kosovo to gain membership in the CoE.

“I will never change my attitude towards this harmful decision. On the other hand, there is no doubt that Kosovo’s membership in the CoE would not only be a historic victory, but also a giant step for our country towards the recognition of the five EU countries that enables membership in Nato and the EU for Kosovo,” Kurti added.

Kurti stated that the government instructed the Cadastral Agency of Kosovo to implement the Constitutional Court's decision on monastery land and added that Foreign Minister Donika Gervalla has informed the Council of Europe about this development.

"Difficult but necessary”

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar, who paid a visit to Kosovo on March 13, commended Pristina for making a "difficult but necessary" decision regarding Decani monastery. The EU ambassador to Kosovo, Tomas Szunyog, also welcomed the decision, highlighting Kosovo's dedication to its European commitment.

Following the decision, Escobar and the US ambassador in Pristina, Jeffrey Hovenier, visited the Visoki Decani monastery on March 14.

After a government meeting, Kurti disclosed that an extraordinary session of the CoE Committee is slated for March 22, to be followed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in mid-April, and the Council of Ministers meeting, which will ultimately decide Kosovo's membership, is scheduled for the end of May.

Kosovo submitted its application for membership in May 2022, and the Ministerial Committee of the CoE approved Kosovo's application for membership in the organisation at an extraordinary meeting held on April 24, 2023. 

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kosovo has intensified its endeavours to join international organisations and urged expedited procedures for its Nato and EU membership, despite Serbia and its allies long blocking its entry into international organisations. Concerned about the potential for Belgrade to destabilise Kosovo due to its close ties with Russia, Kosovo has sought to bolster its international affiliations.