“Beyond the North”. Rural Prospects for Reconciliation in Kosovo

This analysis aims to debunk the main narrative over the issue of reconciliation in Kosovo by critically reflecting upon minor narratives of a variety of communities and their struggle for achieving peace in remote localities of the country. Knowingly, main attention is not drawn to North Kosovo, where security experts and international commentators have largely investigated the tense atmosphere of the everyday life in the divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica/Mitrovicë. On the contrary, this analysis sheds light on Central and Southeast milieus of the country, where inconspicuous, yet present, processes of reconciliation seem to be more pragmatically performed and negotiated for halting any form of disloyalty and tackling the bitterness of poverty that local people are affected by.

Although twenty-one years have passed from the end of the conflict, the main issues of reconciliation are investigated through the lens of ethnopolitics, memory studies and of how the wartime legacy is put at work. Hence, the risk to overlook other processes of everyday forms of restoration and peace in more remote areas of the country, remains high. Taking into consideration limitations of a deep understanding of all areas of Kosovo, this analysis is oriented towards giving a different perspective on the burning question of Kosovo’s reconciliation. Since the Southeast European villages are globalising, their local communities could be potentially considered along with those of urban areas (1) for testing and proposing new approaches to reconciliation. Moving beyond North Kosovo in order to shed light on rural dynamics for reconciliation would mean to divert the top-down approach to a below perspective (emic approach) and reconsider at first ordinary people’s pragmatic approaches toward reconciliation and peace. 

Debunking Reconciliation in Kosovo 

The question of reconciliation in Kosovo remains crucial not only for the youngest country in Europe, but also for Western Balkans, whose distinct regional security complex is interconnected with Kosovo itself (2). When in August 2018 the proposal for a territorial readjustment between Serbia’s Albanian-majority Preševo Valley and Kosovo’s Serb-majority region in the northern area came out, a few academics, international commentators and experts had not surprisingly welcomed the “territorial swap” (you need an example/reference here).

In fact, even though  Kosovar officials and institutions immediately refused any “territorial exchange” in clear opposition to Kosovo constitution’s principle with regard to territorial integrity, the proposed “territorial swap” opened yet another chapter of the EU-led process of normalisation between Pristina and Belgrade. To a certain extent, it was back in the early 1990s that such proposal came to be considered, when between1992 and 1993 the President of Yugoslavia, Dobrica Ćosić, proposed in discreet contacts with Kosovo Albanian leadership to partition Kosovo along ethnic-majoritarian lines (3). While even that proposal was immediately rejected by Kosovo Albanian leadership in relation to the known 1990 Kaçanik Constitution, which foresaw Kosovo as an independent State within Yugoslavia with its majority Albanian population (4), the proposal of 2018 resulted from the  much-debated discussion of the “Agreement on the Establishment of Serb majority Municipalities”. The latter, which became immediately problematic to implement and was frozen in 2015 because considered  incompatible with the Kosovo Constitution, is still today a major blow to the future of both countries.

After achieving some results between 2013 and 2015 on different issues (5) a rather neo-functional approach over normalisation of interstate relations was not aimed at  reaching an all-in-one peace agreement. The rationale behind was more likely that of sizing acceptable political issues to decide on by breaking them into small technical ones. Despite this, a certain degree of ambiguity throughout the process has constrained factors that in turn contribute to the persistence of crisis when it comes to implementation (6).

Given this token, it could be self-explanatory why a comprehensive settlement for Kosovo has failed: on the one hand, Serbia-promoted parallel institutions and unwillingness of North Kosovo Serbs to fully integrate in the Kosovo institutional system. On the other hand, Kosovo Albanians whose memory of cultural and economic oppression and massive killings in former Yugoslavia and Yugoslavian wars remain a source of distrust toward ethnic Serbs and existential fear to belong once again under Belgrade’s rule. In between, other smaller communities are left behind.

