By M. Frei
On Sunday the 31st of July, in Northern Kosovo, streets and border crossings between Kosovo and Serbia were blocked by Kosovo-Serbs. Some shots have been fired without hurting anybody. The protests were a reaction to a decision from the Government of Kosovo not to accept any more Serbian Documents to enter Kosovo. Instead, from the first of August, the people had to get temporary identity documents at the border points between Kosovo and Serbia. Next to intense reactions in the media on both sides, Serbia sent some military jets into the region to mark their presence. In the end, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, in agreement with Kosovo’s western partners, postponed the rule for one month, the tensions declined, and the roadblocks were removed.
However, this kind of politics and tensions are nothing new and appear in some regularity. Another example was the dispute about the acceptance of Serbian licence plates in Kosovo, in September 2021. All those events are part of a tit-for-tat policy. The same rules Albin Kurti tried to implement against Serbia, are already active in Serbia against Kosovo. From a Serbian point of view, accepting identity documents and licence plates from Kosovo meant accepting the independence of Kosovo as a state, which for them is not acceptable. Russia and Serbia see the new rules as discriminatory against Serbs, for the ethnic Albanian Government in Pristina, the rules are just fair, and part of what Albin Kurti calls political reciprocity.
One problem of the whole conflict is that both sides act somehow from a position of strength but see themselves as victims. The Kosovo-Albanians were victims of the genocidal actions of Slobodan Milošević and his army who killed thousands of ethnic Albanians and other minorities. In August 2021 still, about 1,600 people were missing and the families were searching for their bodies, to finally know what happened to their relatives. Nearly the whole population is traumatised from the war without any possibility to find psychological treatment.
On the other hand, they got independence, they are the ethnical majority in Kosovo and they dominate its politics. They are protected by the NATO-led troupes of Kosovo Force (KFOR) and any attack from Serbia on Kosovo or KFOR is an attack on American troops, as well as troops of many other western countries, and would lead to harsh reactions. Additionally, with the USA as an ally, Kosovo has an important supporter, sitting in the UN Security Council.
Serbia, on the other side, is the country from the former Yugoslavia with the biggest military power and is backed by Russia. Russia supports Serbia economically, military and politically. With Russia, Serbia also has an important ally in the UN Security Council. With Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia is not just led by a strong and nationalist leader but by a President who was also a minister of information in Milošević’s government during the War and who is not interested in any process of reconciliation. How strongly nationalism is used in Serbia can also be seen when deputies of Vucic’s political party adopt the vocabulary of Moscow, used in the war against Ukraine, and publicly talk about a possibly necessary denazification of the Balkans.
However, the Serbian population is also traumatised by the war. The NATO attack against the Yugoslavian army was not focused on civilians, but it did hit civil structures and the population and for the people, it was horrifying to live in cities being bombarded. The Chinese Embassy and a passenger train were hit, and the bombardment of several industrial chemical facilities led to an escape of toxic and carcinogenic substances. After the war Kosovo-Serbs were regularly attacked by nationalist ethnic Albanian groups, being ignored by the Kosovo Police, and leading to the March Riots of 2004, inflamed by rumours and polarized media reports. In the riots Kosovo wide attacks from ethnic Albanians against ethnic Serbs and other minorities left 19 people dead on both sides, the destruction of hundreds of Kosovo Serbian homes and Churches, and expelled thousands of them to Serbia.
When Pax et Bellum organised a visit to both embassies in Stockholm, the one from Kosovo as well as the one from Serbia, both Ambassadors explained the mistakes from the “other” side but did not really talk about the mistakes from the “own” side. Both presented their own narrative as a narrative of victims and mirrored, therefore, the problems of their country’s politics.
While the media is either focussing on the Serbian point of view or on the Kosovo-Albanian point of view, I would like to set the focus on the situation of the Kosovo Serbs, who, as I see it, are lost in the middle. In a moment of an escalation, depending on the background of the media, Kosovo-Serbs are eighter seen as manipulated by Serbia and Aleksandar Vucic, escalating the situation for Serbia or, defending themselves against the invasion of Albanians and western aggressors.
