Francesco Trupia: Kosovo Serbs have their own agency [video]

Ground level impressions and original insights into the Serbian-Kosovo relations

Cross-Border Talks discussed with the Italian political scientist and historian Francesco Trupia about the EU-brokered negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina. Trupia explained what was the minority rights policy of Kosovo authorities, what is the regional and international context of the Kosovo-Serbian negotiations, and made a prognosis about what to expect.

Full transcription of the video and sound recordings is available below.

Welcome to another episode of Cross Border Talks, where we take a look at the Western Balkans. At the end of February, the reconciliation process between Kosovo and Serbia seemed to have made a step forward, with the two countries agreeing to various things, even though their deal is short of recognition of Kosovo. Serbia agreed to recognize various symbols and documents of the Kosovo state. And in this context, we had published on Cross-Border Talks an interesting short text by Francesco Trupia, who is an Italian researcher on a number of international issues, especially related to Balkans, and he will be our interlocutor today. Francesco Trupia has cooperated with various academic institutions, including in Kosovo, but also in Bulgaria. He’s currently residing in Torun, Poland, also doing various other projects with European institutions around Europe. The first question will be put forward by my colleague Malgorzata.

Hello, everybody. And before I ask my question, I would kindly ask you to subscribe to Cross-border Talks. You can listen to us on SoundCloud or Spotify. You can watch the episodes on YouTube and other platforms, but not to miss anything. Please subscribe. 

Francesco, it’s very nice to see you in the program, especially that we mainly hear about Kosovo and Serbia in the context of border tensions, ethnic clashes, and the problem is somehow presented to the international public as something that has lasted for centuries, that will last and will never find a proper solution. And as far as I remember in your studies in your article that we have also published on Cross-Border Talks, you are arguing that the Serbian and Kosovo communities are actually trying to start a kind of grassroots reconciliation, and are trying to find ways to live together in this particular political geographical circumstances. 

But before we go to discuss the results of your fieldwork in Kosovo, I wanted to ask you to give us a summary of Serbian politics towards Kosovo since the moment when Kosovo became an independent state, a step that Serbia never actually accepted. So could you tell us what Serbian politics towards Kosovo nowadays, and what is the role of the Kosovo Serb community in this?

Hi, everyone. And first of all, thank you, Malgorzata and Vladimir, for having me in your Cross-border Talks podcast. It’s a pleasure for me to share a couple of my studies.

Let me begin by saying that the approach of Serbia towards Kosovo has never changed since the Declaration of Independence by Kosovo and Kosovo institutions, and perhaps it hasn’t changed since the 1999 Kosovo war. It’s a very complex issue. And of course there are different ways to approach and to discuss the Kosovo-Serbia reconciliation. So let me give you an overview firstly, on a top down level and secondly, from a bottom up perspective, which is, let’s say, the research approach that I prefer and that you have actually mentioned a couple of seconds ago. 

The Kosovo-Serbia reconciliation process is brokered by the European Union through the so-called Brussels dialogue, which was launched in 2013. And it’s still ongoing. Of course, throughout these years, many things have happened and many other political issues have erupted. And let’s say they have come across the issue of Kosovo, Serbia, and reconciliation. We can say that at the very beginning of the Brussels dialogue around 2013-2015 between Kosovo and Serbia the institutions, the political representatives of Belgrade and Pristina, kicked off the reconciliation process quite positively. There were some changes towards a positive path, but no recognition of diplomas and other kinds of less political and less identity oriented issues that were discussed. 

The real reconciliation, the complete reconciliation between Serbia and Kosovo has basically stopped, first of all, because Serbia remains very, very stubborn on not recognizing Kosovo statehood, which is, at the end of the day, the apple of discord. And this is the main issue why Kosovo hasn’t been recognized yet. Basically Serbia has not yet recognized the Kosovo state, who then seems not willing to do so. In the last in the last meeting brokered by the European Union President Vucic and Albert Curti, who are like, let’s say the two political representatives for Serbia and Kosovo, together with Mr. Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union, foreign policy and security towards the Western Balkans, and agreed on a new document, which might be positive on the one hand, but on the other hand, let’s say it has some kind of problems, in my opinion, related to the article number four and article number seven. Let’s say that we can discuss more in detail about these two articles and why, in my opinion, they are more complicated for the reconciliation of the two countries. 

