Death on the Tisza

A sad story from the edge of Europe last week: fifteen Kosovar Albanians died trying to cross the border between Serbia and Hungary. The border there is a a river, the Tisza, which is a large and swift-flowing tributary of the Danube. The Albanians were illegal immigrants trying to move from Kosovo into the EU. Their boat capsized and most of them drowned. The immigrants seem to have been family groups, and the dead include at least two children.

Kosovo declared a national day of mourning last week. Serbia, which still claims Kosovo as part of its territory, made no official statement.

It’s a very sad incident that points to some realities in the region.

1) Kosovo still has major problems. The economy is weak, and unemployment is ridiculously high. Therefore, Kosovo is full of people who desperately want to get out to the EU. It is exporting large numbers of immigrants, both legal and illegal, and will continue to do so for many years to come.

The new EU visa rules have done nothing to help this, since they specifically excluded Kosovo. It is difficult for a Kosovar to travel to Europe legally. So, inevitably, they turn to smugglers. Unfortunately, many of these are criminals, irresponsible, incompetent, or all three.

2) Despite past war and current bad relations, Kosovo and Serbia are still closely intertwined. The immigrants had no trouble crossing into Serbia, and seem to have spent a little time there before attempting the river crossing. It has been alleged — without confirmation — that some of the smugglers were Serbian.

The Serbia-Kosovo border is quite porous. Much of the border region is rural, rugged, or both. A tremendous amount of regional trade crosses it every day, grey, black and white. (Kosovo runs a huge trade deficit with Serbia, and so is a major source of euros for Serbia’s economy.) Even while the bridges in Mitrovica are still patrolled by symbolic “bridge watchers”, people and goods move across much of the border as if it hardly existed.

3) Serbia is continuing with its policy of claiming Kosovo’s territory while trying to pretend that the two million Albanians who live there don’t exist. Serbia’s formal position is that the Kosovar Albanians are Serbian citizens. But when fifteen “Serbian citizens” drowned trying to cross a river from Serbia to Hungary, the official response has been… complete and total silence.

Had the dead been ethnic Serbs from Kosovo, then Serbia would have been the one declaring a day of national mourning, and elected officials would have been standing in line to speak at the funerals. Official Kosovo… well, no mourning. But I suspect they would at least have made a public declaration of sympathy. That’s not because Kosovar Albanians are nicer or more empathetic than Serbs, but because they’ve consistently been a bit more adroit and thoughtful in their public diplomacy.


4) Anti-Albanian bigotry has become pretty much hardwired into Serbian public life. It’s not that Serbia’s elected officials are clumsy at diplomacy (though many of them are). It’s that stating sympathy for Albanians would be politically difficult in Serbia.

The reverse is… less true; while K-Albanians don’t love Serbs, they haven’t made anti-Serb sentiment a key element of their pubilc discourse. There are several reasons for this, but one is just obvious and simple: the Albanians won. So they don’t feel the same need to dwell, dwell, dwell on the conflict.

Also — as I’ve discussed elsewhere — K-Albanians have much more contact with Serbs and Serb culture than Serbs do with Albanians. If you live in Kosovo, you’ll at least pick up Serbian TV and radio broadcasts encounter bilingual streets signs in Prishtina and the major towns. If you live in Serbia, you can go through life without ever encountering a single word of Albanian. So it’s a bit easier for Serbs to demonize Albanians as an alien, criminal, almost demonic “other”.


5) It’s easy to point out that current EU immigration policy is inhumane and stupid. Pointing out what should replace it is more difficult. But here’s a thought. The Kosovars seem to have paid several thousand euros each to be smuggled across the border. And they weren’t desperately poor or uneducated — apparently, most of the adults had high school degrees, some had college, and all spoke some languages (Serbian, German, English).

And they weren’t Senegalese or Kyrgyz. Kosovo is culturally European. Very poor European, but European. It’s not some alien land of veiled women, polygamy, hereditary autocrats and honor killings. Given the chance, Kosovars integrate into western or central European society just as well as Ukrainians or Poles. (Or — perhaps a better analogy — as Sicilians, Greeks or Portuguese did, a generation or two back.)

Again, it’s not clear what the answer is. But forcing these people onto an overloaded raft on a dark, cold river at night doesn’t seem the best possible outcome.

