Author: Ardit Orana
Given the scope of online information dissemination, the presence of radical and extremist religious and ethno-political views has seen an exponential growth in recent decades. In Kosovo especially, international, and local institutions/NGOs have consistently found a direct link between online radicalization and participation in the sectarian warfare in Syria and Iraq. Following the issue’s rise to prominence and security ramifications in 2014, security sector institutions began targeted operations that led to the effective arrest of numerous radical imams as well as the shutting down of several online platforms used by individuals to convene and spread extremist views.
Although it led to the closing down of numerous influential online platforms , the response merely shifted engagement from existing platforms to novel ones. In par with global online engagement trends, individuals promoting radical views have penetrated and spear-headed online propaganda targeted at Kosovar nationals through a multitude of new and old social media platforms (including Facebook, Youtube, TikTok and Snapchat).
While emphasis on religious radicalization has significantly diminished in relation to global trends, Kosovo now faces itself with another looming threat: that of ethno-political radicalization. Although there have been clear indications of this trend from post-war developments in the Western Balkans, this has become even more apparent as of recently due to the proliferation of the online engagement of radical communities. As rightly noted in a baseline analysis conducted in the framework of the Preventing and Addressing Violent Extremism Through Community Resilience (PAVE), nationalistic “ethno-political groups in the Western Balkans represent a continuation of the politics of the 1990s that draw on historical myths to promote as well as justify violence especially against particular ethnic groups”.
In the context of ethno-political radicalization, unresolved dispute between Serbia and Kosovo over the declaration of the latter’s independence in 2008 continue to be key elements fueling this type of radicalization, which is further exacerbated by the lack of a process of dealing with the past and denial of war crimes that were committed during the war. Worryingly, ethno-political narratives among the Kosovo Serb community include a denial and/or distortion of historical facts, especially related to the Kosovo war and its casualties. On the other hand, among the Kosovo Albanian community, often Serbian civilian victims of the war are not recognized, albeit important steps in the right direction, such as the case when in 2016, Kosovo’s former President Hashim Thaci “laid a wreath at a memorial dedicated to fourteen Serbian citizens who were killed immediately after the war, seventeen years ago, in the village of Gracke in Lipjan”.
A particular factor that creates vulnerability towards ethno-political radicalization among the Kosovo Serbs is the rejection of the authority of the Kosovar public institutions. Online narratives that promote ethno-political radicalization are often based on the public perception that the Western-led international community applies “double standards” toward Serbs. This is often also related to the war crimes committed during the wars of the 1990s, and the perception that the international community tries to convince Serbs to accept responsibility for crimes which they believe were not committed, such as the genocide in Srebrenica. A discussion with local stakeholders in north Mitrovica is illustrative of this point, noting that: “The myth is Srebrenica, the Kosovo myth is not a myth at all, the Kosovo myth is the foundation of the Serbian identity”.
What is striking is that denial of the Srebrenica genocide is echoed also by supposedly well-educated and informed individuals, such as high school teachers. For instance, a sociology teacher from the municipality of north Mitrovica made the following comment: “Certainly, all Muslims believe in the myth of Srebrenica, where they say that 15,000 Muslims were killed and it was not even a thousand. There is another myth about Racak, which has been proven to be untrue […] Racak is especially used in the media and Srebrenica, it is especially used by the Western media who are to blame for that. So, these things that are happening in Western countries, especially in Germany, need to happen, because they ignore that radical extremism and help themselves to wash away their involvement in the bombing of Kosovo and Bosnia.” These strong sentiments that deny genocide and war crimes that were committed in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, suggest that, at least a segment of the Serbian community in Kosovo, do not recognize the brutality of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, who was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for former-Yugoslavia (ICTY) on 61 charges of crimes against humanity, including genocide.
The use of online platforms has been seen as crucial for the dissemination of historical revisionist discourse centered on Serb nationalism. This is especially evident in recent events that highlight the growing political tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. Following a 2021 decision by the government of Kosovo to institute reciprocity in relation to recognition of car plates between the countries, tensions along the border between Kosovo and Serbia were a source of disinformation and the propagation of ethno-radical narratives. The Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, published the names of a Montenegrin and Serbian national in a Facebook post, claiming that they were directly engaged in propagating security incidents in the North of Kosovo. Kurti’s Facebook post sparked a considerable backlash from Serbs accusing the former of inciting hate speech and violence against peaceful protestors. However, one of the published names, Vladislav Dajković, was found to be an online proponent of a radical nationalism, making use of Facebook to incite tensions among local protestors in the North of Kosovo. With a considerable following on Facebook, Dajković’s profile featured several posts with the aim of disinformation in relation to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo and various other political developments across the Western Balkans.
Similarly, there are two other prominent individuals that actively promote and shape far-right extremist narratives against Kosovo. Boris Malagurski, a Serbian-Canadian film director, made a documentary film to oppose Kosovo’s bid for membership in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and prepared other media material against Kosovo for the ‘RT’, a Russian state-controlled media. Arno Guyon, a French national and a far-right activist, who was also appointed to a government position in Serbia, has established a non-governmental organization, called ‘Solidarité Kosovo’ that actively promotes extremist far-right narratives against Kosovo, under the guise of humanitarian work, and pushes revisionism of the past. The online presence of these individuals- and their organizations- have served to legitimize ethno-national radical narratives. To make matters worse, the continuous engagement of individuals through the comment sections of these individual’s social media platforms have served to only further polarization among different ethnic communities in Kosovo.
Ethno-national radicalization, while in sharp increase, continues to be problematic to counter effectively. Competing online narratives are maintained by the continuous engagement of individuals seeking to marginalize perspectives along ethnic lines. These community-linkages are often maintained by “celebrity-type” influencers who voice a general discourse aimed at the victimization of ethnic minorities and a perceived lack of government inclusion. Their ability to convene and strengthen online community ties have in turn promoted a continues engagement of citizens. As such, online peer-group socialization will likely continue to remain a key source of disseminating radical ideologies.
This article summarizes the findings of the Working paper on online and offline (de)adicalization in the Balkans published in the framework of the EU-funded PAVE project.