Author: Camille Thirot

CSOs from Kosovo and Serbia meet key EU interlocutors

CSOs from Kosovo and Serbia meet in Brussels

A delegation of civil society from Kosovo and Serbia had the opportunity to meet key interlocutors from various EU institutions in Brussels.

CSOs from kosovo and serbia meet in Brussels

A delegation of civil society from Kosovo and Serbia had the opportunity to meet key interlocutors from various EU institutions in Brussels. Members of the Kosovo-Serbia Rapid Response Mechanism presented ideas about the role civil society can play given the current tensions on the ground and hopes for a comprehensive agreement between Belgrade and Pristina.

The delegation met with the respective rapporteurs for Kosovo and Serbia, Ms. Viola von Cramon-Taubadel and Mr. Vladimír Bilčík, plus the team of the EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, Miroslav Lajčák. They also met with officials from the Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR) and the European External Action Service (EEAS).

Of note, several interlocutors spoke of a sense of momentum that apparently exists within member states regarding the EU enlargement process. This comes as something of a surprise given the profound feeling in the Western Balkans that accession is stalled. Regular perception surveys show growing ambivalence towards the EU path, particularly in Serbia, reenforcing the need for a more strategic approach to communications to reassert not only the European perspective, but to reiterate that the EU remains the region’s largest donor and trading partner.

The participants – whilst acknowledging the need for confidentiality during negotiations – raised concerns about the lack of transparency regarding both the structure and content of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. They proposed to engage with their respective governments to request that more information be placed into the public domain. Furthermore, concerns were raised about the dilution of reporting on Chapter 35, covering the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, particularly the intermediate benchmarks.

The participants also reiterated that civil society should be seen a resource and an ally both in the dialogue and in broader reform processes. With the relations in specific communities, civil society offers early warning capabilities that can help identify specific grievances and help reduce the scope for misunderstandings by relaying perspectives around an issue from local actors.

The civil society organisations reaffirmed their commitment to complementing and amplifying messages that are grounded in the need for compromise, confronting their own governments where needed to challenge specific narratives about some aspect of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. This was deemed increasingly imperative due to recent tensions in north Kosovo, including the deployment of Special Operations Units and the resignation of Kosovo Serbs from Kosovo institutions, and discussions regarding a comprehensive agreement between Serbia and Kosovo.

The Kosovo-Serbia Rapid Response Mechanism will continue to meet on a quarterly basis to formulate joint approaches to the problems affecting communities in Serbia and Kosovo. In addition, they will meet on an ad hoc basis as when required to, for instance, voice their concerns about a particular instance of divisive rhetoric or an event that threatens to harm the very environment in which dialogue is taking place.  

North Kosovo: time to turn to civil society

Social Europe - North Kosovo Ian Bancroft

Writing for Social Europe, PCi’s Project Manager for the Western Balkans presents a background of the present crisis of the Kosovo institutions and their relationship to the internationally mediated dialogue which should lead to the normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. The article draws attention to the gaps between the agreements that the process has facilitated and their implementation on the ground, highlighting an absence of voices from beyond the political elites of both countries as a key missing element from the dialogue.

Number plate in North Kosovo
The narcissism of minor differences: in July Pristina insisted all number plates had to be issued by Kosovo, not Serbia (Adam Cohn, CC BY-ND-ND 2.0)

The explosive tensions of recent weeks have exposed the limits of the dialogue brokered by the European Union.

The evolving relationship between Kosovo and Serbia, facilitated by the European Union, is facing its sternest test since 2011, when barricades throughout north Kosovo reflected a situation threatening to spiral out of control. Hopes are high for a final agreement in the coming year or so, to normalise relations between the two, and so are the diplomatic stakes. To supplement however this path towards sustainable peace, the EU must consider how it can better engage those constructive voices from civil society thus far largely neglected.   

For the last year and a half, the predominantly Serb north of Kosovo has been gripped by soaring tensions—amplified by Russia’s war in Ukraine and concerns about the stability of the western Balkans more generally. Last July, Kosovo moved ahead with plans to end the use on its territory of vehicle licence plates issues by the Republic of Serbia. Simultaneously, it announced that Serbian identity cards would no longer be valid to enter Kosovo, Belgrade having long rejected those issued by Pristina.

While the latter argument was swiftly resolved, the former lingered on. Kosovo resisted repeated pleas from the EU and the United States for a delay. As the stakes rose, Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s president, reiterated calls for the establishment of an ‘Association/Community of Serb-majority municipalities’. This was a central element of the Brussels Agreement to normalise relationships, brokered by the EU in 2013, but which remains unimplemented.

