A View from the Inside: IPCR Students Gain Perspective on the Kosovo Conflict

By schwartzsa | December 6, 2011

Reflection and group discussion are key learning tools in any liberal arts classroom, especially when the classroom extends into the world. So on day four of a 10-day exploration of the Balkans, following discussions with experts at Belgrade University and the Swiss Ambassador to the Republic of Serbia, master’s students in Arcadia’s International Peace and Conflict Resolution (IPCR) program paused to reflect on what they had seen and heard—time out to consider the long history of bloodshed between Serbs and Albanians. They did so amidst a backdrop of resplendent 13th century frescos, iconography of the Serb ethnic identity and their Christian Orthodox beliefs, at Studenica Monastery, while preparing to cross the border into the Balkans’ only remaining frozen conflict: Kosovo.

Alex Grigorev, the adjunct professor leading the course, Kosovo: Minority Rights, Nationalism, and Ethnic Conflict—part of a larger series, Divided Cities, which includes study in Northern Ireland and Cyprus—anticipated students’ exhaustion and need to regroup for the second half of the trip. After all, he coordinated the rigorous travel schedule.

An expert on Balkan politics and ethnic relations, Grigorev is President of the Council for Inclusive Governance (CIG), a New York City-based international NGO that promotes inclusive and responsible governance, fosters confidence in democratic institutions, and contributes to the cohesiveness of political systems and societies. And in his prior previous position, Executive Director of the Princeton-based Project on Ethnic Relations, he supervised and conducted high-level mediation programs in Southeastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Using his network of contacts, he developed an incredible itinerary for the course’s field study component that included meetings with senior Serbian and Kosovar government and parliament officials, local mayors, university professors and local conflict resolution professionals in Belgrade and Pristina, as well as Western diplomats working there.

Grigorev explains that the territory of Kosovo is a Promised Land to the Serbian people. At the same time, its population of two million is 95 percent ethnic Albanian. So when Kosovo unilaterally claimed statehood in 2008, Serbia would not and has not acknowledged that independence. Since then some 80 countries around the world, including the United States and most of the European Union members, have recognized Kosovo as an independent state. However, two of the five countries in the U.N. Security Council—Russia and China—do not recognize its independence, so it is impossible for Kosovo to claim a seat in the U.N.

Deciphering a Divided City

Christa Lane Hooper ’12, who is pursuing a dual degree in IPCR and Public Health, braced to cross the border as images of the 1999 U.S. media coverage of the conflict pervaded her thoughts. She admits she was slightly disappointed in the lack of drama involved in crossing, yet she was also simultaneously relieved. What she lacked in a sense of danger, she made up for in several personal accounts of the Balkan War.

“In Belgrade the  owner of the local travel agency came out to dinner with us and started talking about her experience of hearing the planes going by overhead in Belgrade and knowing that they were bombing as a part of the 1999 U.S. airstrikes to stop Milosevic’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo,” she says. “She just talked about the fear that that incited for her. Then the next day we were driving by some of the government buildings that were bombed. They haven’t reconstructed them and they have no intentions to. They’re keeping them as a memorial to the events that took place. Seeing those destroyed buildings brought things home in recognizing that this is definitely a divided conflict.”

Most striking to Hooper, merging her two major areas of study, was meeting with a medical practitioner and a politician who had previously worked under President Milosevic. She was involved in population control initiatives that served to increase Serb population and decrease Albanian prominence in Kosovo. A framed picture of Milosevic hung on the wall—a jolting reminder of the not so distant past.

“In divided societies you also have divided services,” says Hooper. “It’s just amazing to see how much of an issue public health is, especially with people in divided societies. It costs a lot of money and that was one of the issues that I became more and more aware of while were there. The Serbian government is funneling money to provide parallel services to the Serb people in Kosovo, and at the same time Kosovo is trying to provide those services to all the Kosovar people. So when we went to this health clinic, which is primarily for a Serb enclave outside of Pristina, we asked the director what would happen if an Albanian came. She said that they would come only if they needed something and it’s something they don’t provide in Kosovo hospitals, then they would assist them and transfer them to Belgrade.” Otherwise, the Albanians would not go to the Serb clinics and the Serbs are afraid of going to the Kosovo ones.

In an ethnically mixed north city of Mtrovica, Serbs and Albanians exist independently of one another, separated by a river—that is until it comes to certain public services such as water treatment and supply. Though they still share the water services, there has been talk about splitting the services, which would require each state to treat the water and distribute it separately—a huge expenditure for poor Balkan countries.

“You have to wonder, how much of this is for show and how vital is it that these things are separate? We all have the same basic needs, but on a political level it’s important to appear that everything is separate.”

Acceptance at the Crux of Conflict

Encouraged to ask difficult questions, students gained a firm grasp of the distinct difference between top-level policies and community attitudes. This became particularly evident while visiting Bojan Stojanovic, Mayor of Gracanica, a Serb enclave in Kosovo, when students asked for his views on Kosovo’s independence. He was the only Serb they met—government official or civilian—who said that while he does not recognize Kosovo’s independence he accepts it.

“I think part of it is because of [Stojanovic’s] experience of living there,” says Hooper. “He realizes that not accepting Kosovo as an independent state is creating more trouble and more issues for him as well as the other people who live there. We witnessed the difference between the people at the top who stood behind their policies, and the residents. It opened my eyes to seeing how divided a population can get. Since the end of the war it seems as if people have become even more separated. It appears that although the violence has ended they are not any closer to a unified peace, yet.”

Photos by Kelly Hays O’Connor