12 thoughts on “Death on the Tisza

  1. This is a sad story but the author’s attempts to draw some ‘even handed’ conclusions come across as patronising and one-sided

    – bridge watchers aren’t there to stop smuggling.

    – its ‘Pristina’ not ‘Prishtina’ in english. If you want to be consistent and avoid perceptions of bias, either use English, or be consistent in the use of non-english terms e.g. ‘Srbija’, ‘Beograd’

    – Kosovo albanians (‘serb citizens’) typically refuse to recognise serbian authority. Would it really be sensible to turn these people’s deaths into a political issue by Belgrade mourning the passing of ‘serb citizens’?

    – To the author Serbia appears morally reprehensible for ignoring the plight of ‘its’ citizens, but pristina seems to be held to a lower standard. In a counterfactual scenario where the author helpfully assumes pristina would act differently, the Pristina authorities are not being judged in moral terms, just according to their diplomatic skills.

    – “anti-albanian bigotry is hard wired into serbian public life”. I agree. But the subsequent statement “the reverse…is less true” is absolutely unbelievable. Any casual knowledge of Kosovo Albanian political dialogue reveals Serbia as a constant and everpresent bogeyman. This difference in Serbia is not in the level of distrust and xenophobia, but rather that Kosovo is a relatively less prominent issue (most people care more about their daily lives, income).

  2. jiny, the serb/yugoslav cultural influence in Kosovo during jugoslav days is still present. Especially as most of the Kosovan elite and intellectuals of the 80-ties and 90-ties graduated in Belgrade, Nish and so on, they simply were of yugoslav forging. Now, especially the ideas of those elites and intellectuals are largely defunct as their main point of reference, Yugoslavia, (be it for or against it) does not exist anymore. One can even view recent history in Kosovo as a process where the yugoslav coined elites gradually lost authority and gave way to younger not necessarily yugoslav-centric elites.

    Yes, the yugoslav-coined intellectuals are less powerful now then they were 10 years ago, nonetheless they are vocal and still present. This being said, Doug is right in asserting that an average Kosovo-Albanian has had much more contact with serbs and serb culture than vice-versa. That is why manipulating an average Serb’s opinion on Albanians has so far been pretty easy (with radicals still pocketing 30% in virtually every election).

  3. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Kosovo, Hungary: More on the Tisza River Tragedy

  4. I find the last argument a bit unsettling. When it comes to people drowning, does it matter what culture they come from or whether they cross a European river or a sea off the coast of Turkey or Africa? Clearly if European immigration policy were to be labelled less inhuman, it would have to address all situations equally.

  5. two more points

    – Migrants from SE Europe are not being ‘forced’ onto ‘overcrowded rafts’. I have every sympathy with people who want to better their lives, and respect the courage it must often take. But it is a choice, a hard choice, but a choice nonetheless. btw there is no such thing as an EU immigration policy. this is part of the problem…

    – “an average Kosovo-Albanian has had much more contact with serbs and serb culture than vice-versa”. I agree, but it is very simplistic to draw from this that that Serbs more easily demonise Albanians:

    attitudes on both sides are fundamentally determined by the conflict over land, and the history of violence. In such circumstances it is naive to argue that contact automatically improves national relations – where is the improvement in relations in Bosnia from such ‘contacts’? It can just as easily worsen relations (remember I am not talking about intellectual contacts)

    I respect the role of Yugo elites in Kosovo, and the impact they may have on intellectual life, but at this stage in history their role on wider publics appears to be marginal. XX% of Kosovo Albanians are under 30 and the leadership is heavily composed of wartime leaders. KAlbanians ‘won’, and as you can often see with people who ‘won’ e.g. a strong segment of Croat political discourse they are very reluctant to re-examine their beliefs.

    Serb radicals get votes from Kosovo for sure, but they are also a protest vote against corruption, poor living conditions, international intervention. They went from a couple of percent in the early 90s to 30-35% now. This is not simply the result of propaganda but must be seen as an authentic political force (however distasteful).

  6. @Jiny: I’m not sure how this comes across as patronizing. I don’t think the current Serb government is doing a good job with the Kosovo issue, no. If you think I’m wrong, and that Belgrade is really being very clever, please let me know.

    “bridge watchers aren’t there to stop smuggling.” — never said they were. My point was, people and good flow freely across that border.

    “Would it really be sensible to turn these people’s deaths into a political issue by Belgrade mourning the passing of ’serb citizens’?”

