I believe in peace in Kosovo

Tatjana Lazarević FOTO: Medija centar
Tatjana Lazarević Photo: Medija centar

Translation provided by KoSSev. The interview was published by  P-portal, conducted by Bojan Munjin

Editor of the Kossev portal from Kosovska Mitrovica, Tatjana Lazarevic won the Person of the Year award granted by Belgrade-based weekly magazine Vreme for objective, brave and responsible journalism. Speaking about the motives behind the conception of this portal, Lazarevic says that it is the expression of the feeling of endangerment and life in a permanent state of emergency that has not ceased for 30 years: „My entire childhood was spent in a position of vulnerability: how to get to school, how to be careful which language you use and how to choose the right café to go to. Kossev was created out of the feeling of injustice I do not tolerate, out of the awareness that nobody cares about us here and out of an atmosphere of media lies and propaganda that we are constantly exposed to.“ We talked about the situation in Kosovo with this brave journalist.

What is life like for Serbs in Kosovo today? Are their biggest problems existential, political or national?

All three groups of questions are important for Serbs from Kosovo.  It should be first pointed out that Serbs make up between three to five percent of the population, or according to the OSCE’s estimates, seven to eight percent. Although that number is very low when compared to the population at-large, it is precisely within this small minority (in this case Kosovo Serbs) that the maturity of a society as a whole and the overall quality of a given system that sustains its citizens can be measured. If you ask Albanians, they’ll tell you, citing the constitution, various laws and certain sections of the Ahtisaari plan, that no minority in Europe has more rights than Serbs in Kosovo do.  When you speak with Serbs however, they’ll tell you that there isn’t a single nation in Europe that has seen their rights reduced and violated to the extent that Serbs in Kosovo have. These facts speak to the very real vulnerability that members of the Serb community in Kosovo feel.

“Boiled frog syndrome”

What are the more concrete reasons behind Kosovo Serbs’ feelings of vulnerability?

It’s a question of daily, systematic and, widespread discrimination against Serbs and the absence of tolerance on the part of the majority towards Serbs as a minority. The overriding perception among the Albanian-majority population of Serbia and the Serb people is that they carry the blame for all of the evil that occurred in Kosovo in the past, as well as for current problems. Serbs and Serbia are seen as enemies, occupiers and, criminals – it is believed that they haven’t been sufficiently penalised or held morally accountable for their alleged crimes. In other words, they owe a great debt to the Albanian population. You will hear quite often from Albanians that they’re suffering because Serbia hasn’t recognised Kosovo, that they haven’t yet received visa liberalisation, and that Serbia is actively and aggressively preventing Kosovo from becoming a “normal state.” In this context, Serbs in Kosovo find themselves in a very particular atmosphere of what can be described as “normalised” difficulty – it is taken as a given that they have hard lives and, they live and die with feelings of ingrained hardship. They live with the fact that their rights are constantly violated and that at any given moment, their lives can become very dangerous.

How many Serbs are there in Kosovo exactly and are they still leaving?

Data on the precise number of Serbs in Kosovo is patchy, but there are approximately between one-hundred and ten to one-hundred and twenty thousand. Serbs boycotted the 2011 census, when the total population of Kosovo was placed at around 1,739,000, of which Albanians comprised around 93% and Serbs 1.5%. The last census carried out by Serbian authorities took place in 1991 and was boycotted en-masse by Albanians.  As a result, it was incorrectly estimated that Kosovo had a population of 1,950,000, with Albanians making up 81% and Serbs between 9-10% of the total population.  According to the 1981 census, which both Albanians and Serbs participated in, a million and a half people lived in Kosovo, with 77% or 1,227,000 Albanians and 13% or 209,000 Serbs.  It can be said that even then Serbs were already leaving systematically: from the 1974 Yugoslav Constitution until today there have been a number of waves of emigration, including the exodus after the 1999 war. Over the past several years, starting in 2008 and the unilateral declaration of Kosovo independence, there has been a trend of displacement of the Serbian population from the south to the north of Kosovo and from the north to central Serbia. This intensified in 2013 with the Brussels dialogue process and the shutting of Serbian state institutions in Kosovo, as well as the forced integration of the Serbian community into Kosovo institutions that was led first and foremost by Belgrade, with the help of the international community.

