Sunday, March 26, 2006

Is better PR the solution for Kosovo's minority problem?

A few months ago I attended I attended a conference about Kosovo in Amsterdam. One of the discussions was about the position of the Serbs and other minorities in Kosovo. The representative of the Kosovo government promoted the vision that everything was ok for the Serbs and that the only thing that was needed was a bit of public relations to tell it to them. At that time I found it a rather bold statement in view of the Kai Eide report. But recently Kosovo's premier Ceku essentially said the same when he stated that Kosovo's government needs to make some gestures towards the Serbs. To make his intention even more clear he said that these gestures should lead to integration of the Serbs. Integration is the opposite of autonomy. Even UNMIK chief Soren Jessen-Petersen is talking along similar lines.

UNMIK chiefs typically go through three phases. In their first few weeks they talk like a Westerner about human rights, standards and reforms. But soon they conclude that it is difficult to impose such ideas when there is no local support and so they settle for those goals that are shared by local Albanian politicians. This is their Albanian phase that usually lasts between 1 and 2 years. They see Kosovo in a new light where all problems somehow have to do with Serbia and the Serbs - with the unresolved status on top. Human rights now are just some sideshow where people should stay calm and passive. In the third phase they develop their own vision of what is wrong. They start to see the crime, corruption and nepotism, the passive government and the desparate position of the minorities and they become reformist again. By now they know how things work and they can be more effective. But this puts them in conflict with "the tight knit network of big Kosovo Albanian families who run the region in a somewhat clan-like fashion". As a result this phase is usually short and leads to premature departure - amidst a bad press and sometimes rumours about threats. Mr. Jessen-Petersen obviously is still in his second phase.

A recent report from the CDHRF on Kosovo minorities gives some more insight in the "we need better PR" position. From a sociological point of view I found the report not very good. It does describe many impressions and incidents spread over many villages, but when one compares it with the Enquete of the Serb Academy of Sciences from 1986 one misses the systematical approach and the analysis of causes. The CDHRF report leaves one often wondering whether a problem is widespread or happens just in a few places.

Often the anecdotal nature of the report creates strange impressions. Take for example Gorazdevac: The report opens with quoting someone that the situation there is very good; later one reads that the Serbs cannot work on their lands due to the security situation, that for urban services they go to Mitrovica under KFOR protection and that the relations with a nearby Albanian village (that suffered many war casualties) are bad.

This is rather typical for the report. The generalisations sound optimistic while the facts point the other way. It doesn't take much imagination to see that Gorazdevac could not survive economically without the money from Serbia (the Serb government employs more people and pays higher wages than the Kosovo government). And one can understand that many people in this village consider to leave Kosovo when it becomes independent and the money from Serbia and the protection from KFOR may end.

Yet the report takes another route. The accent is on the negative attitude of many Serbs towards the Kosovo government. Serbs who work for the Kosovo government are seen by many other Serbs as collaborators and sometimes threatened or in a few cases even beaten up. The report also mentions Serbs who don't want to interact with Albanians (some refused to participate in the research for the report too) - often people who have lost relatives in the recent violence.

The report sees the Serb parallel institutions as central to this attitude and concludes that they should be abolished. I think this is rather sloppy thinking for an institute that calls itself a "human rights organisation". Because many Serbs cannot work on their land for security reasons the extra money from Serbia is essential to survive.

It might to better to look for cooperation and integration of the Serb institutions. If the Albanians allow real Serb majority municipalities it will be much easier to ask Serbia to support those municipalities instead of some parallel institution. Similarly for health care: why not have an official seperate organisation for Serb Health care - then the Serb government could support those organisations. The Albanians had their parallel institutions too in the 1990s. I come from Holland and we have a long tradition of having seperate catholic and protestant organisations (for health care too). Once it was a very important issue in our country; nowadays it is mostly a historic relict. Let's face it: the Serb government is pumping money in Kosovo's economy and that has a good side too.

I don't share the Albanian fear that the Serb villages will become isolated enclaves that stand with their backs to the surrounding society. Living amidst Albanains they will integrate to some extent eventually. It is no fun to live in an isolated enclave. Serbs who can't give up that attitude will sooner or later move to Serbia.

