4. June. 2019. | 1:03 | Other Documents

Good Personhood: Local Serb Responses to a Citizenship Dilemma in Everyday Life

“Good Personhood”: Local Serb Responses to a Citizenship Dilemma in Everyday Life*


By Francesco Trupia and Stephanie Schwandner-Sievers


Recognised as Kosovo’s largest ethnic minority population, Kosovo Serb citizen live not just in the northern parts but in several local towns and villages across the municipalities of Kosovo. While particularly the ethnically more homogenous structure, situation and identity of the Serbs of northern, urban-Mitrovica-dominated Kosovo has informed the contested, yet only recently rebutted, ‘land swap’ discussions at geopolitical levels, here we are particularly concerned with the identity negotiations of those locals of Serb ethnicity who live south of the river Ibar. These locals’ situation and their adaptations are seldom heard amidst the wider nationalist and political rhetoric and an international prioritisation of securitisation as focussed on northern Kosovo, even though their daily struggles might reveal unexpected civic potentials.

As part of the research project “Building Knowledge on Kosovo v.2.0”, supported by the Kosovo Foundation for an Open Society, we designed a small research project which aimed to undercut any ethnicised assumptions of conflicting identity categories. We focussed on the everyday, lived experiences and attitudes of local citizens living in one of the homogenously Serb villages of west-central Kosovo. In summer 2018, Trupia conducted interviews in “The Village” [1] in an attempt to venture beyond the hegemonic, post-war discourse over ethnic majority-minority relations. This project aimed to explore what, from a Serbian perspective, constitutes “good personhood” in the realm of everyday life in Kosovo, thereby focussing on local values and their potentials in bridging societal divisions. We suggest that such approach of identifying local ideas regarding ‘good personhood’ and corresponding practices, might offer an innovative method for revealing local, civic capacities which might otherwise remain hidden under the parapet of wider power dynamics and the ubiquitous political posturing on public display.

When exploring how local Serb people perceive their identity and citizenship, as well as the relationship and discrepancies between the two, firstly, the prevalence of a specific citizenship dilemma emerged as the most pertinent issue among those interviewed. Village respondents pointed to the two conflicting, external citizenship regimes imposed upon them:  on the one hand, that of Kosovo citizenship, which was perceived as a, de facto, hegemonic Albanian; and, on the other, the citizenship model propagated by Belgrade-sponsored local institutions through provisions such as health care, pension funds and education. Arguably contingent on the specific situation of The Village, marked by a wider municipal context that demands cross-ethnic collaboration, most respondents evoked strategies and ideas of collaboration and inclusion in response to everyday challenges, rather than generically opposing, Kosovo’s legal and institutional framework. For example, it is no longer uncommon to renew expired, personal Serbian documents (such as passport, ID or driving license) with those issued by the Kosovo institutions. Overall, Trupia documented constructive, local attitudes, which did not only reveal multiple forms of individual agency directed against any of the prevailing political discourses and their ethnically stereotyped assumptions, but also facilitated locals to counteract the nationalistic rhetoric on either side.

Secondly, in The Village, everyday discursive tropes of constructing national identities, including territorial claims, appear much less manifest than in those Serb settlements, mainly of northern Kosovo, which still envisage a future with Belgrade. Although Trupia found everyday performances of Serbian socio-cultural heritage and tradition persisted, these cannot be considered all nationalist, per se. Village respondents expressed resistance to any nationalised and politicised appropriation of their cultural identity that previously perpetuated interethnic segregation. For example, one respondent talked of his refusal to participate any longer in the annual Vidovdan celebrations in The Village, after these had previously been abused by Serbs from outside The Village for a display of flags evoking territorial claims. By the same token, Trupia encountered respondents who, in interview, vividly criticised members of their wider community for engaging in practices that were feared potentially to incite interethnic hatred at local level or, more generally, to perpetuate exclusion and segregation for local Serbs. For example, a young resident of the village expressed discontent with graffiti dedicated to Vojislav Šešelj, a far-right nationalist Belgrade politician, plastered across several village walls. Another local recalled how he stopped a few young Serbs from elsewhere, when attempting to set a Kosovo flag on fire while taking Selfies and filming their actions - presumably for posterity on social media. Overall, it seemed that the local Serbs of The Village were most cognisant of their situation and the wider geo-political space they live in. While the language barrier seemingly has increased for the younger generation, respondents expressed how they envisaged life, both, in The Village, locally, and in Kosovo at large, based on mutual respect for ‘the other’. They were open to contact with, and welcoming, Albanians who visited The Village. Guided by pragmatic aspirations of building their future in Kosovo, they resisted radicalisation attempts presented as imported from the outside.

However, not all was harmonious. Trupia also encountered local Serbs who appeared to subtly reinforce ethnic identity-based cultural claims while engaging in political actions, accordingly. Future research beyond this case study might wish to differentiate more precisely, in comparing Kosovo Serb communities in different local contexts across Kosovo, how community members deal with, and perceive, multi-ethnic relations and ideas of border corrections, contingent on their specific geographic proximity to, and interlinkages with, the Serb institutional framework and central Serbia. However, even within this specific case study alone, it became apparent that respondents’ attitudes correspond with their socio-economic situatedness, specific political dependencies and geography of residence. Those funded by Belgrade, exemplified by Serbs working in the parallel educational system; or those not living in The Village on an everyday basis, displayed much more staunch ethno-nationalist ideas than those trying to make an everyday living based on local agriculture and trade, and thus depending on collaboration beyond societal divisions. There were also ambiguous responses and attitudes, sometimes shifting with changing everyday context and situation.

Overall, it emerged that Serbian ethno-nationalist claims, as still prevalent in the aftermaths of the 1999 Kosovo war, hold much less traction among the local Serbs interviewed than frequently assumed. It seems that barely any of them represented, whom Belgrade’s Vučić-led government only recently aimed to address: a supposed monolithic minority whose voice aligns with that of the hegemonic narrative. It would seem at the peril of any externally facilitated ‘normalization process’ between Serbia and Kosovo if the civic potentials of these ongoing, albeit inconspicuous, everyday processes and experiences of coexistence at grassroots levels as described, which occur outside the respective, hegemonic ethno-nationalistic rhetoric and its stated fears and claims, were just ignored.

[1] All personal names and place names have been anonymised in compliance with Sofia University’s applicable research code of ethics and a generic risk assessment.

*This op-ed is part of a wider study supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society (KFOS) in the context of the project 'Building Knowledge about Kosovo (v.2.0)'. The findings will be published soon. We are grateful for constructive feedback received on the above by Albert Heta of Stacion, Centre for Contemporary Arts, Prishtina. All responsibility for the content and any errors remain the authors’ alone.