Serbia and Prishtina: further and further

Here’s an interesting article that I somehow missed when it came out a few months back. It’s a dialogue between Serbian writer Vladimir Arsenijević (who we’ve met before) and Kosovar Albanian journalist Migjen Kelmendi.

If you’re interested in Kosovo, read the whole thing: it’s all good. But this is the bit that jumped out at me:

Arsenijević: [I] really don’t known anyone in Serbia who is keen to maintain regular contacts with artists in Kosovo, or who thinks that it should be done. Books by Kosovo Albanians are not being published, so we have no idea what is happening there. Each act that assumes some good intention towards Kosovo Albanians has to be explained at great length. It is not that the police ask you to come down to the station for a chat, no, that does not happen; but you have to justify yourself in the most normal, everyday conversations. The problem lies in the fact that, when it comes to the Albanians, we are filled with anger, rage and a feeling of being losers; that we act like some injured partner or spouse who has been denied something that he believes naturally to be his own. If you say: ‘There is a great writer in Kosovo, who has written a novel’, they will talk not about the novel, but about the author’s nationality.

Karabeg: Mr Kelmendi, do Albanian artists from Kosovo want to work with Serbia, to have their books translated there, to exhibit their paintings, to have a theatre perform there, or do they want artists from Serbia to come to Kosovo, to Prishtina?

Kelmendi: No. They are definitely no longer interested in Belgrade and Serbia. They are fully oriented towards Tirana and Albania. It is there that they wish their works to appear. I would say that the Kosovo Albanians have turned their backs on Serbia for good. There is not the smallest wish to know what is going on there. It seems at times that Belgrade for them is a faraway city, that Serbia is a faraway land. They do not translate books by Albanian authors. Apart from occasional individual contacts, communication has practically ended.

Arsenijević: Belgrade was not very open towards Kosovo Albanians, and now we see this being repaid by turning their backs on Serbia.

This is, unfortunately, true. Kosovo is a young society — the average Kosovar Albanian is about 25 — which means that most Kosovars have no adult memory of peaceful, friendly interaction with Serbs. The Serbs north of the Mitrovica have as little contact with Albanians as possible; the Serb communities left in the rest of Kosovo are small and insular.

This is not to say that there’s no contact at all. There’s a surprising amount of trade across the border; Kosovo is heavily dependent upon Serbia for imports. UNMIK required that all public signs and notices be in Serbian as well as Albanian, and the post-independence government has continued doing this (so far). And most of Kosovo can still pick up Serbian TV. So even young Kosovars often have a smattering of Serbian, and much of the business community deals with Serbs on a regular basis. And there’s still some interest in the common Yugoslav heritage; Kosovo TV still occasionally plays old movies, and there’s a fair amount of Yugonostalgia.

That said, there’s no sense of connection. Nobody’s much interested in Serbian culture. Young Kosovars do not go to Belgrade or Nish to study. Serbian politics is interesting only insofar as it might affect Kosovo. Friendships across the divide are rare. For most Kosovars, Belgrade might as well be 4,000 kilometers away instead of 400.

It’s even worse going the other way. Kosovars at least have some awareness of Serbia and the Serbs. Serbian attitudes towards Kosovo are dominated by ignorance. Outside of Kosovo itself, very few Serbs under 30 have ever met an actual Albanian. Very few Serbs of any age, outside of Kosovo, could give an accurate description of life in the province today. Talk to a Serb in Belgrade about Kosovo and you’ll almost certainly get a string of stereotypes: gangsters, drug dealers, American colony, terrorists. Not one Serb in a hundred speaks a word of Albanian. And there’s zero interest in Albanian culture. In fact, many Serbs would be nonplussed at the very idea of “Albanian culture”. Shiptars, the most primitive and violent people in Europe, produce a book worth reading, a photograph or painting worth looking at, or music worth listening to? What a bizarre idea. Say “culture of Kosovo” to a Serb and the answer will be, basically, “our monasteries“.

And it’s all getting worse, not better. Young Serbs have even less connection to Kosovo than their elders; it’s a nationalist ideal for them, not a real place. Young Kosovar Albanians find it harder to ignore Serbia, but have little interest in going there or learning much about it. At this point, the two neighboring peoples are moving further and further apart.

It’s not necessary for two countries to read each others’ books or watch each others’ movies’. And a shared culture doesn’t make for peace and harmony, either: up until the 1980s, Yugoslavs were speaking the same language, reading the same books and watching the same shows on TV. It didn’t help.

That said, it’s very striking how thoroughly the two sides have turned their backs on each other.

15 thoughts on “Serbia and Prishtina: further and further

  1. Flash news: it’s a state, not a province anymore.

    No occupation is possible without a decent dose of racist arrogance.

  2. Thanks for that incredibly useful and constructive comment, Ari.

    Doug M.

