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Story Publication logo May 8, 2018

Controversial Arrest Adds Upset to Fragile Kosovo Reconciliation Efforts


Religion and nationalism are key factors in preventing peace in the Balkans. Image by the PBS NewsHour. Serbia, 2018.

Russian meddling, nationalist rhetoric, and lingering hatred block Balkan conflict zones' progress.

Screenshot from PBS NewsHour. Kosovo, 2018.
Screenshot from PBS NewsHour. Kosovo, 2018.

Read the Full Transcript

Amna Nawaz:

Now to part two of our look at the state of affairs in the Balkans.

Nearly 20 years after the war in Kosovo, efforts to achieve reconciliation between Serbs and ethnic Albanians have suffered one of their worst setbacks in recent years, after a controversial arrest.

Kosovo, with its majority ethnic Albanian population, used to be an autonomous region of the former Yugoslavia. But, in 1999, after a series of Serb atrocities, NATO intervened on the side of the Albanians to help Kosovo become an independent nation.

With the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant found that overcoming ethnic hatred and suspicion is one of the biggest obstacles to consolidating peace in the fledgling nation.

Malcolm Brabant:

After 20 years of painfully slow progress towards reconciliation, there was widespread dismay at the way in which Kosovar Albanian riot police arrested this man, Marko Djuric, the chief peace negotiator of the Serbian government in Belgrade.

The arrest took place in Mitrovica, Kosovo’s most volatile town, where the country’s ethnic tensions are accentuated. What happens here frequently influences the rest of the country.

Dalibor Jevtic:

Police used force without reason. And I cannot understand using force on those people, people that gathered there to talk about peace.

Malcolm Brabant:

Dalibor Jevtic leads a Serb party in Kosovo’s Parliament, which left the government to protest the arrest.

Dalibor Jevtic:

They arrest the person who is the main negotiator of Serbia. And they treat him as a dog. When you have forced on a legitimate representative of Serbs, what ordinary people can expect then?

Malcolm Brabant:

The Serbs have come a long way since 1999, when their tanks roamed Kosovo, forcing Albanians to flee from their villages.

The Serbs’ campaign of so called ethnic cleansing provoked NATO airstrikes. After a 10-week bombing campaign, the Serbs accepted NATO’s peace terms. The Albanians of Kosovo, the majority population, were the beneficiaries. In February, Kosovo celebrated 10 years of independence. But the country remains widely unrecognized.

Its membership of the United Nations is blocked. The biggest problem in the peace process is trying to convince Serbia, the old wartime enemy, to formally recognize Kosovo. So why would the Kosovar Albanian led-government in Pristina reignite Serb resentment when it needs cooperation?

Kosovo’s Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, a former wartime guerrilla leader, defended the arrest, saying the Serb negotiator entered the country illegally, despite being told not to come.

That does not send a good sign to the Serbian people, does it, that that is the way that they’re going to be treated?

Ramush Haradinaj:

No. No, sir, this is not oriented towards Kosovar Serbs, any elected official, leader, Serb officials. That was mainly towards two persons that illegally passed the borders.

Malcolm Brabant:

Some Balkan experts believe that the arrest in Mitrovica was potentially dangerous, because it’s exacerbated ethnic tensions and it will also make it more difficult for there to be normalization of relations between the former warring factions.

They also fear it could lead to a hardening of attitudes by the governments here in Pristina and also in the Serbian capital, Belgrade.

In return for recognition of Kosovo, the carrot of European Union membership for Serbia is being dangled in front of its president, Aleksandar Vucic. In February, Vucic told Germany’s Chancellor Merkel he was prepared to reach a deal in which both Serbs and Albanians lost something.

But in recent days, he has retrenched. So, will a conclusive peace agreement ever happen?

Regional analyst Luzlim Peci.

Luzlim Peci:

I think that final agreement is possible. It will depend a lot on the engagement of the United States of America and European Union. If they are not strongly engaged in the region, then Russia enters with its influence, and then the situation becomes more complicated.

Malcolm Brabant:

Russia aligns with the Serbs and it’s in Moscow’s interest for Kosovo’s current state of stagnation to continue. Most Serbs have a deep emotional attachment to Kosovo and are reluctant to set it free as a nation.

