Some critical remarks on the latest agreement between Kosovo and Serbia

Sead Zimeri

Recently in Brussels an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo regarding the status of Kosovo as well as the rights of the Serbian minority in Kosovo was reached. It is already hailed by many as historic and a breakthrough in an otherwise stalemate political situation. The negotiations between the two parties have been going on for some time now, despite the protests on both sides. The determination to resolve the Kosovo problem proved strong and survived its critiques. But what kind of agreement have they reached? Reading the agreement I could not but wonder if this agreement was not based on completely wrong premises. There are positive sides to this agreement, which should be unconditionally endorsed. But although it is very much open to interpretation as to what it really means and how will it reflect the politics on the ground, in its totality it is overwhelmingly negative.

What is positive is that Serbia has finally got to its senses and recognized Kosovo. They are still denying it publicly but one cannot negotiate the future of the Serbian minority in Kosovo unless that negotiation was built on the solid assumption that Kosovo is recognized, or about to be recognized, as an independent legal entity, a sovereign country. Serbia has therefore, for all intents and purposes, recognized Kosovo. This is a huge step in the right direction.

It is positive in another sense also, although this could only be viewed as negative from the Serbian side. Kosovo’s independence is one way to stall the ambitions of the Serb nationalism for the Greater Serbia. Greater Serbia may live in Serbian folklore but as a political ambition it has been incapacitated permanently. Serbia may only look to a future within its own current territories. Its ultra-nationalistic ambitions are forever thwarted.

There is, however, no denying that the independence of Kosovo adds fuel to the feeling of powerlessness of the Serbian nationalist discourse in achieving its desired objectives and the incapacitating injury that it sustained as a result of the independence of Kosovo. It makes the loss of Kosovo more traumatic than it would have otherwise been. Kosovo is traumatic for Serbia not simply because it, once upon a time, was part of Serbia, the “cradle of Serbian culture” as the Serb nationalist discourse likes to believe, but because it has effectively and forever thwarted and delegitimised an expansionist Serbian ideology. Nay, it has shattered the Serbian nationalist dream into thousand pieces and it has even sliced a part of the land that was considered the cradle of Serbia. They were dreaming for more, and they were forced to accept even less than they already had. For this the Serbian nationalistic discourse will never forgive Kosovo.

This aspect of Kosovo has never been considered a politically relevant factor. But even if it is not politically relevant it is, nevertheless, analytically relevant in that it provides a context that helps understand the current politics in which the negotiations have been taking place and Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo as an independent state. The declaration of independence of Kosovo has left Serbia bleeding, and the open wound evokes memories of her failure to realize her nationalist dream of Greater Serbia. And the fact that the cause of this failure is a people Serbia had no much regard for makes the memory all the more painful to bear.

Despite its positive side, the agreement is overwhelmingly negative. Thinking about this agreement I could not help but ask: would Serbia accept the agreement on the same terms? The answer must be a resounding no. Serbia would never accept what she wants Kosovo to accept. The reason why she would not accept any of the terms of this agreement is simple: It would contradict the principle of the sovereignty of the Serbian state. Albanians in southern part of Serbia who are a majority there do not enjoy the same rights and privileges that Serbia wants for the Serbian minority in Kosovo.

The other negative aspect of this agreement is that it is premised on the contemptuous assumption that Albanian Kosovars cannot really respect the rights of Serbs in Kosovo. Kosovars cannot respect the rights of the Serb minority because they are not civilised enough to see beyond their ethnicity. It is interesting to note how the Serbian nationalist discourse since Kosovo got its autonomy in 1974 has portrayed Albanians as nationalists with secessionist ambitions. While Kosovo Albanian have indeed shown secessionist ambitions and a degree of nationalism this can only be understood in the wider context of resisting the de facto Serbian occupation of Kosovo. Serbian repression was fuelling the Albanian nationalism in Kosovo for decades and now it laments the fact that Kosovo has gone out of its hands and territory. In this entire saga Serbia constantly forgets to include itself as an active agent that directly contributed to the secessionist ambitions of Albanians.