What is this “silent exodus” that we keep hearing about in relation to Kosovo?

What we’ve been faced with for the first time over the past few years is the fact that Serb families in Kosovo have been enrolling their children in high schools somewhere in Serbia, with one parent often living with them outside of Kosovo. Many Serbs returned to Kosovo in the years immediately following the war, especially when the university was opened in Kosovska Mitrovica, and we experienced a rise in the number of young families and children in the north of Kosovo. The current administration in Serbia assists in the construction of housing in the north, but this trend of temporality is a new phenomenon in Kosovo. If you came to Kosovska Mitrovica from the outside, you would probably say that it’s a lively, university city, filled with people – this is true, but as I like to say, Kosovska Mitrovica is much like a large bus station because everything is in passing: Some come, some go and somewhere in-between one can even find a job. But, for me, that lively and teeming city is nothing more than an illusion of substantive stability and real urban life.

Data shows that Albanians are also leaving Kosovo…

I’ve been travelling around Kosovo since my childhood, but today I see land that is traditionally agricultural left uncultivated, an unending flow of new but still-empty homes…Their owners are Albanians who live in the west and come to Kosovo once a year. This is reflective of emigration from Kosovo and when I speak to Albanians, they say that while their heart may be in Kosovo, it didn’t give to them what they had expected. If we’re talking about the everyday world, not only do Albanians not live better than Serbs but they actually live markedly worse. The daily wage for an Albanian worker in the south is five euros, while for a Serb in the north it’s ten. A Serb handyman earns twenty euros a day while Albanians make ten.  There is not a single Albanian family that doesn’t have someone abroad somewhere. This trend of young, capable citizens leaving is not a phenomenon that’s limited to Kosovo – it effects the entire Balkan region. Cities may be empty, but bus stations and airports are full.

After the last meeting in Berlin, how would you describe the mood of Serb citizens in Kosovo anticipating the results of negotiations between the Serb and Albanian sides at the international level?

There exists something called “boiling frog” syndrome, it’s an expression that you’ll hear often in Kosovo. For us this means that the decision-making process during negotiations is carried out in our name in the absence of any consultation and very often against our will.  It is assumed that Serbs will give their consent to all of this because, as a community, they’ve been weakened and have an ingrained sense of loyalty towards Serbia as their homeland. The negotiations in Berlin were just one in a series of events of a similar nature – if you ask Serbs about it they’ll say – it’s all so obvious!  Although they know it’s an unrealistic ideal, on an emotional level, Serbs would like for Kosovo to remain in Serbia and to live in peace and in the absence of problems with Albanians.

How would you describe the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church among Serbs in Kosovo?

I would argue that, for Serbs in Kosovo, the church is the most important institution both when speaking about values as well as a sense of security. The Raska-Prizren Diocese is a special case because after the war in 1999, it really proved itself to be a living church that stood by its people. I seriously doubt that a single Serb would have managed to stay after 1999 had it not been for the Raska-Prizren Diocese and Bishop Amfilohije, who remained in the south in the days following the war and gathered both dead Serbs and those who stayed behind. During the first post-war years, my first experience and impressions from the field, watching the army and the policy of telling people to pack up and leave, was that the Milosevic regime wanted Serbs from the south of Kosovo to go. After the signing of the Kumanovo Agreement, I understood that there was a lack of any kind of plan to keep those people in Kosovo.

The connection between the people and priests.

What did the Raska-Prizren Diocese do exactly?

So, the Raska-Prizren Diocese gathered those people, stood by them, provided them with shelter, helped them and, at the same time, opened channels of communication between them, the international community and, Kosovo Albanians. I remember something that the then Bishop Artemije said after being condemned by Belgrade for negotiating with Albanians and the international community: “I’ll speak to the devil himself if that will help to keep my people here.” That perception of the Church’s role in Kosovo hasn’t changed and, what’s more, it’s actually flourishing. The rallying of the people around the Church has taken on a new quality, especially in the south. This is reflected in the restoration of monasteries, not just as monuments, but as living gathering-points for the remaining population. Prizren is an excellent example of this: The Prizren Seminary is being renovated, Bishop Teodosije came to work with theology students, and one can feel a kind of freshness that the seminary brought with it. Churches in cities where there are no longer any Serbs, but believers still gather, are being brought back to life. The St. Nikola Church in Pristina was renovated, and a Serbian cultural centre opened within it.

