A Conversation with Leandrit Mehmeti and Branislav Radeljic, Co-Editors of Kosovo and Serbia: Contested Options and Shared Consequences

Leandrit Mehmeti and Branislav Radeljic

Co-editors of Kosovo and Serbia: Contested Options and Shared Consequences (Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh University Press, 2016)


Do you think that the series of provocative events since October/November 2014 in Serbia (namely the flag incident during the Serbia-Albania football match, the controversial visit of Albania’s Prime Minister, Edi Rama, and the more recent “Kosovo je Srbija” train) will affect political developments in Kosovo?

LM: The political situation in the Balkans, and especially relations between Kosovo and Serbia, remains tense and any debate about security could influence political developments locally. It is important to note that provocations come from both the leadership in power and political opposition interested in additional support and the popular vote. Many tried to present the train case as capable of seriously affecting overall security. Still, I tend to believe this would not have been possible because of the KFOR presence. In fact, the incident itself can be viewed as a test, which was actually managed quite well by all actors involved. Prime Minister Rama’s statements during his visit to Belgrade, as well as his more recent statements in relation to security issues, could mean something positive to the Kosovar public (not really sure about the public in Albania though), or Albanian communities outside Albania and Kosovo. Similarly, Serbian political actors may consider themselves in a much stronger position for the upcoming elections, if they engage in talks focusing on security and protection of the Kosovo Serbs. So, actions deemed provocative depend on the rhetoric of the political establishments and how they choose to exploit it.

BR: Provocative moves are never coincidental, but well calculated decisions. Political actors rely on them in order to either secure additional public support or assess the position of the international community. In any case, success depends on the capacity to manipulate the public – something that we clearly witnessed in the 1990s, when certain members of the present political establishments were very active, in favor of radical ideas and war crimes. While the train with carriages decorated with Serbian Orthodox religious icons, suggesting that Kosovo is a part of Serbia, irritated the Albanians, the 2014 football match in Belgrade managed to irritate the Serbs, due to the flag bearing the Greater Albania insignia, brought in by a drone. The Serbian media reported that Prime Minister Rama’s brother controlled the drone from the VIP area, after which he was apparently arrested and soon after released and put on a plane home. Whatever the truth is, the respective political representatives were observing from their own comfort zone, thinking of follow-up moves, so that the personal benefits would be even bigger. The problem is that the two publics are often unaware of their own position as easy targets.

How can the normalization of relations proceed, given the complicated political questions being raised right now? 

LM: The normalization process will be long and, at some point, will undoubtedly become much more complex. The real normalization, though, will only happen after addressing complicated political questions. It is possible that the process will also be conditioned by other international political developments. Although the Kosovo and Serbian authorities embarked on it with their own, quite distant, agendas and objectives, we have seen a number of reasonable results achieved. The main, so far, is that the parties have become aware of the mutually caused obstacles that are detrimental to their relations with international institutions. Still, the agreements signed are dominated by limited transparency. Here, the authorities opt for “constructive ambiguity,” which allows them to interpret agreements in their own way, so they can please their respective publics, and the whole process continues. Such an approach does help the negotiating delegations, but at the same time, makes the whole process seem endless. I would not consider this a problem per se, as I would rather see decades of talks than a single day of war. The trouble with this is that Kosovo and Serbia have often had political elites ready to exploit dangerous narratives (in many instances fictive) in order to construct social realities. These narratives usually concentrate on whom to blame for the misfortunes of the other, Albanians or Serbs. Needless to say, this is an extremely dangerous strategy as it implies intensification of nationalism and improves prospects for new conflicts. So, I expect the normalization to continue in a similar way as of now, with improvements corresponding to both Kosovo and Serbia’s efforts to join the EU.

BR: The normalization process will be long and painful. Since the early days of the Kosovo crisis, the 1999 war and consequent status talks, and the 2008 proclamation of independence, the conflicting parties have approached any resolution with only a plan A in mind, according to which one side would end up as a complete winner and the other one as a complete loser. This is not possible – one side will have to accommodate the other and in this respect, Serbia will obviously lose a lot. The current normalization process is trying to offer something that could partly satisfy it. The overall flexibility characterizing the signed agreements allows the respective leaderships to claim victory over one agreement or another and not to explain their (dis)advantages for the communities. This way, the public is less likely to challenge their respective political elites. However, this cannot go on forever. Serbia will not be allowed to join the EU with Kosovo as its constituent part and the Brussels administration has often played a rather dirty game, by downplaying this fact and letting the Serbs believe otherwise. Even though such an approach could be related to security concerns, the decision to postpone discussions about territorial boundaries and future relations between Kosovo and Serbia as two sovereign states is truly dangerous. It is here that the EU should adopt a much more proactive role and confirm its supposed commitment to the region.

