People, not territories! New Approaches Needed in the Western Balkans

12 December 2019   ·   ​Nenad Vukosavljević

Reconciliation and durable peace between Kosovo and Serbia currently lack the political will of all parties. To support peacebuilding efforts in the region the EU and Germany should take a decisive stance on two issues: focus peace talks on people, not on border changes, and support democracy, rather than tolerate authoritarian tendencies in the name of stability.

Truth about the war in Kosovo is incomplete, blind spots remain from the war, the pre-war and the post-war period. Justice delivered through any legal system is even more incomplete, while dissatisfaction and anger on both sides are enormous. Reparations are scarce, and moreover, the loss and damage inflicted during the war is irreparable. One could conclude that without achieving these goals, reconciliation – i.e. a situation in which recurrence would be unthinkable – is impossible to reach. But, to look at it from another angle, this dilemma boils down to committing to the process of reconciliation and doing whatever can be done to prevent violence from recurring, or to find a good excuse why doing so is impossible. However, though this will demand power and courage, (self-) reflection, communication, thorough inquiry, persistence and patience, there is no such thing as impossible.

It is important for us in the Balkans to understand that we are not the first ones to deal with this huge task, that others have gone the paths before us and shed light for us to cautiously step forward. The German government, for instance, has just passed a new “Interministerial Strategy to Support “Dealing with the Past and Reconciliation (Transitional Justice)” which outlines many excellent recommendations, including the principle of local ownership.  

Trading alleged stability for peace is not sustainable

Implementing some of the principles means facing tough challenges in different contexts and enduring complex circumstances which sometimes means accepting unwanted side effects. That is how I read German support from previous years that was granted to the Serbian government:  hoping to maintain stability and achieve a peace-deal between Kosovo and Serbia, undemocratic and authoritarian tendencies were tolerated for years. The result of this is the further erosion of judiciary independence, widespread corruption, government control of main media outlets, using regime propaganda; slander of opponents, physical violence and mounting threats. At the same time, the peace deal with Kosovo is as distant as ever.  

Principles of supporting dealing with the past and reconciliation are less explicit about peace-degradation actions. Trading alleged stability for ‘peace’ by tolerating undemocratic rule and supporting a peace deal which neglects long-term reconciliation goals are examples of decisions that may end up degrading peace rather than promoting it. Germany should be aware of these adverse effects that could undermine the general aim.

Any peace deal must focus on people, not on border changes  

What is the nature of the peace deal that the Serbian and Kosovar Presidents have been negotiating since 2011?

It is about changing borders – the focus is on territories, not people. Local and international opponents to such an approach, including the German government, do so in the name of “border protection”, which again reinforces the importance of territories, not people. Their criticism does not target the focus on borders, but rather the application of it. Maintaining borders would also mean maintaining segregation – and segregation is not the solution. The issue of borders would be rendered unimportant if people-to-people relationships were transformed.

A sustainable solution may be possible through a step-by-step approach: grass-root dialogue, trust-building, examples of cooperation, mid-level acceptance of new relationships, top-level dialogue, trust-building, cooperation and respect could lead to a transformed conflict. However, this would take a long time, and do we have that much time? Yes and no. How much time did we spend on a results-oriented, “get a peace deal and figure out the rest later”-approach?  

Populists still use one-sided narratives of the past  

Germany is perceived in the Western Balkans as a country of hope, as one of the leading EU countries, probably most influential in the region. In the eyes of local people Germany is synonymous with the EU and the EU represents the dream of a better life, a cause worth sacrifice. It is primarily, but not only, a higher living standard which attracts ordinary citizens to the EU. It is perceived as a functional society based on the rule of law which provides a sense of security for its citizens and based on values of respect, solidarity and civil liberties. This hope for a better life demands (self-) discipline as it prescribes a necessary overhaul for our ill and corrupt state systems, which is no doubt beneficial for our society in the Western Balkans. What many citizens, and particularly the old-school authoritarian and nationalistic political elites, perceive as a bitter pill to swallow, are the necessary measures towards reconciliation and good-neighborly relationships between Kosovo and Serbia required for EU accession. Political populists struggle with these measures because they force them to abort their practice of manipulation, using old tropes of politicalenemies to swing public opinion in their favor. For them, the dominant one-sided narratives of the past are their achievements and these narratives demonize the other while painting a portrait of collective self-victimhood. Such dealing with the past is detrimental, not only in regard to neighborly relationships, but also regarding domestic democratic culture. Therefore, the autocrats do not need much excuse to conclude that reconciliation with ‘them – the others’ is impossible, because ’obviously, they hate us’.  