Above all, the 2018 proposed partition of Kosovo and recent debate over the issue of reconciliation are largely concentred in the sphere of security and particularly in North Kosovo. Yet, this scholarly tendency de facto overlooks the much more positive and constructive day-to-day realities on the ground that particularly in Central and South Kosovo ethnic Serbs, ethnic Albanians and other locals perform. More likely, the continuous attention paid to North Kosovo has shaped a sense of alienation and disillusion, which, in its turn, may pave the way to other ambiguous plans. Against this, vivid everyday good performativity of Kosovo Serbs toward Albanians, and vice versa, remain subaltern practices in the mainstream, and paradoxically unseen in the public wider. Researchers in general and security experts in particular have overwhelmingly considered the post-war path to reconciliation mainly in the urban areas. Considered exceptional as well as explanatory of the whole situation in the country, this narrative leaves behind local knowledge and people’s struggles to readjust interethnic coexistence and dialogue in Southern Kosovo.

More recently, Kosovo attracted the international attention of media and political institutions for its high number of citizens that had travelled to ISIS-controlled territories of Syria and Iraq between 2012 and 2017 (7). The return of a third of those who had joined the jihadi mission of the so-called “Islamic State” has shed light on newly-arrived concerns that Kosovo authorities currently face in dealing with reintegration policies toward this group of returnees.

The Overlooked Struggle for Reconciliation in Rural Kosovo

In the post-1999 Kosovo War, reconciliation has been mostly approached and discussed through the lens of ethnopolitics, which has tightened social cohesion through nation-centric and ethnocentric interpretation. Despite the ethnic makeup of Kosovo showing an overwhelming majority of ethnic Albanians living in the country, the latter has been knowingly defined as  multicultural. At the same time, however, the two competing parallel citizenship regimes, respectively the Serbia-promoted parallel regime in Kosovo and the post-1999 Kosovo institutions, and their ethnonational narratives that have existed since 1999, have concentred the whole debate over the Serbian-Albanian diplomatic rivalry. Winning the ground by default, the North Kosovo’s Serb-majority region bordering with Serbia, has always constituted the thorniest scenario due to a widespread political corruption and an overall lack of security.

Although the international community has strenuously attempted to normalise the socio-political space, Kosovo remains still divided from within. In North Kosovo, it is   normal to hear Serbian journalists and NGO practitioners confessing that ethnic Serbs in South Kosovo are less likely to have a future than Serbian communities in the northern region (8). Despite the fact that the majority of Kosovo Serbs live in Central and Southern regions – both referred to as “the South of the Ibar River”, the issue of reconciliation leaves space to how far ethnic Serbs will be able to cope with unemployment, high level of poverty and underdevelopment.

Without any doubt, such a burning question should address the issue of spatialisation. Different stories and experiences of the wartime have driven peoples in more locally-nuanced spaces to remember differently about the past and act constructively toward the “respective other”. This is well-known in certain areas of Southeast Kosovo, where both Albanians and Serbs have not been hit by the war in the same way people in North and Central Kosovo have. Or, different communities were characterised by good relations prior to the breakup of the 1999 war – such as in Goraždevac/Gorazhdevc, Western Kosovo. Among other factors, this explains the completely different perception of atmosphere and sense of interethnic living between the North Kosovo and other areas of the country.

All of these turn out to be of paramount importance in favour of reconciliation process. It should better shed light on those barely visible remote areas of Kosovo where locals compromise their identities and perform according to compliance with local traditions and mutual trust. So far, the geography-oriented division has overlooked those inconspicuous, yet present, dynamics of reconciliation in more locally-nuanced marginal areas of rural Kosovo. Keeping constantly a close  eye on the divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica/Mitrovicë and the cities nearby, has mistakenly diverted attention from past and present-day forms of reconciliatory dialogue composed of simple actions of sharing, meeting at local places  and mutual understanding in making small deals and alike.

