20th May 2019


Western Balkans: Nationalism is not the answer

  • Roadblocks on the Iber River are a symbol of ethnic division (Photo: morbin)

After a century of bloodshed and hatred, the independence of Kosovo in 2008 seemed like a sign that peace and stability is possible in the Western Balkans.

Relations between Albanians and Serbs in the recent years in particular entered a period of normalisation, spurred on by the international community.

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One landmark moment was the EU-brokered Kosovo-Serb agreement of 19 April 2013.

Despite its flaws - its critics say the power it gives to Serb municipalities in the north is a challenge for Kosovo’s territorial integrity in the long run - the deal contributed to a more positive climate.

It led to the first Kosovo-wide elections, to the dismantling of Serb parallel structures, and to smaller, but no less important things, such as freedom of movement: Kosovars can now use their ID documents to pass through Serbia to other countries.

In August, German chancellor Angela Merkel brokered an invitation from Serb PM Aleksander Vucic for Albanian leader Edi Rama to visit Belgrade - the first such visit for decades.

Meanwhile, Kosovo foreign minister Enver Hoxhaj attended a multilateral meeting in Belgrade: it was informal, there were no country badges, but it’s another step in the right direction.

The president of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga, has also been reportedly invited to Belgrade.

But if you want to look at the bigger picture, go to the town of Mitrovice in north Kosovo. You will see that a roadblock on the bridge over the Ibar River - separating the Kosovar Serb and Kosovar Albanian communities - is still in place in a symbol of ongoing ethnic division.

Last month’s footbal fiasco in Belgrade sows equally that nationalism still has the power to undo all the good work.

It took no more than a nationalist Albanian flag flown into the sports event to unleash a torrent of Serb hate chants and Serbian fans’ violent attacks on Albanian soccer players.

The flag was an unpleasant provocation. But the Serb reaction shows that politicians and civil society in Serbia still have a lot of work to do to de-radicalise anti-Albanian feeling in society.

Serbia has a border with Albanians, so unless one of them goes somewhere else, they will have to learn to live with each other and, even, to tolerate each other’s symbols and silly stunts.

The media on both sides - which fed the football furore - also has a role to play.

Everybody who lives in the Western Balkans must take responsibility for making it a shared home worth living in.

But zooming in on Serbia - a key nation in the region, which started three wars in the name of nationalist pride - the time has come to choose: do we take the European path of toleration and slow reform, or the Russian path of aggression and quick, but hollow victories?

Putin welcomed

The bombastic military welcome which Russia’s Vladimir Putin - stigmatised by sanctions in the civilized world - recently received in Belgrade sent out a strange message.

If Serbia really has embraced the European path, its commitment should be profound and unequivocal.

It is true that people in the Western Balkans share a very dark past.

Yet, we all share a common hope for a better future, which is why we must make sure that history can no longer be used to enflame ethnic differences

We cannot turn back.

The EU has a role to play in helping local politicians implement de-radicalisation.

First, it should condemn any incidents of violence and racism with strong, direct language.

Second, it should enhance its political presence. The downgrading of the enlargement portfolio in the new European Commission was a bad sign. EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has also shown little interest in the region, even as Russian diplomacy in the Western Balkans, not least bound to the building of the South Stream gas pipeline, has increased drastically.

Mogherini should consider appointing a special representative for the Western Balkans who would closely follow the Balkan agenda and keep up EU pressure for our leaders to stay on the road to Europe.

Jeton Sulfaj is a graduate from Lund University in Sweden, with a masters in European Affairs


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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