They regard Kosovo as the cradle of Serbian culture, because it’s home to orthodox monasteries like Decani.

Father Sava Janjic:

The opening of this metal coffin is not something very attractive, I must say.

Malcolm Brabant:

The abbot, Sava Janjic, opens up the coffin of the monastery’s 14th century founder, King Stefan, a saint, whose hand is as well preserved as any Egyptian mummy.

This and other treasures underpin the religious and historical significance of Kosovo for the Serbs. In the past few months, some Serb politicians have suggested redrawing the map so Northern Kosovo becomes an integral part of Serbia again.

But only 35 percent of Kosovo’s Serbs live in the north. The rest live amongst Albanians in the south.

Father Sava Janjic:

These ideas are absolutely unrealistic, and they are also, I must say, immoral in a way.

Malcolm Brabant:

Father Sava has been a long time opponent of Serbian nationalism, and his is an influential voice with visiting international politicians.

He argues that the Serbs living in southern Kosovo have no intention of leaving willingly.

Father Sava Janjic:

We will all be forced out of here just because certain people need to have clearly ethnically cut territories. This is exactly what was the reason for the Balkans wars in the ’90s, and we must never allow that to happen again.

Malcolm Brabant:

Kosovo’s unsettled present is deterring foreign investment, and the absence of prosperity is particularly felt in Mitrovica, a town that is a microcosm of the nation’s ethnic tensions.

Igor Simic represents Mitrovica’s Serbs in Kosovo’s Parliament, and he’s optimistic about reaching a deal with the former enemy.

Igor Simic:

Right now, 19 years after the war, and we are still talking about the same stories from the past. So we have to find a way how to go further. The new generation doesn’t want to wait, doesn’t want to be on the same spot as their fathers were.

Malcolm Brabant:

The young Kosovars who grew up after the war have little experience of the hatred and fear that motivated their parents.

Christiana Quni is the daughter of a prominent Kosovar guerrilla fighter and member of Parliament. She is studying in Austria, but wants to return to help her nation recover.

Christiana Quni:

Maybe the only solution is that the young people from Kosovo to get together and first talk. But I think it’s the only thing that we don’t do that often.

Malcolm Brabant:

This small pork processing cooperative in western Kosovo provides a glimpse of what is possible when former enemies reach across the ethnic divide. It’s shared between Albanian women and Serbs who returned to the area after the war.

Woman (through translator):

Throughout Kosovo, it’s hard to find an enterprise like this one where we coexist together. It would be great if other people would follow suit.

WOMAN (through translator):

It also shows that we are the same people. Everybody has her own problems, her own worries, so we know each other and open our hearts to each other.

Malcolm Brabant:

But old wounds are likely to be reopened soon once a special court in the Netherlands indicts former Albanian members of the Kosovo Liberation Army for war crimes against Serbs, other minorities and political opponents.

Kosovars tried to stop the court being established, but America and its Ambassador Greg Delawie insisted it was essential.

Greg Delawie:

Justice is vital for reconciliation. We support the Kosovo Special Court. We feel it’s essential to true to provide justice for all victims, and we think the court will make an important contribution to that.

Malcolm Brabant:

But Nysrete Kumnova and her husband, Muharrem, want more Serbs to be held accountable. They are heading to the empty grave of their son Albiyon. He was 19 when, along with other men of fighting age, he was abducted by Serbian forces who overran the western town of Gjakova in March 1999; 750 bodies have been recovered; 720 are still missing.

Nysrete Kumnova (through translator):

There won’t be any reconciliation while we are still alive. And all politicians shouldn’t dare to forgive Serbia until Serbia returns all the remains of the bodies of those killed, and all the perpetrators should be put on trial, and until Serbia apologizes to us and to the world for the crimes committed in this country.

Malcolm Brabant:

If the Kumnovas are to attain peace, they need a Serb to examine his conscience and reveal their son’s secret grave. For many Kosovars, the conflict is simply frozen and far from over.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Malcolm Brabant in Kosovo.


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