Throughout the years the Brussels dialogue has given challenges for the Serbian side. The recognition of Kosovo is something that it seems not willing to to agree and to recognize even de facto statehood of Kosovo. Actually, it was interesting that Vucic himself a couple of days ago said that as long as he remains in power, he is not willing to do anything. And perhaps the European Union can sort out the recognition of Kosovo once he steps back from politics. So the reconciliation and the recognition of Kosovo statehood from the Serbian side doesn’t seem to happen. And for sure it’s not going to happen quite, quite easily and in the short term, let’s put it in this way.

And for Kosovo, unfortunately, the country has remained dependent on the Serbian willingness to recognize its statehood. And also it remains, let’s say, in a position to give more and more to the Serbian side to give more concessions to Belgrade and to Brussels in order to reach an agreement which doesn’t seem to be happening very, very, very soon. At the same time, let’s say that the real crisis or one of the latest crisis between the two countries on the European level was related to the non-papers scandal and the idea of territorial swap in 2018,. There was this, let’s say, very malignant idea to organize a territorial swap between Kosovo and Serbia, where the northern part of Kosovo, which is inhabited by Serbs and the Presevo Valley in the southernmost Serbia, were supposed to be swapped. So the north of Kosovo goes to Serbia and the valley goes to Kosovo. It was like a kind of idea which also was including the resolution of the Western Balkans on the path to to the EU accession. But of course it was considered to be a completely wrong idea and it was opposed by many NGOs and civil society organizations and also some local politicians are the critical voices on the ground. 

Speaking of which, let’s say that this kind of reconciliation process, as I said, could be also approached from a bottom-up level. And this is what I did in my studies where I tried to explore and investigate how the reconciliation process is happening in everyday life and how Kosovo Serbs experience processes of reconciliation. So in my studies, I tried to not question the top down approach to reconciliation, but to go to the field, conducting interviews with Serbs, but also with Albanians in Kosovo and to ask them what do they think about the reconciliation process? And if there are certain frictions or contrasts between what they experience on a daily basis and the reconciliation process. And those kinds of questions have been given to me from the voices of both Kosovo Serbs and Kosovo Albanians.

Basically while the top-down approach to reconciliation might find and might be full of pitfalls and challenges to be tackled by, both Belgrade and Pristina in everyday life, let’s say that the reconciliation process has been going more smoothly, especially in the southern part of Kosovo.

I’ve been doing research not in the city of Mitrovica, which is, let’s say, the contested city, the divided city. Its northern part is inhabited by Serbs, the southern part is inhabited by Albanians. And this kind of division is still ongoing between the two populations, even though on the local level, there are some exchanges. Of course, we cannot deny it. But this kind of rhetoric is related to the north. 

Sometimes there is this rhetoric which depicts the Kosovo Serbs as a monolithic community able to create some troubles on a security level. And this is something that didn’t happen since the unrest in 2004. And especially we have to remember that the all regions inhabited by Serbs in Kosovo were not hit on the same level during the war. So reconciliation processes were starting quite sooner and quite quicker than in other regions. Meaning that, for instance, the reconciliation process between Serbs and Albanians might be a problem in the northern part and in urban areas, while in the south eastern part of Kosovo and also in the central part of Kosovo. And especially in the rural fabric this kind of reconciliation goes smoothly, let’s say, or perhaps is not interrupted or was not interrupted. In the same way. It does in north Kosovo, where tensions between and across borders, let’s say, are forcing people to follow more high politics. And what happens on the European level where Belgrade and Pristina don’t seem to be along very well.

