Kosovo hopes to become UNESCO member, says it will also protect of Serb heritage

Kosovo hopes soon to get a major symbolic boost in its path to recognition as a state: membership in UNESCO.

The U.N.'s cultural and scientific organization meets this month in Paris, and admitting Kosovo is on the agenda. One of the key selling points of Kosovo's bid is its promise to protect the cultural heritage of Serbs. It's a complicated issue because ethnic Albanian guerrillas fought the Serb army in their 1998-1999 war of independence.

Kosovo Foreign Minister Hasim Thaci, a onetime guerrilla leader, called on Serbia to support Kosovo's UNESCO bid and "look to a future of peace, reconciliation and respect of cultural historic values."

"Kosovo's UNESCO membership will better preserve and reconfirm Serb cultural and historical heritage," he told The Associated Press.

Kosovo applied for UNESCO membership in September, and last month the UNESCO Executive Board recommended that it be admitted during the body's General Conference, Nov. 3-18.

Kosovo came under U.N. and NATO administration after a 1999 NATO-led air war halted a brutal Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists. Its predominantly ethnic Albanian leadership declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and it has been recognized by 111 countries.

Belgrade, however, rejects its independence. And Russia, Serbia's close ally, has blocked Kosovo from becoming a U.N. member.

Serbia has warned that allowing Kosovo into UNESCO would fuel tensions and hurt an EU-brokered dialogue aimed at normalizing ties between the former war foes.

Father Sava Janjic, the leader of some 100,000 Orthodox Serbs in Kosovo, is against Kosovo entering UNESCO. He cites the scores of Serb churches and other buildings destroyed during ethnic strife that erupted in 2004.

Much of Serbia's Orthodox Christian heritage, including medieval churches and monasteries, is situated in Kosovo — and Serbia considers Kosovo to be its spiritual homeland.

"The legislation Kosovo has on the protection of the Serbian Orthodox church is in our opinion inadequate," Janjic said. "They don't offer assurances that our property, our identity will be properly protected."

Kosovo is already a member of two U.N. agencies, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Kosovo leaders consider Belgrade's objections to Kosovo's UNESCO membership "immature, politically motivated ... aggressive."

"Let's try together to bridge the differences, not use language that would create even deeper divisions here in the Balkans," said Kosovo Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi.


Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed to this report.