Mass resignation

Also critical to that agreement was integration of policing, albeit with a commitment that the commander of the Kosovo Police in the four northern municipalities would be a Kosovo Serb. The situation escalated in November with mass resignation of Serb police officers—ostensibly because they refused to impose warnings and then fines on their own community.

They were swiftly followed by elected officials (mayors and municipal assembly members), judges, prosecutors, local-government employees and others who had transferred to the Kosovo system in the past decade or so. It is a profound blow to the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, a key dimension of which is the integration of Kosovo Serbs through the 2013 agreement.

The security vacuum created by the resignations has been partly filled by members of the Kosovo Police special operations units, replete with long-barrelled weapons and tactical uniforms. Though professional and well-trained, they are ill-disposed to such tasks as patrolling traffic. Their numbers have been supplemented by mainly Albanian-speaking police brought from elsewhere in Kosovo.

There have been various reports of harassment and intimidation, including an assault on a prominent civil-society figure. Trust between the local community and the police has broken down, with patrols having been shot at on several occasions.

The arrest on December 10th of a Serb former member of the police led to renewed roadblocks, which would ultimately stand for some 20 days or so. There were a spate of accompanying incidents, including shootings, vehicle burnings and attacks on journalists. A reconnaissance patrol by the EU’s rule of law mission in Kosovo (EULEX) was targeted with a stun grenade, leading to widespread condemnation. The barricades have been dismantled but the crisis is far from over.

Point of contention

Though the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue has been imperfect, sizeable steps have been taken. The presence of the institutions of Kosovo in the north had been becoming more routine. Many more Serbs possess Kosovo ID cards and even passports. Money flows from the public purse in Pristina to north Kosovo.

A major point of contention remains the Association/Community of Serb-majority municipalities. It was conceived as the primary mechanism for integrating the functions sustained by the Republic of Serbia in Kosovo, which declared its independence in 2008 after a violent conflict, having previously been treated as a province of Serbia in the former Yugoslavia. Education, healthcare and waste disposal, to name but a few, are vital services which remain under Belgrade’s remit.

The association/community has, however, been fundamentally opposed by Pristina—despite a ruling in 2015 by Kosovo’s Constitutional Court obliging its establishment. Many fear that it would serve as an instrument of ethnic division, with some going so far as to describe it as Kosovo’s own Republika Srpska, the predominantly Serb entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina which frequently pushes for secession. Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, has publicly rejected it.

The EU continues to believe that a vital window of opportunity exists finally to reach a binding deal on the normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. The incumbents in Belgrade and Pristina enjoy the requisite support to take difficult decisions—whether they are willing to is another matter. Russia’s war in Ukraine has focused minds across Europe on the need for a lasting solution to the impasses in the western Balkans. There have even been suggestions that spring 2023 is essentially a deadline, though this feels ambitious given the experiences of recent months.

Missing element

The latest developments, however, have again exposed an element missing in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue—substantive engagement of civil society in Kosovo and Serbia. The process has been elite-led, with negotiations conducted largely in secret. There is little in the way of transparency. The definitive content of agreements remains disputed and open to interpretation.

While ‘constructive ambiguity’ may be deemed necessary to facilitate difficult compromises, it permits the evasion of commitments if and when it comes to implementation. Several agreements have come a cropper, with both sides blaming one another for the deadlocks then hampering progress. Constructive ambiguity has proved a short-term fix with a long-lasting hangover.

Priorities have been set in Brussels—by and between the respective negotiating teams—to the neglect of the communities on the ground directly implicated. Many wonder, sometimes out loud, just how they have benefited from over a decade of negotiations, plus those ultimately leading up to Kosovo’s ‘supervised’ independence.

Even 20 years on from the end of the war, rarely do citizens’ concerns come in first place. Kosovo and Serbia meanwhile face a common challenge—emigrating populations making their homes elsewhere.

Critical voices have been intentionally marginalised and ultimately found themselves resorting to unconstructive mud-throwing. Yet influential civil-society figures are vital to help prepare communities for the day after an agreement is reached—figures who can help navigate the pitfalls of implementation as promises are made, fulfilled and then forgotten.

Destabilisation resulting from a potential breakdown of the dialogue would have a profound impact on various communities in Serbia and Kosovo. It is thus imperative to invest resources in those capable of managing conflicts in their localities and building structures resilient to malign influences. These voices confront disinformation and divisive rhetoric, building confidence within and between communities.