Okay. Um, you write in your article basically that Kosovo Serbs are not mere proxies of Belgrade, but they have their own agency. And my guess is that Kosovo State has done something in order to empower these communities. And one question is what exactly was the Kosovo state policy towards the Serbian community? And the other question I want to mix somehow with the first is to what extent the economic grounds or rationale is the reason for the process of reconciliation, because we are aware of the Open Balkans initiative in which Kosovo is not part, but maybe it could provide some dynamism, as it does to maybe to northern Macedonia and Albania and Serbia. And also my guess is that Kosovo and Serbia may be trading not a small amount of goods.

Let me start with the second question. I think that the Open Balkans initiative was a way, a diplomatic and a political option of the Western Balkans to kind of tackle the impasse of the European Union accession process and the fact that it was somehow stopped in the middle of nowhere. And basically there was not any kind of way forward for the Western Balkans to speed up the EU accession process. So it might be understood as an alternative to the official EU brokered accession process. But at the same time, there have been many experts and political analysts who have criticized these kinds of initiatives because perhaps there’s been thought. Meaning that the open Balkans initiative has been thought by leaders of the Western Balkans as a way to speed up the European Union. accession process. But at the end of the day, it might stop the whole and general EU accession process.

When it comes to the trading relations between Kosovo and Serbia… Unfortunately, we have to point out that between the two countries there are many illegal activities, based on trading, ongoing. And actually the northern part of Kosovo is one of the most problematic areas, but also the borders. I myself have heard Kosovo Serbs saying that, you know, in order to tackle some kind of economic issues in their villages, in their places of residence, they are supposed to do some illegal work across borders. So smuggling certain kinds of products, for instance, between Kosovo and Serbia. And with the non-recognized borders of Kosovo, it might be a good opportunity for them to make their living. Of course, these are illegal activities, but this is something that is ongoing and it doesn’t seem that the Open Balkan Initiative is going to tackle that. It’s more organized like an economic approach, which doesn’t seem to pay off in terms of diplomatic strategies.

To unfreeze a certain kind of frozen relations or to pacify and to settle issues that have been discussed at the European Union level, like the Kosovo Serbia reconciliation process that we are talking about right now.

Speaking of the first question regarding the Kosovo Serbs and the agency of Kosovo Serbs and the relationship between Pristina and Kosovo institutions towards the Kosovo Serbs, let me say that actually Kosovo is quite advanced in terms of protection of minority rights. But interestingly enough, in the same way the Kosovo Serbia reconciliation on a top down level, on a European level has the problem of implementation. So it’s not in other words, it’s not a problem to bring Serbian and Kosovo institutions on the same table and to discuss the future of the reconciliation. The problem is the implementation of what they have agreed on.

And this has always been the problem of Kosovo, Serbia – reconciliation, because sometimes this normative approach has faced some issues because when it’s the time to implement a certain point of mutual agreements, this is not going to happen. And at the same time, the minority protection sometimes towards the Kosovo minority, minority rights protection towards Kosovo. Service doesn’t pay off in terms of implementing certain policies which are supposed to protect Serbian rights. And this could be on a political level. And also it can.

Also have an impact on Kosovo Serbs in their everyday life for instance, another insight from my from my fieldwork. It was interesting to hear about Kosovo Serbs in the south of Kosovo. They were complaining about the fact that it’s important.

For them to have a bank account in Kosovo. But the problem is that they don’t receive messages or emails in Serbian language. Most of the time, the emails or the messages from the banks are written in English and in Albanian, and they do not possess the they don’t command the languages very well. So basically they are stopped somehow to go and to open up a bank account for the businesses, for the local businesses in Kosovo Bank. And they are supposed to go for a bank account in Serbia, which somehow strengthens, again, relations, the relations between Serbs from Kosovo and Serbia. Let’s say this is something that could be also understood on the level of language protection, on the level of how institutions from Kosovo are trying to win the hearts of Serbs. But this is once again related to the role of Serbia towards the Serbian minority in Kosovo, which for me has been very negative so far because since the end of the war, Serbia has established this parallel system. And across the local municipalities.

