Erasing the multi-ethnic and anti-fascist past in Pec

Written for Kosovo Online by Srdjan Garcevic, founder of The Nutshell Times

In between yet another news of the torching of one Serb returnee's home (this time in Novo Selo Madjunsko) and yet another display of brutality towards young Serbs by the Pristina government (this time in Gračanica), I was shocked by the news that the Pristina administration escalated its war on multi-ethnic relations in Kosovo and Metohija, now targeting the past.

It turns out that those running the city of Pec decided to deal the last blow to the monument commemorating anti-fascist struggle and victims of fascism in WWII – one of the largest in Kosovo and Metohija - and replace it with a memorial to UÇK, an organization whose leaders are currently on trial for war crimes.

Unsurprisingly, I did not find this out from any of the outlets that tend to keep a very keen eye on the architectural developments in Serbia – all the way down to our Christmas decorations - but from the Spomenik Database, a labour of love run a true history and architecture enthusiast. The site is run by an American who dedicated a lot of his life to telling the story of Yugoslav socialist monuments and the country’s architecture, as well as its history. I assume his dismay at the news came from the fact that the reason he keeps returning to these “spomeniks” is not only because he sees them as intriguing pieces of public art of global artistic significance (there was an exhibition at the MoMA partly dedicated to them in 2019), but also as courageous social projects, aimed at re-forging unity between various Yugoslav ethnicities despite very bloody mutual crimes during WWII, many of which had an even longer pre-history.

The decision to completely destroy one such monument is made worse due to the fact that Peć has a special place in Serbo-Albanian relations.

It is a historically mixed city which holds one of the holiest monasteries of the Serbian Orthodox Church. It was also the one that yielded the largest number of anti-fascist rebels (both Serbian and Albanian), as well as of the places where WWII repression against anti-fascists was the strongest by not only the Axis forces but also Albanian collaborationist hyper-nationalist Balli Kombetar.

Some members of the local Albanian elite took to collaboration with Nazis and Fascists and saw them as convenient allies in ethnically cleansing the land from non-Albanians. Some of them were so adamantly against being part of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia that Balli Kombetar continued fighting against the Yugoslav Partizans well after the war was over, and the friction from those times was a source of tension during Socialist Yugoslavia, which culminated in the 1990s.

Sculpting peace

However, monuments such as the one in Peć, designed by Ante Gržetić, showing a group of people with their fists in the air, sought to bring out unity and common purpose within Yugoslavia. Attempts to heal the wounds were not purely symbolic: SFRY invested heavily in Kosovo and Metohija, a largely unindustrialized region, by building infrastructure and industry, including Pec’s famous brewery.

The investment was not just purely economic: SFRY built theatres and universities, including the world-renowned Priština library, with the aim of easing tensions with the Kosovo Albanian population by supporting their culture. Yugoslavia’s efforts to support Albanian culture (and the economy) also extended to Hoxha’s Albania – whose anti-fascist movement had strong ties with the Partizans - where Yugoslav financial and technical aid were provided until the split between Hoxha and Tito, as shown by the historian Aleksandar Životić.

In a truly multi-ethnic society, this visionary aluminium monument, as well as the long list of names of Albanians, Serbs and others who died in their fight against the Nazis and Fascists, would be a focal point for building a better future. Other destroyed monuments would also be rebuilt to remind us of the times when there was a true investment in building something together. Neither of these ideas have a place in present-day Kosovo and Metohija, where it is the homes of ultra-nationalist Nazi collaborators like Xhafer Deva that are being restored.

What is even sadder is that elites in Pec and Pristina are silent about this. Even among the supposed leftists, the Yugoslav legacy is something that is exploited purely for its aesthetic and opportunistically worn like a skin suit, but the idea of tolerance and even co-existenceeven cultural -  is shunned. However, in circles in which Kurti is considered a leftist and a staunch fighter against fascism, anything goes.