Serbia-Kosovo – dialogue and creativity required to resolve sensitive issues

A conference on peace-building amongst youth from Serbia and Kosovo highlighted the need for the official negotiations to be supplemented with other activities in order to ensure that true conflict transformation and the re-building of inter-ethnic trust can occur.

By Mladen Stojadinović

A recent conference, entitled ‘Cooperation and peace building amongst youth from Serbia and Kosovo’, gathered young people from Novi Sad, Belgrade, Pristina, Prizren, Orahovac and several other cities to exchange opinions about the on-going talks between Belgrade and Pristina, as well as the future of Serbo-Albanian relations. Organized by the Youth Dialogue Programme, in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the conference aimed to strengthen ties between young people from Serbia and from Kosovo.

In his opening, Dr. Michael Ehrke, director of Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Serbia, called upon young people to engage in open dialogue, and to help ensure that all human resources are included in reconciliation efforts and in resolving common problems. Dr. Ehrke emphasized that the process of dealing with open issues must not be left to the authorities only and that the Belgrade-Pristina negotiations have to resemble the former German-French negotiations, and not German-German ones.

Dr. Ehrke added that solutions to the incompatibility of self-determination and territorial integrity do not exist, however, another path may be used – namely, constructive talks about electricity, telecommunications, land books, registration plates and other everyday issues which can be solved. The lives of citizens of all nationalities will be improved, although the domain of high politics will not be entered. The role of the EU is unavoidable in this process because it can provide a wider positive social context, create an additional identity (parallel to the dominant national ones) and insist on three main principles for a future solution – democracy, the protection of rights and integration.

Mohamed Sagdati, from Prizren, pointed out the importance of dialogue between states, as well as within them. Sagdati believes the process of resolving the ‘Serbo-Kosovar problem’ is complex and gradual, and that official talks are not sufficient to carry it through to completion. However, Sagdati recognizes their importance and calls upon the participants to find appropriate ways to support the talks.

Dr. Johanna Deimel, of the Southeast Europe Association from Munich, talked about the EU enlargement processes, relations between Serbia and EU, and between Kosovo and EU, respectively. Dr. Deimel’s main argument was that, of late, enlargement policies were “nationalized”, leading to a lack of trust, announced future referenda in certain EU members and strengthened border controls. The Western Balkans is not in the focus of attention any more, and financial aid is being relocated to the south of Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East. A democratic deficit is more and more visible, and the renationalization of sovereignty and enlargement-fatigue are very real obstacles. The EU, on the other hand, is taking over many competencies from the UN in Kosovo, and agreement is needed before accesion because “there will not be a new Cyprus”.

In the view of Dr. Deimel, both Serbia and Kosovo have to fulfill what is being asked of them, in order to become members of the EU in different, more demanding circumstances than those which were present during previous rounds of enlargement. Regional cooperation is key to a European future, and a European future will bring higher standards of living, more efficiency in the fight against organized crime, unemployment and trafficking. Furthermore, Dr. Deimel thinks that a mistake was made when Bulgaria and Romania entered the EU without possessing the necessary capacities to address their obligations. Yet, Serbia and Kosovo, in her opinion, can become members if they solve the issue of mutual relations. In that sense, the visit of Borko Stefanović to Pristina is to be applauded. In Kosovo, the situation is more difficult than in Serbia because of a corrupted elite, economic weakness and the unclear and chaotic mandate and activities of many international organizations.

Fahredin Shehu – an Albanian journalist, poet and independent analyst – emphasized the problem of documentation and the fact that many people from Kosovo are not able to visit Serbia. He expressed his regret about the riots which took place in Pristina during the visit of Borko Stefanović. Shehu thinks that Serbs and Albanians can only successfully fight crime together, and that it is necessary to listen to the other side in order to be able to create the conditions necessary for solving problems. Both authorities have to show that they are constructive; for instance, Serbia could accept the documents of Kosovo, and Kosovo should promote teaching of the Serbian language and establish a chair for Slavic studies at its universities. Regarding the non-governmental sector, there is the problem that many activists of civil society organizations serve political and party interests, and they are not honestly dedicated to representing civil society. Shehu also said that he expected a Serbian language channel to start functioning soon at Kosovo’s public service broadcaster.

