New Approach, New Hope: The Kosovo-Serbia Issue

Deep lying tensions between Serbia and Kosovo erupted recently. A train, the first direct link between Serbia and northern Kosovo since 2008, was denied access to Kosovo causing Serbian authorities to stop the train before it reached the Kosovo border. Painted in nationalistic colours, emblazoned with the patriotic phrase “Kosovo is Serbia” in twenty-one languages and adorned with Serbian Orthodox religious symbols, the train was deemed a message of provocation by the Kosovo government. The Prime Minister of Kosovo, Isa Mustafa, explained that the train was stopped to protect the sovereignty of Kosovo and the matter had been reported to the European Union (EU) and United States of America (USA). Serbia had another viewpoint on the train issue. It believed the train was an important transport link for Serbs living in Mitrovica, a city in northern Kosovo. Serbia saw the train as a moving celebration of Serbian culture and perceived calling back the train a very measured response to reduce tension and show it wanted peace. Senior Serbian officials condemned Kosovo for its response and signaled a further escalation of tension to protect Serbs if it was required.

A Deputy Spokesperson for the United Nations’ Secretary General emphasized support for the EU dialogue between the opposing parties, Serbia and Kosovo, and urged them to continue working towards a more positive relationship as neighbours. It was articulated clearly; the UN would not support any action which undermined this. The USA, a supporter of Kosovo, issued a statement supporting Kosovo’s right as a sovereign, independent state to determine who or what enters or leaves its borders. It also urged all parties to focus on normalizing relationships through the EU dialogue.

Russia, who aligns itself with Serbia’s stance, emphasized the EU’s role to enhance positive relationships between Serbia and Kosovo. Additionally it stated that the policies followed by those imposing European values on people in the Balkans are creating tensions. Commonality in all three responses reveals the importance of the EU facilitation between Kosovo and Serbia and its continuation. Such information suggests the problems between these two countries are very complex and deep seated. All parties involved will require determination and willingness to work towards reconciliation if long term peaceful solutions are to be found.

Kosovo and Serbia used the train incident to be antagonistic towards each other through emotive rhetoric. Such behaviour highlights the mistrust each harbours for the other. Each party focussed on its own needs and concerns ignoring the other’s viewpoint and used judgements and criticisms highlighting the lack of resolve to establish quality relationships. Responses from the UN, USA and Russia were more measured and words were chosen with care to promote continued dialogue. Russia managed to include a jibe about policies encouraging European values on those living in the Balkans, while the USA commented about the negativity of increased nationalism.

Problems between Kosovo and Serbia will continue as Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 was not a comprehensive solution to a very complex problem. Not all UN members supported this move, Russia being the most vocal against it. EU members are also not unanimously recognizing the independence of Kosovo with Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Romania and Slovakia refusing to. Serbia, Kosovo’s neighbour, also opposes the independence of Kosovo and has a history of blocking any moves made by Kosovo to participate in regional and international institutions.

Kosovo is a state which relies upon international aid and has very high unemployment and poverty. Although international administrators and post-independence governments have focussed on strengthening the economy it remains a challenge. Kosovo has a population which is ninety percent Albanian, seven percent Serbian and three percent other minority groups. The Serbs are mainly located in northern Kosovo and receive financial and security backing from Serbia. Kosovo thus struggles to establish authority over its northern region. Rejecting cooperation with Kosovo these Serbs are highly nationalistic and appear more ‘hard line’ than those living in Serbia. Kosovo perceives the USA as its most prominent global supporter. Will this continue with the inauguration of President Trump who has a very different perspective on Foreign Affairs from the previous administration? Time will tell.

Both Kosovo and Serbia want to join the EU, which has made it very clear to both states that a more positive relationship must be established between them if their pathway to EU membership is to continue. Much investment has been made by the EU in Kosovo and anti-Kosovo policies from Serbia impact negatively on EU interests in this area. It has also been shown that Serbia and Kosovo can reach an agreement when each has something important to gain. Each made concessions to the other to ensure their pathways towards EU membership could move forward. Each side must realize that an unresolved relationship with the other party could jeopardize further movement towards EU membership. Mistrust between Kosovo and Serbia must be dismantled and trust rebuilt to ensure the EU will consider their candidacy for membership in the future. Since 2012, the EU has been preoccupied with financial and debt issues which have reduced member support for enlargement and reduced its credibility. Britain’s vote to exit the EU will also impact on future membership enlargement. Exactly what Serbia will gain from EU membership candidacy at this time is unclear. The EU must keep faith with Kosovo and Serbia to maintain its credibility level and failure to do so will increase tension between these two neighbours who are so opposed in outlook that violence could occur.