The EU should not go back on its promises regarding accession negotiations  

When the attraction power of the EU declines, the destructive power within our societies grows and the populist voices become louder. The attraction of the EU exists only as long as there is a detectable progress in the EU accession or at least a clear and fair explanation for a stall. Ordinary citizens perceive EU accession as stepping towards a better life. Making concessions along the route is therefore fair, as long as one strives towards the goal. However, when the goal line of EU accession is arbitrarily removed or if new barriers are set up along the way, the process begins to feel unfair. This turns the perception of the EU as a partner into an unpredictable, unreliable and selfish giant. The decision of the EU to dismiss the proposal to start accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia has caused great disappointment as it is considered random and unfair. This disappointment can lead to desperate measures.

Political obstruction is part of the political process: it will happen within the EU, causing decisions contrary to proclaimed principles. It will also happen within the region, through authoritarian moves that create setbacks in regard to the adoption of EU standards in anti-corruption measures, democratic principles or environmental protection. People in the Western Balkans do not expect the EU to be enthusiastic about us joining the union. We are aware that all actors learned to play the role of wanting EU accession to happen. Despite all of this, we have learned in the Balkans not to despair – and still hope for accession.  

Germany should support local capacity building on dialogue  

In spite of these complications, what can and should Germany do to support reconciliation?

It can remain predictable, reliable, persistent and patient, and invest more into trustworthiness. When it comes to defending democratic principles, our societies can only benefit from Germany’s dedication. Devotion to freedom is contagious.

On a local level, German support in the following three areas will be crucial:

  • Increase capacity development for dialogue, cooperation and cross-border exchange in the following fields: civic engagement, peacebuilding, human rights, democratization, ecology, culture, academia (especially historians), youth, politics – in this order of priorities;
  • Aid political democratic forces;
  • Incentivize inclusive, multi-perspective remembrance culture as a means to establish an interpretation of the past which will not induce the repetition of hatred and violence. 

Promoting peace requires supporting democratic principles

Concerning the reconciliation between Kosovo and Serbia, the following policy changes should be implemented – both by local and international actors:

  • Dismiss an approach which advocates the “solution” designed to be the continuation of cold war and coexistence of mutually racist narratives (between Serbs and Albanians, but also to an extent Macedonians – Albanians).
  • The improvement of the quality of relationship between residents of Western Balkan countries should be addressed, instead of territorial claims.
  • Accept and support a long-term, bottom-up process. In order to achieve a sustainable and publicly supported agreement, one should focus on changing the political atmosphere and combating degradation to peace caused by hate-speech fueled inter alia by governments.
  • Criticize and reject two-faced policy by Serbia and Kosovo government officials who provide sweet talk for EU and propagate hate speech internally.
  • Support cross-border activities between actors/groups/institutions from societies who were at war and perceive one another as hostile.
  • Strongly defend democratic principles, such as independent and free media (including public broadcasting service), not only marginalized and often discredited free media outlets).
  • Support cross-border cooperation which is not only bilateral, but regional, especially the triangles formed by Bosnia and Herzegovina-Croatia-Serbia with Serbia-Kosovo-Macedonia, following a pattern of enemy-inclusion.
  • Strongly condemn symptoms of a hijacked state: stop tolerating corruption, election manipulation, curbing of media liberties, glorification of war-criminals, etc. Although it may appear less important, all of this erodes the democratic capacity, fuels populism, shrinks space for alternatives and reduces the chances of overcoming the burdens of the past. It is counterproductive to trade a hijacked state for a “peace-deal”. Such a peace deal will not survive the test of time.