Are we seeing a raise in the levels of nationalism in the Balkans?

LM: The more the political environment stays critical, the higher the level of nationalism is going to be. Over the last three decades, we have witnessed considerable levels of nationalism in the Balkans, mostly due to the open armed conflicts. Although the relative peace since the 1999 Kosovo war has provided some space for better dealing with such sentiments, nationalism is still out there and all it needs is a small spark to light a huge fire. It all depends on the choice of narratives, pursued primarily by political actors. The problem is that political elites in many parts of the Balkans still consist of members who were engaged in the warring activities of the 1990s. It may well be that once they fear they might lose power, they decide to engage in another round of nationalist rhetoric with detrimental consequences. Luckily, what one can gather from current polls and surveys is that economic progress, political stability and EU integration seem much more relevant than the discourse about another preparation to defend this or that.

BR: Rise or stagnation, nationalism has been used and abused in the Balkans for a long time. With the help of various non-state actors, different elites have done their best to manipulate the public and consolidate their position. They use the media for flirting purposes, positioning themselves as patriots or nationalists, the choice largely depending on what could help their case more. An average voter rarely spots differences between the two notions or questions the validity of statements. I really find it fascinating that so many voters do not mind being manipulated. Still, the main problem in the post-Yugoslav context is that a lustration process never took place, so we ended up having quite a few of those bad, old guys pretending that they are truly pro-European, pro-reforms, pro-free media and pro everything else they can successfully sell to the international community in order to stay in power. They like to think of themselves as progressive; I would call them corrupt and ruthless.

Where do you see the region in 5 or 10 years?

LM: I am hesitant when asked this question because of the unpredictable aspect of political analyses. If the current state of affairs represents a reformatting of the international order, than the Balkan region will also be affected, hopefully without new conflicts. If this is not the case, than the Balkans will continue to make limited progress in terms of democratization, economic stability, the rule of law and the EU integration perspective. Unfortunately, the political establishment throughout seems to have established close relations with organized crime and corruption networks and this surely endangers any substantial progress. We have establishments who are more committed to staying in power than to fostering democratization or EU integration, as these processes could erode their position. I think that integration into the EU would provide a more stable political environment, although I am not entirely sure about the economic advancement, given the issues, which are beyond the control and management of the Balkan-based political establishments. All of the above suggests that the region is in desperate need of new political actors; otherwise, in 5 or 10 years I expect to witness the same trend.

BR: I do not see it being much different from what it is now, unfortunately. The current elites have become very powerful, meaning that substantial changes will take a long time. They want the status quo at least, as it guarantees preservation of power. Corruption, nepotism and patronage are all together the cancer of the Balkan region, and everybody knows this. Institutions and ministries will continue to suffer from it, as they often employ people just because of their party affiliation, not expertise. The fact that there are high-ranking officials with fake degrees or plagiarized doctorates does not seem to matter too much. One of the reasons why protests are rare and many opt for auto-censorship is because of the fresh memories of the 1990s, when a monthly salary was worth “some bread and a kilo of pork scratchings” (as Balasevic used to sing). Understandably, there are numerous people who seek their way out of the region, trying to get a degree and a decent living elsewhere. Low living standards and high unemployment rates amongst youth (44% in Serbia, 50% in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and 57% in Kosovo, all from UNDP) help the exodus. And, while I am in favor of EU integration, as it insists on the rule of law and well-functioning institutions, I fear that as soon as the integration process starts threatening the elites (and, there is no question as to whether this will be the case), they will start looking for an alternative.

How would you assess the role of the European Union in the region?

LM: The role of the EU is important, because of the Balkan countries’ aspirations to be part of it and this is why we see certain cooperative attitudes in the region. However, I am afraid that the importance of the EU could deteriorate should it remain confused about the region’s enlargement perspective. There are still five EU member states that have different views of the map of the region and this is closely linked to the very normalization process between Kosovo and Serbia. While the EU has continued to state that its doors for the Balkans are open, it is up to the Balkan states to comply with various conditions, which also means finding ways to overcome political differences. I want to believe that there are individuals throughout the Balkans willing to form political groups and challenge the current political establishments – capable individuals, ready to deal with the past and political conflicts, and challenge the narrative that is obsessed with placing the blame on ethnic groups. Here, the EU could help a lot, by identifying and supporting such individuals and groups – an approach that would be able to accelerate the integration process of the non-EU Balkan countries. In return, this would also be an opportunity for the EU to improve its declining influence and reputation in the region.

