The Kosovar Centre for Security Studies (KCSS), New Social Initiative (NSI) and Sbunker, successfully concluded the 2nd edition of the Kosovo Peace and Democracy Summit. This important European and regional conference was held at the Four Points by Sheraton in Prishtina, Kosovo, from September 20 to 21, 2023, and was made possible through generous support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
In a world where Ukraine is bravely fighting for its freedom, the Kosovo Peace and Democracy Summit (KPDS) addressed the urgent issues challenging the Euro-Atlantic future of the Western Balkans. These issues include bilateral disputes, rule of law, the rise of populism and ultra-nationalism in the region, as well as the disinformation and disruptive influences of Russia and China.
The 2nd edition of the Kosovo Peace and Democracy Summit (KPDS) was officially opened by Jeffrey M. Hovenier, the United States Ambassador to Kosovo, who emphasized the critical importance of the Western Balkans in achieving the U.S. vision of a Europe "whole, free, and at peace." Ambassador Hovenier also pointed out that "Failure to implement the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia remains a major hurdle to the advancement of the Western Balkans."
Following Ambassador Hovenier's welcome remarks, the first panel of the day, titled "Aiming for Accord: Perspectives on the Normalization of Relations between Kosovo and Serbia," featured a distinguished panel of experts from the region. The panel was opened with remarks from President and CEO of National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Mr Danon Wilson. Alex Roinishvili Grigorev, President of the New York-based Council for Inclusive Governance (CIG), noted, "Within reach, but not quite there yet, this has been the main characteristic of the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue since 2020. The EU and the US are on the same page, but can they bring the sides to an accord?" Engjellushe Morina from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) argued that the core issue between Kosovo and Serbia centers around the northern region of Kosovo, primarily a territorial matter. She emphasized that "Belgrade seeks to maintain and enhance its control, while Pristina strives to bolster its sovereignty in the area." On the other hand, Dragisa Mijacic argued, "What we need is a power-sharing mechanism that ensures the multiethnic nature of Kosovo, guaranteeing the rights of Kosovo Serbs are upheld." Mr. Iain Bancroft from the Peaceful Change Initiative argued that "Despite the prevailing political situation, positive developments are occurring in the north of Kosovo. The context has shifted, and there has been a notable decrease in ethnic tensions compared to 2015.", however he added that "We do not talk about the costs of the stalemate. People assume that frozen conflicts have no consequences. That is a huge misconception."
Laura Kryeziu President of the Leadership and Growth Council criticized the approaches of the Kosovo government, arguing that they have “intensified polarization, creating a divisive atmosphere where individuals in Kosovo tend to be categorized as either supporters or opponents. Such rhetoric is highly detrimental." On the other hand, Marta Onorato from the International Republic Institute (IRI), office in Kosovo, argued that the likelihood of progress toward normalizing relations between Kosovo and Serbia will rise as interest groups and stakeholders in both countries comprehend the benefits of normalization and effectively communicate these advantages to their citizens.
Following the panel discussion, a conversation between Cynthia Cook from the US Embassy and Christian Ramet from the office of the EUSR for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues, moderated by Ramadan Ilazi. The conversation focused on challenges and opportunities in the normalization dialogue. Ms Cook from the US Embassy in Kosovo underscored that "Kosovo's aspirations for Euro-Atlantic integration depend on advancements in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue" also noting that "We have no interest in an Association/Community of Serb-Majority Municipalities (ASM) that could jeopardize Kosovo's future. Any ASM must align with the constitution of Kosovo."On the other hand Mr. Ramet noted that the outcome of the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue will primarily depend on ongoing consultations, but as a general observation, this dialogue is between Kosovo and Serbia and therefore it is their joint responsibility to collaborate closely in pursuit of tangible results.
The second panel focused on the Ukraine war and the EU enlargement policy. Ambassador Szunyog, Head of the EU Office to Kosovo, stated that the Russian aggression and the EU's response constituted a critical moment that could be seized or missed. He stressed, "This is the moment to start thinking about how to make the most of it, including here in Pristina." Conversely, Mr. Agon Maliqi expressed skepticism about the EU's vision of enlargement by 2030, saying, "We need to see it to believe it." He argued that the EU had thus far pursued a containment policy rather than an enlargement policy, which had undermined the transformative potential of European integration. Daria Meshcheriakova, a Ukrainian journalist, urged Ukraine, Moldova, and the Western Balkans to collaborate rather than compete and to promote a joint strategy for the accession process. Sonja Stojanovic highlighted the potential for enlargement and emphasized that investments in democracy pay off, especially in times of crisis. Dr Stojanovic also warned that "Political violence is increasing in the region, driven by mistrust in the institutions and extreme social polarization. Only 57% of the youth are for democracy. Our youth is less democratic than their parents and grandparents. This is the niche for CSO, we need to explain to them the cost of losing democracy."
