Moving—bottom-up—beyond the crisis in Kosovo

Civil-society-led dialogue will be key if disinformation is to be rebutted and trust is to be rebuilt.

Writing for Social Europe, Ian Bancroft – PCi’s Project Manager for the Western Balkans – explores the key role civil society can play to help rebuild trust, combat disinformation, and normalise relations between Kosovo and Serbia. This article was originally published on 5th July 2023.

the North Atlantic Treaty Organization secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg (right), meeting the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, at NATO headquarters in Brussels to discuss relations with Kosovo.
That was then: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg (right), meeting the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, at NATO headquarters in Brussels last August, noted that the situation had improved on the ground (NATO, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Assaults on KFor peacekeepers in north Kosovo in late May, which were followed by a grenade attack on the police station in north Mitrovica and other explosions late last month, constitute the most serious violence in the area since 2011. That episode set in motion a diplomatic process culminating in the 2013 Brussels agreement, a landmark of recent European diplomacy. The situation in Kosovo however remains volatile and, without compromise on key issues, there is a very real prospect of repeated clashes.

Tensions have been brewing for a year and a half, particularly following Pristina’s decision to deploy heavily armed ‘special operations units’ to the north. Accumulated grievances over various issues, including illegal land expropriations and vehicle licence plates, led Serbs to withdraw last autumn from Kosovo institutions in the north—including the police, judiciary and local government.

This has constituted the biggest setback to integration in over a decade. Despite considerable diplomatic pressure, Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, has resisted calls to establish the Association/Community of Serb-majority Municipalities signalled in 2013, widely viewed as a prerequisite for further progress.

The long-term cause of peace is being severely affected by such episodes, which are breeding mistrust and antagonism. For the sake of normalisation between Kosovo and Serbia—a process which should have been reinforced by the roadmap and implementation annex agreed between the two under European Union facilitation in February—civil society must urgently consider how it can contribute to de-escalating tensions and pursue confidence-building measures that can rebuild trust.

Constructive dialogue

In such times of crisis, civil society has a key role in confronting rumours and disinformation, which can further destabilise and inflame the situation. Without pushback against—or clarification of—certain claims, they are left to fester and poison the public space, as ‘social media’ amplify the flurry of speculation, reducing the scope for constructive dialogue. Such responses need to be timely and co-ordinated to limit the damage caused.  

An effective mechanism is also needed to document in an objective and trusted manner the human-rights violations reported, especially in north Kosovo and south Serbia—where respectively Serb and ethnic-Albanian minorities predominate—plus remedial measures to address the complaints. Claims and counterclaims are otherwise presented without a process to verify the incident in question.

Such a mechanism can only enjoy the trust of all citizens if it reflects the broad spectrum of communities in Kosovo and Serbia, ensuring that documented cases are communicated beyond those directly affected. In doing so, it can provide a basis for joint advocacy targeting domestic institutions and the international community, raising awareness about otherwise neglected issues.     

It is imperative too that civil society helps foster and sustain a culture of dialogue within and between communities in Kosovo and Serbia. Misunderstandings and misconceptions about specific events, acts or issues only serve to fuel grievances, particularly within communities that feel their voice is ignored or distorted. By offering broader perspectives on local sentiments, civil society can help catalyse the formulation of coherent responses.

Not merely governments

Sustainable solutions can only be reached through a dialogue that involves all elements of society, not merely the respective governments. Already various organisations from Kosovo and Serbia regularly propose constructive ideas on how to transcend the current cycle of crises. Their efforts are vital to demonstrate that a different future is possible.

The stances such actors take, however, are often deeply unpopular within their own communities, where they can face threats and intimidation for, in particular, criticising their own political leaderships. There is therefore a need for civil society in Kosovo and Serbia to publicly stand in solidarity with those willing to voice their ideas for a better tomorrow. Furthermore, such proposals are rarely heard by other communities because of how information stays in silos. Civic actors need to build networks of communication which help amplify messages within and between communities, to ensure that these are heard by as wide and diverse an audience as possible. 

Civil society can also help move beyond crisis-management. Article six of the agreement on the path to normalisation between Kosovo and Serbia supports the deepening of ‘future cooperation’ in a range of fields, including the economy, religion, environmental protection and missing persons. Civil society can rise above nationalistic discourses and engage in potentially contentious conversations, particularly where status-related issues are concerned.

This article, in particular, will come to define the extent to which relations between Serbia and Kosovo flourish in the future. Articulating where such co-operation should be developed is not a task for political elites alone. The article encourages a plurality of actors to come forward with their visions for enhancing mutually beneficial ties.

Universal norms

The role of civil society needs to be underpinned by an EU commitment to upholding universal norms—not just rhetorically, but in its approach to transforming conflict in the western Balkans. Civil-society calls for a more meaningful role in the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia have however been frowned upon, not only by the two parties but by the EU itself. Their collective preference is for the process to remain closed and largely elite-driven—a preference reinforced by the war in Ukraine, which has only served to embolden narrow approaches justified by Realpolitik.

The EU should provide tangible support to civil-society organisations committed to improving relations between the respective communities by pursuing approaches that emphasise dialogue and collaboration. Rapidly accessible funding mechanisms, underpinned by a clear commitment to peacebuilding, can allow civil society to pursue confidence-building initiatives at short notice, reacting to quickly evolving situations on the ground. Relationships forged in moments of crisis tend to endure during more peaceful times, those bonds of solidarity contributing to trust and mutual understanding.

Civil society must also take the initiative in outlining its own contribution to normalisation—a process that goes well beyond the political dimensions of the dispute. There are areas where dialogue has unforeseen or intended consequences, or where blindspots mean specific problems go unresolved, which civil society can help ameliorate.

Furthermore, ensuring implementation proceeds as intended requires active civil-society monitoring and engagement. Where there is a loss of confidence in those leading the dialogue, including in the facilitator itself, civil society can help through complementary processes that transform relations within and between communities.

Relationships and connections

Ultimately, a grand vision for the future of relations between Kosovo and Serbia will only come from a broad-based movement of civil society representing various constituencies, including those minorities often ignored in such debates. It requires leaving aside the present frictions and thinking more broadly about the relationships and connections they want to see flourish in the coming years and decades. 

The current situation threatens fundamentally to undermine the recent agreement on the path to normalisation between Kosovo and Serbia. Failure to act now could see relations deteriorate further and the process of integration unravel to the extent that all the gains from the 2013 agreement, whose tenth anniversary has just passed, are lost. Civil society has a vital role to play—but it needs too to reflect seriously and creatively on how best it can serve the wider public.