Twenty years after the war in Kosovo, there is now a whole generation of youngsters who have little or no memory of the war or had not even been born at the time of conflict. This generation, making Kosovo the country with the youngest population in Europe, can both be seen as untapped potential as well as a threat to the peacebuilding process. On the one hand, youth can act as a transformative force in post-conflict settings which has become evident on many occasions. In Kosovo, for example, UNDP ran a project in 2001, aiming at integrating the country’s young population into the development and peacebuilding process. It received the media’s attention for the first Albanian-Serbian cooperation after the war.
On the other hand, we know that post-conflict societies are often fragile and characterized by continued distrust, suspicion, resentment, and segregation. Growing up in such an environment effects young people who did not get to know any other reality, adopting an ethos of conflict and a mentality difficult to change. Much-needed reconciliation, therefore, will not only take generations, it necessitates the inclusion of all generations, from old to young. Unfortunately, the reconciliation process in Kosovo is at a standstill at best and relations between the two former conflict parties remain dire.
For this to change, Germany under Chancellor Merkel initiated the Berlin process in 2014, a diplomatic initiative linked to the future enlargement of the EU that aims at the improvement of regional cooperation among the six Western Balkans countries. “Achieving reconciliation within and between the societies in the region” has been one of the goals. For this purpose, Albania, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia have founded the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) in 2016, an independent international organization that will promote youth exchange and mobility in the region. The idea is that such youth exchanges foster regional reconciliation and thus contribute to more political stability. So far, RYCO is the only tangible outcome of the Berlin process. It shows that the role of youth in peacebuilding is an increasingly important topic for the international community and has been highlighted recently by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250.
However, there are a number of obstacles to youth empowerment in this field. I argue that although the governments of the Western Balkans have come to an agreement to establish RYCO and endowed it with a mandate to foster youth exchange and promote reconciliation, this alone will not be sufficient to achieve real change in people’s attitudes nor will it automatically bring about sustainable peace.
First, youth mobility is greatly restricted for RYCO participants from Kosovo when they plan to go to Serbia or Bosnia-Hercegovina for exchange programs. Since an agreement on free movement from 2011, Kosovar citizens can travel to Serbia using their ID cards but have to keep an accompanying document with them issued at the border. However, in order to enter Bosnia, Kosovars need to apply for a visa for example in Skopje, where the closest Bosnian embassy is located. Obtaining a visa can be complicated at times and there is proof of incidents where people from Kosovo could not join interethnic youth initiatives in Bosnia due to long waiting times. Reciprocally, Kosovo requires visa for Bosnian passport holders, although Bosnian-Serbs and Bosnian-Croats can at least enter with their respective “parent-state” passports.
More critically, calls from the civil society and prominent human rights groups for a regional truth commission (RECOM) have remained unanswered by the governments. However, without establishing the facts, young people who did not experience the wars themselves are left uninformed about the very reasons why reconciliation is needed. What is more concerning in Kosovo is that children from both groups do not go to school together but are taught different curricula with fairly contradicting interpretations of the conflict, leaving youths with a one-dimensional story of the past along ethnic lines. RECOM should therefore be included in the Berlin process as complementary instrument to RYCO in the pursuit of regional reconciliation and cooperation. In the long run, of course, the system of ethnic school segregation has to be abandoned as well.
Finally, there is yet a final political solution to be found on the status of Kosovo and top officials from both Belgrade and Pristina do not seem to make reconciliation a priority issue but rather focus on concerns about territory and imposing tariffs. Continuing quarrels between the governments not only complicate the work of NGOs in interethnic youth activities on the ground, but also give a fatal sign of discouragement to youth that no matter how well they get along and have advanced their relationships, they have to wait for the “adults” to stop fighting. Nationalist sentiments are still mobilized for cheap political gains in national discourses which contradicts leaders’ verbal commitment to reconciliation and risks the disillusionment of young peace activists.
Clearly, RYCO and other interethnic youth initiatives are a crucial steppingstone toward the empowerment of youth in the peacebuilding and reconciliation process in the region and within Kosovo. However, simultaneously there remain various impediments to unfold that potential and that call for a more holistic approach. For one thing, youth’s ability to participate in youth exchanges in the region and even within the highly segregated Kosovo itself must be ensured through unrestricted mobility. Physical barriers have to be removed in order to take down mental barriers. Secondly, reconciliation necessitates truth and fact finding and youth should have access to as much information as possible to understand why reconciliation is needed. Most importantly, political leaders should act as positive examples and show genuine interest in reconciliation and cooperation or at least should not sabotage youth in pursuing peaceful coexistence.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amir Kalajdzini is an M.A. candidate in Peace Studies and International Politics at the University of Tuebingen. Born in Kosovo, he moved to Germany as a child and became naturalized in 2014. He interned with the IOM – International Organization for Migration – mission in Pristina in 2018 and is currently writing his master thesis on the topic of youth and reconciliation in Kosovo.