Not another article on the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue…

Jack Butcher

29 March 2022

When I was asked to write this piece about the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, I was struck by a familiar dilemma: What could I possibly add that hasn’t already been said?

Over my years of living and working in Prishtina as an editor at Kosovo 2.0, a recurring conversation would come up periodically in editorial meetings. It would usually start sometime around the latest “resumption” of the Brussels-based negotiations with an assertion that, “We should publish something on the dialogue.”

However, with an ethos of covering issues in a more substantive way than the pervasive he-said-she-said patter of daily news, and intent on avoiding the over-populated realm of mere speculation, there was always an implicit understanding that publishing something didn’t mean simply publishing anything.

Occasionally, we’d find a meaningful angle — spending time with citizens in north Mitrovica who are fed up with being used as political pawns, or producing an “explainer” that broke down what was known, and not known, about the “Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities.” But invariably, we’d leave the meetings scratching our heads, with the question left open as we struggled to find anything new or relevant to contribute.

It seemed that by taking a step back and stripping away the barrage of noise that would reach a crescendo at sporadic intervals, there was rarely anything left of any substance to actually say.

K2.0’s approach has always been to put people, and especially marginalised voices, at the forefront of its coverage. But with the dialogue taking place hundreds of kilometres away in Brussels with — at best — minimal transparency, this was precisely the rub. Most of the time, it has been hard to know what’s even being discussed beyond a broad thematic heading, let alone having meaningful detail that could be used as a basis for covering how the discussions could affect real people’s lives.

Even analytical reports by NGOs, usually a fruitful source of inspiration for journalists, have often been limited to interpreting precise meanings behind vague dialogue language. While such “constructive ambiguity” may have its uses for high-level political actors sitting around the negotiating table, it is rarely fertile ground for the kind of concrete actions that have a tangible effect on the ground. And it leaves the media too often reduced to a vehicle for conjecture.

When agreements have been reached and published — as more than 30 have been to date — it has been repeated to the point of banality that there has been a distinct lack of implementation, and little political will on any side to do anything about it.

As a result of such inertia, journalists have become used to reading bland institutional assessments that lament the lack of genuine progress: “Work under the EU-facilitated dialogue has continued throughout the reporting period. Overall progress in the implementation of the [named] agreement has been slow.” This particular example comes from the European Commission’s Kosovo Report in 2016, but it could easily have applied to any other year over the past decade.

Unfortunately, it is not those around the negotiating table or in the upper echelons of power who suffer the consequences. While Kosovo’s and Serbia’s leaderships receive barely a slap on the diplomatic wrist, Kosovo’s athletes, artists and civil society members are turned back at the Serbian border when trying to cross to do their jobs. Serbs in Kosovo struggle to get hold of official documents in their own language. And graduates from either side of the border are unable to continue their studies or find jobs on the other side as their university diplomas aren’t recognised.

Meanwhile, politicians have regularly shown that when it comes to the dialogue process, they are more interested in capturing the headlines with brazen words and high profile stunts than in being part of a story of genuine progress.

Take Aleksandar Vučić’s provocative “Kosovo is Serbia” train in 2017, the arrest and parading through the streets of Marko Đurić in 2018, or the whispers of border changes that have never been far beneath the surface in recent years — all deliberate escalations or distractions designed to play on people’s fears and societal traumas, rather than attempts to resolve intractable issues such as locating the more than 1,600 people still missing from the war.

And from the Belgrade side of the table, at least, there is scant prospect of change any time soon, with Vučić expected to cruise to victory once again in Serbia’s presidential elections next month. This is a man who today fails to unambiguously condemn the grotesque violence unleashed on defenceless Ukrainian citizens by Vladimir Putin. Hardly the résumé of a leader with improving people’s lives at heart.

All things considered, it’s little wonder that opinion polls repeatedly show people in both Kosovo and Serbia feel detached from a dialogue process from which they’ve perceived few tangible benefits to date.

Or that journalists struggle to work out what else we can possibly say.

This op-ed is originally written in English.

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.