Norms and Values
Kosovo: Can the Enemies Be Reconciled?

Even if the elites (or part of them) are predisposed to reconciliation as a pragmatic goal, then broad sections of society, are not at all ready to set aside their hatred and pain for the sake of mirages of a brighter future, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

Tensions between Albanians and Serbs in the Republic of Kosovo, which remains unrecognised by Russia, are heating up. The de facto authorities of Kosovo have decided not to recognise Serbian automobile license plates after August 1, 2022, in addition to other documents. Their argument boils down to the need to respect the principle of reciprocity, since, from their point of view, similar restrictions exist in Serbia with regard to the Kosovo documents. This move has resulted in powerful protests and a new escalation of hatred between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo. On the evening of July 31, barricades began to be set up along the banks of the Ibar River, which delimits the Albanian and Serbian parts of the city of Kosovska Mitrovica in the north of the country. Parts of the Kosovo police were gathered there from the south, and Serbian militias occupied their positions from the north. NATO forces in Kosovo have said they are ready to intervene if stability is threatened. However, stability is already under threat.

The news reports that have appeared every few minutes on the news feeds on the evening of July 31 provided a clear impression of the beginning of a new war. Serbian President Vučić made an extremely emotional statement: “I ask for peace, I pray for peace. I appeal to both Serbs and Albanians — please keep the peace. The atmosphere is brought to a boil, the Serbs will not tolerate any more cruelty, I almost knelt before them and begged them, and finally got a promise. The situation is very complicated.” However, closer to the night there was a message that the American ambassador to Pristina had asked the president and prime minister of the country to postpone the implementation of decision on license plates. A little later, the decision to postpone this ban for a month was also announced by the Kosovo authorities.

Regardless of whether renewed hostilities between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo begin now or in a month, the current situation already makes it clear that no peace has been achieved between these two ethnic communities despite more than two decades having passed since the end of the last conflict in 1999.

Here it is extremely important to understand why this happened, as the Kosovo situation is to some extent a model for all the other conflicts of our time.

Firstly, after the 1999 conflict, the UN, NATO and the EU were directly involved in the settlement of its consequences. As a result, Kosovo should have become a real showcase for post-conflict peacebuilding. Both due to the attracted political and economic resources, and simply due to the fact that this conflict took place in Europe, and, unlike the countries of the distant third world, it was always in the public eye with respect to the media. Moreover, and not least, the leading organisations of the West, and by no means the revisionist countries, were engaged in Kosovo peacebuilding.

This attitude towards the Kosovo settlement as an exemplary model has not disappeared, even despite the fact that five EU member states have never recognized Kosovo: Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia. It’s easy to see that four of these countries are home to significant ethnic minorities. These are the Hungarians in Romania and Slovakia, the Catalans, Basques and others in Spain, and the Turks in the already de facto divided Cyprus; Greece is in solidarity with Cyprus on this issue. All these countries are obviously afraid that the Kosovo precedent — the first international recognition of a border change in Europe — will hit them and become a truly significant model, inspiring their own ethnic minorities. However, these individual countries’ fears have essentially no effect on the development of a common European and Euro-Atlantic position on Kosovo. Both the EU and NATO have been actively involved in Kosovo’s post-conflict peacebuilding all these years.

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However, the show did not go on. The two ethnic communities’ mutual enmity has not gone away, and at the first opportunity, any spark of conflict may flare up again and ignite the fire of war. At the same time, it cannot be said that nothing has been done. Serbian President Vučić has always tried, in our opinion, to reconcile the two communities in Kosovo, of course, respecting all the rights of the Serbs. It is clear that this approach is largely due to Vučić’s strategic course towards Serbia’s accession to the EU, for which the normalisation of relations and the recognition of Kosovo are de facto important criteria. During the last days of July, Vučić’s moderate position and his attitude towards peace were quite obvious. If there is no war, it will largely be due to his merit.

We cannot say that no steps towards reconciliation were taken by the Albanian authorities in Kosovo either. When the author was in Pristina about ten years ago, a rather revealing picture was observed there. At that time, a group of young politicians began to come to power in Kosovo more and more actively, a kind of “Young Kosovars” by analogy with the “Young Turks”. Because of their age, they did not belong to the “war generation” that dominated Kosovo politics in the first decade after the 1999 conflict. All of them were therefore determined to look to the future, not to the past. Most of them understood that the path to full international recognition, to joining NATO and the EU, after all, would be impossible without at least the slightest settlement of relations with Serbia. The EU mission in Kosovo itself also tried to facilitate this to the best of its ability.

At the same time, while walking around Pristina, the author drew attention to the fact that almost every second house in the city centre had anti-EU graffiti. The EU mission was accused of every possible sin; above all, they said that it seeked to curb the national feeling of the Kosovo Albanians. From this, one may draw a very definite conclusion. That even if the elites (or part of them) are predisposed to reconciliation as a pragmatic goal, then broad sections of society (“deep people”, if you like), are not at all ready to set aside their hatred and pain for the sake of mirages of a brighter future. Since these sentiments are also being broadcast to the electoral field, in the context of the internal political struggle in Kosovo, legislators and ministers must consider them. The same is happening in Serbia. Walking, in turn, around Belgrade, the author saw a lot of characteristic graffiti there — with visible anti-Kosovo content.

Does this mean that the reconciliation of warring ethnic communities in modern conditions is impossible in principle, even if their elites share a common pro-European vector of development? A new outbreak of the conflict in Kosovo on the brink of war, alas, confirms this. This, of course, is not a very optimistic conclusion, but it is quite consistent with the deepest public sentiments. If Kosovo is a model, can this conclusion be extrapolated to suit other conflicts? Does this mean that in other conflicts, real reconciliation will never come?

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.