  3. Well, the initial relations between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs were founded on unequal and unrealistic basis, and consequently, they had to suffer severe interuption – as it is the case now. In order to build something new, on more realistic basis, you first need to shatter the remnants of established practices that, instead of bringing people closer, had been driving them apart.

    Mind you, similar – yet not so drastic – cases were noticable after the separation of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia. Of course, the proximity of identities between Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Bosniaks, were a factor plus that ensured a smoother transition of intra-cultural dialogue, which is certainly not the case with Albanians.

    Another factor is that I must say that Serbs have a rather unrealistic picture of oneselves, a result of successes attained by Yugoslavs (not Serbs per se) during former SFRY. Serbs have it difficult to understand the new reality in the region, accepting that Serbia today is just one of many states in Balkans. Yes, very important one, relatively powerful and influential, but nevertheless not unique nor omnipotent. This change normally drives certain elements of their society to react with anger, racism and hate towards others, especially Albanians.

    However, I might be wrong, but when the Serbian spiritual leader Dobrica Cosic sucumbs to such lows in calling Albanians as “the bottom scum of the Balkans”, it heralds nothing but a recognition that Serbia has lost its moral, ethical high-grounds that has claimed for such a long time. Namely, while every nation has its own “scum”, but only Serbs would allow to be led by scum like Cosic.

  4. Well, ari’s right, Doug, you shouldn’t have called Kosovo a province (“Very few Serbs of any age, outside of Kosovo, could give an accurate description of life in the province today”) because it isn’t one, it’s at least de facto an independent state, and it’s been recognised as such by most of Europe.

    On the subject of the post – the language issue seems to be an important one. Even absent recent history, you wouldn’t expect terribly close links between countries speaking such different languages. (Presumably what trade links there are are a result of the much better transport links to the north of Kosovo than to its south and west?)

    Depressing, though, to read your assessment that younger Serbs are as keen as their elders on the great nationalist project.

  5. ajay, yes, I called it a province — in the middle of a paragraph written from *the Serbian point of view*. Do you think I believe Albanians are “the most primitive and violent people in Europe”?

    I think the language issue is relatively minor, actually. Finland and Sweden are very close, as are Hungary and Austria. If there’s interest and motivation, people will learn.

    About 90% of Kosovo’s external trade goes either to or through Serbia. The border with Macedonia is mountainous; the borders with Albania and Montenegro are more so. But towards Serbia, the ground slopes gently downwards. There’s a decent rail link there, a highway, and several good roads. There’s also a rail link to Skopje, but it’s in bad condition and often closed in winter.

    The new highway across the mountains to Albania may change this. We’ll see.

    Doug M.

  6. Douglas Muir wrote:

    “I think the language issue is relatively minor, actually. Finland and Sweden are very close.”

    There was a poll about this back in April, conducted in all Nordic countries. One of the questions was “Which of the other Nordic countries would you most prefer to live in?” Less than 4% of the Swedes were interested in living in Finland.

    The reasons are what you might expect. Language barrier, negative stereotypes of a melancholic, drunk, violent and primitive “eastern” nation, and so on. Some progressive Swedish pundits and commentators, such as Henrik Arnstad, have also augmented these stereotypes with their view of Finland as a former Nazi ally, which is lying about its past.

    Of the Finns who were interviewed, 41% picked Sweden as their destination of choice, followed by Norway, which racked up 30% of the votes. On the other hand, the question was phrased “which of the other _Nordic_ countries would you most like to live in?”. These days, those Finns who are interested in living or working abroad usually don’t pick Sweden as their number one candidate any more; instead, they go straight for the Continental Europe.

    With the EU membership, the traditional links across the Gulf of Bothnia have faded somewhat. Finland and Sweden obviously still get along (more or less), but I wouldn’t describe the two countries as “very close”. This would require a post of its own, but I think it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that Finland and Sweden are also in the process of isolating from each others. And the language issue is, I think, a relatively major part of it.

    Of course, when compared to Kosovo and Serbia, any combination of countries would appear to be very close to each others. Even Estonia and Russia.


    J. J.

  7. You might want to call that piece of land “state”, however it is misnomer. De facto, it is colony, with tribal/crimogenic vertical and horizontal political structure. Just as they are all – new “independent and democtratic” countries created from ex Yugoslavia.

    Or, more precisely vassal state/s, as Mr.Brzezinski called it in one of its testimony before US Senate Foreign Relation Comittee.

    I guess it depends of one’s definitions of the Independence.

  8. “De facto, it is colony, with tribal/crimogenic vertical and horizontal political structure. Just as they are all – new “independent and democtratic” countries created from ex Yugoslavia.”

    I’m sure that would surprise the Slovenes.

    Not so much the Serbs, perhaps, but, well.