There is definitely an influence from the Serbian government. When Serbia had to draw back its own troops and lost control over Kosovo, it started to build up parallel structures for the Kosovo Serbs. Those parallel structures included administration services but also electricity, water, healthcare, firefighters, sports, housing and more. The money for the parallel structures comes from Serbia. This leads regularly to conflicts with the administration of Kosovo and sometimes to protests and roadblocks. While there are several political parties from the Kosovo Serbs in Kosovo, the Srpska Lista (Serbian List) is absolutely dominant and regularly wins all Kosovo Serbian seats in the Parliament of Kosovo. Srpska Lista is under the direct influence of the Serbian Government and is funded by Serbia. Other more progressive Kosovo Serbian parties, who advocate for a constructive solution, do not stand any chance.
It could be concluded that the Kosovo Serbs strongly support the conflictive course of the Serbian Government. However, the question has to be asked, why and how does Srpska Lista regularly wins so clearly? While the economy of Kosovo itself has difficulties creating jobs and wealth, the economy in the North of Kosovo strongly depends on Serbia. This gives Serbia power and strong influence. Normally, when elections are coming up, reports and rumours of economical and physical threats, blackmailing and other kinds of influence arise. For a Kosovo Serb whose job, income and public service depend on Serbia, the suggestion that she or he might lose parts or all of it if they don’t vote for Srpska Lista, is a strong influence. Even more so when there is no reason to trust the official institutions of Kosovo.
The institutions of Kosovo, primarily led by ethnic Albanians, are not acting constructively from the Kosovo Serbian point of view. Up until 2019 the politics of Kosovo was primarily dominated by former commanders of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, UÇK, who fought against the Serbian forces. After the war, many Kosovo Serbs who remained in Kosovo were attacked, killed, or displaced. The politicians were highly corrupt and also targeted members of other minorities or members of the political opposition. The March Riots of 2004 destroyed any last part of trust into the institutions of Kosovo or the international Security Organisations such as KFOR and UNMIK. Ethnic Albanian members of the police often did not act or, even participated in the riots and looting of Kosovo Serbian homes. In Albanian-dominated regions, there still are regular attacks on the homes of Kosovo Serbs while the police mostly do not find the perpetrators.
Another problem is that the Albanian-dominated Government of Kosovo does not really care for the Kosovo Serbs. The Government and significant parts of the Albanian population see them as a leftover of the suppressors and as a manipulative instrument from Serbia. Instead of offering political solutions for the Kosovo-Serbs and sending the message that the government cares about their needs, the psychological message is, “you’re not welcome, you should not be here”.
In the end, all the parties, the media, the government of Serbia, the government of Kosovo, and the international community mostly do not talk with but about the Kosovo Serbs. The only thing the Kosovo Serbs can do is act pragmatically: having two different number plates if needed, voting for Srbska Lista to not lose the basis of existence, and living with regular escalations and blockades between Kosovo and Serbia. Many of them accepted that. Unfortunately, beside some local and international NGO’s, nobody really cares about their needs and situation.
- Humans Right Watch 2004, Failure to Protect: https://www.hrw.org/report/2004/07/25/failure-protect/anti-minority-violence-kosovo-march-2004
- Danish Refugee Council 2006. Long-term Sequels of War, Social Functioning and Mental Health in Kosovo http://www.krct.org/site/images/documents/field%20of%20interventions/research%20and%20documentation/en/Longtime_en.pdf
- Daltveit, Egil 2007. The march 2004 riots in Kosovo: A failure of the international community. Army Command and General Staff College Fort Leavenworth Ks
- OSCE: Parallel Structures https://www.google.ch/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwjZu-GPic75AhVCOHoKHaZeApkQFnoECAMQAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.osce.org%2Ffiles%2Ff%2Fdocuments%2F9%2F1%2F42584.pdf&usg=AOvVaw0H9_pP1bwiI9zxFmACkQnE