Having faith in reality

Idro Seferi

May 2021

The dialogue should have led to building trust on a Kosovo – Serbia agreement, as a useful one in the future, and not towards creating the perception of a political deception. Albanians, as well as many Serbs, think alike on numerous issues, but given that they do not know each other, they end up maintaining a hesitant approach towards one another.  

“Bravo” – A boy and a girl from Niš where cheering each other loudly, as I was explaining the prejudices that both sides, Kosovo and Serbia, have. They obviously needed a positive confirmation for their city. This came as I mentioned some prejudices that Kosovars have about some parts of Serbia, due to the lack of knowledge about the latter.  A group of political science students from Kosovo and Serbia were sitting in front of me as I further explained how for an organization that was held for the first time in Serbia, we traveled from Pristina under police protection.

In order for the students to perceive the reality, I provided this example: There are prejudices in Kosovo concerning southern cities of Serbia, such as Niš, Leskovac, or places like Prokuplje, Kraljevo or Kruševac. The reason: they are close to Kosovo, hence, they are more nationalistic. Serbian students were initially shocked by the new information. However, in various instances the opposite applies. Through my endless professional and personal wanderings, I have visited many houses – in these cities, and most would be surprised by the attitudes of the people there. Let us take Niš for instance – a city just a bit smaller than Prishtina. The third largest city in Serbia, following Novi Sad. It has a beautiful promenade, with shops and shopping malls going all the way to the old part of the town, further decorated by small cafes with a mix of traditional and contemporary offers, although paved with stones. As a city, it has its history and a numerous tales. A large group of local journalists in Niš attend the same events as I do. They are always constructive, helpful when it comes to their colleagues – including Albanians. Same as we are for them. Niš is some kind of a center of Serbian correspondents and media, as well as for foreign media, such as French, German, Turkish agencies, or those from Doha and the region. Most of them report on events and narratives happening in the Southern Serbia, and sometimes in Kosovo, Northern Macedonia and the Preshevo Valley. It has often occurred to me, that people – who are not well informed – ask questions about the life in Kosovo. Sometimes they will not allow you to pay for your coffee, with an absolute insistence, just because you are an Albanian journalist. Kosovo is near, but they do not bother to go to Pristina. But surely, they immediately suggest the best burek at Antoni’s bakery – owned by an old Albanian living there.

The prejudices and the steaming political tensions keep the two realities distant from each other. In Serbia, for instance, the media rarely produces any story starring Kosovo citizens, be it a simple interview on the streets or any other non-political issue. For Kosovo, there is nothing else in Serbian media except politics. Same applies the other way around.  While Albanians believe that people form Leskovac could be “more nationalists” than the rest of Serbs, the latter believe that Albanians living in Albania are better than those living in Kosovo, and some Kosovars believe that “Belgrade is a metropolis” and not like the rest of Serbia. A political discourse based on the lack of personal contacts creates a total panic, a disorientation even few decades after the war, and with the people still suffering from the same consequences of unresolved past and denial. The difficulty of achieving reconciliation is thus natural, in a moment that lacks empathy and willingness for listening.

Many Serbs; regardless of how liberal they may be, believe that Prishtina, Peja or Prizren are dangerous places for them.  Kosovo, for many Serbs, remains a dark area of information and a deep hesitation, beyond facts. Likewise, many Albanians experience reasonable panic when thinking of Serbia. This situation is created and is kept alive by the politics and lack of a dialogue strategy, which ignores the aspect of multidimensional exchange that is necessary for trust building. When there is faith in the authenticity of the process, within the whole society, then we can talk faithfully about the past, without going through denial. We can talk about the future, the reality and finally, about development. The students seem enthusiastic–just as the two from Niš – and for them it is important to hear that their city is not closed nor without diversity, given that they do not want to stand behind nationalism. The dialogue and the final Kosovo-Serbia agreement should bring a new beginning. Not for the sake of the brotherhood and union, but because of the lost energy for development. Nations historically forgive each-other, but the past has showcased how denial is not a good tool for trust building. Kosovo and Serbia can build railways, highways, restore airlines, increase economic exchanges and reach agreements. But, trust remains the only successful infrastructural foundation for any political attempt towards reconciliation.

This op-ed is originally written in Albanian.

The op-ed is supported by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Pristina. The opinions are of the authors and do not reflect the views of Balkans Policy Research Group and the donor.