WASHINGTON – The land swap and the creation of the association of Serbian municipalities are not acceptable solutions, and there is a great deal of mistrust between citizens of Kosovo and Serbia, are some of the main findings of the parallel surveys conducted by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP) and the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies (KCSS), presented at the event entitled “Serbia & Kosovo: What Do Citizens Think?”.
According to surveys, citizens of Kosovo and Serbia support their governments’ goals to pursue the dialogue and resolve the dispute peacefully, but are not familiar with the content of the negotiations.
Igor Bandovic, Director of the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy said that there have been a lot of discussions about Kosovo and Serbia in the past, but that it is important to present the results of the survey conducted both in Serbia and Kosovo in order to get an idea of what the public thinks of the current state of the dialogue.
“These surveys both from Kosovo and Serbia will tell you how confused our citizens are about the policies which our governments are leading when it comes to the dialogue. It is finally time for the democratic principles, rule of law and human rights to be tied with the discussion on Kosovo and Serbia”, said Bandović.
Mentor Vrajolli, Executive Director of the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies said that the lack of normalisation between Kosovo and Serbia which are related to the foreign policies has resulted in various problems for both Serbia and Kosovo and has prevented the two from making progress in their foreign policy-related goals.
“Some of the main issues that Kosovo has struggled with in the past years are the inability to join some of the key international organisations, lack of relations with NATO and difficulties with EU integration process”, said Vrajolli.
During the first panel entitled “Kosovo and Serbia: Between Desires and Reality” Maja Bjeloš, Researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy presented the perspective of Serbian citizens on the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. In her presentation, Bjeloš said that the findings of the survey which was conducted in October 2020 show that half of Serbian citizens support the dialogue as a way to resolve the Kosovo dispute peacefully, but that they are mostly unfamiliar with the content.
“They believe that the dialogue has not changed anything so far, and do not see benefits. The confusion is the result of the unclear policy of the government on Kosovo, the non-transparency of the dialogue process, and the media propaganda accompanied by contradictory narratives and statements by local politicians and the dialogue facilitators” said Bjeloš.
According to her, the land swap, the creation of the association of municipalities and mutual recognition are not seen as acceptable solutions by most of Serbian citizens, but even if Serbia were to recognise Kosovo, about 40% of citizens believe that it would not affect their everyday life.
“One fourth would feel a loss of identity, and one fifth would feel humiliated. Such attitudes are understandable if we keep in mind that the most common association of Kosovo are monasteries and Serbian heritage, the narratives of Kosovo as the heart of Serbia and the cradle of Serbian identity. That is why it is not surprising that a part of citizens feel that Kosovo is taken away from Serbia and that the only solution is to return it” explains Bjeloš.
The dialogue takes place in the atmosphere of great mistrust in Albanians prevails, says Bjeloš.
“They would not accept Kosovo Albanians to be public officials, or to be married to any of their family members, and two thirds refuse to be their superiors at work. This stems from the conflict in Kosovo in 1999, however, Serbian officials who incite war, spread hate speech and deny war crimes against Albanians through the media also have role in this”, emphasises Bjeloš.
The BCSP’s survey indicates the soft power of the government to influence the attitudes of citizens and shape public opinion, since almost 64% of citizens receive information about Kosovo through television and public broadcaster.
“The government obviously has the tools to influence the citizens and to gain their unconditional trust, yet, these are not used to normalise the relations between the two communities”, Bjeloš stated.
Plator Avdiu, Researcher at the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies presented the findings of the survey conducted in Kosovo from late September to early October.
According to Avdiu, citizens in Kosovo are not satisfied with how the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia is going, do not feel any benefits of the dialogue, and they are very poorly informed about the Kosovo’s objectives on the dialogue.
“People in Kosovo are fiercely against establishing the association of Serbian municipalities in Kosovo, as a part of the final deal between Kosovo and Serbia. The same is applicable to the idea of land swaps of Kosovo and Serbia”, said Avdiu.
When asked about what is the best solution for Kosovo in dialogue, almost 80% of respondents said that the final solution should be Kosovo’s recognition by Serbia with the existing borders. Only 18% of respondents support the current stance of their state representatives about the dialogue.
“Many respondents think that the EU membership can be reached only if we go through the final agreement between Kosovo and Serbia. Citizens are not supportive of Kosovo government when it comes to the suspensions of membership into international organisations, and almost 60% of them are not familiar with the Mini Schengen initiative, which comes as a result of the lack of transparency”, Avdiu explains.
When it comes to reaching the agreement, he said that citizens of Kosovo are quite divided, but that it can be said that almost majority of them are in favour of reaching agreement and having peaceful relations with Serbia.