Distant horizon

As the tenth anniversary approaches of the Brussels Agreement—arguably one of the high points of EU diplomacy—it is appropriate to reflect on the process and the structure of the subsequent dialogues. The destination of Kosovo and Serbia remains broadly the same—membership of an enlarged EU. Yet that horizon has become increasingly distant.

Building genuine and lasting peace in such a challenging and often unfavourable context requires that the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue be opened to constructive voices from civil society. It is they who can genuinely represent their communities and articulate a vision for the future, unbound by the diplomatic necessities and niceties as sensed in Brussels.

A time for new constructive voices

picture from kosovo

Following a gathering in Gračanica/Graçanicë, a diverse group of civil society organisations from Kosovo and Serbia have adopted the following joint statement calling for new constructive voices – voices that look to the future whilst retaining a keen eye on the past; voices that seek out partnerships and coalitions beyond the red lines that are supposed to define them; and voices that stand up publicly against divisive and derogatory rhetoric.

The constant cycle of escalation and de-escalation in relations between Kosovo and Serbia represents a failure of political imagination.

The energy taken up in contending with the latest crisis distracts from the mountain of pressing issues which directly impact the day to day lives of citizens in Serbia and Kosovo. 

The trend is already for people to be leaving Serbia, Kosovo, and elsewhere in the Western Balkans, especially amongst the youth. As new barricades are erected, so new bags are packed. Very few are likely to return. The future of our countries will be lived elsewhere.  

Many groups deemed outside the spectrum of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue are fundamentally ignored. The Roma community, for one, finds itself marginalised in both Serbia and Kosovo.

With the prospect of violence more pronounced than it has been for a decade, it is time for new constructive voices to be heard – voices that look to the future whilst retaining a keen eye on the past; voices that seek out partnerships and coalitions beyond the red lines that are supposed to define us; voices that stand up publicly against divisive and derogatory rhetoric.

We, the undersigned, endeavour to maintain channels of communication that reduce the possibilities for misunderstanding and disinformation. Too often we have talked past one another, insisting on the pertinence of one point whilst underestimating or completely ignoring the existence of another.

We think we understand the minutiae of an issue but fail to consider how it is understood or viewed by other communities. We all should be committed to listening with open ears and open minds.  

Only by sharing perspectives and perceptions from our respective communities can we start to move towards a common path for the future. Many of the problems our respective communities face are almost identical, yet we rarely acknowledge this fact.   

If ever there was a time for solidarity in the last decade it is now. The war in Ukraine is a painful reminder of the stark realities of war, even as the legacies of our own remain close to hand.

The cause of peace requires not just words to that effect, but images and relationships that embody togetherness. We stand opposed to all undue projections of force and all narratives of hate and division.

The futures of Kosovo and Serbia are inescapably tied-up with one another, and an agreement on the normalisation of relations is a vital first step in building a better tomorrow. But it is only a first step.    

Signatories
  1. Advocacy Center for Democratic Culture (ACDC)
  2. Aktiv
  3. The Balkan Forum
  4. Belgrade Centre for Security Policy
  5. Centar for Democracy and Education – Valley, Bujanovac
  6. Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies of the Balkans, Belgrade
  7. Center for Peace and Tolerance (CPT)
  8. Community Building Mitrovica
  9. Civic Initiatives
  10. European Fund for the Balkans
  11. Foundation BFPE for a Responsible Society (BFPE)
  12. Forum for Development and Multiethnic Collaboration (FDMC)
  13. Goraždevac Media Group
  14. Institute for Territorial Economic Development – InTER
  15. Jelena Lončar, Academic, University of Belgrade
  16. Kosovar Center for Security Studies (KCSS)
  17. Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights (YUCOM)
  18. Local Peace
  19. Milan Antonijević, Lawyer, Serbia
  20. New Perspektiva
  21. New Social Initiative (NSI)
  22. NGO Integra
  23. NGO Be Active 16, Presevo
  24. NGO Livrit, Presevo
  25. Peer Educators Network (PEN)
  26. Rahim Salihi, Civil Society Activist, Bujanovac
  27. Radio Peja
  28. Radio Astra, Prizren
  29. RTV KIM
  30. TV Prizreni, Prizren
  31. Valon Arifi, Civil Society Activist
  32. Voice of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians in Kosovo (VoRAE)
  33. Vjollca Krasniqi, Academic, University of Pristina
  34. Youth Initiative for Human Rights – Kosovo
  35. Youth Initiative for Human Rights – Serbia

Media Award 2: deadline extended

Media award 2

Dear Journalists, Editors, Journalism Students, and Writing Enthusiasts,

We want to inform you that the deadline for the submission of your articles for the Media Award 2 has been extended until 1st of February 2023.

