Kosovo and North Macedonia show how peace can be made

The two new countries were forged after the Balkans War in the 1990s. While tensions remain, they are evidence of what can be achieved with international support.

European officials meet in Belgrade on October 21, 2023, to call for urgent calming of tensions and re-launching of talks on normalisation of ties between Kosovo and Serbia.
European officials meet in Belgrade on October 21, 2023, to call for urgent calming of tensions and re-launching of talks on normalisation of ties between Kosovo and Serbia.

Kosovo and North Macedonia show how peace can be made

In the classic 1993 film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, a TV weatherman finds himself in a time loop. Every time he wakes up, it is the start of the same day. The same things happen, with the same people making the same comments at the same prompts.

The Balkans can feel similar. History in this region can repeat itself. Residents get a sense of having been here before.

The state of Yugoslavia was home to a diverse range of ethnic demographics. Within this structure, there were complex, interlocking, often centuries-old disputes and hostilities, mostly over territory.

The state’s break-up in the 1990s lifted the lid and revived many of these age-old grievances and hatreds. Historical claims and counterclaims soon led to a series of wars between the Balkan countries that emerged.

Here, Al Majalla looks at how peace now works and how that peace may yet unravel both within and across borders agreed when international pressure sought to end the bloodshed.

As the states of the western Balkans mature and move toward EU membership, we also assess the remaining obstacles—and international rivals—to fully access the bloc.

Emerging from nationalism

Kosovo is an area of high symbolic value and has long been a source of tension between Serbian and Albanian nationalists.

On the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, when Ottoman Turks defeated the Serbs and their allies, thousands of Serbs gathered at a memorial site near the capital, Pristina, just a few kilometres from the battlefield.

Serbs cheer and hold up national flags as the Serbian President arrives for a speech at the Gazimestan memorial near Pristina, Kosovo, as part of a ceremony marking the historic "Battle of Kosovo" on June 28, 2014.

As strange as it may seem, Serbs commemorate the birth of the Serbian nation and of Serbian nationalism at the site of one of their heaviest defeats.

In 1989, things came to a head when President Slobodan Milosevic stripped Kosovo of its special autonomous status and imposed direct rule from Belgrade.

This led to protests and passive resistance from Albanians. First, they stopped sending their children to school, instead adopting home-schooling.

Kosovars (mostly Albanians) later turned to armed resistance under the banner of Kosovo Liberation Army, or UCK, from its vernacular initials.

After military intervention from NATO held back the far stronger Serbian army, they emerged victorious. Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and is now recognised by 117 nations.

Recognising minorities

The country's founding document is the Ahtisaari Plan, upon which the constitution is based. This has the support of much of the international community.

The constitution takes extreme care to set out the rights and privileges of all the minority groups living in the country. Kosovo's flag even carries a map of the country and six stars, representing the six major ethnic groups: Albanians, Bosniaks, Gorani, Roma, Serbs, and Turks.

Its parliament has 150 deputies, and seats are allocated to each ethnic group. Serbs are allocated ten seats. As a proportion, this is more than their population share.

Within the state of Yugoslavia were complex, interlocking, centuries-old disputes and hostilities, mostly over territory. Many are now revived.

Longstanding grievances

Despite all this, Kosovo's Serbs are still unimpressed, while Serbia refuses to recognise Kosovo as an independent state. For Serbs, Kosovo is nothing more than an autonomous province in the Serbian constitution.

Grievances over the loss and suffering of war are still strongly felt in Kosovo and are on display across the country. Images of UCK fighters who died fighting Serbia are displayed on billboards and in the form of statues in Pristina and other cities, typically along major roads.

Pristina's main thoroughfare features a monument in honour of Adem Jashari, one of the founders of UCK, who was killed in a raid on his farmhouse in Drenica.

There is also a mounted statue of İskender Beg, a hero of the Albanians who started a rebellion against the Ottomans in the 13th century. Elsewhere, a huge poster depicts three Albanians assassinated by Serbian secret service.

