Tenuous Ties: Balancing Identity and Interest in Serbia and Kosovo
Author: Ragan Dueker
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 05/03/2012
On May 6, 2012 Serbs will go to the polls for general, parliamentary and presidential elections. The two main political parties in Serbia are the Democratic Party of Serbia, headed by current Prime Minister Boris Tadic, and the Serbian Progressive Party, headed by Tomislav Nikolic. While both parties disagree on key economic issues, they do agree on one thing: both parties have strongly asserted that they will never recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state. The election comes two months after all 27-member states of the European Union voted for Serbia’s European Union bid on March 1, 2012. The unanimous vote came after previous failed attempts due to EU member states, including Germany and Great Britain, previously voting against Serbia’s EU bid until relations with Kosovo were improved.
This is the first time Serbia is attempting to hold elections in post-independent Kosovo, and also the first time that Kosovar Albanians are not obliged to participate in elections for Serbia.
On the home front in the Balkans, technical talks between Belgrade (Serbia) and Pristina (Kosovo) are underway. Primary issues include roadblocks, distribution of identity cards, and security structures in the north – including border control in northern Kosovo, which continues to be an ongoing problem. The roadblocks are usually put in place in response to Kosovo authorities trying to establish border checkpoints. Belgrade claims they fully represent Serb opinions in northern Kosovo; however, Serbs in northern Kosovo are still largely marginalized. Property disputes are also very common in the region, as well; a Serb man recently shot an Albanian man after allegedly visiting property he claimed was his.
Beneath the Serbian and Kosovo fist fights, a stark political stunt was carried out in November of 2011 when around 50,000 Serbs residing in Kosovo began applying for dual citizenship with Russia. The political and economic factors of this move remain to be seen; the government in Belgrade called the action ‘un-patriotic’. However, this could be a clear indication of attempts by Serbs residing in Kosovo to state their strong disapproval of Belgrade’s policies towards Kosovo. Such actions pose another major problem for Serbia: a unified identity in Kosovo.
As long as Serbs continue to reside in northern Kosovo, chances of establishing one identity in Kosovo will be very slim because of strong nationalist sentiment among Serbs who reside in northern Kosovo. The only viable long-term solution is changing the mindset of the youth.
Although the root of the conflict falls between Serbs and Albanians, there are also several minority populations in Kosovo who are largely ignored and marginalized. The Roma, Ashkali, Egyptians, Gorani, and Turks comprise a very small percentage of the total percentage of habitants in Kosovo.
In light of addressing a possible solution to the strong nationalist sentiments in Kosovo, I interviewed Felisa Tibbitts , who shared her perspective of the problem regarding minority populations. The Office of the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities hired Felisa in 2009-2010 to develop an initial draft of the first intercultural textbook for Kosovo youth. Such a project is of huge significance, as many of the schools in Kosovo are ethnically segregated.
Felisa recognizes the ongoing conflict and unresolved tensions between Serb and Kosovar Albanians, as well as some of their political leaders, and agreed that starting with the youth is an important entry point. Felisa stated:
[The] textbook had both technical and political dimensions; on the technical side, we wanted to be sure that we included appropriate examples of cultural practices and traditions from a range of ethnic minorities living in the Kosovo territory. On the political side, we were aware that the textbook could be a very sensitive political topic. We were quite careful to share the initial project idea with the minority community council in Kosovo and I held two rather large consecutive meetings in which a range of political and educational leaders from all ethnic groups were invited to listen and share their views on key decisions in relation to the textbook.
Felisa acknowledged that textbooks cannot be solely responsible for solving the political problems in Kosovo, but agreed that “cultivating the knowledge of the other, that recognizes both similarities as well as differences in the backgrounds of youth living in the territory and promotion of positive classroom experiences in relation to participation and respect for human dignity seem like a good investment in any educational system and its youth” . The textbook has yet to be published, but Felisa is confident the book will be put to use in schools throughout Kosovo in the upcoming year.