And also the northern part of Kosovo, where the Serbs live. So basically the everyday life of Kosovo Serbs is organized around the political and the administrative and civic organization of Serbian life. The school works according to the Serbian curriculum, for instance. So Serbs in Kosovo, they study not only in Serbian language, but also they study the Serbian curricula. And this, for instance, has been a problem.

During the pandemic when everything went online and there was no agreement between the Serbian schools in Kosovo and the roadmap of Kosovo schools, which were providing a certain kind of rules for tackling the pandemic and stopping the spread of the virus at school, which was like a concern at the. very beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic.

So on the one hand, you have certain issues on a pragmatic level, like receiving an SMS or an email from your bank in a language that you don’t understand. And on the other level, you have also a problem once again related to high politics and how Serbia has managed to hijack the life of Kosovo Serbs by capturing their life through the parallel system. Which is, of course, another problem related to the ongoing debate about the recognition. According to Article seven of the Association for the Serbian Municipalities, I think we have time to discuss it.

I would like to ask a bit more about this grassroots reconciliation process that you are studying, that you are talking about with both Albanians and Serbians in Kosovo. I wanted to put it a bit in the context of the rising tensions in northern Kosovo, because last year we were, when hearing news about the tensions over the registration plates and other and other things we could even hear on the media that the full scale ethnic conflict may come back in Kosovo. And how would you comment on this based on what you heard from people living there on the ground? I would also like to ask about the mutual stereotypes and how both communities think about their neighbors of different ethnicity, how the mutual attitudes changed over these years that passed since the independence of Kosovo.

Let’s say that when everybody was talking and speaking about a full scale ethnic conflict in North Kosovo, this didn’t happen. And even though there were some clashes also recently, not only in north Kosovo. As a large-scale ethnic conflict is not happening, it doesn’t seem quite possible to happen, having in mind that the international organizations like the KFOR or the US diplomats are playing a big role in calming down the situation, when something may erupt. Unfortunately, I haven’t conducted research recently, in the last two years in Kosovo or did so, but on a different, on a different topic. And I have the fear that actually when it comes for Serbia to implement a certain kind of recognition on a different level. Um, there are some kinds of, let’s call it perhaps not not properly, but let’s call it like a fifth column. So like a kind of very small community or groups of people among the Kosovo Serbian community in Kosovo, which is more likely to hijack any kind of agreement and trying to raise the tension once again in order to shift the attention from the real issues. And this is what is happening. 

Recently, there has been a kind of, you know, protest in North Mitrovica, and these protests were held and led by ordinary people. And in front of the office of the Serbian list, the Serb list, which is the mainly minority political party representing the rights of Kosovo Serbs in Kosovo. And this was, in my opinion, very instructive and indicating the fact that people, ordinary people now, are somehow more divided. I mean, the Serbian community is more divided than before. And they started to complain about the way Serbia is trying to protect their rights, which is not something they appreciate. So right now, I think that the Kosovo Serbian community is on a roundabout and they have to decide which direction to go? And this kind of polarization within the Kosovo Serbs and the Serbian minority in Kosovo, let’s say, is much more present and vivid recently than it was before. Because when I was doing research in 2018 and 2019, there was this kind of division between North Kosovo and South and part of Kosovo and someone was telling me that it’s interesting that Belgrade is looking into north Kosovo all the time, while there are more Serbs living in the south of the Ibar River, in the central and southern part of Kosovo. And so demographically speaking, this might be like an interesting point.

 And when it comes to this kind of, you know, idea of having Kosovo Serbs in a monolithic community. Recently, there were people protesting in Mitrovica from the Serbian side. Trying to to reach Serbs in the south and to share some messages of solidarity for some clashes that were happening in the city of. As I said a couple of minutes ago, this kind of way of saying critical voices of the Serbian community has always been taken off the table of reconciliation. This is, in my opinion, another problem for the Serb-Albanians reconciliation process. 

