On Sunday, November 3rd, local elections were held in municipalities throughout Kosovo, where, for the first time, the Serbian minority in the country’s north was able to -and encouraged to- participate. Since Kosovo’s controversial declaration of independence in 2008, tensions between the ethnic Albanian majority in the south and predominantly ethnic Serb communities in the north, bordering Serbia proper, have remained high. The same ethnic violence and conflict that existed between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs before 2008 continue to exist today, only with the roles reversed. The Kosovars -who were a threatened and exploited minority within Serbia- have, since independence, been accused of perpetuating the same injustices and inequalities that they themselves faced as part of Serbia towards their own Serbian minority.
Following Kosovo’s declaration of independence, the Serbian government has steadfastly refused to recognize the new, disputed state. Incidents of ultra-nationalist violence have been fairly common in the years since, with both governments digging in their heels in a situation that seemed to be heading towards an endless diplomatic stalemate. à la Israel-Palestine. However, this has surprisingly proved to not be the case. Since 2011, EU-mediated negotiations began between the two governments. A period of very gradual normalization followed over the next two years, although progress was incremental and initially remained largely cosmetic. Nonetheless, agreements over border crossings, freedom of movement, trade, and customs were reached. Then, in early 2013, the presidents of the two countries sat together at the same table for the first time, an event symbolic of a new spirit of grudging reconciliation.
Negotiations have continued throughout this year, sponsored and mediated by representatives of the EU in Brussels. In April, a major milestone in normalizing relations was reached. The Brussels Agreement, signed on April 26th 2013, laid out 15 agreed conditions concerning diplomacy between the countries, outlining a framework in which the sovereignty of Kosovo would be increasingly respected by Serbia in exchange for greater minority rights for Kosovo Serbs. Further negotiations have since continued, in an attempt to create a framework for a democratic process that protects minority rights and encourages strengthened relations between the two states.
The regional elections that took place this past Sunday represented another major milestone for reconciliation. For the first time, the Serbian government encouraged Kosovo’s Serbs to participate, recognizing them as the citizens of another country and not Serbians living under an illegitimate occupying force. At the same time, the Kosovar government took steps to encourage Serb participation in the democratic process, acknowledging the Serb minority as a part of the Kosovar citizenry. However, despite all this promise, the elections were marred by ethnic violence. Local Serbian ultra-nationalists clashed with police and incited violence at polling stations throughout northern Kosovo.
In the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica, masked Serbian protesters and gunmen destroyed ballot boxes, while also throwing tear gas and improvised explosives in an attempt to thwart the elections. Refusing to recognize the Serb population as part of Kosovo, the assailants successfully intimidated the local Serbian populace to prevent voting, resulting in extremely low turnout rates. Earlier today, the Kosovo government promised to hold new elections, promising not to allow a small minority of Serbian hardliners to disrupt the democratic process.
Media coverage of the elections has focused almost universally on the violence at the ballot boxes, and rightfully so. However, it is important to recognize these elections as more than another black spot in the troubled and bloody recent history of the region (though at least the black spots look better than the bloody red ones). The wider context of these elections offers cause for cautious optimism, as this still represents the first time that the Serbian and Kosovo governments have come to an agreement regarding the democratic process. Negotiations in Brussels may not provide as exciting a news story as masks, tear gas and bullets, but they do provide hope.
Kosovo remains a deeply troubled part of the world. For all the potential progress that we can point to, Kosovo remains a controversial state in which both members of the government and the hardline Serbian nationalist factions are frequently implicated in chargers as egregious as organ trafficking, sexual slavery, and heroin distribution. Violence remains high and minorities -both Albanians in Serbian regions and Serbs in Albanian regions- remain threatened, with officials often turning a blind eye to, or, in the worst cases, participating in exploitation. The future is not rosy, and it would be naïve to only focus on the positives. Behind every silver lining lurks another dark cloud.
Still, the glimmers of hope are slowly becoming more persistent. For all the region’s problems, the governments of Serbia and Kosovo are finally beginning to turn their rhetoric away from hardline nationalism. It is time to forget “whose land this is,” and to put away centuries of subjective histories interpreted to serve violent nationalist rhetoric. If there is such a thing as a moral and spiritual claim to the land, then surely both sides have lost it. The time is now to set aside the questions of who the land belongs to and turn to the question of the people that live there. There is no objective answer as to whether Kosovo spiritually belongs to the Albanians and the Serbs. There is, however, the objective fact that both groups call Kosovo home. It is their country, no matter who they are.