Kosovo, Center-Periphery Tensions, and the Balkans with Besa Luci [PODCAST]

European Liberal Forum

What was it like to grow up in Kosovo in the 1990s? What are the current relations between Kosovo and the European Union? Will civic partnership be introduced in Kosovo thanks to the efforts of the young progressive generation? And will violence return to the Balkans? Leszek Jazdzewski (Fundacja Liberte!) talks with Besa Luci, the Chief Editor and co-founder of Kosovo 2.0, a print and multimedia magazine creating uncompromising journalism that listens to people’s experiences, explains complex realities, provides context, and provokes conversations in Kosovo, the region, and beyond. Tune in for their talk!

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): What brought you to journalism and what led you to work for Kosovo 2.0?

Besa Luci (BL): It all comes back to me growing up in Kosovo during the 1990s. I was a young teenager at the time, coming of age. Some listeners might remember that it was the time of the fall of Yugoslavia and the wars. In Kosovo, the Serbian government was in power. At the time, the Milosevic regime had introduced a variety of oppressive measures. As a result, Albanians were thrown out of public institutions and were prevented from participating in public life.

Back then, I remember being really attentive to the existing fixation with the media. When my generation was growing up, it was a topic discussed by families and in school – we were constantly waiting to see what was being reported on the wars, what language was being used, how it was being defined, and whether it was called a ‘civil war’ or an ‘ethnic war’.

From that time, I have developed fascination with the media, because I saw how journalism could trigger excitement, but also anger in people. One of my early experiences with journalism was when I recognized the power of the written word. Later on, when I was deciding what to do for my university studies, I decided this is the world that I want to explore. I wanted to tell stories. Therefore, what drew me to writing more narrative magazine pieces was a sense that it also offered a greater space for people’s stories, experiences, and struggles, which could be put at the center.

LJ: What was it like to be growing up in Kosovo in the 1990s, during all these tensions?

BL: I was very young at the beginning of the fall of and the destruction of Yugoslavia – I was six, maybe seven years old. I remember being affected by it immediately. I remember that in the first grade, for example, we had the Serbian language teacher come to our class and our Albanian teacher introducing her, but then we never saw the Serbian teacher anymore. We knew that something was changing. By the time I was in my second grade, my elementary school in Albanian language for Albanian pupils was closed down. And that was something that was happening throughout the country.

The entire university system was also shut down. The majority of high schools and some elementary schools were left open to people. What Albanians did, was that they created an entire parallel educational system. Everything started to exist in parallel – healthcare, education, politics. All of it.

So, from a very young age, we were experiencing discrimination and oppression, even though as kids we did not know the right words to call them as such. As a consequence, I went to home schools for about a year, and then our school was reopened – but a lot of other schools were not.

Later, I saw my parents getting fired from their jobs, and that was happening to everybody. The entire city was ethnically divided. There was areas that you couldn’t really go to.

The center was more for the Serbs; the suburbs, for Albanian life. I experienced that during the 1990s. By the time independence happened, the war ended in Kosovo in 1999. For nine years, we were a UN interim administration mission. And then, in February 2008, Kosovo declared independence. At that time, I was actually doing my master’s degree in journalism, and I was celebrating the Independence Day in Times Square in New York. By September of that year, I had come back to Kosovo and started slowly thinking of starting a magazine, which I did a few years later.

LJ: The war was, therefore, a formative experience for you and other people in Kosovo.

BL:  I do think so. In our daily discourse, there are still pre-war and post-war references. The year 1999 marked a significant change. For a lot of us, it was formative. Even for the younger generations, who may not have a personal memory of that time, our experiences were passed on – within our families, social circles, as well as in the political life, or life in general.

In that sense, trauma, for example,  is not necessarily something that only you experience. It is also passed on from generation to generation through the sharing of experiences and the telling of stories. For a lot of us, it has been formative. The specific experience of the 1990s has also led to very powerful activism, solidarity, and civic resistance that we see now. It has also shaped such movements like the feminist or the human rights movements.

LJ: What impact does the current progressive young generation have on Kosovo? Do you feel that you are changing the country or rather opposing the majority of people?

BL: It is a combination of both. However, with regards to recognition and promotion of, LGBTQI+ rights in Kosovo, the magazine Kosovo 2.0 has played a very important role. Back in 2012, we published a magazine edition focusing on the topic of sex. It was one of the first times that a media outlet was really taking the stance and stressing that we need to talk about LGBT persons in our country. Because at that point, there was almost nothing in the mainstream popular culture when it came to LGBT persons. If there was, it was usually hate speech regarding the community. We did this big issue focusing not only on Kosovo, but also looking at other countries in the Western Balkans. We wanted to see where we stand in terms of recognition and promotion of LGBT rights.

Back in 2012, we were attacked during the launch event of the magazine, which became a big story in Kosovo at the time. However, as a result, we ended up breaking the culture of silence when it came to simply talking and recognizing LGBT lives in Kosovo.

Since 2012 until now, there has been very good progress in that area – six or seven Pride Parades were held and there has been a lot of push on advancing legislation for recognition of gender identity, among others. Right now, the biggest fight is with regard to acceptance of same-sex partnerships, marriages.

There is, actually, a very interesting contradiction in all of this, because the Constitution of Kosovo says that marriage is between two persons. However, the law on marriage itself says that it is between a man and a woman, which has never been challenged up in the Constitutional Court. Therefore, now, the government is trying to also push forward the adoption of the Civil Code, where one article basically just paves the way for same-sex marriage recognition to be allowed down the road – it would not be adopted at this point, but it could happen through another piece of legislation. Nonetheless, around two years have passed now and that is just not happening.