Perhaps on the socio-political margins of the Kosovar society, yet a large number of critical voices currently provide a more complete impression of peace, even transcending the “forget-and-forgive” dilemma that Samuel Huntington had raised in early 2000s. In the attempt to deal with the bitterness of poverty and lack of basic needs, locals are found eager to challenge anyway the legacy of Yugoslavian wars and post-1999 Kosovo War by performing a kind of civil responsibility (e.g. “good civic-ness”) at the grassroots level. In fact, a certain degree of quotidian practices reveals a larger space of pragmatic negotiations and attitudes day-to-day performed in the attempt to normalise the realm of everyday life. As found out in other fieldworks (9), ordinary Serbs perform what could be defined as “good practices” toward ethnic Albanians, and vice versa. This set of pragmatic attitudes displays not only a different role of Serbian actorness than that  war memory and local histories constantly recollect in North Kosovo. It may also detach people from a power-oriented fabrication of collective memory, where a standard set of traditional symbols, customs and beliefs typical for the Serbian culture that ethnic Serbs perform daily, are rather banal than nationalist per se or disloyal. Collective identities seem to be easily negotiated to tackle frictions of socio-economic uncertainty.

Despite this, it should be taken into consideration that Kosovo Serbs and many others live on the edge. So far, for example, a large number of INGOs and local NGOs have not managed to advocate RAE communities and empower their members. On the one hand, RAE continues to suffer from the wartime stigma that ethnic Albanians have ascribed to them – namely, being former collaborators of the Serbian Army that frequently forced them to all sort of jobs during the wartime – from digging graves for dead Albanians and KLA members, to raiding Albanian houses and properties (10). On the other hand, they face exclusion from the Serbian minority due to another externally imposed ascription, which recalls a certain “cultural backwardness” and “inferiority” with respect to the Serbian culture, and from the Serbia-promoted parallel citizenship and education system. The latter, indeed, which functions according to the Serbian curriculum – e.g. classes taught entirely in Serbian language, Serbian teachers, and textbooks that recall tendentiously the story of Kosovo and recent events – obstructs not only RAE members but also other members of smaller minorities to be part of.

The atmosphere within the Serbian villages or Roma neighbourhood is far from that of urban areas and Albanian-majority areas. While the sheer number of KLA and UÇK hyper-visible monuments that mushroomed across the rural landscape bother ethnic Serbs once off their villages, RAE’s socio-economic conditions are worse than those of other Roma communities in the neighbouring countries of the Balkan Peninsula. With regard again to Serbian milieus in Central and Southeast Kosovo, the so-called Serbian enclaves are today far from being considered as closed milieus. The Monastery of Visoki Dečani in the Southwest Kosovo remains highly patrolled by KFOR and Kosovo police due to the highly valuable cultural heritage that the place universally represents. Within others, such as Gračanica/Graçanica or Velika Hoča/Hoçë e Madhe, as well as Šilovo/Shillovë and Štrpce/Shtërpcë, the atmosphere is different from the 1999 wartime.

Despite the fact that the mobility of people from diverse communities is uncommon due to a high level of underdevelopment and a traditional lifestyle that locals have, Serbian villages are nowadays accessible to anyone. In Southeast Kosovo, the ongoing construction of residential areas and blocs of flats are slowly approaching the rural areas historically inhabited by ethnic Serbs around the city of Gillan. Once again, ethnic Serbs are found sceptical about moving to live in one of the new blocs with Albanian neighbours in the next door. RAEs and rural communities, too, will less likely have the opportunity to move to an urban-like lifestyle due to economic restrictions they suffer from.

However, danger and fear of unexpected riots or mobs are less and less perceived. Likewise, craving for revenge on the Serbian side seems far from seriously triggering acts of hostility toward the “ethnic other”. It would happen that Serbs in the neighbouring villages of the District of Gjilan might be found very disappointed for the patronising attitude that Albanians have toward Serbs, particularly the youngest who show a rather provocative attitude toward their same age from the Serbian village. After all, Kosovo Albanians complain about the same attitudes of ethnic Serbs and other members of minority groups toward them.

