The fog surrounding the Brussels Dialogue and its outcomes may be standing in the way of normalisation of relations between Kosovo’s communities.
As Kosovo and Serbia embark on a new phase of the Dialogue on the normalisation of their relations, it is opportune to reflect on possible reconfigurations that could breathe new life into the ossified process.
While widely touted as a major success of European diplomacy and a watershed ‘moment’ in the relations of the foe-countries during its initial years, the Brussels Dialogue’s ability to deliver fundamentally positive results in the disputes between Belgrade and Pristina has been increasingly questioned by its observers. The direction, objectives, length, contents, accountability and transparency of the Dialogue have all come under doubt, analysts leaving no stone unturned in their criticism.
The information vacuum and ambiguity surrounding every step of the process, and especially its outcomes, now tops the list of reactions to the combination of words ‘Brussels Dialogue’ in Kosovo. The media face serious challenges when striving to keep their audiences in the loop of what is happening within the Dialogue and what are the implications for their everyday lives.
A recently conducted research on the framing of the Brussels Dialogue by the media in Kosovo uncovers and analyses dominant frames in the news reporting on the Brussels Dialogue via a media content analysis and expert interviews. The research focuses on the coverage of events following the signing of the April 2013 and August 2015 agreements in dailies Zëri (Kosovo Albanian) and Večernje novosti (Serbian).
The research confirms the dominance of a ‘win-lose’ rhetoric in the media (referred to as ‘Conflict Frame’ within the study), which was also underscored by interviewees from both communities as one of the defining features of reporting on the Dialogue. What is more, the zero-sum nature of the coverage is further strengthened by frequent allusions to issues of sovereignty, recognition, status, independence, territory, and other manifestations of Kosovo’s statehood (referred to as ‘Status Frame’ in the study). This is of particular importance as these notions find strong resonance in both communities, Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs alike. They are thus easily picked up by the audience among all the other information noise they receive about the Dialogue, and shape people’s perceptions of the nature of the process and goals of the other side.
It is important to note that from a purely numerical perspective it may appear that the media pay greater attention to other topics, such as normalisation/reconciliation, implementation of the agreements, their financial implications or EU integration. However, in almost all cases the news outlets merely allude to these terms without conducting any deeper analysis. The focus of the media is thus pre-eminently skewed towards issues of status and conflict as opposed to practical implications of the Dialogue.
The adversarial mindset seems to prevail over the problem-oriented attitude towards the Brussels Dialogue in both Kosovo Albanian and Serbian media. Accompanied by coverage favouring positions of the negotiating parties rather than their interests, and narrow factual reporting as opposed to a wider contextual approach, the media can contribute to the polarisation of the audiences and ultimately to destructive conflict outcomes, as suggested by communications and conflict scholars. This creates a fertile soil for a vicious circle of polarisation. Reporting that feeds polarisation between communities encourages political representatives to continue with the polarising rhetoric as they seek to match the public moods for reasons of political expediency. The media relying almost exclusively on statements of political leaders regarding the Brussels Dialogue, the adversarial rhetoric finds its way back to the news, which is further facilitated by the general scarcity of information on the process.
Most interviewees in the research maintain that the general situation has improved since the start of the Dialogue, the latter providing a sort of green light for communication between communities by previously obstinately antagonistic political leaderships. At the same time, however, the polarising rhetoric of Kosovo and Serbia officials in the media heightens fear and inhibits deeper forms of interaction, thus creating a barrier for reconciliation.
By drawing attention to the potentially destructive effects of the current form of reporting, these findings bring to light the possibility and space for the reframing of the Brussels Dialogue media coverage in a way that would nurture constructive escalation and conflict outcomes. The recent resumption of the Dialogue following a prolonged stalemate provides an auspicious moment for Belgrade, Pristina and Brussels to break with its record of opacity. Human, financial and, above all, political resources will however be needed for the much needed shift in political and media communication.
Agon Demjaha and Andrea Garaiova
The article is part of the wider research supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society, whose findings are published in a volume “State-building in Post-Independence Kosovo: Policy Challenges and Societal Considerations”. The book can be accessed at: http://kfos.org/state-building-in-post-independence-kosovo-policy-challenges-and-societal-considerations/