Progress requires more than chauvinism camouflaged in softened rhetoric.
“Vučić denied Banje visit after barricade by Kosovar citizens”
‘After being blocked by Kosovar Albanians demanding apology for war crimes, Serbian President hails Milošеvić as a great Serbian leader with good intentions, but bad results.’
That’s one way the two-day Kosovo visit by Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, could have been reported. But, that angle was not just missing, but rather appeared inconvenient.
Given the recent controversial ideas of “swapping territory,” as well as Vučić’s cancelation of last Friday’s Brussels meeting, attention was rather placed on whether a ‘final agreement’ between Kosovo and Serbia was still an imminent, viable option.
So within international political circles and media, the focus largely remained on how Kosovar authorities denied Vučić passage to the village of Banje following a barricade by local residents in Drenica, a region particularly affected during the 1998-99 war. Together with war veterans, the local residents protested while carrying signs and banners: “You must apologize for the crimes” and “Vučić will not pass.”
International media did get one thing right — the fact that Vučić was blocked from visiting parts of Kosovo is a sign of ongoing tensions. But what’s fueling such “tensions between the two Balkan foes” is not just the barricade.
It is denial of an atrocious past, which exists within an ongoing context of Serbia’s continued jingoistic policies and positions toward Kosovo. They might have changed in form, but not in substance.
If looked at just within the frame of the past 10 years since Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence, Serbia’s stance has not been to just refuse its recognition. Rather, consecutive governments in Belgrade have continuously gone out of their way to block, damage, hinder, defame the state of Kosovo — its citizens. And if having even slightly achieved the restriction of Kosovars along the way, it has been celebrated as a national government victory and glory.
These efforts have all persisted, and not just despite the Brussels-mediated dialogue for “normalizing relations,” but within the ongoing process itself. What’s more, they have been embellished with a legitimized nationalism over the past six years with Vučić as head of the Serbian government delegation.
It is not that relations between the two countries are becoming ‘normalized.’ Instead, what is being normalized is the infringement of rights, the selective interpretation of Brussels agreements and a slanderous discourse.
There have been, for example, Serbia’s continuous celebratory claims that states have revoked recognition of Kosovo and hailing them as the next points won in their fight against the Kosovar state. Or the defamatory lobbying campaign against Kosovo’s UNESCO membership bid in 2015 — based on the premise that all Kosovar Albanians are terrorists — while two years prior having committed to not blocking one another’s path to EU accession on account of fostering “good neighborly relations.” Absurdly, Kosovars were expected to simply accept the wider legitimization of Serbia’s aggressive lobbying that membership of UNESCO — being a UN body — is not directly linked to EU accession.
Every year since the dialogue started, there have been incidents of Kosovar Albanian citizens or groups either purposefully being kept for hours at the border or denied entry; all while the Agreement on Freedom of Movement was signed as far back as 2011. Just earlier this year, Kosovo’s karate team was prevented from participating in the European Karate Championships, in Novi Sad.
So, it is not that relations between the two countries are becoming ‘normalized.’ Instead, what is being normalized is the infringement of rights, the selective interpretation of Brussels agreements and a slanderous discourse. All the while, citizens of Kosovo are expected to tolerate and accept them as such — in the name of some so-called progress, stability or upcoming peace.
On one hand, this is a result of Kosovo’s political leadership as well. Not only has it entered and continued this seven-year process with no benchmarks or strategy. It has, on the whole, failed to even discuss the issue of the remaining 1,647 missing persons, let alone push for recognition or for Serbia to accept its role as the primary aggressor of the war.
On his Facebook page over the weekend, President Hashim Thaçi (also the main Kosovar leader in the dialogue) said how the blockade “shows that the pain and war wounds are still fresh” but that as Kosovo and Serbia seek to fix relations “the protests and road-blocking don’t help us.” While the majority of Kosovars have become accustomed to such bland drivel, for someone supposed to represent the people, this willful blindness to genuine concerns is another sign that he is not the one to lead this process.
