After the 1999 Kosovo War, Belgrade established its parallel system to exert control over Kosovo Serbs and cement ethnic partition to undermine any recognition of Kosovo’s statehood. Providing a de facto Serbian administration into Serbian-majority areas in the educational system, healthcare, welfare, etc., ordinary Kosovo Serbs and their critical voices have been paradoxically taken off the reconciliation process at all levels.
The current tensions alongside the contested borderland of Kosovo show how easily Belgrade can hijack prospects of peace and how the Sino-Russian alliance on an international ground is instrumentally backing Serbian authorities. Paradoxically, Serbia and Aleksandar Vucic’s presidency have played a pejorative role toward Kosovo Serbs.
Belgrade’s non-recognition stance on Kosovo’s statehood has failed to protect and secure local autonomy for Kosovo Serb municipalities and implement any proper mechanism of self-governing rights.
For instance, Kosovo’s Constitutional Court deemed the Association of Serbian Municipalities unconstitutional in 2017 (Judgment on Case No. KO 130/15) because of the risk of allowing an already-existing Serbia-backed parallel system to enter into force in Kosovo and undermine its territorial integrity. All of these have intensified the sense of “in-betweenness” among Kosovo Serbs, for whom it turns out to be equally complicated and socially impeded to perform their Serbian identity because trapped between Serbia’s effectively ceased, hence non-existent, state membership and Pristina’s institutions. Under these circumstances, Kosovo Serbs remain in between Kosovo’s policy vacuum and the local corruption of the Serbia-sponsored parallel system.
Regarding the discussion of the impact of economy and security stress in Kosovo, although economic stagnation and underdevelopment do not solely depend on ethnic factors, the latter can be easily used as a means to manipulate and destabilize the security scenario.
In my own experience, during my fieldwork in Kosovo, from 2017 up until 2022, I was not informed by ordinary people and institutions of significant security issues. After the 2004 unrest, when petty crimes were reported, I found Kosovo Serbs primarily concerned with correct civic practices of self-care.
Outside North Kosovo, I saw how Serbian identity was more constructively mediated through shared moral values and good practices to be performed to counter the bitterness of poverty, isolation, and depopulation. During interviews, my respondents were more concerned about a sense of cultural and economic oppression rather than security threats posed by Albanians.
Economic uncertainty was verbalized as a sense of discomfort of “being Serbian in Kosovo”. Although quotidian “good practices” help ordinary Serbs navigate certain dilemmas to foster inclusion and resilience constructively, it does not surprise that fewer Serbs see Serbia and its parallel institutions as the only ‘guarantors’ and ‘protectors’ of their communities and rights. Many others have begun to consider the role of Serbian institutions and representatives as self-defeating.
It is telling that the latest protests led by local Serbs in Mitrovica have been held in front of the Serbian List office (namely, the Serbian minority party), echoing criticism toward “Serbia’s protection” and highlighting solidarity with other Serbs residing in the south of the Ibar river. Also, the appeal to “good intentions” and “good people”, concerning Albanians, reflect an inconspicuous yet existent set of shared moral values and practices that would reveal unharvested reconciliation potentials.
There is no doubt that in Kosovo certain local dynamics are deeply ingrained in the war-reflected legacy and can, in turn, inform the central places of power. However, Kosovo Serbs do not constitute a static and homogenous community.
After the 1999 Kosovo war, they continued to reside in the Serb-majority clusters of North Kosovo and other outskirts and villages surrounding Albanian-majority towns in the rest of the country. While the war and its legacy hit most Serbian-populated areas the hardest, other Serbian clusters were not, leaving more room for a faster and easier reconciliation process. Within the latter, many international pundits and media gloss over inconspicuous dynamics of coexistence and peace (re)established or maintained before the collapse of Yugoslavia. While many international donors and policymakers uncritically develop reconciliation projects by employing ethnocentric approaches, trusting and empowering local actors for future decision-making processes is key.
Many Kosovo Serbs have contributed to making Kosovo a better place to live in. Many young Serbs participate in civil society as activists, feminists, peacekeepers, and volunteers. Among others, green activism is worthy of note. Although the participation of the Serbian community in joint training or actions cannot be taken for granted, in the town of Peja, local citizens from both Albanian and Serbian communities have started to collaborate beyond the institutional weaknesses of Kosovo and established a partnership that has provided a sustainable system of waste collection and a decreasing impact on illegal landfills.
Moreover, the decision of Kosovo’s Supreme Court to suspend the construction of Brezovica’s hydropower plant acknowledged the grassroots mobilization of thousands of young Serbian and Albanian activists who got rewarded for standing against the project.
This text was first published by Saint Pierre Center for International Security.