US politicians who backed Kosovo are also honoured. A statue of former President Bill Clinton and a bust of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright are among the items on display.

This photograph, taken on March 22, 2024, shows a big banner depicting a portrait of former US president Bill Clinton and a statue dedicated to him in Pristina.

Recalcitrant Serbs

Ethnic Serbs account for around 5% of Kosovo's 1.8 million population. Most live in the northern Mitrovica region, which borders Serbia. Small pockets live elsewhere.

The Serbs in the north of Kosovo generally refuse to recognise Kosovan state institutions. They pay no taxes to Pristina and get their pay and benefits from Serbia.

The license plate dispute between Serbia and Kosovo is solved now, but Kosovo Serbs still refuse to use Kosovan car registration plates, refuse to pay Kosovan state utility companies for the energy they use, and attack Kosovan police.

There have been serious clashes in the last few years between the Serbs in the north and the Kosovo security forces, resulting in injuries and even deaths.

Serbs in Kosovo want to appoint their own police officers and officials, resist any mayor who is not an ethnic Serb, and insist on the formal recognition of the association/community of Serb-majority municipalities—a structure which is in the agreements but has not been implemented.

Kosovo's leaders worry that Serbs want to create a state within a state; they have conditioned their recognition of the association on Serbia's formal recognition of Kosovo as a sovereign state.

Read more: Crisis is back in Europe's political flashpoint Kosovo ahead of elections

Serbia refuses to recognise Kosovo as an independent state. It views Kosovo as an autonomous province within Serbia.

Diplomats' headaches

Meanwhile, international peacekeepers Kosovo-Force (KFOR) remain. Their headquarters is an old film studio in Pristina, but without NATO's military might to enforce it, there are doubts that peace could be maintained.

Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, sided with Serbia in the war and has blocked Kosovo from becoming a member of the United Nations.

There are also diplomatic problems between Pristina and some EU members, including Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain, which do not formally recognise it.

Each of these countries has its own territorial issues, so they do not want Kosovo to set a precedent. Still, Kosovo has managed to achieve some progress with the EU.

However, especially because of Spain and Cyprus's unchanged positions, the EU has not paved the way for Kosovo to receive candidate status because the country already uses the Euro as its currency.

Prizren shows hope

A country of great natural beauty with a long-established culture, Kosovo has pockets where people have lived alongside one another in peace for centuries.

One such pocket is the city of Prizren, where mosques stand near churches, and Turks, Albanians, and Bosniacs share markets, stone bridges, narrow streets, and restaurants.

Yet the war was only 30 years ago, and there are still signs of grievance. In the beautiful Sar mountains, the cemetery of a Serbian village features Serbian flags alongside the graves.

Kosovo's government has all the challenges of running a state. The economy's performance is modest, unemployment is high, and the young are emigrating.

While there is a construction boom in the capital, much of the real estate seems to be going to foreign buyers.

Corruption is widespread. Municipalities are inefficient. Elections are expected in 2024, but they may not solve the problems.

North Macedonia

Macedonia has long been an influential region but only recently became its own nation.

Under Ottoman rule in the Balkans, the geographical area called Macedonia consisted of the main districts of Üsküp (Skopje), Selanik (Thessaloniki) and Manastır (Bitola).

Omer Onhon
Skopje is the capital and largest city of North Macedonia.

More recently, these areas became part of Greece, Kosovo, the Republic of North Macedonia, and Bulgaria, home to different ethnic backgrounds

Macedonia was one of the six states that emerged from the dissolution of Yugoslavia, but Greece has a province called Macedonia.

Athens opposed the new state's name, imposed trade restrictions, and prevented it from advancing its diplomatic relations with the EU and other international organisations.

The issue was resolved in 2018 after Macedonia agreed to be renamed North Macedonia.

Accommodating all

North Macedonia is similar in some ways to Kosovo. It is a multiethnic, multireligious, and multicultural country with a population of around 2 million, which is composed of 54% Macedonians, 29% Albanians, and 4% Turks.