Of course stereotypes are circulating. I can recall the most typical stereotype of Serbs towards Albanians. You know, that they are shqiptare, which, you know, it means Albanians, in Albanian language. But of course when Serbs use it, it has a pejorative connotation. But interestingly, some Serbs have been complaining to me that when they went to central Serbia, you know, they’ve always been identified or also they have been identified as shiptars. So, you know, this connotation goes beyond ethnic lines. I mean, he doesn’t sometimes have the division of Albanian Serbian differences and stereotypes. Even a Kosovo Serb can be understood as a shiphtar in in Serbia, which basically means, you know, a person with no urban mentality, perhaps a person who hasn’t studied or a person who is not cultured or with good manners, let’s say. 

And of course, on the Albanian side, many understand the claims and the demands of the Kosovo Serbs community as a voice which is trying to bring Kosovo back to Serbia, which is something that is not going to happen, of course. And even the most I mean, the the high number of Serbs, I think both in Kosovo and Serbia, they really know they just need to accept the reality and perhaps to to to self-examine themselves in the history of Serbia, especially in relation to Kosovo, But these kind of stereotypes, even though they are present. And sometimes you can really spot these stereotypes not because they are verbalized, but because perhaps you do some ethnographic research and you see some graffiti. You see how, for instance, I don’t know, some some images that are used, I don’t know, on the Albanian side with the pictures and photos of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and when you go to some Serbian villages or some Serbian cities, you see, you know, the typical and most often used quote “Kosovo is Serbia” and these kind of things. But let’s say that these stereotypes, in my opinion, are very banal. We can categorize them within this concept of banal nationalism, which has been used in academia and literature quite often to describe this kind of phenomena. But these kinds of stereotypes are not stopping people from trying to reorganize their life, even with their neighbors. Might they be Albanians or Serbs or Roma or Turks or Bosniaks, no matter who they are, especially in the rural areas where life is tougher and people have less opportunities to develop and they are facing the huge problems such as depopulation, economic stability and perhaps the fear that something may erupt like it was in the past. 

These kinds of issues are convincing people that it’s time to reconcile. And this reconciliation is happening is a reconciliation that you cannot grasp immediately when you go to Kosovo, especially to the biggest cities. But it’s something that you for sure you can see in Kosovo when you go on a rural level or in the suburban areas or in some parts of Kosovo, where the city is very close to the Serbian villages. And you see some interconnections between Serbs going downtown and some Albanians going to the Serbian villages to buy some products, for instance. To have some work together. In my experience, I’ve come across some businesses run by Albanians and Serbs. I have seen, you know, some Albanian and Serbian families living quite close to each other and also having some argument between each other because of some flags that were used. And this kind of disagreement, let’s say they were already tackled by themselves, by the people at first, and they were somehow trying to, um, to to, to come to terms with the reality they are, they are living. 

So perhaps right now on a certain level, which is very grassroots level, you can experience how Serbs and Albanians, they have at least agreed to disagree so they can stay in disagreement. But of course there are not many tensions and even those stereotypes are still circulating. As I said, these stereotypes do not have a and they don’t trigger any kind of problems. So, so far and when sometimes we see some tensions, this is more, let’s say, orchestrated in order to shift the attention to another kind of problem or issue or a certain discourse, which seems to to to kick off well, in order to to step forward towards the recognition of Kosovo by Serbia or the recognition of self-governance of Serbs by Kosovo institutions.

My question might be hypothetical, but maybe it’s discussed somewhere. Maybe you know something more about it. What are the European perspectives of Kosovo for European integration? Given that, let’s imagine that Serbia also joins the EU? Could they join on separate dates, for example? Because if Serbia joins first, maybe it will use its membership as a tool against Kosovo?

You already replied to your question. I think that the biggest problem for Kosovo is that Serbia hypothetically is going to join the European Union before Kosovo. But in that situation, if Serbia, let’s say, that we are doing some kind of you know, we are inventing politics.