BR: Its role has been largely problematic. In the early 1990s, by recognizing Croatia’s independence, the EU indirectly supported the spread of war to neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina. Subsequently, the West helped Slobodan Milosevic stay in power, proclaiming him the main factor of stability, but later, the very same West decided to get rid of him. In the case of Kosovo, the EU has struggled to develop a common position and its mission EULEX has been accused of tolerating corruption, and of perhaps being involved in it. Indeed, the Brussels administration has too often remained silent when some basic freedoms and fundamental rights were attacked in the region. Its annual progress reports are loaded with diplomatic phrases, incomplete assessments and mild recommendations. This does not help. I would love to know what satisfaction the EU gets from supporting the corrupt leaderships in the region. Maybe it does so, so it can always have a good excuse as to why it is still early for a new enlargement round. Or it believes it can gain more from the region, by supporting corrupt establishments and thus blackmailing them whenever opportune. Still, in my view, if the EU wants to assist its prospective members sooner rather than later, it should help the new opposition, represented by some fresh faces, far more.

Do you think Brexit and the election of Donald Trump will impact Kosovo and Serbia?

LM: Brexit has certainly created a new political environment within the EU, but Brexit alone does not carry so much weight to trigger the disintegration of the EU. However, a similar decision in France, for example, would most likely signify the real beginning of the end of the EU. The impact of such a scenario on the developments in Kosovo and Serbia would be obvious, if not devastating. In such a scenario, both Kosovo and Serbia would seek a different shoulder to cry on, namely the United States and Russia. While the US has been present in Balkan political developments since the early 1990s, we are now experiencing a Russian comeback to the region, through Serbia. Having Serbia on its side is not enough, which means that Russia might explore other grounds and expand its influence further. On the other hand, I do not think the US approach to the Balkans will significantly change under the Trump administration, as the president’s power to decide on foreign policy directions is quite limited.

BR: Brexit has opened a new chapter in the European integrationist project and pointed out that the EU is not as united as many would like to think. I am often asked if it will dismember like the Yugoslav federation; possibly, but let’s hope without any of the four wars. While different political problems in the Balkans could be addressed more appropriately in the framework of EU integration, any crisis directly affecting the EU (Brexit, migrant or eurozone) puts the enlargement euphoria on hold. Also, it will be interesting to observe the extent to which the US position vis-à-vis Kosovo or Serbia might change; not substantially, for sure. In the case of Kosovo, too much lobbying has been done so that the adopted position cannot alter. On the other hand, the Serbian leadership has relied more on the Kremlin than Washington, mistakenly believing it would be allowed to imitate the former Titoist state and benefit from both the East and the West.

The two of you have been working on a joint book project. Can you tell us a bit more about it? 

LM: Our idea was to invite academics from both Kosovo and Serbia who conduct research on a variety of issues, to contribute to the debate free from folkloric and ideological prejudices. The chapters are well grounded in facts and proper evidence, and as such they add significantly to the debate about the difficult relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Our next step is to explore options to organize a book launch event, in Prishtina and Belgrade, and continue with the analysis of developments that occurred after the completion of the chapters, which was in mid-2015. I would like to say that it was an absolute pleasure to work with all of the authors we invited to contribute.

BR: This has been a truly rewarding experience. We collaborated in the past and then thought it would be good to edit a volume of this kind, with scholars originating from Kosovo and Serbia. This collection complements some similar projects done in the past. Such efforts are definitely important as they communicate a clear message to wider audiences that it is possible to disagree and, in fact, substantiated disagreements are welcome. In return, they are capable of generating in-depth examinations and a possible reconsideration of predetermined positions.

Leandrit Mehmeti is a lecturer on international studies at the University of South Australia.

Branislav Radeljic is an associate professor of international relations at the University of East London.


Cover photo credit: Bojan Rantaša/Prevala Installation/Art installation of a chair on Prevala mountain pass, near Prizren, Kosovo/some rights reserved.

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