Some Albanians seem to hope that all Serbs will leave. They believe that once all Serbs have left Kosovo will be Albanian forever. I doubt whether it will work out that way. Instead I expect that it will result in a body of Kosovo Serbs that for a long time will cloud the Kosovo-Serb relations in the same way as the Cham Albanians cloud the Albania-Greece relations and the Sudeten Germans cloud the German-Czech relations even after 60 years. And without a cold war freezing the international borders it will be a permanent threat to the safety of Kosovo.

The report also notes that in some cases a few Serbs do go out and visit the neighbouring city while most people are afraid and stay at home. Many of the remaining Serbs are old people and - as old people tend to be - they are rather cautious.

This is of course the Public Relations story. Yet I think they are missing the point. The Serb distrust is based not only on the occasional violence, but also on many discriminating actions by the local and central governments. Building trust is based on taking complaints seriously - even if you think that they are overdone like complaints over a bus stop that is too close to the Serb part of a village.

Unfortunately in Kosovo an anti-Serb nationalism is prevalent and in this climate it is considered fashionable to annoy Serbs with small (and not so small) gestures. At the local level officials will "lose" or "forget" Serb requests and the fire brigade will find some excuse to arrive too late. When there are crimes against Serbs everybody claims to have seen nothing. Even at the top this behaviour can be seen at the moment by the Albanian insistence on having a delegation leader who is suspected by the Serbs of war crimes in Croatia. This kind of behaviour does more to destroy trust than any PR campaign can repair. It will take a major culture change to come to a climate where trustworthy behaviour is considered normal.

In my opinion Kosovo does need a PR campaign to solve the minority problem. But it should be aimed at the Albanian citizens. And it should tell them that it is time to change their attitude. That they should see a Serb they don't know as a normal human being, not as someone who probably did warcrimes. This should be done as soon as possible as a whole new generation of Albanians is growing up learning an ideology of hatred.

One of the weakest points of the CHDRF report is that it doesn't manage to analyze the Serb fear. It does not ask people on what their fear is based. It doesn't quantify how many villages have how much freedom of movement. In the villages where only one or two Serbs venture outside it does not ask them why they behave different from the rest. It may very well be that these are just desparate men who need to feed their families - even if it means risking their lives. According to the UNDP EWS reports over 80% of the Serbs and over 40% of the Albanians feels unsafe on the street.

Not that it is really a secret what generates the Serb fear. It was in the Kai Eide report and it has also been reported elsewhere. Things like "explosions, shootings and stoning of houses". One could add fires, thefts and beatings. The UN attitude is passive. Their message is that "the most important thing is that none of the incidents had escalated into violence". It is a climate of ethnic hatred that is fueled by newspapers that enlarge every remark from some radical Serb, while leaving out everything that might lead to a more balanced view of Serbia and the Serbs. Their latest line is that the minorities in Kosovo are privilged. To be short: this is the same climate as in Croatia and Serbia in 1990. And we know where that led.

The report contains many nice recommendations at the end (more first aid stations, better transport, action against illegally occupied property, etc.), but these nice intentions will come to nothing unless also the prevalent attitude is changed.

The Serbs in Kosovo will have to adapt a lot if Kosovo becomes independent. Giving them Serb majority municipalities will soften the transition for them. And one will have to accept that older Serbs who don't speak Albanian very probably never will learn it.

All this insistance from the Albanian side on "integration" is for me just another way of annoying Serbs. As it generates hostility it is a self-fullfilling prediction. Real integration that starts with building trust. Given the Serbs different language and religion and the hostility in Kosovo towards the Orthodox religion it will take generations.


Cvijus said...

This is a great article. It is rare to find a West European that has build up his own opinion without the assistance of several media.

Keep on

John1975 said...

I just wanted to visit again and apologize for my ignorant choice of words directed towards you the other night.

I'm embaressed to say the least. I've alos apologized to WarChild.

I shouldn't have done that.



Cvijus011 said...


here are some blogs that could be added to your blog

I hope you will find them interesting


Wim Roffel said...

Cvijus, I checked your blogs (most of them I had already considered before. I don't want to link to them for various reasons:

- Polieleos Servikos: It is an interesting subject, but I don't believe that old history should be a consideration in which should happen now in the Balkan.

- serbian-intelect-project: Looks more like an encyclopedia than a blog to me.

- balkanstudies: I am still considering this one. But I find your choice of articles sometimes a bit weak. Mary Mostert is sometimes insulting, deviating or inaccurate. For example the 200.000 Milosevic deaths. She links them to Kosovo while it is mainly about Bosnia. The second article is a bit stronger but it still leaves such strange impressions as the statement that in 2003 1192 Serbs were killed in Kosovo.