However, in time of socio-economic insecurity and profound uncertainty, the processes of reconciliation in Kosovo could benefit from a much broader debate than the one along ethnicity-oriented lines. Although the Kosovo Centre for Security Studies (KCSS) shows how the 40 per cent of violence is still based on political and ethnic biases, the latter could provide a banal set of identifiers and excuses for targeting the “ethnic Other”. As Gjinovic argues, the combination of geographical marginalisation and high level of poverty and underdevelopment within it, in tandem with a sense of nihilism and (youth) unemployment, could be easily identified as the threat-leading factors of radicalisation (11). It might follow up that marginalisation of certain segments of Kosovo’s population and a rising sense of nihilism among the youth, could dangerously lead to new forms of radicalisation. This does not only display a new angle of investigation, but it also confirms how the incorporation of already-traditionally shared ways of well-living could be incorporated for halting new forms of radicalisation that might be already ongoing, or about to happen. Counterweighting the archetype of two opposite ethnic-nationalist myths, respectively Albanian and Serbian, a new mechanism for reconciliation could reject the idea that war-affected communities suffering from mass-trauma are in need of “therapeutic intervention” (12) and that their pathologies are the root cause for all the failures of the country (13). 

A Full-fledged Reconciliation? A Long Way to Go

The above-mentioned local attitudes are probably the outcome of the unfulfilled promises of the liberal peace-building. Nowadays, due to the current internal turmoil in the European Union, lack of a clear comprehensive approach to Western Balkans in general and Kosovo-Serbia dialogue in particular remains the main issue to overcome. Since it is disputable how much the Brussel Dialogue alone would be capable of bringing Belgrade and Pristina to a common room of fair confrontation, only Serbia seems at present to have paradoxically gained a win-win position by maintaining the path to EU accession ongoing and without having recognised Kosovo’s statehood and sovereignty.

The latest developments in political arena show once again how the general discourse toward reconciliation with Serbia and Kosovo Serbs remains dominated by militarised narratives. Around the so-called “war categories” of resistance, self-sacrifice and heroism of fallen Albanian partisans, political discursive strategies continue to be constructed and mobilise respectively  almost the entire population who experienced war, groups of veterans and families of martyrs.

Besides, reconciliation is thought to happen in tandem with a full restoration of good-neighbourliness. This principle can be found in Kosovo in the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) and within the sphere of International Relations, especially in those (semi-)peripheral areas in which ethnic division are often put to use by people in power. According to the Kosovo-Serbia kin-state relations, good-neighbourliness has been intertwined with one of the access conditions to the European Union, closely linked to the Brussels’s approach to creating stability all over the Southeast Europe where the emphasis on minority protection and resettlement of refugees (e.g., Internally Displaced Persons) were constituent elements for restoring neighbourliness (14).

However, the Yugoslavian legacy of Kosovo’s interethnic reconciliation shows how the most contested areas have neither had a long tradition of manifested good-neighbourliness, nor a latent experience of good-neighbourliness. Lazzaro suggests, full-fledged reconciliation cannot be promulgated or sustained through solutions that do not acknowledge realities on the ground (15). In this regard, a manifesto-alike interethnic scenario cannot be taken for granted for the future Kosovo since the country has historically experienced ethnic divisions forced since September 1988 by Serbia-led Yugoslavian Army, which had consolidated a traditional division of people that had always followed ethnic lines. Granted so, we should consider that reconciliation plans have followed the post-1999 Kosovo War hierarchy of power, where international actors at the top and political leaders in the middle have left at the bottom local peoples to have a say and show the way to go through.

Perhaps too pragmatic and away from scholarly configurations and theorisations of how reconciliation should be achieved, we should acknowledge, after all, that the two-fold key challenge that the international community seems to have failed in, was to establish a public sphere and its democratic control by local people (16). It is, however, never too late.