But in that situation, the question is still open because Serbia will join the EU. And what about Kosovo? Because Serbia understands Kosovo is part of Serbia.

So hypothetically, if Serbia joins the EU, Kosovo will join the EU together with Serbia. This is, of course, something that is not going to happen. I think the European Union approach towards the Western Balkans and especially the Kosovo Serbia reconciliation is basically to let Serbia recognize Kosovo first and then join together as two different separate states. And basically, you know, to reach this mutual goal.

Agreement in throughout the EU accession process, this is, let’s say the main EU hope and and strategy. Of course, it’s still very difficult. As I said, I think it’s not going to happen very soon because once again. Aleksandar Vucic said quite out loud that he is not going to recognize any kind of de facto statehood for Kosovo or he’s not going to recognize Kosovo whatsoever. And the problem is that the price that Kosovo has to pay throughout the EU accession process, because right now, let’s say that the process, in my opinion, is not paying off for Kosovo. And little by little, Serbia is trying to manipulate this kind of process, even though it will also be difficult for Belgrade to do so. But if we have a look at, for instance, at the article number seven, that both parties I mean, Kosovo and Serbia agreed on in the latest meeting of the Brussels dialogue, you see how Kosovo is supposed to provide recognition of the Serbian the Association of Serbian Municipalities, which and also it will allow Serbia to provide economic support to to the Serbian communities and to the Serbian municipalities and also to have a direct link to to Serbia. I think that if this is going to happen, I think that Kosovo is going to be damaged. And the Kosovo statehood, especially the territorial integrity of Kosovo, is going to be at stake. That’s why Kurti was welcomed by high criticism after his return from from from Brussels, because, of course, Albanian politicians know and especially when it comes to the recognition of the of the Association of Serbian Municipalities, the Constitutional Court of Kosovo has already proclaimed the illegal recognition of such self-governments organization of Serbian municipalities because it means that the Serbia’s parallel system among Kosovo Serbs is going to be recognized. We are going to have a kind of scenario like in Bosnia.

This kind of recognition of the Serbian municipalities with a direct link with Serbian economic support from from Serbia, is going to to give Serbia the upper hand, to always impose some veto or always to stop or perhaps hijacked the institutional framework of Kosovo, not only across Kosovo itself, but also across certain kind of areas where Kosovo authorities are not going to have power anymore and administration of Kosovo institution is not going to to even have a say or to regulate the life on an institutional level. So this is something very, very dangerous. And, of course, for Kosovo, this is paramount to fix. In that kind of scenario that we were trying to invent, you know, Serbia joins the EU before Kosovo… I think this is not going to happen. And I really hope it’s not going to happen in a way that Kosovo has to pay a higher price to go to the EU accession process.

Well, to close this conversation, to close Cross-Border talk, I am always trying to find something optimistic or some positive point in what was being said. And perhaps for today, the most surprising and also the most optimistic is what you said about people in the villages, people in Kosovo, as in different regions of Kosovo, that try to face the different the difficulties of everyday life together, that the economic and social situation does not make people fight each other or seek differences between communities, but instead to solve these problem together, regardless of national or religious differences. And this is, I think, a very instructive message for everybody listening to Cross-Border talks. How ordinary people can try to solve problems, can organize on grassroots level, bottom up if you prefer, while the politicians just use different communities as their tools in their geopolitical games or try to build up their careers, their positions, using somebody as a propaganda tool or as an asset in this geopolitical game that is being played. So I think we will return to this to the issues of Western Balkans, to the issues of the Kosovo situation. And I would like to thank you very much, Francesco, for being with us today.

Thank you, Malgorzata. Thank you, Vladimir, for. For having me here and for sharing my insights about the issues that we have discussed. Thank you again.

And don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel or to our Substack account or to our account in SoundCloud and Spotify. Not to miss any episode. Thank you very much.

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