Rada Trajković, a member of the Kosovo Assembly, thinks that negotiations about final status lead to the clarifying of inconsistent positions, and that is why talks should be focused on the fears, hopes and well-being of an average citizen. She welcomed official talks between Belgrade and Pristina, and called for the respect of diversity and coexistence. Ms. Trajković opposed the idea of partitioning Kosovo, claiming it would only serve to fortify the border on the river Ibar; thereby dividing instead of connecting people. Ms. Trajković is of the opinion that we need bridges, not borders, and believes that stability can not be achieved whilst people with a criminal background hold  important positions.

The REKOM initiative for establishing the facts about all victims of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia was deemed by the participants to be a step in the right direction, but that it was just an additional, not self-sufficient mechanism for reconciliation. Trajković said that no Serbs would have stayed in Kosovo if the government of Serbia had not financed them. She accused Albin Kurti of increasing tensions during Stefanović’s visit for internal political gain. Regarding the issue of decentralization in Kosovo, almost all speakers agreed that power is centralized, but some think that decentralization could be even more dangerous because it will separate communities and keep enclaves un-integrated.

Oliver Ivanović, the secretary of state at the Ministry for Kosovo and Metohija, repeated the Serbian government’s stance that the independence of Kosovo would not be recognized. He said that the economic situation is bad everywhere in the Balkans, particularly the lack foreign investment. However, speaking about the southern part of Serbia, Ivanović made clear that politicization of the economic conditions of Albanians from Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa is a wrong approach. It is especially dangerous to try to incorporate Albanians from the south of Serbia into the Kosovo equation. Ivanović supported the Belgrade-Pristina talks and believes them to be long-lasting and complex.

Riza Halimi, a member of the Serbian parliament, indicated numerous problems Albanians from the Preševo Valley are facing – including emigration, depopulation and the rejection of diplomas from Priština University – although he admitted that the destructive politics of Milošević are now history. In his view, Kosovo’s declaration of independence is not the only cause of these problems, as some are present since the nineties. For Halimi, it is of utmost importance to solve seemingly small, concrete problems. In addition, he said that the interests of Albanians from Preševo Valley had to be taken into account somehow, while it was not necessary for their representatives to actually participate in the talks with Pristina.

Ivanović later looked back to at the emotional importance of Kosovo and Metohija and stated that, in a certain sense, Serbia could not do without Kosovo, whilst Kosovo could function without Serbia. Nonetheless, Ivanović declared himself an optimist, while reminding everyone that a lot of patience is needed. Serbs should sometimes participate in the institutions of Kosovo, but it has to be done by the people who really take care of the interests of Serbs and who will not be a pure voting machine for Albanian decision-makers. Through confidence-building measures, the respective parties can come closer to a wider resolution of all open questions, hopefully in the EU. Halimi and Ivanović agreed that the idea of partition or territorial exchange was very bad and dangerous.

The conference’s aim was not just to change the participants’ perceptions about the conflict and to fight prejudices through open communication, but to positively impact public opinion and encourage younger generations to co-operate with those from different communities. It is necessary to think about various models of future coexistence, in order to move beyond the abstract and provide the basis for discussing sensitive issues. A shared conclusion is that civil society has to be more engaged in problem-solving and to avoid serving particular sides of the conflict. Official negotiations have to be supplemented with activities by other actors (for instance, NGOs, universities, the media and religious institutions) so that true conflict transformation and the re-building of interethnic trust can occur. This refers to Serbo-Albanian relations, as well as to all other communities living in these areas. Multi-track diplomacy, and never violence, is the only way of determining the legitimate claims of the respective sides, which provides opportunities to satisfy them with creative solutions. Confidence building through the gradual emergence of consensus in particular spheres clears the road for a future resolution to the issue. Such a resolution would benefit from more positive external circumstances or inventiveness of new officials to transcend opposed interests, with help from the international community, above all the EU.

Mladen Stojadinović is currently enrolled in the Peace Studies Master Program at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade. Mladen is also a TransConflict Volunteer, with a focus on educational initiatives in the field of conflict transformation, such as TransConflict’s ‘Perspectives on Conflict’ initiative.

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