Inter-ethnic reconciliation is still a long way off in Kosovo…

Nora Ahmetaj

December 2022

Inter-ethnic reconciliation is still a long way off in Kosovo, where the majority Albanians and minority Serbs have completely opposing accounts of what happened during the war, and where tensions are not superficial

Although the 2018 EU Strategy for the Western Balkans only briefly mentions transitional justice, it provides a good platform for Western Balkan countries to develop a national strategy for integrating peacebuilding and transitional justice, with a roadmap ensuring local ownership in order to prioritise bottom-up initiatives. In the same year, Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn stated, “All Western Balkan countries must commit unequivocally, both in word and deed, to confronting the legacy of the past, achieving reconciliation, and resolving open issues, particularly border disputes, and this long before the date of membership in the European Union.”

Reconciliation and long-term peace are critical components of state-building in Kosovo. This is guaranteed by the Kosovo Constitution, which states that the Republic of Kosovo must promote a spirit of tolerance, dialogue, and support for community reconciliation.

Kosovo is a country that bears the burden of a bitter history of unpleasant relations stemming from the past and the consequences of war even today. This puts additional pressure on the Albanian and Serb communities to work harder and find ways to coexist.

There is no doubt that the reconciliation process cannot be defined unilaterally, and that different approaches to this process in Kosovo must be considered. Kosovar citizens see the reconciliation process first and foremost as a continuation of political stability and economic development, rather than as a top-down process supported by the international community and thus unconvincingly promoted by politicians.

The apparent lack of a clear definition of what reconciliation is and what it aspires to has alarmed the cynics among us. Reconciliation is sought from conflict adversaries, all victims and perpetrators of crimes, human rights violators, groups, and individuals. Reconciliation aims for the parties to accept each other’s identities, discuss the narratives, and find a common ground on which to accept the facts that bear witness to the bitter past. However, not only from a linguistic standpoint, the term itself causes confusion. There is still no clear definition of what that term includes and excludes, how it differs from other post-conflict initiatives, how or if it works, or what its purpose is.
Because of its contradictory definitions as a process on the one hand, and as a final state or goal on the other, reconciliation continues to cause significant confusion.

In the Kosovar context, the issue of forgiveness and reconciliation remains a contentious and intertwined one. Regardless of ethnicity, Kosovar citizens see their role in the reconciliation process as subordinate to decision-makers. Although they want the normalisation of relations but lack trust in decision-makers, they know that it is precisely them -the political leaders- who have the legitimacy to bring the country lasting peace and reconciliation. Even the father of peace research, Johan Galtung, admits that “reconciliation is a deeply rooted psychological, sociological, theological, philosophical, and deeply human subject – and no one really knows how to achieve it successfully.”

More importantly, this lack of agreement on the reconciliation is reflected not only among scholars and researchers in the field, but also in policy circles, including governments, donor agencies, NGOs, and so on. Is it a national, social, or even political process? Is it a personal, psychological, or “theological” process? Is it even a process, or does it describe a state of relations and a final goal?

Since the end of the war, the term “reconciliation” has been instrumentalised in Kosovo, and Kosovo-Albanians view it through the lens of the Serbian authorities’ apology for the crimes committed against them (Kosovo Albanians). Meanwhile, the Kosovo Serbs, who also consider themselves victims, see reconciliation as a process rather than an end goal. Furthermore, they oppose the idea of or the right of any authority to speak or seek forgiveness on their behalf.

Daniel Bar-Tal and Gemma Bennink, psychologist scholars, accept reconciliation as a process, regardless of its psychological aspect, but they also see it as an outcome, a real state consisting of recognition of mutual acceptance, interests, and goals of invested in this regard, the building of mutual trust between the parties, as well as positive attitudes, such as sensitivity and consideration for the needs and interests of previously conflicting parties.

There is no quick fix for reconciliation; it takes time because it is a deep and long process that necessitates a shift in our aspirations, emotions, and feelings; it may also take time to work with our convictions while also changing our attitudes.

Reconciliation should not only be a process for restoring victims’ dignity, but also a process for those who caused the suffering and seek peace with themselves in the first place.

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