    Well, the alternative — ignoring them — doesn’t seem very constructive either. At best, it makes the Serbian government look either bigoted or callous. At worst, it’s implicitly agreeing with the Albanian position — viz., that these people are not citizens of Serbia.

    Of course, the plain fact is that Serbia does /not/ consider them citizens. Serbia wants Kosovo, but it does not want the Kosovar Albanians. But a more adroit Serbian government would, I think, be less obvious about this.

    “pristina seems to be held to a lower standard. In a counterfactual scenario where the author helpfully assumes pristina would act differently, the Pristina authorities are not being judged in moral terms, just according to their diplomatic skills.”

    That’s correct. This was a practical comparison, not a moral one. Kosovar Albanian authorities are at least competent at talking the talk. And while any counterfactual is speculative, I think we can agree that if it had been a raft full of Kosovar Serbs drowning in the river, the Belgrade authorities would not have remained silent.

    ““anti-albanian bigotry is hard wired into serbian public life”. I agree. But the subsequent statement “the reverse…is less true” is absolutely unbelievable. Any casual knowledge of Kosovo Albanian political dialogue reveals Serbia as a constant and everpresent bogeyman.”

    There is some truth to that. But you want to distinguis between political dialogue and the views of ordinary people.

    Serbs are just not demonized in Kosovar discourse the way Albanians are in Serbia. Yes, Serbia is perceived as a threat, and that threat is sometimes used to justify various sorts of nonsense. But individual Albanians are much more likely to see this as ‘bad policies of the Serbian government’ rather than ‘Serbs are evil’. You do find some of that in Kosovo, but not nearly as much as the other way ’round. Drop Albanians into casual conversation in Belgrade, and you’ll find a startling number of Serbs who believe the most amazing things about Albanians.

    You point out that “it is naive to argue that contact automatically improves national relations” — and I agree. Bosnia makes this point, as do many other places around the world. The genocides in Rwanda, for instance, were carried out by people who were neighbors, classmates and co-workers. So, no, contact doesn’t necessarily make for good relations.

    But it does at least reduce ignorance. Kosovar Albanians can certainly be bigoted, xenophobic or hateful towards Serbs. But they at least have some idea /what Serbs are like/. The reverse is much less true.

    Yugo-elites are indeed playing a pretty minor role in modern Kosovo. That said, Yugonostalgia is still quite powerful there. Many people — even young people — see the 1970s and ’80s as a lost golden age.

    Doug M.

  7. jiny,

    DM says: “This was a practical comparison, not a moral one.” You must be aware that morality has nothing to do with what that Albanophile and Serbophobe states. Blaming Serbia and the EU for the desparate condition of Albanian Kosovo is something only an American-born lawyer could argue.

    DM is wrong: The EU needs to keep the Kosovo Albanians out until they show a true understanding of the meaning of the term “multiethnic society.” They should start by allowing refugee returns without subsequent intimidation and murder. Germany is still full of refugees from the making of their new country, as are other EU states.

    To date their intolerance of minorities mandates that they remain in the cage they created and maintain. Lip service “talking the talk” may be good enough for DM but is not any sort of performance standard. Albanian Kosovo isolates whole minority communities, including the elderly and children, without electricity in the winter. That’s how they perform. The same cannot be said about minority enclaves in Serbia.

  8. “what that Albanophile and Serbophobe states.”

    Um. I lived for several years in Belgrade.

    I know it’s de rigeur to say that anyone who doesn’t agree that Kosovo! Is! Serbian! must be a mouth-breathing Serb-hater. But, well, no.

    “They should start by allowing refugee returns without subsequent intimidation and murder.”

    Oddly enough, I support the same argument in favor of keeping Croatia out of the EU. Croatia continues to discourage Serb refugees’ return. They’re not murdering anyone, but they are using various forms of legal and economic intimidation to keep the number of Serb returnees down.

    Mind, there used to be a lot of Croats living in Vojvodina and Belgrade, and they’re not coming back either. When you say that Serbia treats its minorities well, I can’t help but notice that there are rather fewer minorities than there were 20 years ago.

    Anyway. I agree that Kosovar Albanians aren’t treating /their/ ethnic minorities very well. And yes, I would make improvement a requirement for (for instance) visa-free travel to the EU. But I think the current system has it backwards: they made it clear that Kosovo would not be granted visa-free travel, and so removed what should have been a powerful incentive. (See, e.g., Mr. Karadzic’s trip to the Netherlands. Do you think that would have happened if the EU had not been dangling a fat carrot in front of the Tadic administration? No, me neither.)