Choosing to ignore that Vučić praises Milošević as “a great Serbian leader,” means that the EU gets to decide when it calls out others for praising genocidal leaders.
On the other hand, the EU has long shown that when it comes to the region, autocrats and ‘stabilocracy’ will generally, if not always, be prioritized over citizen concerns or a true democratic fabric of society. The EU High Representative’s office, the mediator of the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue since 2013, was quoted as expressing its “regret” over the cancellation of Vučić’s visit to Banje. Their comment was that while the visit “took place in a peaceful atmosphere and with full support of the authorities … ordinary citizens barricaded the road to Banje.”
Such a statement attempts to strip citizens of a sense of their right to express agency, while trying to instruct them on ‘proper, citizenry behavior.’
So, in essence, what are the values of the EU? Are they in favor of freedom of thought, speech and expression? Or when it’s convenient, these elements are simply optional extras that may be curtailed? What are EU values toward the region, and specifically toward the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue? Does it pay any more than lip service to transitional justice? Or is Serbia to become the EU’s extended frontier with a leader that in his discourse — as well as in his own internal state policies — comes closer to its neighbor Hungary’s xenophobic and populist prime minister, Viktor Orban?
Choosing to initially ignore that Serbia’s current president praises Milošеvić as “a great Serbian leader,” and only reacting once asked for its response, means that the EU gets to decide, depending on what suits it, when it calls out others for praising genocidal leaders, and when not. Even then, the answer provided by Maja Kocijančič, Spokesperson for EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, failed to directly and unequivocally rebuke Vučić, but spoke of generally rejecting and overcoming the politics of the past.
When back in August, Vučić stated that during his September 9 Kosovo visit he would deliver ‘the political speech of his lifetime,’ there was almost instant anticipation as to whether there would be resemblances to Milošеvić’s infamous 1989 Gazimestan address.
Vučić did much more than that:
June 28, 1989, Gazimestan, Milošеvić: “Six centuries later, today we are again in battles and facing battles. They are not armed battles, though such [battles] are not yet excluded.”
September 9, 2018, North Mitrovica, Vučić: “Milošеvić was a great Serbian leader, his intentions were certainly the best, but for us the results were much worse.”
Vučić did rule out arms and weapons as a solution, but he used the region’s synonym of genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass rape — Slobodan Milošеvić — to make his point clear.
Vučić’s statement is not merely another attempt at historical revisionism. Neither is it just another proof of the negation by the Serbian state to acknowledge atrocities carried out on its behalf.
In his 1989 speech in Gazimestan, Milošеvić confirmed his nationalist political project and launched the campaigns of ethnic cleansing that were carried out across Yugoslavia. Within a decade, around 150,000 deaths were counted in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia; in Kosovo, around 10,000 civilians killed, around 1 million deported, and untold thousands raped.
So it’s worth saying again, as this is not just some simple slip of the tongue. Almost three decades later, Vučić says: “Milošеvić was a great Serbian leader, his intentions were certainly the best, but for us the results were much worse.”
This has to be the headline, and it has to be repeated — because tensions and conflict don’t stem out of nowhere. They have a history and a context. And while some might choose to think that this declaration was somehow lost in between ‘other, promising, forward-looking’ things Vučić said, they are merely choosing to delude themselves.
For Vučić’s statement is not merely another attempt at historical revisionism. Neither is it just another proof of the negation by the Serbian state to acknowledge atrocities carried out on its behalf.
It is a clear indication and foreshadowing of how he intends to continue governing, particularly in regard to the “normalization” process. And for as long as there is no collective Serbian societal recognition — not just distancing from, but recognition and acceptance of the past — it falls as a political and social responsibility on others to call it out.
Just the other day, I heard the phrase, “Peace is not just the absence of war, it is the presence of justice.”
It certainly rings true for the region — now, more than ever. K
Feature image: K2.0.