In Kosovo today, restored churches and monasteries constitute living cultural monuments that embody a positive message about the importance of keeping the Serbian people in Kosovo. Something that gives Serbs faith and hope is the fact that those monasteries are led by priests and monks who are realists and who support peace. Exceptional diplomacy aside, the Raska-Prizren Diocese has also acted to fill the vacuum left by Serbian institutions and state in places where they’ve disappeared from.

I repeat, what’s important is that there’s an active link between the people and priests who offer them hope and encourage them to remain. It should be noted here that for many years, there has been a marked clash between the Orthodox Church’s and Belgrade’s conception of Kosovo: the Church strongly opposes any kind of partition of Kosovo, while President Aleksandar Vucic speaks about, as he calls it, “historical reconciliation and ethnic partition of Kosovo and Metohija.”

There have been clashes in Strpce recently between police and residents over their dissatisfaction with the construction of a hydro-electric power plant. There was also a large scale police operation. Looking at all of this more broadly, how dangerous are these incidents and how close are we to an escalation to a conflict of wider proportions?

That kind of danger can never be excluded as a possibility, especially in Kosovo. All conflicts that started in Kosovo, both before and after the war of 1999, erupted unexpectedly.  It’s a lovely spring day and then suddenly five minutes later you have a thousand protestors, KFOR standing guard between two ethnic groups, tear gas, shock bombs….There is this relatively new dynamic where it’s increasingly difficult to convince either Serbs or Albanians that incidents are spontaneous – something that is really quite dangerous. There’s a shared perception by both Albanians and Serbs that any renewed conflict in Kosovo will be induced. Bishop Teodosije, a highly educated man who by nature avoids wearing his functions (as Bishop) on his sleeve, warned against this danger. He certainly would not have said this were he not very well informed, and this is something that many people in Kosovo fear. There wasn’t a soul who wasn’t talking about an ‘planned incident’ when President Hashim Thaci visited, accompanied by a coterie of special forces and fear on the streets, the Gazivoda hydroelectric plant. It is also a fact that for years a media war has been waged by tabloids from Pristina and Belgrade. If you read what they write and you don’t know what the actual situation is like on the ground, you’ll think that an actual war is going on. If you live in Kosovo, with those two different pictures, one real and one created by the media, you have to be very well informed and to know how to filter and contextualise all of this information, you have to have both feet on the ground….

What kind of political agreement over Kosovo’s status is realistically possible and how much time is required to reach such an agreement?

For us, this unsettled state is permanent, and people who criticise the “frozen conflict” should be aware of this. As far as reaching a lasting peace is concerned, I don’t think that that peace should come about as the result of political engineering – I would rather believe in peace as something that is absolutely indispensable for human survival. In order to achieve that, you have to strive for peace for however long it takes to arrive at peace. That concept is a bit dated when considering how political systems function around the world and how patterns in global culture demand ever-faster and ever-greater levels of consumption. Simply put, you can’t have peace if you don’t want it.  Looking at this from a tradition angle, the need for peace belongs to man’s better half, that I myself belong to, while the need for war belongs to the other half. While I think that there are people in Kosovo on both sides that want peace and who have been talking about it for long enough that they could actually achieve it, I believe that that desire is quashed by the same political and media engineering that we have all been made slaves to. As far as peace itself in Kosovo is concerned, this is not something that can happen if one side will get everything and the other side will lose everything. There has to be some kind of common denominator that would be palatable to everyone and that would be durable.  For this to happen, there has to be a maturing of Balkan societies so that peace, normal life and respect for others can be prioritised – only then can long-term stability be created.  Unfortunately, in Kosovo we all have the perception that we are stuck in a kind of purgatory waiting for the next conflict. I don’t want to have to wait until after another tragic war for a time of enlightenment.




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