The nature of conflict – understanding the Balkans

4 mins read

By Michelle Pencarski

In hindsight, creating a second Yugoslavia might have been insanity. From the very beginning, the unification of several ethnic groups with various expectations grew complicated. Due to their contrasting ideas on how the state should look, tension between the Serbian and Croatian populations has been present ever since the rise of the first Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1918. The Croatians and Slovenians envisioned a common state consisting of a federal union with a high degree of autonomy for each ethnic group, while the Serbians’ desire was the opposite – to create a great Serbian empire.

After World War I, Serbia, together with what is Bosnia and Croatia today, were combined into a unified state. The state of Yugoslavia was already then characterized by various ethnic groups’ different opinions. Since Serbia wanted a great empire incused by their own culture, customs and language, the Serbian population developed a more hostile attitude towards all other inhabitants. This successively escalated into discrimination against the various ethnic groups of Yugoslavia. World War II reached the Balkans in 1941. The war in Yugoslavia began on April 6th as Germany, Italy and Hungary invaded the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. After the war, former Yugoslavian President Josip Tito received support from the Soviet Union and managed to gain power. Tito aimed to unify the people of Yugoslavia, where several different groups had been opposing each other for many years. In 1991 the government held a referendum where all of the Yugoslavian countries except Serbia voted for their own independence. When Belgrade did not accept Croatia and Slovenia as autonomous states, the conflict grew. The clashes escalated into a war in Kosovo and the conflict lasted until 2008 when Kosovo finally became independent from Serbia. Although 98 countries now have admitted Kosovo’s independence, Serbia has not done so until this day.

Even though many years have passed since the war in Yugoslavia, there is still a number of significant questions concerning the region. The Uppsala Association of Foreign Affairs’ travel group went to Budapest, Belgrade and Pristina in December 2018 to learn more about the region of former Yugoslavia, and the consequences of the rise and fall of the republic.  The group, consisting of fourteen students – me among them – arrived in Budapest early Saturday morning. Some of the topics we wanted to learn more about were the relations to the European Union, reconciliation in Serbia and Kosovo, and authoritarian leadership in Hungary. In our first meeting we got the opportunity to meet Andrea Petö, journalist and professor at the department of gender studies at Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. Petö enlightened us about the expulsion of CEU from the country and the situation of LGBTIQ+ people in the Hungarian society. She informed us about the attitude towards gender studies in Hungary and how the Hungarian government claims that the field cannot procure a degree. Petö also explained the difference between gender studies and gender ideology, where the latter is a construction of the far right. The Hungarian government perceives the field of gender studies as an obvious threat as it is the link between reproduction and academic freedom – two sensitive  questions within the Hungarian society. However, Petö’s view regarding the situation was not altogether a negative one, since removing the field of gender studies has led to a much-needed debate in Hungary.

Receiving information about the views of the far right politicians in Hungary led us to another meeting – this time at the Parliament of Budapest. The building we entered was beautiful and immense, and, as it turned out, the third largest Parliament building in the world. However, the meeting we had inside was quite different. We met with Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom – “The Movement for a Better Hungary”, mostly known as Jobbik, which is the most nationalist and radical political party in Hungary after Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz. Márton Gyöngyösi, the group leader of Jobbik, welcomed us inside a beautiful room. Gyöngyösi explained his views on specific issues and general politics in Hungary while treating us to traditional Hungarian sweets. By the end we got the chance to ask him questions, where we seized the opportunity and challenged him about the Romani people’s situation in the country. This is a sensitive topic that gave Gyöngyösi the chance to protect his views by turning our assiduities and “remind us” that Sweden “do not even have a government right now.”

Our second stop was Belgrade. The first meeting in the Serbian capital took place at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where we got the opportunity to meet with Dejan Pavicevic, who is involved in the Belgrade-Pristina negotiations. Pavicevic discussed the newly implicated 100 % tariffs on goods from Serbia that the government of Kosovo had voted through just a few days before our arrival. Pavicevic’s view on this situation was not very  positive. In fact, he talked about it as a humanitarian crisis for the population of Serbs living in the northern part of Kosovo – a statement, however, that some people we met during our future meetings in Belgrade and Pristina saw as an exaggeration.

Before we left for our third and last stop – Pristina – we visited the Humanitarian Law Centre. This meeting left huge imprints, as they told us about their amazing and hard work documenting crimes committed during the war in Yugoslavia. While meeting people in Pristina, we received answers to several questions that had risen during earlier days of our trip. Was there a humanitarian crisis in northern Kosovo? No, claimed Ulrika Richardson-Golinski – the head of UNDP in Kosovo, not by UN standards. Should Kosovo be granted VISA liberalisation? Yes, it is a human right. What is most needed to bring resolution to the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo? Reconciliation and trust. However, a resolved conflict is according to Peter Wallensteen, Senior Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, not necessarily equivalent to peace. Conflict resolution is about much more than “absence or ending of war.” I find it significant for all Balkan states to respect each other and accept the fact that they are living with one another. Creating an atmosphere of cooperation and integration is something that we all hope the states of former Yugoslavia will reach one day.

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Michelle Pencarski is a fourth-term student at the Peace and Development Program. When she’s not traveling with t UF’s travel group,  she is spending her time as an intern at the Parliament in Stockholm, and working at the Stadsteater in Uppsala. Apart studying and working, Michelle enjoys learning new languages and telling people how fantastic the city of Gothenburg is!

Photos: Michelle Pencarski

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