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Comment 14 Apr 17

Kosovo Struggles to Confront its Painful Past

The failure of the local and international community to properly address Kosovo's traumatic past has left its communities alienated and mistrustful of official initiatives.

Agon Demjaha, Atdhe Hetemi
Street in Kosovo capital of Pristina. Photo: David Bailey/Flickr

Some 18 years after Kosovo’s de-facto separation from former Yugoslavia and Serbia, its society remains deeply divided along ethnic and political lines when it comes to understanding and interpreting its recent past.

As a result, negative stereotypes among local Albanians and Serbs keep undermining Kosovo's future.

While necessary legal norms and frameworks have been put in place, Kosovo institutions responsible for addressing issues related to dealing with the past have failed to guarantee their implementation in practice.

A research paper conducted within the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society project, ‘Building Knowledge of New Statehood in Southeast Europe: Understanding Kosovo’s Domestic and International Policy Considerations’, demonstrates how institutional standstills in the implementation of legal norms have been influencing public perceptions of ethnic relations and their social acceptance, thus having an impact on the reconciliation process among Kosovo's divided communities.

Being aware that there are also other factors which cause blockades for sustainable social acceptance, the research findings also show that – depending on the engagement of Kosovo institutions – the perceptions of both communities about inter-ethnic relations in the country have changed over time.

Shifting perception

One such shift could be seen between 2011 and 2014, when the percentage of Kosovo Serbs considering ethnic relations tense and not improving fell from 90 per cent in 2011 to only 33 percent in 2014.

Similarly, the percentage of Albanians considering ethnic relations tense and not improving saw a significant decline from 76 per cent in April 2012 to 30 per cent in November 2014.

Dealing with the past is a challenging endeavour for any society with a recent history marked by serious violations of human rights.

However, most people in Kosovo think dealing with the past is important. In October 2016, around 76 per cent of people in Kosovo considered the need to find out the truth about all past war crimes, regardless of the ethnicity of the victims and perpetrators, as “very important” or “important to some extent”.

A comparison of the October 2016 data with those collected in April 2014 shows that the percentage of those considering dealing with past war crimes “important” had risen by about 18 percentage points.

However, only about six per cent of Albanians and about two per cent of Serbs consider the government an appropriate mechanism to do that.

This suggests that officials’ lack of readiness to address this matter properly has eroded citizens’ trust in their government.

The most recent survey was carried out in October 2016, months before Kosovo’s current Presidentannounced that he will set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Admitting crimes

Differences in the opinions between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo reveal the existence of prejudices and ‘social distancing’ among the communities.

Most people in Kosovo declared in the surveys that members of their communities did not commit war crimes, for example.

Disaggregation of this data on an ethnic basis shows that only eight per cent of Albanians responded affirmatively when asked whether members of their communities had committed war crimes.

Analysis also indicates that Albanians who accept that members of their community committed war crimes are also the same people who consider that democratic processes in Kosovo are not going in the right direction and express readiness to protest for political and economic reasons.

On the other side, 25 per cent of Serbs (compared to 31 per cent of them in April 2014) believe members of their community committed war crimes, according to the survey.

For Kosovo Serbs, there is a significant positive correlation between years of education and place of residence and acceptance that members of their communities committed war crimes.

In other words, the Serbs who consider that members of their communities committed war crimes are usually from urban areas and underwent more years of education.

Combining the responses of Serbs and Albanians expressing their respective attitudes towards living and working together or marrying one another, social acceptance levels were calculated for both ethnic groups.

Inter-ethnic social acceptance trends indicate an increase of social acceptance among Serbs towards Albanians between 2008 and 2016.

On the other hand, the same period saw a decrease among Albanians of social acceptance toward Kosovo Serbs.

Statistically significant correlations reveal that Albanians who believe that ethnic relations are not improving and will continue to be tense have a lower level of social acceptance for Serbs compared to those who think that ethnic relations could be improved.

On the other hand, Kosovo Serbs who consider that members of their communities committed war crimes possess a higher social acceptance index, which represents a statistically significant correlation.

The findings also show that there is a significant positive correlation between those considering the prosecution of war crimes as transparent and their social acceptance.

Specifically, Kosovo Albanians who consider that the prosecution of war crimes in Kosovo should treat all cases equally possess a higher social acceptance index.

However, besides significant differences in opinions among Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo - which show the persistence of prejudice and social distancing among the communities – majority  of them considered dealing with past crimes important and declared no trust in the Kosovo government’s own mechanisms for appropriately addressing the prosecution of war crimes.

The survey findings presented in this article are those of Public Pulse, a decade-long research project implemented by the United Nations Development Program in Kosovo.

Its results are based on an opinion poll sample that surveyed 1,306 citizens of Kosovo. Between 2002 and 2010, surveys were conducted on a quarterly basis. Since 2010, the Public Pulse survey has been conducted on biannual basis.

Agon Demjaha served as the Macedonian ambassador to Sweden from 2006-2010, and has worked as an advisor to Kosovo’s foreign minister. He is now an assistant professor at Tetovo State University and teaches at the South East European University in Skopje.

Atdhe Hetemi is a PhD student at the University of Ghent in Belgium. He has a decade of combined experience in international organizations and academic institutions.

This article was written by Agon Demjaha and Atdhe Hetemi in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not reflect the view of the institutions with which they are affiliated.

The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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