The first day of the KPDS was concluded with a panel on regional cooperation in the Western Balkan, moderated by Adelina Hasani and with keynote address by President and CEO of the Rockefellers Brothers Foundation (RBF), Mr. Stephen Heintz, noting that "Regional cooperation in the WB is nothing new, but the region needs to build on this experience and improve this process. Inter-governmental projects are impaired by the lack of political will and the true integration processes fall down to CSOs." Sofija Todorović from Youth Initiative for Human Rights from Serbia argued that regional cooperation is not only important is important for EU integration, but it is essential for democratic enhancement. Andi Dobrushi the Western Balkans director of Open Society Foundations (OSF) argued that "Unfortunately, regional cooperation is impeded by bilateral issues with Kosovo and Serbia being the prime example of that." Furthermore, Mr. Dobrushi notes that the need to reenergize the discussions on solutions when it comes to regional cooperation. Stefan Ristovski argued that informal coalitions between WB countries can be practiced and that if the region voices interests together, it will have better chances of growth and development, than as a fractured market.
Adi Ćerimagić from the European Stability Initiative argued that regional cooperation and integration in the Western Balkans - as elsewhere in Europe - is about peace and prosperity, and can be sustainable if done between democracies based on the rule of law. And if it offers our societies integration with a wealthier and more prosperous EU. On the other hand, Marigona Shabiu from Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), argued that we should ask ourselves if the young generations are equipped well enough with democratic and human rights values so that we can expect them to make progressive changes when their time to lead comes.
The second day of the KPDS was opened by Deputy Head of the mission at the German Embassy in Kosovo Mr. Matthias Conrad who argued that Illiberal practices are not just a national challenge, but a global one. Germany went through many different models of government but managed in the end to transform with the help of partnerships and cooperation into a democracy. Mr. Conrad noted that "In all processes that challenge illiberal backsliding, the role of the civil society is the key." Following the opening remarks from Mr. Conrad, the opening panel of the 2nd day of KPDS was a panel discussion on addressing backsliding and illiberal rractices in the Western Balkans moderated by Visar Xhambazi. Nermina Kuloglija-Zolj from BIRN-Sarajevo argued that all Western Balkan countries experience erosion in the trust in public institutions, noting that “in BiH there is a feeling of being stuck, not moving anywhere, there are some reforms in the pipeline, but their impact is questionable”. Misha Popovikj argued that distrust in public institutions primarily comes from the governmental failures noting that "The whole region is a part of the Western hemisphere, you have to have a conflict to look east, this drives the anti-western sentiments. North Macedonia has an issue with Bulgaria, we look eastward, the same with Serbia and Kosovo.” Eraldin Fazliu from the Kohavision argued that he is concerned with the way the government in Kosovo, because of the high popular approval, treats those who want to question their decision-making noting that “Journalists and other different voices that want to question the government find this difficult”. Miloš Pavković argued that "When it comes to Serbia, the backsliding is clear and it has a few clear elements: opposition doesn't have equal chances in the elections due to the domination of the ruling party in the media and institutional rules of procedures are undermined, especially in the Parliament.”
The concluding panel of the 2nd edition of the Kosovo Peace and Democracy Summit (KPDS) was on combating Malign Foreign Influence in the Western Balkans and dealing with disinformation moderated by Fitim Gashi. Bardhyl Jashari of the Metamorphosis Foundation, argued that just four years ago, the topic of foreign malign influence was not a prominent part of the Western Balkans discourse, and some countries were largely disregarding this issue. Darko Brkan from Zasto Ne argued that disinformation is being spread at various levels and that individuals in the region are actively using multiple online sources to disseminate false information noting that: "Disinformation is also being leveraged as a profit-driven business model, capitalizing on the spread of false information. The absence of resources or the willingness to verify sources is causing significant issues in the information domain and jeopardizing the credibility of reporting.” Jeton Mehmeti from the Independent Media Commission argued that Kosovo's institutions are striving to enhance media transparency. Noting that there is limited information available regarding the ownership of several media channels, a crucial aspect in the fight against disinformation. On the other hand, Ana Marija Ivković argued that Kosovo government is not effectively communicating the full nature of their decisions and needs to improve its efforts in providing better information to the Kosovo Serb community, including Serbian speaking media in Kosovo.