    “The same cannot be said about minority enclaves in Serbia.”

    Oh? They have plumbing and power now in those Roma enclaves in Zabijanec and Deponija?

    I used to go running along the Danube/Sava esplanade. At the end of the esplanade I’d see the Roma living in the abandoned factory lined up to get their water from the outdoor water tap. One water tap. For 400 people.

    That was a few years ago. Perhaps things have changed since then? If they have, I’ll be very happy to hear it.

    Doug M.

  9. Hi Doug!

    DM: “I know it’s de rigeur to say that anyone who doesn’t agree that Kosovo! Is! Serbian! must be a mouth-breathing Serb-hater. But, well, no.”

    Do you read your posts and what you write? How can anyone think that you are nothing more that a Serbophobe after reading your bully pulpit Serb bashing?

    For example, in the above post, you compare the level or multiculturalism (alledged decline)in Serbia to Kosovo. Let’s consider that. Let’s look at the Capitols of those two. Which one has become more monoethnic in the last twenty years? It isn’t Belgrade. Serbophobic.

    Zabijanec and Deponija? Are you comparing illegal construction to established legally constructed minortity communities. You don’t see a difference? It seems uneven/unbalanced. Even in these cases, it was not the Serbs that drove them from their homes, burning them as they left, in those cases. You cannot say that for the Roma encampments in Kosovo (where the Albanians burned the Mahala to the ground, leaving the gypsies to live in lead contaminated camps. Or, perhaps you would because of your condition as discussed above.

    Nope, displaced persons and homeless are still a problem in Serbia.

    I know that anyone that looks at Kosovo in an objective manner using perform standards for the community is a genocidal Serbophile in your eyes. It’s a lobbyist job that you do.

  10. Ozzy, are you saying that the Roma in those settlements don’t deserve water or electricity because the settlements are illegal? There are thousands of people living there. Why haven’t they been legalized, or housing constructed for them elsewhere, or electricity, sewers and water installed? “Oh, those are illegal settlements” — they’ve been there for decades now. They’re horrible not because they’re temporary, but because nobody wants to spend money on Roma.

    I agree that the destruction of the mahalas in Kosovo was disgusting, and that the subsequent treatment of the Roma has been disgraceful. But Serbia’s record with its Roma is not wonderful either. (Nor, for that matter, is Slovakia’s or Hungary’s. But if I go into detail, no doubt some angry Slovak diasporid will pop up to call me a Slovakophobe.) The bad treatment of the Roma is a regional problem. It has been made worse in Kosovo because the Roma were used as a political scapegoat. It’s bad there, but it’s not some uniquely horrible thing arising from the innate wickedness of Albanians.

    Multiculturalism: both Prishtina and Belgrade have seen dramatic, complicated changes in the last 20 years. Both have seen ethnic minorities leave or be driven out. (There used to be large Croat and Albanian communities in Belgrade, back in the day. No more.) I would agree that Prishtina has become more monoethnic than Belgrade, since most of the largest minority — the Serbs — were expelled in 1999. On the other hand, I would say that Prishtina has become quite a lot more multicultural than it was. If nothing else, it has gone from being a backwater provincial town to being the capital of a small country. The center of Prishtina is full of foreigners, and every sign is in two or three languages. And young Kosovar Albanians are more likely to have travelled and lived abroad than young Serbs. Mostly by working illegally in Greece and Italy, but still. In the 1980s, young Kosovars tried to get work in Zagreb or Ljubljana; today they think nothing of living for years in Milan, Athens, London or Brooklyn.

    Also, if you’re talking about “multiculturalism”, you have to note that Kosovo has no equivalents to Obraz or 1389. In one month, Obraz or thugs associated with them attacked four foreigners in Belgrade: one British tourist shot in front of a nightclub, an Australian attacked, a Libyan brutally beaten, and then the Brice Taton tragedy. I lived in Belgrade and liked it, but there is a current of xenophobic antagonism towards foreigners among (some, few) young people. That simply doesn’t exist in Prishtina.

    Lobbyists get paid. I write this stuff because I lived for years in the region, like it, and find it interesting. (The views expressed are my own, so don’t blame the other bloggers.)

    Doug M.

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