Written by Francesco Trupia

About the Author: Francesco Trupia holds a PhD in from Sofia University St Kliment Ohridski. He also studied Philosophy with a major in Intercultural Relations and Political Sciences and International Relations. Since 2014, he has gained experiences in the NGO sector in Southeast Europe, working in the field of minority studies and migration. He has interned the Caucasus Resource Research Centre (CRRC) and successfully completed the Advanced Study Programme in Cultural Studies at the New York Institute of the St. Petersburg State University in Russia. He has recently contributed to the international project for the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society (KFOS) and for The Alpha institute of Geopolitics and Intelligence. His research interests lie in the theory of minority rights and contested identities in Southeast and Eastern European democracies.

Sources:

(1) See more Ger Duijzings, ‘Urban Ethnography. An Introduction’, in Südosteuropa 66, (2018):3-4;

(2) See more Peci. L., Gjikolli, G., and Murtezi, B., ‘Kosovo in the Security and Defence Context of the Western Balkans’, 2014;

(3) See more Noam Chomsky, ‘The New Military Humanism. Lessons from Kosovo’. London: Pluto Press (1999);

(4) Shkëlzen Gashi, ‘Typologies of Non-Violent Resistance in Kosovo from 1988-1998’, in Local and International Determinants of Kosovo’s Statehood (Armakolas I., et others – eds.) © Kosovo Foundation for Open Society – Pristina (2019):109.

(5) The most relevant were the agreements on the movement across borders, recognition of diplomas, return of cadastral records to Kosovo and alike, which slightly improved people’s life in Kosovo.

(6) See more, Gezim Visoka and Oliver Richmond, ‘After Liberal Peace? From Failed State-Building to an Emancipatory Peace in Kosovo’, International Studies Perspectives, 2016:1-20.

(7) Ervjola Selenica, ‘Countering Violent Extremism and Radicalisation in Kosovo: International, State and Societal Responses and their Consequences’, in Local and International Determinants of Kosovo’s Statehood (Armakolas I., et others – eds.) © Kosovo Foundation for Open Society – Pristina (2019):109.

(8) This information was given to the author by a NGO practitioner who wanted to remain anonymous during an interview conducted in North Mitrovica on July  2018 for the project “Building Knowledge on Kosovo” promoted by Kosovo Foundation for Open Society (2018-2019)

(9) See note 8;

(10) See More Wenke, C., Baković, T., Jeremić, V. (eds.) ‘Not Safe at all – The Safe Country of Origin Legislation and the Consequences from Roma Migrants’, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Stheast Europe, Belgrade (2016).

(11) Mentioned by Ervjola Selenica, Ibidem, 76-77;

(12) Hughes, C., Pupavac, V., ‘Framing Post-Conflict Securities: International Pathologisation of Cambogia and Post-Yugoslav States’ in: Third World Quarterly, no.26, (2005): 973-988;

(13) Gezim Krasniqi, ‘The International Community’s Modus Operandi in Postwar Bosnia Erzegovina and in Kosovo: A Critical Assessment in, Südosteuropa 66, (2018):520-541;

(14) See more Nariné Ghazaryan, ‘Good Neighbourliness’ and Conflict Resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh: A Rhetoric or Part of the Legal Method of the European Neighbourhood Policy?’ in Kochenov, D., Basheska, E. (eds.) Good Neighbourliness in the European Legal Context, Studies in EU External Relations, Volume 9 (2015): 306–333;

(15) Randazzo Elisa, 2015. Changing narratives? Shifting discursive conceptualisations of post-conflict peace-building. PhD thesis University of Westminster Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, available here: https://westminsterresearch.westminster.ac.uk/item/973xz/changing-narratives-shifting-discursive-conceptualisations-of-post-conflict-peace-building;

(16) Krasniqi, Ibidem, 533;

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