Belgrade is a faraway place for the Kosovo Albanians

Author: Omer Karabeg - in conversation with Migjen Kelmendi and Vladimir Arsenijevic
Uploaded: Monday, 05 January, 2009

A rare dialogue between a Serbian writer and an Albanian one from Kosova, organized by Radio Free Europe's Most (Bridge) programme and showing a large degree of agreement on the present situation - and also on the future

At a time of total breakdown in communication between Belgrade and Prishtina, which began after the proclamation on 17 February 2008 of Kosovo’s independence, the radio and internet pages of Radio Free Europe have become the only place for a Serbian-Albanian dialogue. RFE’s Most (Bridge) has initiated a series of dialogues - on the subject of how to unfreeze Serbia-Kosovo relations - between prominent individuals from Kosovo and Serbia. In this edition of Most, the interlocutors are two writers: Migjen Kelmendi in Prishtina and Vladimir Arsenijević in Belgrade. They talk about what at this moment most divides Albanians and Serbs; why confrontation with the truth is being replaced in Serbia by slogans; why Serbian writers refuse all contacts with Prishtina; why Kosovo artists are increasingly turning towards Albania; and whether a common ambition to join Europe can contribute to the normalisation of Kosovo-Serbia relations in the future.

Omer Karabeg: Do you see any chance at this moment for establishing even minimal communication between Belgrade and Prishtina?

Vladimir Arsenijević: It all depends on our attitude. It is unfortunate that up to now the Serbian side has shown little desire to establish contact with the Kosovo government and the Albanians. This may not be surprising, given that we have not fully regulated our relations with Croatia either, despite the fact that war ended fifteen years ago. Given that Albanian-Serb relations are particularly complicated, it will also take that much more time to establish such relations. Though this is not popular in Serbia, my view is that the declaration of Kosovo’s independence has created also the first serious basis for a complete re-definition of Serb-Albanian relations, and thus for a new future.

Migjen Kelmendi: I was convinced that the proclamation of Kosovo’s independence would help the democratic forces in Serbia to break for good with the past, and to turn jointly with us towards Brussels, towards Europe. This unfortunately did not happen. I hope we shall be able to find out here what the problem is that prevents a normalisation of relations.

Karabeg: I should like to offer an explanation here. In my view, what most divides Serbs and Albanians is their perception of the crimes committed in the recent war and its aftermath. Each side talks about its own victims and sees the other as the culprit.

Arsenijević: That’s true. I think there is a deep misunderstanding between the Serbs and the Albanians on this. But there is also a gradation of responsibility that should not be overlooked. Serbia was for decades in a position to structure the reality in Kosovo, and we can see with what results. A complete lack of understanding exists between the two nations, which is untypical for Europe, so that much of the responsibility for the existing situation lies on the Serbian side, especially because of the way it treated the aspirations of the vast majority of Kosovo Albanians. The Albanians, who form a majority in Kosovo, simply did not wish to live in Serbia any longer, but Serbia denied this fact and came into conflict with reality. . All that Serbia could say in reaction to Kosovo’s independence was: ‘Kosovo is Serbia’, and then: ‘Kosovo was, is and will be Serbia.’ People who argue in this way are not interested in reality

Kelmendi: In my view, the main problem lies in the fact that the Serbian political elite cannot find the courage to distance itself from Milošević’s view of the region, in order to build better relations with Prishtina. On the other hand, the Kosovo government’s efforts to build bridges towards the Kosovo Serbs, and to persuade them to take part in turning Kosovo into a multi-ethnic country, have faded. The fact is that Kosovo’s independence is experienced as a trauma not just by the nationalists in Belgrade, but also by those in Prishtina, who were convinced that they would gain an ethnic state. They were deeply disappointed when they realised that Kosovo is being built, with the help of the international community, as a supra-ethnic state, one that is not based on genetic postulates. Were this great project to succeed, I am convinced that it would have a positive effect not only on Serbia, but also on Macedonia, Montenegro and other Balkan states.

Karabeg: Mr Arsenijević, how does the ordinary man in Serbia view Kosovo? Is it for him still a mythical space that is worth the greatest sacrifice?