Nevertheless, one might argue that considering the animosity between the two nations and the recent history of the bloody conflict one is inclined to show an understanding for the demand that Kosovo army shall not step in the regions where the majority are Serbs. But then one thinks of the fact that Kosovo is an independent state that strives to fulfil the conditions of joining the European Union and that is a strong motive and incentive for this newly established state to respect and secure the rights of all minorities who live inside its territories. Creating nationalistic enclaves and cleavages is not going to be in the interest of the state of Kosovo. The agreement thus de facto if not de jure undermines its stated purpose because it encourages a politics based on ethnic and nationalistic lines, a politics which will further aggravate the mutual distrust and undermine the civic cooperation between the Serbs and Albanians.

The reached-agreement seems like a pretty straightforward realistic position to take, but it is a shortsighted realism. One can of course argue that Kosovo already is a state based on the predominance of one ethnicity, thus it is an ethnic state, and this by itself poses a threat to other ethnicities, in this case the Serbs. It should not be forgotten, after all, that Kosovo is in the Balkans. Had Kosovo been established as an ethnic state in another part of the Western hemisphere where ethnicity plays no great role in politics then it could’ve been argued that Serbian demands are unjustifiable and thus could be rejected on the grounds of infringement of the principle of sovereignty.

This, however, is not a valid argument. It starts from the unproven assumption that Kosovars cannot see past their ethnicity. This is a very dangerous stereotype that a priori disqualifies the newly established nation from achieving and creating a state where all its citizen are accorded equal rights. Before condemning it to primitivism and instead of legalizing the stereotype that it cannot represent its citizens equally Kosovo should be given a fair chance to prove itself. And the effect of this agreement, I am afraid, is that it will reinforce the stereotype and turn Kosovo into a laboratory for all kinds of ethno-nationalistic politics.

There is another option, which at this juncture may seem more difficult to implement but which in the long run is going to prove far more positive, inclusive and protective than any of the measures that Serbia is seeking to achieve now. Investing on building the broken trust between these communities is a more promising way to realise a joint future than the one that Serbia is negotiating on behalf of Kosovo Serbs. If Serbia is really interested in securing the rights of its people in Kosovo then they ought to insist that Kosovo should treat the Serbian minority as equal citizens. Kosovo Serbs should be first and foremost represented as citizens of Kosovo, as Kosovars. That is their new identity: they may not like it, but this is the new reality. Ethnicization of politics is going to undermine not only the trust and amicable relations that can otherwise develop and prosper but also threaten to undermine the stability of the country.

In a modern state it is the citizenship which grants the subject the right to demand equal treatment, not her ethnic belonging. So long as this is the operative principle of the modern state it is not a bad policy to tone down the politics based on ethnic belonging. Multi-ethnic states would not be able to function if each ethnic community put forward its ethnicity and elevated it above the principle of nationality and citizenship. What Serbia is fighting for in Kosovo is to make Kosovo a dysfunctional state, a rogue state that sooner or later falls apart. Serbia both wants to have and eat the cake, and she thinks that by pursuing this policy of destabilizing this sovereign state she will eventually regain Kosovo. Once the effects of ethnic nationalism get out of control they undermine the ability of the Kosovo state to function normally. They also undermine its legitimacy. A state, which has to constantly justify its policies not in terms of citizenship, but in terms of this or that ethnic group, clearly cannot deliver what is expected of her. This state even if it does not collapse cannot be considered a success story. Its failure is written all over it, in its very foundation. This is what Serbia wants to see happen in Kosovo, and this is why we must not let it happen.

About albphilosopher

Sead Zimeri has studied Philosophy, Islamic Philosophy and Religion, International Politics and Psychoanalysis. He is currently the project coordinator of "Islam and the Liberal Society" at the Liberalt Laboratorium (LibLab) thin tank in Oslo, Norway. http://www.liblab.no
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