  9. You perception of Slovenia, or theirs about themselves is one thing, reality is another. My definition of independence is one that “Investors” a.k.a. looters, do no like. So funny thing is that the news of the day in Montenegro is: Pamela Anderson want to build hotel in their Adriatic coast!!??

    Famous Croatian writer Miroslav Krleza, call them (Slovenes), Wienna’s Horsmen, he had in mind their subservient mentality. That mentality hasn’t changed much. Idea of South Slavic state initiated from Zagreb and Ljubljana – Austro-Hungarian principalities. One should have in mind that they were (Slovenia and Croatia) most prosperous republics.

    Despite their fierce nationalistic rethorics they are just, I would say, the most southern German province. Neither Ljubljana nor Zagreb, not to mention Sarajevo, may make any decision without consent/approval from Berlin/Brussells. Or, for that matters IMF and WB, known as Wall Street. Before dissolution Yugoslavia had $23 billion of debt, today Croatia alone have more than 50.

    BTW, I’m not Serb, I’m Bosnian.

    You know Sir, what happened in ex Yugoslavia is best described in Naomi Kelin’s book Disaster Capitalism. That recipe is applied on the region with full force and ruthlessness.

  10. For brevity’s sake, Slovenia doesn’t exactly have an economy that’s completely open to and dominated by foreign investors.

    Subserviance, pragmatism, who really cares? In the end it’s Slovenia that managed by far the best deal for its people. Are we seriously claiming that Communist Yugoslavia was entirely hands-off in its relationship to the various federal units?

    And southern German province? The Gottschee Germans were deported after the Second World War, German’s only a widely-spoken second language, and stats on claimed ethnicity and language suggest very strongly that immigrants in Slovenia are adopting not German by Slovene. Is Austria a German province, then?

  11. You link,
    CIA World Factbook (September 2008)
    U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes (October 2008)

    No comment.

    This year in March, I think, majority of Slovenia’s workforce were in the strike. They are living on the edge.

    “Subserviance, pragmatism, who really cares? In the end it’s Slovenia that managed by far the best deal for its people. Are we seriously claiming that Communist Yugoslavia was entirely hands-off in its relationship to the various federal units?”

    You ignorance speak for itself and what is your insight in the matter.

    In SFRY or if you wish COMMUNIST SFRJ, control Federal Gov. over Republic Gov., was way far less than it is for example control of Washington over, say, Louisiana Gov. In Louisiana or any state, how they call them, they can not build school, road, bridge without Federal help, which is of course one of the way to control local government.

    “The Gottschee Germans”? I do not know anything about them, however I found this:

    “Kočevska area is the example of the country, which was under the influence of the highest Nazi authorities and co-operative domestic nazified leaders, during the year 1941, suddenly and almost entirely abolished of the majority of its population. Contemporary Nazi politics which based on the destruction of Slovene nation as an ethnic entity actually destroyed the Gottscheer national group. Their cultural heritage was almost entirely ruined by the flames of the war fires and crude afterward national and ideological intolerance. Resettlement of the Gottschee Germans, war destruction and the afterward downfall along with the deliberate destruction were responsible for long-term and fateful consequences for this area. Extensive parts of prior cultivated land, today is overgrown by forest, villages destroyed and abandoned. Former inhabitant’ s culture was almost completely erased. All this changes in the whole area of Kočevska is the example, which is hard to match.”

    Anyway, it is well known fact that German minority in then Yugoslavia (Volksdeutsche in Vojvodina particularly) were involved in war crimes against local non-German populations.

    Again, if you are interested in Balkan you should read more, not just throwing something around that you have no clue.

  12. A gentle reminder that this is a moderated forum. Mind your manners, please.

    Doug M.

  13. If that source is inaccurate, fine. How about Eurostat?

    There’s still a distance between Slovenia and Austria in terms of GDP per capita, and a bigger gap in consumption per capita, but by the latter metric Slovenia’s consumption is on par with that of Portugal and almost twice that of the rest of former Yugoslavia save Croatia.

    As for the heavy state control of the economy, see here:

    I’d like to suggest that what you call “subserviance” might more accurately by called “pragmatism and good sense.” Slovenia, uniquely of all of the republics of a Yugoslavia that could have become a second Spain, first gained its independence with a minimum of fuss and then went on to acquire a good–and steadily improving–standard of life for its citizens. What’s subserviant about that?

    The mention of the Gottschee Germans, by the way, came in relation to your suggestion that Slovenia’s the Germanophone worlds southernmost province. If Slovenia really _was_ dominated by the Germans then, would that displacement have happened at all? And if Slovenia really was dominated so by Germans, wouldn’t it look rather different?

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  15. Thank you for the post and for being objective Doug.

    While the history of Balkans is filled with blood, oppression and violence, it’s important to realize our differences, respect them and move forward for the sake of people and the future generations.

    with respect,

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