Words Matter: Rhetoric’s Impact on Kosovo’s Interethnic Relations

Words Matter: Rhetoric’s Impact on Kosovo’s Interethnic Relations

For decades, Kosovo has been caught up in a complex web of ethnic tensions, animosities, and regrettable instances of violence. Efforts towards reconciliation in such an environment have been negligible, even with a noticeable increase in support from the international community, which has allocated significant resources to foster conciliatory and cooperative dynamics within Kosovo society. Despite these efforts, the endeavor to build trust between communities seems to produce only limited results. Several factors contribute to this situation, including unresolved political issues, language barriers, cultural stereotypes, and more. 

However, one of the main inhibitors of the lasting trust-building process in Kosovo is the absence of social consensus toward achieving reconciliation. Social consensus involves a collective commitment to shared values and collaborative efforts among diverse social entities, aiming to cultivate a conciliatory social environment that prioritizes tolerance and cooperation. This dynamic relies on a cause-and-effect relationship, where the success of one group in building trust among communities’ hinges on the actions of other social actors pursuing similar objectives. The Kosovo case aptly illustrates these causal relations, showcasing how the positive outcomes of the civil sector’s active involvement in trust-building are often undermined by political tensions and conflicting rhetoric. For us working in civic sector, this cycle creates a perpetual, Sisyphean struggle.                                      

The fabric of Kosovo society lacks such a consensus. Each social actor pursues their own priorities, often sidelining universal values such as the pursuit of lasting peace, subduing them to other gains. When examining the attitudes of major actors in Kosovo’s social landscape towards reconciliation, the root of the problem can be identified. Civil society, regardless of being driven by a commitment to coexistence or a quest for funding, takes the lead and acts as a trailblazer of the reconciliation process. The business community is also on board, motivated by profit and unable to afford sentimental divisions. The media scene is a mixed bag, with some outlets upholding professional standards and striving for objectivity, while others propagate conflict-driven narratives to appeal to an already biased audience seeking higher ratings. Finally, there are political powerbrokers, the ones that bear the primary responsibility for shaping society and establishing value systems. 

It appears that the core issue behind the enduring ethnic conflict in Kosovo lies precisely in the hands of political leaders. In the current socio-political landscape of Kosovo and Serbia, ethnic conflict is seen as a political capital, a source of garnering votes. Consequently, politicians knowingly perpetuate existing ethnic tensions to achieve their objectives – increasing support within their electorate, mobilizing voters, or to downplay the criticisms from other sectors where they reveal subpar performance, such as the economy or fight against corruption. While exceptions naturally exist, the crux of this paradox is that these responsible voices, in Kosovo or Serbia, would typically fail to gather sufficient support to assume a leading role.  

The repercussions of these politically-driven narratives are extensive, triggering deep social divisions and institutional insecurity among a segment of the population. They create an environment conducive to ethnic violence and, more broadly, hinder a society’s capacity to forge lasting peace and stability – vital elements for sustainable development. These narratives tend to entirely cripple positive social processes, generating crises that bring interethnic interactions to a standstill. The prevalence of these political patterns in Kosovo exerts substantial societal pressure, compelling individuals into dichotomic perceptions. It fosters an ‘us versus them’ mentality, where one side perceives itself as virtuous and correct, while the other is labeled as flawed and misguided. The middle ground is dismissed, and compromise is viewed as a weakness. In this political dualism, there is little room for diverse opinions, nuanced interpretations, or objective criticism. Without such voices, society remains confined to a narrow range of perspectives, missing the opportunity to cultivate sustainable social cohesion.   

At the 2023 Civil Society and Think-Tank Forum in Tirana, concerns were raised about the Western Balkans’ political discourse impacting interethnic relations. The forum recommended that regional leaders modify their language to improve these relations. Supporting research (this report, this report and this report)  and surveys in Kosovo echo this, showing significant public concern about divisive political language, particularly in Kosovo-Serbia relations. A survey revealed that most respondents perceive the language used by leaders in interethnic matters as non-unifying or hostile, with 51% of Kosovo-Albanian and 61% of Kosovo-Serbian respondents categorizing it as hostile to some degree. Conversely, 41% of Kosovo-Albanians and only 8% of Kosovo-Serbians see this language as friendly. 

How to break this vicious circle? It’s a complex question. There are no quick fixes or groundbreaking solutions that we haven’t already considered as a society. An important aspect of this are media, which have an important responsibility not to sensationalize or amplify language that promotes ethnic divisions, or ‘othering’. The political dialogue process, seemingly nearing some kind of conclusion, based on indications from the EU, could be a significant boost in that direction, mitigating a key source of conflict. Yet, it won’t be enough. Over the years of conflict, deep-seated animosities have taken root in people’s minds. So, it is highly probable that while an eventual agreement on comprehensive normalization of relations will not magically erase all misunderstandings, stereotypes, and divisions, the first thing that must change for actual normalization to take effect in the ground is the language of political leaders from Kosovo and Serbia. We will have to navigate these challenges for the foreseeable future. What is essential is to persist in dialogue, cooperation, and a demand for accountability from all societal actors, even when it seems like it is not leading anywhere. Persistence is key. 




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