Stephan Doempke

From Nomination to Country Report: How the World Heritage Regime Creates Problems for Itself
Stephan Doempke (People and Nature e.V., мember of the Board and CEO, Berlin, Germany)


The main problems facing the World Heritage Cities of the southwestern Balkans (Kotor, Ohrid, Berat and Gjirokastra) are a largely uncontrolled urbanisation of their surroundings and only partly controlled construction in the historic districts.

The root cause of this is rural exodus. While public services falter in the countryside, the world heritage cities, with tourism development, become increasingly attractive through economic dynamics and increasing quality of life (cultural and leisure offers). As an exception, only Gjirokastra has not been able to benefit from increasing numbers of tourists since it receives too little support from the government and international donors in order to develop its potential. In addition, the entire educated part of its population which could carry an upward development has emigrated, among them many owners of historic buildings which are now left empty and exposed to decay.

Disturbances of the cities’ appearance due to tourism development can be observed so far only in Ohrid; in Kotor, however, less in the town itself but on the shores of the bay (which is, as in Ohrid, part of the World Heritage), where the appearance of the landscape has been impaired through oversized hotel buildings since the 1990s.


Behind these problems are deficits in many areas of public administration. First, there are gaps in the legal and administrative framework. Ohrid is protected by national law only since February 2011; for Kotor such a law is still being developed. For Berat and Gjirokastra still the Regulations on the Museum Cities decreed 1961 (reaffirmed 2007) are still in place. The Albanian “Law on Cultural Heritage“ establishes a strict and general protection of cultural monuments but does not foresee a state intervention in private buildings. Decrees for its implementation are lacking. The law is presently under revision without, however, making use of the experience of international experts. The situation is aggravated by the fact that the communist regime, in its zeal against private property, has destroyed cadastres which leaves houses without established owners – many of whom have emigrated for good in the 1990s. The result are hundreds of abandoned monumental houses without documents, and without a legal basis for the state to intervene.

Many responsibilities and procedures for implementing laws are not clearly defined, leaving room for inactivity and politically motivated accusations. In addition there are ubiquitous complaints of a lack of interinstitutional cooperation, especially between the national and local levels, but even so between ministries in charge of culture and urban planning, which latter don’t consider themselves responsible for the safeguarding of historic centers.

The Monument Protection Agencies, on their part, deal almost exclusively with individual buildings but not with ensembles or even entire city centers. Although „historic center“ and „museum city“ are recognized categories of cultural heritage in addition to different types of ensembles, strategies for their preservation have not been developed.


The instrument of spatial planning is still very much in its beginnings in the southwestern Balkans. Macedonia has adopted a spatial plan in 2004; in Montenegro a spatial plan has beed developed until 2008 which is now broken down to the local level. In Ohrid a kind of spatial planning is underway upon request of UNESCO since the entire Macedonian part of Lake Ohrid (strange enough) is part of the world natural heritage. The officials in charge usually have an education as architects, but specialized curricula in urban planning are lacking as well as procedures for public participation in spatial planning, public constructions etc.

Albania has a legal basis for spatial planning only since September 2011. Supported by the World Bank, foreign planning companies have developed strategic urban development plans and regulatory frameworks for eight cities, among them berat and Gjirokastra. However, these projects were not met with particular interest of the municipalities, and the plans did not refer to the historic city centers in particular.

Although the municipalities have officers for urban planning, their activities are largely limited to the licensing of new constructions. Since the construction sector is one of the few vital economic sectors where huge amounts of money are being laundered, this sector is highly susceptible to state corruption.

Ohrid has implemented a complete inventory of its buildings, and has a comprehensive management plan and detailed GIS-based map collection. While Kotor has adopted a management plan in early 2012, and Berat is presently developing one, Gjirokastra has not yet taken any steps in that direction. Building design guidelines for new constructions and modernizations is not foreseen yet for any of the four cities.


Restoration works are being decided, or approved upon application, by the national institutes for cultural monuments, and are being implemented by specially licensed companies.

Often, however, their experts don’t have a sufficient education, or the guidelines are weak or are neglected. Available financial resources don’t nearly meet the demand. Although residential buildings were re-privatised, monument preservation is considered to be the sole responsibility of the state – or even UNESCO – by most of the local people. The governments have largely failed to take private owners to their duties through attractive financial incentives. In Gjirokastra the government has restored several privately-owned empty buildings which start to decay after a short time since they are not being put to a new use.

New constructions and modernizations are being permitted by the municipalities. The monument protection agencies can issue complaints but don’t have a right to intervene. Illegal buildings can be stopped by the municipal construction police, which, however, has no criteria at hand and often is subject to corruption. In Kotor, numerous inadequate new constructions have been erected in the bay. In Ohrid new buildings were mostly constructed with reference to the Ottoman style. Some inadequate buildings erected befor 2011 were „legalized“ retroactively. In Berat ever more illegal buildings spring up in the buffer zone while in Gjirokastra no control seems to be in place at all and the visual integrity of the historic center is getting rapidly lost. Altogether, cooperation between the (municipal) construction offices and the (national) monument protection agencies is weak since the latter hardly see any necessity to include the municipalities in their expert work while the national level does not agree to contribute to financing the local construction police.

A serious controversy has developed over the plan of the Macedonian government to build a new Slavic University virtually on top of the archeological area in the strictly protected zone of the Ohrid World Heritage, the location of the historic first Slavic university. The new buildings, which would include a monumental statue of St. Clement, would dwarf the existing monuments, bury most archeological findings and create so far unresolved traffic problems.


Both among decision-makers and the population there is a general awareness of the cultural and economic values of historic city centers, which, however does not lead to an appropriate setting of priorities, and many municipal officers are unable to develop appropriate measures. Because of decades of isolation, the level of education is often low. A lack of English language abilities and/or internet access prevents the knowledge of important UNESCO documents and exchange of experience among local decision-makers. In addition, capacities are lacking. A survey by the EU Regional Project “European Values in Heritage“ (EVAH) in 2011 concluded that EU instruments for monument preservation in particular are widely unknown.

The population is involved in urban planning only superficially. In all three countries there is widespread ignorance why cities are recognized as World Heritage, as well as about their boundaries, zoning and pertinent regulations. Relevant printed matter does not exist, and none of the four cities has a world heritage information


The European Union is providing extensive financial resources for urban development and cultural heritage through its program for preparing countries for EU accession („Instrument of Pre-Accession Assistance“ IPA).

However, only a fraction of these resources is being allocated due to a lack of absorption capacities in the beneficiary countries. At the same time the EU makes little political effort in order to emphasize the cultural dimension of Europe although EU membership is the highest political priority in the countries of the Western Balkans, and the EU has the possibility to request the preservation of historic city centers with greater emphasis. Civil society initiatives in this field, such as „A Soul for Europe“ are not yet well-established in the southwestern Balkans.

The UN Development Program (UNDP) has supported the development of various strategies for local and regional development, tourism etc., which however have largely remained unimplemented. With exceptions, the international community has not yet recognized the preservation of cultural heritage as an important factor of development especially in those regions where tourism is essentially the only economic perspective.

As a result, the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, due to its high appreciation and worldwide acceptance, has remained the most effective instrument for the preservation of historic city centers in the southwestern Balkans. The progress made in Kotor and Ohrid are mostly due to the long-standing insistence of UNESCO, and one can only hope that an increased presence of UNESCO will lead to an the urgently-needed change for the better in Albania as well.