South Serbia – neither black, nor white, nor grey

As is the case for the system in place for minority rights and intercultural dialogue, more needs to be done – and not simply “instituted” – in order to realise the full potential of south Serbia.

By Eugene Golubitskiy

My first impression of Bujanovac, as we drove through the city to our hotel, was the extent of the neglect of the municipality, and the seeming failure of all parties to really invest in its development. Buildings were worn down, in dire need of repair, with life seeming to continue grudgingly, driven more by necessity than a real desire to move forward and overcome.

The hotel we stayed in seemed both bizarrely out of place, and yet an interesting microcosm of the situation in the Presevo Valley. Catering mainly to diplomats and foreign travelers, both its location (outside the city center) and its construction (pagodas and wells in a secluded courtyard) created the impression of an oasis; an attempt to bring a hint of life into an otherwise desert-like environment, an escape from the not-so-picturesque realities of daily life in Bujanovac.

However, upon further observation, the unused resources and capacities of the hotel and its staff were perhaps the most striking: rooms that looked clean but smelled of stale air, white-walled bathrooms equipped not with soap or shampoo, but rather with leaking showers, balconies with handsome views rendered inaccessible by scattered blocks of concrete and soda cans: in a nutshell, a pleasant façade whose exterior broke down quickly and easily to reveal the deeper problems of neglect and indifference, and a failure to capitalize on what has the potential to provide a very charming experience.

I couldn’t help but find this to be allegorical of the region as a whole: the infrastructure is there in theory – de jure protection for people of various ethno-linguistic and religious identities, the institution of national minority councils, even attempts for a Serbo-Albanian student language exchange – but in practice it is inefficient, underutilized, and left to nothing but a slow decay. Our conversations with locals struck a similar tone: people said they lived peacefully with their neighbors of different ethno-linguistic identities, but it was clear from something as elementary as having a drink in the central square that their lives, while not visibly conflicting, also fail to connect in any positive way – people live side-by-side, but not together.

Although both Serbs and Albanians expressed hopelessness with regard to the idea that things would change, the latter were the strongest critics of the status quo, whereas the Serbs often dismissed any idea of real discrimination, insisting that “nobody has access to jobs,” and glossing over the fact that, even though the numbers of employed Serbs and Albanians may be comparable, considering that the latter are, statistically, the predominant group in the municipality, Presevo Valley’s Albanians are doubtlessly disadvantaged when it comes to employment, suffering from a much higher rate of joblessness than their Serbian neighbors. Nonetheless, we did meet a remarkably thoughtful and fair-minded Serb, a lawyer for NIS, who, while having had ample opportunities to leave the region, has always returned, and has advocated strongly and eloquently for a multi-ethnic Bujanovac based on the principles of mutual recognition and intercultural dialogue.

The current situation, however, is rather one-sided. Albanian students must learn Serbian in school, whereas Serbs have no such obligation to learn Albanian. Albanians spend time in Serb-owned bars, whereas Serbs do not set foot into Albanian establishments. Among the many reactions such a one-way approach has fostered is a general lack of confidence in any Serb-led initiatives, even when the actors represent a non-governmental, non-partisan organization such as TransConflict.

This disillusionment, as well as the general failure to foster adequate mutual acceptance (people seem to have set their sights on “tolerance”) was evidenced in our discussion with the Albanian students of the Presevo branch of the University of Struga.  In response to a comment that violations of human rights are not unique to Serbia and that – citing France’s treatment of Roma in the summer of 2010 – they exist in European Union countries as well, a professor at the university regarded the words as those of “a politician”, who couldn’t understand the daily hardships faced by his people. For him, the subject was strikingly black and white — Serbia, bad; EU, good — and anyone who mentioned a grey area was somehow insensitive and discriminatory.

Despite the general air of hopelessness, passive immobility and mutual distrust, I do not abandon my belief that there is still a great deal of potential in the region. When one young Serb living in Bujanovac spoke of the beauty of his city, we were taken aback at first: really, Bujanovac…beautiful? But walking back to the hotel that evening, I understood what he meant. Lush greenery, a city center whose bars and cafes buzz to Balkan and international beats, there is more in Bujanovac than meets the eye at first glance. Presevo – with its panoramic mountain views, beautiful mosques and pleasant pedestrian streets – left me with a particularly optimistic outlook on the municipality’s potential, provided that we capitalize on its natural, infrastructural and human resources. For now, as is the case for the system in place for minority rights and intercultural dialogue, more needs to be done and not simply “instituted”, people must be mobilized and not passive, cultural exchange must be practice and not mere theory, and buildings must be the subjects of active investment, and not neglect and decay.

Eugene Golubitskiy is an American undergraduate student enrolled full-time in Amherst College in Massachusetts, having just finished a year abroad studying anthropology and sociology in Paris. Born in Ufa, Russia and raised in Brooklyn, New York, he speaks several languages fluently – English, Russian, French and Spanish, and has an intermediate command of Arabic and Serbo-Croatian. Eugene is currently working for TransConflict on minority rights issues in both south Serbia and Sandzak.

This visit to south Serbia was conducted as part of TransConflict Serbia’s project, ‘Promoting and strengthening the role of the Albanian and Bosniak National Minority Councils (NMCs)’, supported by the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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