Arsenijević: I think that the ordinary Serbian is in fact barely interested in Kosovo, unless you specifically stimulate him. The problem of Kosovo is that the reality was long ago replaced by a mythical story that seeks no confirmation in reality. Serbians rarely travel to Kosovo. They barely know it, and when they talk about it they take their conclusions from a fund of myths that compensates for the lack of information on what is actually happening there. This irrationality had greatly invaded our everyday speech in the months before the proclamation of independence, when the whole political scene was insisting that this would never happen, because Kosovo was part of Serbia. These stories never referred to the fact that over ninety per cent of the population living there are Albanians who refuse to accept the future that Serbia has planned for them. I would say that the average citizen remains to be acquainted with Kosovo.

Karabeg: Mr Kelmendi, what is the Albanian attitude to the fact that Kosovo has a special meaning for the Serbs, given that the most important monuments of Serbian medieval life are to be found there? Do the Albanians take this fact into account?

Kelmendi: I think that it is very much present in everyday life. They know that Kosovo has an important emotional significance for the Serbs. They are not bothered by it, they accept this fact. In fact, it was never a problem. The problem always lay in the Serbian government’s attitude towards these monuments and its constant efforts to use them as political arguments.

Karabeg: Would you characterise the relationship between Serbs and Albanians in the former Yugoslavia as a common existence, as life in Bosnia-Herzegovina once was - but which is unfortunately no longer the case. Or was it, in fact, a parallel existence without much interaction?

Arsenijević: Kosovo cannot be compared to pre-war Bosnia-Herzegovina in this regard. The national communities were always much more separate in Kosovo. It is probable that this separation was a consequence of the fact that Serbs and Albanians speak very different languages, and that the kind of diffusion that occurred in Bosnia-Herzegovina after the Second World War - and which led to there being some forty per cent of mixed marriaged on the eve of Yugoslavia’s collapse - never took place in Kosovo. Nevertheless there did exist in Kosovo, I believe, something like a normal life, in which it was possible to be on good, friendly and neighbourly terms regardless of whether you were a Serb or an Albanian. After 1987, however, when Serbia began to practice an aggressive policy that ended in a police state that during the 1990s discriminated against Albanians in various ways and threatened them, co-existence became practically impossible.

Kelmendi: One thing that I learnt from all those wars is that I would not wish to live in an ethnically pure state. It is not normal to keep people apart with walls. This is what is unfortunately the case in Kosovo today. Albanian-Serb relations were not perfect before, but there was a form of coexistence. There were not all that many mixed marriages, but they did occur. The Kosovo Albanians were part of Yugoslavia, though from the angle of Belgrade, Zagreb and other capitals they appeared rather obscure; but they were there, on the same ship, albeit maybe below decks - to paraphrase the title of Arsenijević’s novel [U potpalublju: In the Hold]. Today, after Milošević’s quasi-apartheid, war and NATO bombardment, the Kosovo Albanians tend to suppress the memory of their common existence with other Yugoslav peoples when it shyly emerges here and there. To illustrate what I mean, I shall tell you what happens to my colleagues and me who used to enjoy playing rock’n roll. We get together at a particular restaurant, and sometimes we sing songs that we used to sing in Serb, Bosnian and Croat, such as, for example, the White Button song: ‘Rosemary will cover all, my darling, snow and bullrush.’ When my friend walks over to the piano to play the song, the restaurant owner, who is our friend, always switches on a vacuum cleaner so that the neighbourhood cannot hear us singing. Songs that recall Yugoslavia must always be covered over with the sound of a vacuum cleaner or some other noise. This is how we remember - timidly and furtively - the songs we once loved and sang. It cannot happen in Prishtina, unless accompanied by the sound of a vacuum cleaner. But this is true not only of Kosovo. It happens also in other former Yugoslav capitals. Everyone is trying to suppress, forget, erase this somehow from their memory.

Karabeg: Are there any contacts between Albanian and Serbian artists, or do they too follow faithfully their governments’ policies?