Some of the biggest opponents are certain deputies and factions within the governing party. Meanwhile, other people within the party want to push it forward. Needless to say, when it comes to the society at large, the attitude to that issue is very diverse – there are those who are strongly opposed to it, whereas there are also groups that are fighting for recognition. Human rights activists are not satisfied either, because according to them, what we have now is not enough.

Same-sex marriages are currently not being recognized. What we keep hearing is that it can happen somewhere down the road. What this really means is that the issue is postponed until indefinite future and so, we do not know if and when it is really going to happen.

LJ: How to make the voices from Kosovo heard in the rest of Europe and the world?

BL: That is something we deal with on an ongoing basis with regard to how we use language and how we are explaining what is happening in Kosovo – and in the rest of the region. When we started our magazine, we were younger and we were doing a bit more, because we felt a stronger need to explain ourselves.

There is a very particular history when it comes to Kosovo Albanians, or Kosovars, specifically since Yugoslavia. There was always this ‘othering’, even in the supposedly ‘good old days’ of Yugoslavia. Albanians in Kosovo were always perceived as ‘other’ – they were treated differently, had less political access, and less economic or social rights. This later transformed into the feminist movement since the 1980s and very strong civic resistance during the 1990s.

Many of those conversations continued from generation to generation. By the time that I, together with some friends, started Kosovo 2.0, we had internalized Balkanization in a problematic way. However, we very quickly identified it as such and were able to challenge it. The reason we were able to do so is because even after Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, new political problems emerged immediately. Five countries in the EU did not recognize (and to this day do not recognize) its independence. Serbia has continued to oppose Kosovo’s sovereignty and its very existence.

In independent Kosovo, we were being told what we can and cannot do – we could not participate in the Olympics or travel freely (because our passport was not commonly recognized). This experience of injustice continued in a new way within new structures and new political realities – discrimination and injustice has continued, which has made us feel that we need to convince others of our rights, even to this day.

Kosovo was treated differently by the EU compared to the other countries in the Western Balkans. For example, when it comes to the visa liberalization process, all other countries in the Western Balkans got free visa regime back in 2008-2010; for Kosovo it happened in only January this year. This continued experience of injustice made us realize that the system is flawed.

LJ: Unfulfilled promises from the EU have led to bitter disappointment. This shows that hope can also be dangerous.

BL: In 2020, the theme of one of the issues of our magazine was hope. The cover story was written by Aidan Hehir, a scholar that follows, writes, and studies Kosovo and politics in Kosovo and the region. For me, it was a really beautiful and important story. With that whole issue, we wanted to better understand what hope can mean. There is a good and bad side of hope, because hope, on the one hand, gives you the possibility of change, but at the same time, it can potentially lead to stagnation, because it makes one think that something is going to happen in the future.

In the cover story that Aidan wrote, he looked at hope through what had happened with regard to the EU integration of the region in the past two decades – specifically since the early 2000s. Since the early 2000s, following the wars, the whole Western Balkans region was promised a future in a strong and united Europe. At the time, many countries in Central and Eastern Europe were already becoming members. Therefore, there was a real political possibility that this was going to happen also for us. Now, in the 2020s, not much has really changed – it has been a very prolonged process that, to be honest, makes it less and less of a possibility due to a number of issues.

Meanwhile, was became clear in Aidan’s article, and he talks about very nicely in his piece, is that the European Union has been also framed as the only political alternative for us and, at the same time, it seems that we are never going to really get there. Such a perspective can be dangerous, because it strips individuals, citizens, and states from political agency.

LJ: Do you fear that violence might return to Kosovo and to the region?

BL: We hear about it more and more in the narratives of very problematic political elites in the region. Obviously, we are not where we were ten years ago. Right now, there is also a feeling of being led down to some extent by the European Union. Meanwhile, the EU seems unable to truly grasp the political environment in the region.

All this contributed to creating a space for the type of politicians like Milorad Dodik in the Republika Srpska to play with the narratives of hatred and to try to stir up tensions. We see a lot of problematic historical revisionism happening in the region with regard to the 1990s.

Definitely, we have been seeing more and more tensions. Tensions have been on the rise even in Kosovo in the past three years in the north of the country, on the border with Serbia. Right now, what worries me even more is the fact that the approach of the EU – which has been leading and mediating the bigger political processes and projects in the region – is not working. In order to avoid war, the EU would need to rethink its approach towards the region.

For example, if you look at the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, which has been going on since 2011, it is called the ‘dialogue on the normalizations of relations between Kosovo and Serbia’. However, in reality, nothing has been normalized, I would say.

On the other hand, the relationship between Serbia’s approach towards Kosovo has just become more and more tense and problematic. In the Western international media, which often lack a more complex understanding of the political scene in the region, they do tend to use exaggerated language or a framework that makes sense to them where they have to reproduce the idea of balkanization. They end up reproducing the notion of the Balkans as a place where they have always hated each other and always been in wars with one another – which, of course, is going to lead to another one. Well, that is an overly simplistic narrative, and it does not really do justice to where we are geopolitically in a larger context in the world.

I do not think that there is going to be a war anytime soon, but that does not mean that we are having peace neither. It is a very critical moment. Particularly, the appeasement of Serbia that we have seen from the EU (because of the worry of Russia’s influence and position in the region, particularly in countries like Serbia) is not proving productive to creating political processes that can help us move forward as societies and as countries in the region.

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of.

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