Unfortunately, Kosovo has a segregated education system and a law on paper only for non-discrimination both of which fuel entrenched positions of Albanians and Serbs. Participation of all communities in decisions that affect them is required if all people are to feel included, equal and secure. Decisions must be made for all parts of society although frequently this is forgotten. Negotiations facilitated by the EU have involved only Albanians from Kosovo and officials from Serbia. Officials from the USA, Russia and the EU appear to have greater input into the future of Kosovo than people who live in Kosovo. How can this occur if long lasting peaceful solutions are desired? The current situation does not appear to foster positive, long term peaceful relationships for those who live in Kosovo.

To date, power-based short-sightedness has not produced long term peaceful solutions to conflict ridden areas of the world. It has entrenched opposing views and often produces an unwillingness to see another viewpoint. The Serbia-Kosovo conflict appears to follow this pattern and is so delicately balanced that the slightest irritation can cause upheaval. Wanting to join the EU is used as conditional bait for both Serbia and Kosovo to talk to each other with facilitation assistance from the EU. This does not show a genuine desire from either state to develop quality relationships as neighbours and suggests each party believes it is right. Such thinking underpins “othering” and both Kosovo and Serbia appear experienced in this line of thinking. Each manipulates history to support their chosen stance and uses judgements, criticism and blame, overtly or covertly, on the other party to justify its position. Questions such as who was there first or who is the rightful owner produce a winner and loser outcome and need to be reframed. Rights-based methods rely too heavily on the rule of law or religious codes and rarely produce win-win results. Greater resentment and pushing people to extreme actions such as ethnic cleansing or violence are often outcomes from such approaches.

Wanting a better future may mean thinking differently and being more open to other ways of taking action and listening to new discourses if the current situation is to change. Strong nationalistic sentiments among Serbs living in northern Kosovo are threatening to break down. Marginalized groups living in Kosovo must be given a voice along with majority groups whose voices are already heard, so range of discourses on possible future needs can be provided by participants. Looking at all the future possibilities shared from an interest-based perspective will help develop collaboration and cooperation between all participants directly involved. From this, sustainable solutions will be found by the participants themselves who will then take ownership of them. This is preferable to powerful institutions insisting on conditions.

Finding out the strengths of everyone involved and building on them develops confidence, competence and trust which is essential for successful outcomes. When each person feels able to articulate his or her own needs rather than speaking through another party then real progress will have been achieved. When individuals can express their own stories and others can refrain from judging then the voices of all will be truly heard, acknowledged and appreciated by those present. It will be possible to find areas of commonality which can be highlighted and used to build a strong foundation from which positive relationship building will grow.

Glimmers of hope already exist and changing the mindset of young people in Kosovo is one example of a more creative way to gain a long term positive relationship between the Albanians and Serbs. Felisa Tibbitts, a former University for Peace lecturer, was hired by the Office for National Minorities in Kosovo to draft an intercultural textbook for Kosovo youth. Cultural practices and traditions from a range of ethnic minorities living in Kosovo have been included after gaining input from the Minority Community Council in Kosovo who listened to each other and shared key views. Felisa Tibbitts believes cultivating knowledge of others that recognizes similarities and differences in the backgrounds of youth is a very good investment for any education system. It is how an inclusive intergenerational society develops. This is especially so in Kosovo, where children attend separate Albanian or Serbian schools and learn in different languages. Unfortunately such ethnic segregation can entrench differences and increase generational conflict.

Although it is hard work and time consuming, extensive participation by all communities, including all minorities, is essential. It is the only way forward to avoid discrimination, segregation and conflict. Promoting reconciliation and policies leading to integration are necessary if a sustainable, peaceful future for Kosovo and Serbia is the goal.

Louisa Slack


The Organization for World Peace