Ghosts of the Past
It is easy to agree with the general impression that Albanian Prime minister Edi Rama's visit to Belgrade turned out to be a missed opportunity rather than a new beginning.
The often emphasized fact that this was the first highest Albanian official to visit Serbia in decades, shows the extent of negligence of Serbian-Albanian relations, complicated by the constant tensions and unresolved traumas inherited from the 1990s. The greatest trauma remains to be mutually exclusive view of two official politics regarding the status of Kosovo, which declared its independence in 2008 and has been recognized by over 100 United Nations members so far.
Official Serbian and Albanian politics regarding Kosovo and the desires of Kosovo Albanians for their independent state have remained unchanged since the 1990s; thus, they were promoted by parties from the complete party spectrum, be they nationalist or social-democratic parties. Albania was the only country that recognized the referendum of Kosovo Albanians from September 1991, while none of post-Milosevic governments in Serbia saw Kosovo as anything other than the Autonomous Province within the constitutional and legal framework of the Republic of Serbia, by the name of Kosovo and Metohija. What is more, in October 2006, under Vojislav Koštunica's government, a two-day referendum was held that inserted this view into the preamble of the new Serbian Constitution. Namely, immediately after the opening words "Considering the state tradition of the Serbian people and equality of all citizens and ethnic communities in Serbia" a mention is made of Kosovo "Considering also that the Province of Kosovo and Metohija is an integral part of the territory of Serbia[...]." The Constitution's founding fathers thereby wanted to tie hands of any future government that would even dream of changing their attitude towards Kosovo.
One Flew of a Drone Over the Cuckoo's Nest
The arrival of Edi Rama in Belgrade was supposed to symbolically mark both countries' readiness to turn to the future and resolve their disputes and differences in mutual dialogue and in the spirit of good neighbouring relations. This followed the incident at the Euro 2016 qualifying football match between Serbia and Albania in Belgrade, when a small remotely guided drone came out of the sky carrying a map of Greater Albania.
Outraged Serbian hooligans flooded the ground, which forced the players who had already started a fight to withdraw to the changing rooms. The incident caused anti-Albanian hysteria in the Serbian media, as well as an avalanche of accusations by Serbian officials directed toward the Albanian delegation present at the match. This applies in particular to Edi Rama's brother, who was swiftly accused (and apparently without evidence) of flying the drone with the controversial flag. The game was abandoned, of course, but it proved once again that football is the continuation of war by other means. What followed soon were individual attacks on bakeries and shops owned by Albanians in the Serbian province of Vojvodina and attacks on several houses of Serbs in Kosovo. Consequently, Edi Rama's visit was postponed to November 10, apparently until the heated atmosphere cools down a bit. Unfortunately, it did not happen, as both countries’ officials continued to exchange their accusations regarding the responsibility for the incident. Edi Rama added oil to fire at the joint press conference with Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić by saying that “Independent Kosovo is an undeniable regional and European reality, and it must be respected”. Apparently angered, Vučić described this as “provocation” that was not part of the protocol and emphasized that he will “not allow anyone to humiliate Serbia in Belgrade” and that he will "talk about Kosovo being Serbian when he travels to Tirana for a return visit." Both events thus showed an unexpected recklessness and inappropriate rhetoric of the highest Serbian and Albanian officials. The Albanian Prime minister stepped forward as a politician that advocates the interests of all Albanians, irrespective of the state they live in, while the Serbian Premier acted as someone unable to control his ‘colonial’ contempt for those who organised the provocation at the football game, as well as for his colleague who dared to change the prearranged protocol. In other words, they both undermined the importance that this visit could have had for loosening the tensions between the two countries.
Beyond Greater Serbia and Greater Albania
It would doubtlessly be worthwhile if the Albanian Prime Minister used this opportunity to push for the implementation of the Brussels Agreement (which he failed to do), as it directly aims to ease Serbian-Albanian tensions while establishing functional rule in the four municipalities with the Serbian majority in Northern Kosovo. Instead, on his way back to Albania Rama visited Preshevo (which was the first visit of any high Albanian official in the history of this Albanian-majority Serbian town) where he stated that “there is no reason for Albanians from the Presevo Valley to have fewer possibilities, less freedom or fewer rights than Serbs in northern Kosovo”. The strong emotional reaction of the locals to Rama did not go unnoticed by the Serbian authorities and “patriotic” media, which they (hopefully just the latter) interpreted as territorial claims.
Bitterness of the Serbian government these days seems to be additionally enhanced by the release of Vojislav Šešelj, former party leader of Aleksandar Vučić and Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić, from the Hague imprisonment. Namely, immediately after his return, Šešelj proclaimed as his goal to bring down the treacherous rule of the two converts and resurrect the idea of “Greater Serbia”.
Prospects for the return to armed conflicts and the creation of Greater ___ (intentionally left blank) nevertheless remain slim. Serbia’s greatest challenges are the making of an efficient state apparatus, combating unemployment, facing the traumatic past and improving the relations with their neighbours. The last might be particularly difficult as Serbia lost its wars in the 1990s, including a part of the territory it still considers as its own, while both the elite and the majority of citizens are still to come to terms with the reasons causing all this. Albania faces different challenges – in addition to the economic ones, they include the implementation of national politics based on the good neighbouring relations without territorial pretensions. Taken together, the key is the time required to conduct economic reforms, educate the citizen and advance in the Euro-integrations. Even though the EU seems to be in a permanent economic – and perhaps also political – crisis, it still remains the strategic goal of both countries and an instrument of their coming together. Insofar as the EU project continues to grow and prosper, alternative projects of further balkanization of the Balkans (and even Europe itself), and political programmes warming up dreams and hopes of rearranging national borders, will eventually wither away.
Current politics trends in Serbia (i.e. the authoritarian tendencies of Vučić’s rule concerning the attacks on the freedom of the press and the opposition, “painful reforms” the true beginning and negative consequences of which are yet to be fully experienced, the ongoing unification of the crumbled far-right parties and political apathy among the citizens) thus hardly present a particularly fertile soil for further normalization of Serbian-Albanian relations. What remains is individual and group contacts, exchange and cooperation in the field of science, arts and culture. Such is the project „Figuring out the Enemy: Re-imagining Serbian-Albanian Relations“, launched by the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory and KPZ Beton from Belgrade, with participation of Qendra Multimedia from Prishtina and Poeteka from Tirana. The project is supported by the Swiss fund Regional Research Promotion Programme in the Western Balkans, and it gathers young and senior scholars and journalists from Albania, Serbia and Kosovo. Its impact on the official politics, off course, remains constrained, but it certainly shows an alternative to the politics of prejudices, hostilities and autism from the scholarly and cultural perspective.
Prepared within the framework of the Regional Research Promotion Programme in the Western Balkans (RRPP), implemented by the University of Fribourg upon a mandate of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, SDC, Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. The authors are grateful to Ana Sivacki and Gazela Pudar, who made a number of comments regarding the content and language of this post. The views expressed here are, of course, solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent opinions of the SDC and the University of Fribourg.