Opinion

Activists in Kosovo and Serbia Can Still Find Common Ground

Despite the prevailing nationalist narratives in the two countries, activists and NGOs in Kosovo and Serbia are finding topics that they can all collaborate on.

Cooperation between activists in Kosovo and Serbia, especially since the former Yugoslavia dissolved, has played a significant role in bringing peace and solidarity to the region. 

During the 1990s, activists in Serbia and Kosovo developed organic cooperation to combat the oppressive regime of Slobodan Milosevic, which prevailed as anti-war activism. Solidarity between activists in the middle of the wars in the former Yugoslavia served as an alternative scene where activists could come and act together against the regime. 

Feminist activists in the former Yugoslavia especially played a significant role in the social and political transformation of both societies. Worth mentioning is the cooperation among feminists in the region against the Milosevic regime, and the protests organized by the women’s peace coalition that emerged during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. 

The women’s peace coalition was composed of the Kosovo Women’s Network, the Women in Black Network and groups from Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Italy, Spain, Israel and others. 

However, feminist activists had been independently organized even before the wars started in the former Yugoslavia. In the 1980s, they actively supported women’s rights and fashioned their roles in anti-war activism. As a result of their cooperation, in 1987, the First National Feminist Conference of Yugoslavia was held in Slovenia, where they declared their united sisterhood by not recognizing artificial and nationalist male boundaries. 

In this vein, the lack of a stable political dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, and unresolved political issues between the two countries, are significant problems that hinder the development of vibrant cooperation among activists. 

On the other hand, the nationalist “master narrative” dominating public discourse in Kosovo and Serbia contributes to the rise of barriers between the two societies. 

Based on interviews with activists, stereotypes in Serbia that are tainted with racism toward Kosovo Albanians remain common, especially among those who have never been to Kosovo and refuse to change their mind about the people living in it. 

As a result, public discourse in Serbia has generally focused almost exclusively on the Serbian population living in Kosovo. The nationalist master narrative in public discourse in Serbia and Kosovo has hampered cooperation among activists, who have been labeled traitors by their societies.

During the 1990s, activists had a common enemy that united them, while today the common enemy among activists is not so well-defined, or does not exist. Moreover, the war in Kosovo damaged coexistence between Serbs and Albanians. The young generation gets to know each other through the war and the historical narratives that prevail in the public discourse. Meanwhile, the NGO-ization of civil society since the war has fostered “artificial” cooperation among activists in Kosovo and Serbia. However, there is little communication with grassroots initiatives or organizations outside the NGO sector.

Activists come together on the environment and feminism

The political disputes between Kosovo and Serbia are the main reason for the lack of cooperation among activists. As a result, shared spaces to talk about the future of relations among activists are shrinking. Accordingly, in both countries, the political and social spectrum is focused more on past and present issues rather than on future potential. 

However, the environment, culture and feminism have been valued as a potential sphere for enhancing cooperation among activists in Kosovo and Serbia, by producing an alternative narrative. 

In recent years, green activism has managed to bring together local and regional activists to fight for the common good, irrespective of national identities. 

There was the example in 2019 of the village of Bitia e Poshtme, near the Kosovar town of Strpce, where Serbs and Albanians came together to protest against the resumed construction of a hydropower plant on the Lepenc river. Although this example was characterized as an isolated case, it represented a civic act of gathered communities protecting shared spaces. 

Protecting the environment is seen as a significant incentive to develop a new form of cooperation among activists. For example, one activist from Kosovo explained that only green activism and environmental causes manage to overcome the nationalist and ethnic division of the two communities and promote coexistence. 

Ecology offers vital momentum to unite people and activists from Kosovo and Serbia and has the potential to produce an alternative narrative that could go beyond the nationalist one. 

Overcoming nationalist narratives and combating nationalist politics seems to have more potential through close cooperation among activists on the basis of preserving nature. 

Culture could be also considered a cornerstone of further cooperation among activists in Kosovo and Serbia. Cultural events and festivals, such as Dokufest organized in Prizren and Mirëdita Dobar dan organized in Belgrade and Pristina, have provided space for debate among young activists from Kosovo and Serbia as well as the possibility to enhance their cooperation. 

The more cooperation on culture exists among activists, the more an autonomous environment and alternative narrative can be developed between the two societies. 

Feminism also has great potential to increase cooperation among activists in Serbia and Kosovo and ensure an alternative transnational narrative. As mentioned above, feminists who cooperated during the 1990s put their gender identity before their national or ethnic identity, even though they were perceived as traitors by their respective communities. 

Feminist cooperation during the 1990s between Women in Black and the Kosovo Women’s Network, their Peace Coalition Initiative during the 2000s, and other collaborations among feminist NGOs in Kosovo and Serbia, have been essential in building a new transnational narrative. 

Feminist cooperation against the Milosevic regime in the past was important as it showed how activists can act in solidarity and combat the nationalist narrative. The experience of developing such an experience in the 1990s could serve as a significant element to build a new transnational narrative.   

Various areas of cooperation, such as feminism, green activism and culture, can enhance further cooperation among activists in Kosovo and Serbia. These areas have the potential to provide an alternative to the master nationalist narrative in Kosovo and Serbia, uniting activists and promoting solidarity. 

Cultural events like Dokufest and Mirëdita Dobar dan, lessons learned from feminist cooperation during the 1990s, organized activities such as Young Feminist Spring School as well as environmental causes like the protest against the resumed construction of hydropower plant on the Lepenc river are bringing together Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo on topics that can produce an alternative narrative beyond the nationalist one. 

These topics could ensure an environment where activists from Kosovo and Serbia can be united on fundamental issues they face daily. 

Adelina Hasani is the co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Prizma Medium. She received her PhD degree in International Relations at the University of Ankara.  

Agon Demjaha works as an Associate Professor of Political Sciences and International Relations at Tetovo University.

The article is part of a research project produced within the framework of the Kosovo Research and Analysis Fellowship, supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society.

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