June 20, 2024


The 25th anniversary of the end of NATO’s bombing campaign against Serbian military, police and paramilitary forces, which marked the end of the 1998-1999 war in Kosovo, is approaching. Today, it seems that the citizens of Kosovo are experiencing a cold war with Serbia. The narratives used by Serbian and Kosovar officials cannot be compared; history has clearly marked who the aggressor was and who the victim was. However, any undiplomatic and divisive rhetoric, from either side, causes significant harm. Instead of moving forward these narratives cause both countries to stagnate.

The word “victim” is the one that most accurately describes the politics of the two leaders, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti. By perpetuating this victim narrative, they mobilize their supporters by instilling the fear in citizens that “war is at our door” and could start at any moment.

The figure of the “enemy” is central to the narrative of these populist leaders. Rather than working to improve and ensure the well-being of their citizens, they involve them in an imaginary vicious cycle of insecurity. They nurture fear by claiming that imaginary enemies are constantly ready to attack and start a war. Both leaders intend to remain in power as long as possible by maintaining the status quo. They hope that, one day, history will remember them as nationalists or patriots who knew how to protect their country, its sovereignty and constitutional order.

Their goal requires four elements. First, they need people to believe that they are victims and to vote for them unequivocally in the elections, even if they are dissatisfied with the social situation in the country. Second, they must promote a persuasive narrative that they have long been victims of their neighbors or the international community. Third, they need a compelling narrative based on half-truths about the threat of occupation. Fourth, they must employ various methods and techniques to achieve their goal, the most effective being the use of hateful rhetoric and a refusal to compromise, which reinforce the deeply rooted status quo.

Dehumanization of Albanians and victimization of Serbs

A dehumanizing narrative towards Kosovar Albanians prevails among Serbian citizens today. This is not surprising when viewed through the lens of history, where Serbian politicians, writers and academics, have long attributed derogatory characteristics to Kosovar Albanians. Serbia’s denial of war crimes, including massacres and the denial of the existence of Kosovo, has been a permanent element in Serbian political discourse over the years.

In a 2018 United Nations Security Council meeting focused on Kosovo, Ivica Dačić, then Serbia’s foreign minister, stated that Vlora Çitaku, former ambassador of Kosovo to the US, “is not Kosovar, but Albanian and that the Kosovar nation does not exist.” Terms such as “self-proclaimed state of Kosovo,” “fake state of Kosovo” and “temporary institutions of Kosovo” are part of a wide vocabulary that has been used for the last 16 years, not only by Serbian officials but also by media outlets largely influenced by the Serbian government.

The dialogue in Brussels, launched with the aim to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia, has highlighted many instances of inappropriate language used by officials from both sides. These officials often receive applause from their supporters for their remarks. Statements made after each round of negotiations suggest a zero-sum outcome, where one side perceives itself as having won everything and the other has lost. This mindset contributes to the current low level of negotiations.

In the context of the ongoing crises in the Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo, Vučić made one of his most serious statements. In December 2022, Kosovo Serbs employed in the public sector resigned, creating an institutional vacuum. In response to Kurti’s interventions — appointing Nenad Rašić as Minister for Communities and Returns and Rada Trajković as Rašić’s advisor — Vučić called Kurti “terrorist scum” and labeled Rašić and Trajković “the worst Serbian scum from the bottom of the barrel.”

Vučić went even further at the Security Council’s last meeting concerning the situation in Kosovo on April 22, 2024. He complained that the Kurti was not present because he was “busy undermining regional stability, personally leading his party’s campaign in the North Macedonian elections.” This remark was made during the election campaign for the new president of North Macedonia. Vučić added, “I want to send a message to the people of North Macedonia that meddling in their internal affairs is not Serbia’s policy, but the action of our irresponsible citizen, Albin Kurti.” These words will undoubtedly remain examples of harsh and hateful discourse in world diplomacy, as well as clear examples of fostering nationalism.

The pejorative term for Albanians, “shiptari,” was legalized by the Serbian courts in 2021 when the Court of Appeal dismissed a lawsuit filed by the National Council of Albanians in Serbia against the then Minister of Internal Affairs, Aleksandar Vulin, for his use of the term in 2019. This term is often used by Vulin, who is currently on the U.S. blacklist due to his involvement in corruption that has negatively impacted Balkan stability. The Belgrade-based organization Women in Black, a peaceful movement and feminist organization, condemned this decision. They stated that with this decision, “the court has given legal-institutional power to the language of hatred, intolerance, and xenophobia towards Albanians, especially those who live in Serbia.”

Meanwhile, for Serbian citizens who dare to acknowledge the crimes committed in Kosovo between 1998-1999, the Sandulović case gives a clear message. Nikola Sandulović, a pro-Western politician in Serbia, laid flowers on the grave of a child from the Jashari family, who was killed in 1998. Over 50 family members, including children of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) commander, Adem Jashari, were killed in their house in Prekaz by Serbian forces. 

Sandulović publicly apologized for the crimes committed by the Serbian state against civilians. After returning to Serbia, he was subjected to a severe beating which left him semi-paralyzed. According to him, he was tortured by the Serbian Secret Service. This case also serves as evidence for the international community that Serbia remains unwilling to acknowledge the crimes committed in Kosovo.