“Citizens get the information mainly through media channels and internet, which can be quite misleading. People in Kosovo are not against Serbian people living in Kosovo, but when it comes to marrying a Serb or living next to them, many citizens are against this kind of interaction”, Avdiu concludes.
Nikola Burazer, Programme Director at the Centre for Contemporary Politics and the Executive Editor at European Western Balkans said that the findings of the surveys conducted in Kosovo and Serbia are the result of the narrative presented by the two governments.
“People support the dialogue, because the governments tell them that there should be dialogue, but they do not see any concrete benefits of it, they have no trust in the process. While Serbia presented the dialogue as a way to preserve Kosovo as a part of Serbia, Kosovo has insisted that it is a process with only one result, and that is mutual recognition. Over the years, they have presented the dialogue as a zero-sum game”, said Burazer.
According to Burazer, there is a great deal of mistrust between the two communities, and at the same time, the ruling political elites do not have the courage to speak openly about what the dialogue is about and what should be expected as a result, and why the dialogue is taking place.
“The Serbian government is not ready to present the dialogue as a process of recognising or accepting Kosovo’s sovereignty, and the Kosovo government is reluctant to communicate that some kind of an agreement with Serbia is the only way how Kosovo can move forward in its EU accession process”, said Burazer.
On a positive note, Burazer adds, citizens still believe that the dialogue is the best way to move forward, and in the past nine years the discussion between two governments has become normalised.
“We have moved a lot in the past nine years, and it is a good sign for the future. We should end with ambiguity and with the two governments explaining the agreements in two different ways. Finally, societal dialogue needs to be launched both in Serbia and Kosovo, and the narrative needs to be changed”, Burazer concluded.
Vuk Vuksanović, Researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy said during the second panel entitled “Foreign Policy: Who Is Winning Hearts & Minds on the Balkan Playground?” that 51% of people believe that Serbia should not become a member of the EU, and that 59% of people believe that Serbia will never become a member of the EU.
“On one hand it has been the product of objective external environment, where we see a lot of bad news from the EU, and it resulted in the drop of EU enthusiasm. It has also been a product of the way that Serbian leadership communicated with the wider society, so Serbian citizens do not know that the EU is the greatest donor and the greatest economic partner of Serbia”, said Vuksanović.
He also stated that the survey shows that only 3% of citizens think that Serbia should join NATO. The US is perceived as the enemy of Serbia, and unlike Trump, Biden has a very bad reputation in Serbia.
“When it comes to the perception of Russia, about 40% of people believe that Russia is the greatest “friend” of Serbia. Because there is this high popularity of Russia, all political parties in Serbia balance in foreign policy terms between Russia and the West in hopes that they would be able to catch the votes of both pro-Western and pro-Russian Serbs. We have seen this especially since 2014 when Vučić consolidated his power”, Vuksanović explained.
Ramadani Ilazi, Researcher at the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies said that the survey shows that most citizens of Kosovo believe that Germany has had the highest positive influence on Kosovo in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by the US, the EU and Turkey.
“This shows that when it comes to the EU, the visa liberalisation is the main issue for people in Kosovo, and a lot of what the EU does in other issues is overshadowed by visa liberalisation”, said Ilazi.
According to him, citizens of Kosovo are still optimistic and positive concerning EU integration process, with 93% of them supporting this process, but only 38% of them said that they believe the EU wants Kosovo as a member state.
“In terms of what is seen as the most challenging issue for Kosovo in the EU integration process, it is corruption and organised crime, and not the dialogue. Although most Kosovars see corruption as key issue in the European integration process, when it comes to visa liberalisation, they do not see this as the main reason why Kosovars have not yet liberalised visas with EU. About 40% of them think it is because some members of the EU have prejudices against Kosovo, and others think that it is a result of discrimination”, said Ilazi.
Engjellushe Morina, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations said that peace-building has failed in the aspect of inclusivity, because citizens of Kosovo and Serbia still have little to no interaction, and there are still big barriers between them.
“The survey also shows that there is a huge lack of transparency, because it tells us that ordinary people do not know what the process is about. The process was kept close to the chest of very few people, and this shows how the narratives have constantly been controlled by the politicians”, said Morina.
She added that the survey shows that there is no readiness to find a solution right now, and that it goes more towards the Serbian leadership, because Serbia’s position in the geopolitical avenue would change should the government come up with a certain solution.
“In Serbia, people are simply not informed, and they think that China and Russia are their best friends, and they see EU as someone who is not helping them at all, when in fact, figures tell a complete different story”, Morina concluded.
The event “Serbia & Kosovo: What Do Citizens Think?” was sponsored by the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.