Historically, the Balkans, on the periphery of Europe serving as a border between empires, has always been a diverse region comprised of many ethnic backgrounds. Former Yugoslav President Josip Bronz Tito held the diverse region together under his autocratic communist rule for nearly 40 years. During Tito’s rule, Kosovo, a former province of present-day Serbia, was granted autonomy under the ratified Yugoslav constitution in 1974. After Tito’s death in 1980, the former Yugoslavia’s ‘societal tension and cracks’ could no longer be hidden or covered-up due to inequalities. Moreover, the radical changes that swept through much of Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism were also strong factors leading to the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. Serb nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic further intensified matters in the region due to his desire to exploit the fragile, simmering tensions when he came to power in the late 1980s. His idea of Serb nationalism created a sense of security among the Serbians, a sense of insecurity among the non-Serbians, and the Albanians in Kosovo were not spared either. Milosevic revoked Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989 claiming that it undermined Serb nationalism, thereby making it an integral part of Serbia .
After the fall of Yugoslavia in 1991, Kosovo, along with other Balkan states, tried to gain independence. Kosovo’s first attempt at gaining independence was futile, primarily because Kosovo did not have the support of the international community despite the fact that 87% of the Yugoslav federation voted in favor of an independent and sovereign state of Kosovo . This was at a time when the entire Balkan region was characterized by strife and internal conflict, also referred to as the BalkanizationIt is hard to fathom how a few single-minded Serbian nationalists could ignite such a fire. The history of the Balkan region as a whole was being re-written through bloodshed.
The Road to Self Determination
Like other Balkan societies, Albanians in Kosovo had to resort to building self-determination to reclaim their autonomy. Prior to the outbreak of war in Bosnia, tensions were still high among Serb Albanians who lived in Kosovo. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), an Albanian insurgent group formed in 1993, along with other Kosovar Albanian dissident political parties, had been responsible for carrying out numerous attacks on Serbian authorities throughout the late 1990s. The attacks were seen as a means of protecting their people from a repressive Serbian regime, and justified by their right to self-determination. In response to the KLA attacks, President Slobodan Milosevic began heavy assaults on the KLA in Kosovo, which resulted in many Albanians fleeing to neighboring Albania and Montenegro. Fearing another ‘Bosnia’ and the failure of preventative diplomacy, the international community voted unanimously for NATO to intervene. The NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 resulted in a 78-day bombardment of Serb positions in Kosovo “in attempts to push back Serb forces that were systematically expelling Albanians from Kosovo” .
Continual efforts to gain independence were finally reached in 2008 following a difficult independence process. The region was essentially being ruled under the auspices of the international community. Currently, UNMIK (United Nations Mission in Kosovo), along with EULEX (European Rule of Law) and KFOR (Kosovo Protection Force), still has a strong governing influence in the region.
Kosovo’s declared independence sparked upheaval and violence in Kosovo and in bordering Serbia. Massive protests erupted in Belgrade and northern Kosovo where the majority of Serbs in Kosovo reside. However, a major contributor to the success of Kosovo’s independence in 2008 was the support of the international community.
Though improvements seem to underway since Serbia now has an official European Union candidacy, one could also question the following: If Serbia is eventually admitted to the EU, what benefits could it really bring to Serbia considering the current plight of the European Union? As Serbia is due for elections on May 6th, Serbs in Serbia have been demanding earlier elections, higher wages, and a crackdown on corruption. 
Current relations between Serbia and Kosovo are latent; the conflict between the two ethnicities is unfaltering. With that said, Serbia has had more of an incentive to try to continue improving relations and technical talks with Kosovo, offering small concessions as Kosovo is a major determinant in granting an EU bid to Serbia. Serbia strongly asserts that it will never recognize Kosovo as an independent nation; however, there has been speculation that Serbia will allow more concessions to Kosovo to help with the country’s desired European Union status. The implications of the election of either of the leading parties in Serbia will likely not have an effect on the political and economic problems facing Kosovo. Both parties have ruled out ever officially recognizing Kosovo as independent, and it appears that problems on the home front will take precedence, further marginalizing the Kosovar Serb population once again.
Ragan Dueker is an MA candidate in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies at the University for Peace of Costa Rica.