Serbia and Armenia: An (Un)Easy Comparison?

 In Blog

In the evening of 15 February, a group of right-wing protesters attempted to storm the building of the presidency in Belgrade after rallying against the EU-brokered dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. From the US to Brazil to Bulgaria, capital riots against institutional buildings have come to symbolise people’s direct actions of dissent and disagreement with political reality. However, in retrospect, the latest attempt to storm the building of the presidency in Belgrade is a symptom of a much deeper problem in the country. 

The chaotic events that recently broke out in Belgrade resemble those in Armenia during the night of 9 November 2020 after Nikola Pashynian decided to halt fighting with Azerbaijan over Karabakh (Artsakh, in Armenian) and declare Armenia’s defeat in the ‘Second Karabakh War’. Needless to say, this (un)easy comparison cannot equalise Kosovo and Karabakh, nor does it suggest some similarities across the many political, historical, and geopolitical dynamics that have unfolded over the course of the last decades. For example, while Kosovo’s small Serb minority has continued to live after the 1999 war and nurture some relations with the Albanian-majority society, the ‘First Karabakh War’ (1988-1994) marked the full ethnic cleansing and forced population exchange of Armenians from SSR Azerbaijan, with the sole exception of the NKAO, and that of Azerbaijanis from the latter region and SSR Armenia.

Nonetheless, Russia’s war against Ukraine and other global disorders have spotlighted Serbia’s and Armenia’s frustration over Kosovo and Karabakh, respectively. Armenians are still healing from the consequences of the ‘Second Karabakh War’, while Serbia’s political landscape continues to be conditioned by Aleksandar Vucic and let unprepared to begin coming to terms with the political history and today’s reality in Kosovo.

Unprepared Civil Societies

What happened in Armenia in the aftermath of the 2020 Second Karabakh War should provide a lesson-to-learn to Vucic and the whole Serbian Parliament. Alike Armenians, indeed, Serbia’s politicians are hopelessly trying to hijack the normalisation process with Pristina. At the same time, however, they knowingly ignore that Kosovo is, and will be, an indipenent State. Serbia’s political and cultural elites have done very little, if anything, to prepare the wider public to come to terms with Kosovo. 

At this stage, there is no shadow of a doubt that the Serbian civil society has been kept disillusioned about the future of Kosovo. Most Kosovo Serb dissidents have been discarded from Belgrade-sponsored roundtables over the ‘Kosovo question’. Other Serbian public intellectuals, journalists, scholars, and critical voices have been marginalised by default. Similar to pre-2020 Armenian context, only a few Armenians were able to reckon a full loss of Karabakh, although many have warned about a potential new wave of hostilities with Azerbaijan.

Belgrade’s “strategic essentialism” over the construction of Kosovo as a mythscape will not pay off, in the same way, it did not for Armenia over the ‘Karabakh knot’. In Belgrade, as well as in Yerevan and Baku, the decades-old lack of political willingness to kick off a serious process of reconciliation has a high price to pay. Thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis have died in three decades of war, while Kosovo’s citizens continue to live in limbo and, in the case of Kosovo Serbs, under the guise of a ‘parallel system’ of a de facto non-existing state administration. 

Similar to Armenia’s, Serbian civil society seems found (silently) in despair. The level of unpreparedness to come to terms with the future recognition of Kosovo makes a scenario analysis easier with the Armenians’ sense of loss after the Second Karabakh War in 2020. Main accusation cannot but fall on the political elites that have not made room for compromising, dealing with a period of transformation, and even self-examining their own recent history and society. There is no doubt that personalities like Ruben Vardanyan, Ilham Aliyev, Aleksandar Vucic, and Vladimir Putin share the same peculiar methods of doing politics and ‘professional’ background. It is crystal clear when comparing Russia and Azerbaijan on a political level: according to Freedom House, the democracy status of both countries is of a ‘consolidated authoritarian regime’, while Serbia and Armenia are considered a ‘transitional hybrid regime’. When looking at the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) by Transparency International, Azerbaijan, Serbia, and Russia are found below the global leverage, with Armenia performing slightly better. 

Russia’s finger in the pie 

Having a look at the bigger picture is also important; hence, geopolitics comes to the forefront. The rhetorically-constructed friendship between Belgrade and Moscow has a grip among many Serbs, whereas the post-2016 dissent of Armenians against Russia has experienced a u-turn after 2020. In both scenarios, Russia has manoeuvred to play a role in its agenda in the international arena. After vetoing the recognition of Kosovo’s statehood together with China at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Vladimir Putin has repeatedly exploited the events of the 1999 Kosovo War by accusing the West and launching a full-scale war against Ukraine. The Kremlin has also tried to balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan without settling the dispute between the two Caucasian republics. 

Nonetheless, Russia’s ‘spoiler tactics’ have been misunderstood among the wider public due to complicit political elites – be they Aliyev, the so-called ‘Karabakh Klan’ in Armenia, Vucic and the Serbian separatists in Bosnia, and so forth.   

On the evening of 15 February, Serbs chanted for Russia, giving credit to “the Russian proposal” for Kosovo, instead of a French-German one that should be used as the blueprint for the upcoming talks. Tellingly, the Yerevan-based Caucasus Research Resource Centre has investigated the perceptions of residents of the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Artsakh regarding the dispute over the region. When asked about which country the further settlement of the Artsakh conflict depends on, Armenians from Armenia (n=2190) and Karabakh (n=814) replied Russia for 24% and 36%, respectively. The report confirms similar patterns also regarding the future of Armenian Karabakh and which countries Armenia should strengthen its relations with. 

However, in both Serbia and Armenia, collective disillusionment continues. After February 2022, Russia has undoubtedly jeopardised its position in the so-called ‘formerly geopolitical orbit’. In contested Karabakh, about 2000 Russian peacekeepers can do very little to guarantee human security to Armenians and maintain the status quo in the long run. Criticism against Russia is on the rise among the Azerbaijani civil society, especially when Armenia seems to have no longer a say in the future settlement of Karabakh. Moreover, Azerbaijan’s de jure position over the contested region gives an upper hand to Baku, yet increasing the chances of yet another escalation after the orchestrated standoff in the Lachin corridor

Through my glasses 

I lived in Armenia during the so-called ‘4-Day War’ (April 2016) and I conducted small-scale research in Nagorno-Karabakh right after. A few months later, I began visiting Serbia regularly and working in Kosovo. The bitterness of everyday life was almost the same among the war-torn Armenian Karabakh and rural Kosovo, albeit I found and experienced freer and slightly better conditions among Serbs. Also, collective fear of war took its toll among the former, while no major security risks have been reported across Kosovo. Peace prospects between Serbs and Albanians are already a concrete yet inconspicuous reality on the ground, while Armenians and Azerbaijanis stand far from each other after 2020. At this stage, political elite circles have not much appetite for peace.

Reconciliation potentials seem preempted by their meaning-making contents. Apparently, politicians have nothing to lose but reaching a stable peace or a reconciliation roadmap. But what they fear the most is a potential period of radical transformation and power changes that would likely unfold after recognising Kosovo’s statehood and the opening of a channel of communication between Baku and Armenians in Karabakh. All of these would probably signify, once and for all, the failure of the current political leadership. 

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