There are numerous formal and informal negotiation/dialogue processes taking place among the various actors within and between the countries in the Western Balkans (WB).
Among the ones in the process or recently concluded include Kosovo-Serbia dialogue that continues for over a decade resulting in a number of the agreements reached, and North Macedonia-Greece that resulted in an agreement which ended the name dispute between the two countries. However, examples across the region show that striking a deal is not the end but the beginning of a fundamental process. That of implementation.
A crucial thing to keep in mind though is that such processes are seriously challenged by different political and other actors (internal and external) who either don’t buy into, understand, or oppose any win-win scenario by promoting a zero-sum game or win-lose situation.
Two decades later – nationalist and war rhetoric is still present
Our region however is very specific.
Two decades after the bloody wars, which left hundreds of thousands of victims, thousands of rapes, destruction of private properties and economies, and dreams cut-off for many generations, nationalist and war rhetoric is still present. Agreements reached in the past, including those reached to end the war/conflict, are not yet fully implemented and are not necessarily benefiting the citizens.
Past wars, nationalist rhetoric and divisive narratives that have been going on for decades and centuries have unfortunately turned our DNA into something very dangerous for our future. We are not hesitating to glorify one nation above the others; discriminating against and creating enemies out of our neighbors because they are of a different background to ours, be that ethnic, cultural, linguistic, religious, etc.; fueling division, hate and prejudice, and creating narratives that our nations/countries will never be peaceful and prosperous because our neighbors will not allow us to.
What we need is progressive, visionary and courageous leaders
In a situation of escalating tensions within and between the countries of the Western Balkans–as we are witnessing during the last couple of months – what we need is progressive, visionary and courageous leaders who are capable of building coalitions across the borders, communities and divides and act jointly to condemn and counter the war rhetoric. Such leaders are among communities, civil society, media, political parties, private sector and academia.
Today, we don’t need weapons nor soldiers who blindly follow irresponsible leaders who show muscles of force or call for wars.
What we need in these trying times for all of us and our societies is to act responsibly, raise above those who want war and destruction, build bridges of collaboration, build unity and undertake joint-action with the aim of realizing our dream where our societies can lead peaceful and fulfilling lives. We need leaders who want and proactively seek ways to reach and implement agreements for the sake of future generations, for the sake of a prosperous future for all.
Those who witnessed the horrors of the wars of the 90’s and have suffered its consequences will likely leave the country to find a safe shelter somewhere else. Young people are likely to be instrumentalized, as was the case in the past, to take guns. Today, even if we do not have victims as we had in the past, we will witness deeper division, more hatred and a more insecure future, ready for a spark to turn into another nightmare. The question then becomes when, not if.
Today, we don’t have many options. We need to make a choice. We either let this situation take its course while we are spectators and minding our business, or at worst seek ways to leave our countries and blame those who ruined our future. Or, we take action to prevent another violent conflict.
An activist from a civil society organization once told me: “I was young and stupid in the 90’s and was not conscious that I had turned into a killing machine. I can’t find words to express how much do I regret about what I have done. My past has become my worst nightmare that is preventing me to live or build a family. I realize that I can’t change the past. But I promised myself that I will do whatever it takes not to allow the same thing to happen again to young people who are poisoned with hatred.”
Astrit Istrefi is the Executive Director of The Balkan Forum. During the last 20 years, he has been leading strategic development and management of conflict prevention, peacebuilding and development programs and teams in the Western Balkans, Central Asia, Caucasus, Afghanistan, UK and USA. He worked with Care International and OSCE in Pristina; IOM in Kabul and Washington DC, and Saferworld in London.