This year, Serbian politicians have revived the victim narrative by claiming that, through several decisions, the Kosovo government wants to expel local Kosovo Serbs. Igor Simić, vice-president of Srpska Lista, stated in an interview on TV Pink, a pro-government media outlet, that Kosovo Serbs are facing the most difficult times since 1999. Simić said this is due to the recent decisions made by the Kosovo government regarding establishing the euro as the main trading currency. In December 2023, the Central Bank of Kosovo decided that the euro would be the only trading currency, thereby prohibiting the use of the dinar in Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo, where it is still used. This led to political tension.

“It is evident that the prime minister of the temporary institutions of Prishtina, Albin Kurti, wants to end the Serbian issue in Kosovo and Metohija at any cost,” said Simić, adding “His goal is to render life impossible for Serbs in both southern and northern Kosovo and Metohija, to disrupt their well-being, the payment of salaries and to prevent Serbs from surviving in their centuries-old hearths.”

Newly elected Serbian Prime Minister Miloš Vučević has continued the nationalist narrative against Kosovo and its government. In an interview, he claimed that the Serbian army “is the strongest in the region and can repel any potential aggressor and any attempt by Kurti to cause a new March pogrom or Storm.” Vučević referred to the March 2004 riots in Kosovo and the 1995 Croatian operation that recaptured territory in the Krajina region. According to the Croatian Helsinki Committee, the Croatian army killed 410 Serb civilians and displaced 200,000 people.

Freezing the status quo

On September 24, 2023, an armed Serb group led by Milan Radoičić, vice president of Srpska Lista and supported by Vučić, attacked a Kosovo Police unit in the village of Banjska in Zvečan, killing Sergeant Afrim Bunjaku.

Since then, Kurti and President of Kosovo Vjosa Osmani have frequently warned about the risk of an armed attack from Serbia during public appearances, international conferences and meetings with foreign diplomats.

The Kosovo government has repeatedly mentioned the risk of war, armed attack or invasion by Serbia, especially in interviews for international media outlets, even before the Banjska attack. Kurti has suggested that Kosovo is so threatened that citizens could wake up to a war at any moment. This focus has caused other pressing issues to become non priorities. 

Kurti’s public language towards Vučić and the Serbian state only fosters this war narrative.

“Little Putin” is a term that Kurti uses to refer to Vučić.

In April 2022, Kurti wrote on Facebook: “With Putin’s friend in Republika Srpska [Milorad Dodik] and little Putin in Serbia [Aleksandar Vučić], peace and security in the Western Balkans have never been more endangered.” He further added that fascism is not reserved for Germany and Italy between the two world wars or for Pinochet’s Chile half a century ago. “Any nation or state can end up in fascism,” Prime Minister Kurti wrote, referring to Serbia. While Serbia assures the international community that it is a guardian of peace in the Balkans, it accuses Kurti of inciting war and persecuting Kosovo Serbs.

Both sides boast about the weaponry purchased and their military budgets. Kurti and his associates say they are ready for any attack from Serbia. On the other hand, Vučić indirectly doesn’t rule out the possibility of armed conflict, pledging to never abandon the Kosovo Serbs or leave them empty-handed. Recently, in the north of Kosovo, Kosovo Police have seized various weapons, ammunition and uniforms brought by Serbia.

In their political maneuvers, statements, verbal attacks and mutual accusations, both sides seem to exploit the armed conflicts in Ukraine and now in Gaza. They use these conflicts as opportunities to justify rattling their guns or accusing the other side of warmongering.

Kurti and Vučić also portray international officials as external enemies. Kurti has called United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “naive” for trusting Vučić. He has also called EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue Miroslav Lajčak, and EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, “one-sided” as they favor Serbia.

Vučić stated that Kosovo is a child of the international community and that, whatever it does, the international community will protect it. “What do you want, to bomb us?” stated Vučić in a press conference, in the context of pressure from the international community for Serbia to recognize Kosovo. Of course, Vučić’s answer was: “No and never.”

Meanwhile, both sides face internal opposition. The opposition and individuals who criticize the stubborn and irrational policies of the current Serbian and Kosovar leaders. Vučić has stated that the Serbian opposition has the same goals as Kurti, his departure. Some of Kurti’s followers call anyone who dares to criticize him or his cabinet with the terms “shkije” — a pejorative term for Serbs — and Vučić’s spies.

Kosovar and Serbian officials share similar narratives with one goal — freezing the status quo. Why? Because they do not want to be remembered as key politicians who have made compromises. Serbian politicians do not want to go down in history as those who lost the “cradle of the Serbian people,” as they refer to Kosovo as. The current Kosovar government does not want to be remembered as the administration that accepted the creation of the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities, an initiative that, until recently, they denounced as a violation of Kosovo’s sovereignty.

They maintain the status quo by using daily populist rhetoric and spreading fear of potential conflict, influencing their citizens. This fear prevents people from speaking out about worsening socioeconomic conditions and increasing poverty. Consequently, hundreds of young people and professionals leave Kosovo and Serbia daily, seeking opportunities in Western European countries.

This populist rhetoric, often filled with hate speech, leads to mutual societal radicalization and a rise in nationalism. Nationalism, in turn, can escalate into violent extremism or various levels of armed conflicts.

Author: Violeta Oroshi Berishaj

Feature Image: K2.0

This article was originally produced for and published by Kosovo 2.0. It has been re-published here with permission.