We are inviting you to write your story on a slice of life that depicts a reality, be that positive or a challenge, from the prism of multiethnicity in Kosovo and/or Serbia.

For this year’s award, PCi has doubled the first prize in both categories (audio-visual and written format) to € 2,000 Euro and looks forward to receiving your entries.

Should you have a story that was written and published in the past, anytime from 1st of January 2022 (until 31st of January 2023), you are eligible for the Media Award 2.

One of the main criteria for eligibility is that these stories must be written in Albanian or Serbian language and must have been published on or before 31st of January 2023 (earliest date of publication must be: 1st of January 2022).

For additional information about the Media Award criteria, please refer to the documents below. The call for application is available in English, Serbian and Albanian language.

Media Award – Kosovo and Serbia: call for applications

Medijska nagrada – Kosovo i Srbija: poziv za prijavljivanje

Çmimi për Media – Kosovë dhe Serbi: thirrje për aplikim

Applications are received online through the Google Form link below: https://forms.gle/SHBtT7pVmm2unyZd8

Should you have any questions, please reach out to us via email at: media.award@peacefulchange.org.

Good luck! The Peaceful Change initiative (PCi) Team

Civil society stands by assaulted colleague

Serbia Kosovo joint statement

This statement was drafted by participants in the Kosovo-Serbia Rapid Response Mechanism, comprised of CSOs committed to reacting to any instances of divisive rhetoric or destabilising incidents which can negatively affect relations between communities and harm the environment for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue.

By sharing perspectives on specific issues, the mechanism helps deepen understanding about the sources of grievance within particularly communities and reduces the scope for a lack of awareness or misinformation. This process is facilitated by Peaceful Change initiative as part of the UK-government funded ALVED (Amplifying Local Voices for Equitable Development) project.

Civil society organisations from Kosovo and Serbia have expressed their support for Miodrag Milićević from NGO Aktiv, who was verbally and physically assaulted by a member of Kosovo Police special units in the vicinity of the Jarinje crossing in north Kosovo.

On 14th November, Miodrag Milićević from NGO Aktiv was verbally and physically assaulted by a member of Kosovo Police special units in the vicinity of the Jarinje crossing in north Kosovo. The assault both reflects and contributes to the deteriorating atmosphere for trust and peaceful coexistence in Kosovo which has been observable in recent months and has reached an alarming scale of escalation with the withdrawal of Serb representatives from Kosovo institutions.

Recent actions by key parties contributing to this escalation have been taken without due consideration to long-term consequences and the damage that can be done to the underlying framework for normalisation. Continuing an environment of threats, intimidation, humiliation, and mistrust will only exacerbate an already fragile situation.

Our organisations have committed to improving the conditions for normalisation by creating channels between communities and building trust to contribute to a long-term and sustainable peace. At this time, we call on all stakeholders for peace in the region to refrain from escalatory language and to use relations, platforms and channels that cross community lines and political lines to create engagement, build understanding of the multiple perspectives on the present context, and contribute to an environment in which key actors take well-considered actions that have in view the well-being of all communities.

We also call on the international community to demonstrate an appropriate urgency in their engagement with the present crisis. We stand with our colleague, Mr. Milićević, and call on the incident to be addressed in line with the relevant legal frameworks in place.

Signatories:
  1. Aktiv
  2. Belgrade Center for Security Policy (BCSP)
  3. Community Building Mitrovica (CBM)
  4. Center for Peace and Tolerance (CPT)
  5. Civic Initiatives, Serbia
  6. European Movement in Serbia (EMiS)
  7. Forum for Development and Multiethnic Collaboration (FDMC)
  8. Foundation BFPE for a Responsible Society (BFPE)
  9. Humanitarian Law Center Kosovo
  10. Institute for Territorial Economic Development – InTER
  11. Jelena Lončar, University of Belgrade
  12. Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights (YUCOM)
  13. Local Peace
  14. Media Center Caglavica
  15. Mitrovica Women Association for Human Rights
  16. New Social Initiative (NSI)
  17. NGO Be Active 16, Presevo
  18. Portali LUGINALAJM, Bujanovac
  19. Radio Gorazdevac
  20. Radio Astra, Prizren
  21. Rahim Salihi, civil society activist, Bujanovac
  22. Youth Initiative for Human Rights – Kosovo
  23. Youth Initiative for Human Rights – Serbia
  24. Valon Arifi, Civic Activist
  25. Voice of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians in Kosovo (VoRAE)
  26. Vjollca Krasniqi, University of Prishtina