At the beginning of 2001, the country lurched towards civil war as ethnic Albanians took up arms and demanded more rights. They only stood down when the EU and NATO helped facilitate a deal.

This recognised the rights of each ethnic group, with fair representation in central and local government and the right to education in citizens' native languages.

Not everyone is happy. Bulgaria has complaints about its new neighbour. It sees the past differently and claims that the Macedonian language is Bulgarian.

Despite the grumbles, North Macedonia has been a NATO member since 2020 and is a candidate for EU membership.

Without NATO's military might to enforce international peacekeepers' presence in Kosovo, there are doubts that peace could be maintained.

Refreshing the capital

The capital, Skopje, reflects a country working hard to prove that its future can be bright after a complex upbringing.

Divided by the River Vardar, Skopje's north bank is the original Ottoman city with its Turkish bazaar and Turkish mosques. It is a vibrant neighbourhood alive with tourists.

Some visitors are descendants of immigrants who moved to modern-day Turkey after Ottoman Turks withdrew from the Balkans. Many come to visit their ancestral lands.

Famous names share their ancestry. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern-day Turkey, was a Turk born in Thessaloniki.

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa, was an Albanian Macedonian born in Skopje. Alexander the Great was also a Macedonian but of disputed ethnic origin.

Skopje's 2014 architectural project saw city developers erect large buildings and raise hundreds of statues reflecting Macedonia's history and social life.

The Bridge of Civilisations (which leads to the Museum of Archaeology) alone is lined with more than 30 statues.

Omer Onhon
The Bridge of Civilisations (which leads to the Museum of Archaeology) alone is lined with more than 30 statues in the capital, Skopje.

A 22-metre statue of Alexander the Great on horseback, sword in hand, is visible from nearly everywhere. He rides on a pedestal in the fountain in Macedonia Square, in the very heart of the city. On the opposite side of the river, there are statues of Alexander's mother, Olympias, and father, Philip.

Not all Macedonians are happy about these carved or cast figures lining their streets and squares. Many feel the millions of euros they cost could have been better spent.

The feeling became so strong that the coalition government, led by the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, halted all building work, leaving several half-finished.

In many ways, the complainants are right. Unemployment, corruption, and emigration are more pressing problems that North Macedonia's politicians struggle to resolve.

Nobody thinks the Balkans' problems have gone away. The region remains a powder keg in the centre of Europe.

Embracing the EU

Nobody thinks the Balkans' problems have gone away. The region remains a powder keg in the centre of Europe.

Aware of that, the EU is committed to integrating more Balkan nations into the bloc—a policy led by Germany. Accession talks are underway with Montenegro and Serbia.

Accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania began in 2020. More recently, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo were named potential candidates.

More practically, EU financial aid is now making its way into the western Balkans, while European tourists and investors are major contributors to Balkan economies.

EU diplomats have been active, with representatives facilitating talks between Belgrade and Pristina for a comprehensive and legally binding normalisation agreement between Kosovo and Serbia.

(L to R) President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell and Kosovo PM Albin Kurti participate in a high-level Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue meeting in Brussels on May 2, 2023.

In January, the EU also gave Kosovo a visa waiver. Like other Western Balkan countries, Kosovo citizens can now travel to the Schengen area without a visa.

EU leaders say 2030 is a target date for finalising the Balkans' membership process, but progress towards accession is slower than most would have hoped.

Obstacles and rivals

Joining the EU is not easy. The basic requirements for membership include comprehensive reform of political and economic governance, the rule of law, media freedom, and conditions for civil society.

Each western Balkan nation has demonstrated differing degrees of readiness and reluctance in each area. Some will be much more difficult than others.

Some existing EU member states have difficulties with western Balkan countries, which complicates the membership process and slows it down.

Waiting in the wings is Russia—a key actor with a support base throughout the region. Its role should not be underestimated.

The more that EU membership begins to look burdensome, the more the lure of Russia and China will tempt Balkan governments.

That suits Moscow and Beijing, who want to expand their foothold in the western Balkans anyway. A prize, then. But whose? Time will tell.

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