Arsenijević: I think there are. My impression is that visual artists set the pace here. They are possibly least concerned with politics, or maybe, on the contrary, they are the most enlightened politically. You have probably heard of the regrettable case of the exhibition of young painters from Prishtina that was rather well received in Novi Sad. When it moved to Belgrade, however, the guys from the Obraz Patrimonial Movement, who must be very interested in art, turned up at the opening and shredded one of the canvases because they did not approve its theme. The exhibition had to be closed down, very few people saw it, but on the other hand it gained great media publicity, which it would not have enjoyed without the incident, so one can say that Obraz scored an own goal, since it helped the Kosovo artists’ exhibition to become known throughout Serbia. So far as I know the actor Mirjana Karanović has been going to Kosovo, but as far as writers are concerned there is only one who is interested in this kind of collaboration - I myself. 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. But I think that the time will come, maybe not in this generation, but certainly for the one now growing up, when contacts with the post-Yugoslav environment will be renewed. I think the Albanians would lose a lot were they definitively to give that up. Whether one likes it or not, we do have a common past. People have a need, with or without the vacuum cleaner mentioned by Migjeni, to recall the songs they sang in their youth, on excursions, in the army, wherever. I think that a generation will come that will once again wish to know what is happening behind their backs, and what their predecessors forgot.

Kelmendi: I think it is still possible today to try to reconstruct relations between Prishtina and Belgrade, but that depends on institutions and political representatives. Here is an example which illustrates this well. When a truck full of Kosovo Albanian bodies was being extracted from Lake Perućac, a weekender who was holidaying and bathing there happened to witness it. A journalist approached him, and told him that the truck contained the corpses of Kosovo Albanians. The weekender replied: ‘I don’t believe it.’ He saw it, but he did not believe it, because he had been brainwashed into not confronting reality, the facts. He will believe it to be true only when he is told so by Tadić or Jeremić. The responsibility, in other words, lies with the institutions, those in Belgrade and those in Prishtina. If something were to change at that level, then our generation too would have a chance to repair the broken links between our peoples.

Karabeg: I fear that communication, at least so far as the already rare visits of Kosovo Albanians to Belgrade are concerned, will cease, because as far as I know Serbia does not recognise the new Kosovo passports. An Albanian cannot enter Serbia with a Kosovo passport.

Kelmendi: We tried to interview Mr Tadić for the television programme I run - Rokum - which in translation means ‘Hug me’. The journalist who was supposed to travel to Belgrade does not have a Serbian passport, so we gave up.

Arsenijević: While listening to the story about how the Albanians will no longer be able to visit Serbia, I remembered the political slogan thanks to which Boris Tadić’s Democratic Party actually won the elections. It went: ‘Both Europe and Kosovo’. I don’t know how this business with the passports fits that aim.

Karabeg: I wish to ask you one more question in conclusion. Over the past twenty years or so, we have seen a lot of things that worked to estrange and separate Serbs and Albanians. Is there anything that is bringing them together, on which relations of tolerance can be established in the future?

Arsenijević: If there is anything that brings Serbs and Albanians together, it is the inglorious fact that we find ourselves at the very bottom of all European processes, that we will seemingly move at the same speed towards European integration. But when we finally find ourselves in the European setting, we will for sure start to discover how like each other we are, regardless of our deep and tragic misunderstandings. I believe that all our local problems will then fall aside, and that the great quantity of frustration that has accumulated during all these years will drain away. If today we don’t know what makes us close, we shall soon have the opportunity to discuss it all again in peace, and to uncover new reasons for communicating.

Kelmendi: Europe is indeed what brings us closer, in other words our common ambition to be part of Europe. I believe that this context will certainly help to bring us together, and to restore dialogue and communication between us. It is a great pity that the current government in Belgrade does not allow the Kosovo Serbs to be part of the monumental enterprise of building a modern society in Kosovo. What is happening here [in Kosovo] is Europe for me. It was not easy for the Albanian majority to accept this, to surrender the ambition to build an ethnic state. I wish to say in conclusion that Europe is indeed what opens the possibility for Serbs and Albanians to come together again, both now and in the future.


Translated from Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, 27 December 2008

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