John1975, thanks for the apologies. They are accepted.

Cvijus011 said...


I appreciate your opinions and criticisms and I must admit that in some aspects you're right. However, I would like to explain some issues concidering my blogs jusat in case you would reconcider it:

Polieleos Servikos - That blog is not intended for the modern discussions for the Balkans. It is intended to give some aspects of what was the history of the region in the old ages, as many use historical arguments in stuff that they are not teally familiar with. As I graduated in history, my sources are those that I uised during my studies.

Serbian-Intellect-Project - This is still experimental, but the idea is to promote Serbs in a way not connected to wars etc. I still have to develop it.

Balkan Studies - Mary Mostert is extreme, but I believe that studies from all sides should be concidered in order to develop your own objective opinion.

Wim Roffel said...

Hallo Cvijus,
I have no problem linking to extremist sites from either side - as long as they get (most of) the facts right. For me the value of extremist sites is that they often bring arguments that the mainstream leaves out.
However, Mary Mostert gives me the impression that she cannot even point out the Balkan on a map - let alone Kosovo or Serbia. It looks like she heared once in her life a Serb ranting about the Kosovo war and she is reusing these not very well remembered rants again and again.

Cvijus011 said...

hey wim,

On Mary Mostert I agree with you, each lobby has to use its means in order to achieve their goals through propaganda, even though I believe that Mary Mostert is not the best choice for the Serbian side, however I believe that her article should be posted and let the readers make a judgement of their own, which is also the freedom of thinking. Nobody should tell them what should they think.

It made me really sad that you concider Balkan Studies as an extremist site, which surely wasn't my intetion. My goal for the Balkan Studies is to offer articles and studies that don't belong to the current mainstream, that give other facts, different from those propagated through the media. It must be concidered that the mainstream isn't always the truth. History will show what really happened.
My site would be extremist if I would post the works of Seselj and co, but I believe that those works are too much.

Friendly greets

Wim Roffel said...

I agree, your site is not as extremist as Seselj. But you surely want to show one side of the picture.

It is your blog and you are responsible for the quality of the postings. I find it a bit easy to hide yourself behind the "freedom of thinking" of your readers.

Anyway, I will look how your blogs develops.

traveller one said...

Hello Wim,
I just found your blog and read this post which I think is really well written and informative. I'm just an expat living in Albania, who must admit to knowing very little about the whole Balkan conflict. But now that I am living here I am trying to read and learn as much as possible about the situation. Your blog is really helpful so keep writing!

Wim Roffel said...

Hi Traveller One,

Nice to read your blog about Tirana. I have been there a few times, so it is nice to recognize all those places.

I am much more optimistic about the future of Albania than about Kosovo. Albania gives me - despite all the problems there are - the impression of a country that believes that it is able to work towards its future. Kosovo seems obsessed with things they want from others: independence, economic aid and EU membership.


Anonymous said...

Hello wim. You said that the Serbs should get majority municipalities. They already have some and will get few more, but I hope you agree that we cannot create a new municipality with 10 Serbs. Kosovo currently has 30 in total. The Serbs suggested 30 new with Serb majority.

Wim Roffel said...

Hi Anonymous,

In my country (Holland) there is a minimum threshold of 10000 citizens for a municipality. Smaller ones are considered inefficient and forced to combine. Yet in France you have many municipalities with less than 1000 inhabitants and nobody seems to bother.

So I believe that there is no objective limit for the size of a municipality. Smaller municipalities will need to work together for more tasks, but I don't see that as a problem.

But I the number of municipalities is not the core of the discussion. The core of the discussion is how you can give the Serbs some autonomy so that they are a bit sheltered against the discrimination that is a fact of live of present-day Kosovo.

There are hardly any mixed villages left in Kosovo and in some of those left (like Lipljan and Cernica) Serbs are still leaving. So there is a good argument to keep things a bit separated on the administrative level too.

I don't say that the Serbs should get anything they want. But I do think that the attitude of the Albanian side in face of the problems is much too passive. They do only things when they are forced to and then the bare minimum. Northern Mitrovica for example should have become a separate municipality long ago.

I get the impression that some of the Albanian leaders don't want any solution at all: they want the remaining Serbs to leave. To appease the internationals they participate in negotiations - but that's all.