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Mirëdita Dobar Dan Festival in Belgrade: We Stuck our Foot in the Open Door

In early June 2016, the Mirëdita Dobar Dan Festival is taking place again, for the 3rd time in Belgrade. The Civic Initiative (Gradjanska Inicijativa) and the Policy Center, two civil society organizations from Serbia, in cooperation with Integra, a civil society organization from Kosovo, founded the festival in 2014.

My recent research on Serb-Albanian relations is focused on alternative forms of encounters between people from Kosovo and Serbia. For that purpose, I interviewed some of the initiators, organizers and participants of the Mirëdita Dobar Dan festival and attended the festival’s activities both in Belgrade and Prishtina. My focus here is only on the Belgrade part of the festival. 

This festival is especially interesting to review in light of the recent discussions on the limitations of the political process taking place over the past three years under the framework of the Brussels agreement.  For many, mostly uniformed people in Serbia, the ongoing EU-facilitated dialogue seems very distant, almost unknown. Among civil society groups, especially those working on forming and strengthening people-to-people relations between Serbia and Kosovo, this process is mostly seen as a top down exclusive process, between two heads of states, with almost no influence on ordinary people.

In that sense, Mirëdita Dobar Dan Festival should be understood as a bottom up initiative, that aims to contribute to the cooperation of the two societies to improve social, political and cultural relationships.  Even more so, the festival offers a venue for alternative forms of communication in the aftermath of the war in Kosovo, a conflict that ended without a peace agreement and no significant   processes of peacebuilding or conflict transformation between the two sides. As one of the festival organizers stated: “for me, what we have now is not peace. It is absence of war but far from peace…in Serbia today people still think of Kosovo as of a territory, but not as a territory with people… The negative stereotypes towards Albanians are still very strong.” The initiators of the festival wanted to do something to break through the continuing negative attitudes and stereotypes towards Albanians in Serbia. Indeed, not much is/was done, as part of the Brussels negotiations process to combat those stereotypes, as the process was never designed as an encompassing peacebuilding process but rather framed as a political dialogue between political elites. 

In the absence of top down frameworks for change, some civil society organizations are creating the foundation of alternative platforms for people-to-people exchanges.

Some platforms enabling encounters between ordinary citizens from Kosovo and Serbia were established in the aftermath of the Kosovo war. For example, in 2004 the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) in Serbia launched the Visiting Program, an exchange program for young people from Serbia and Kosovo to visit each other’s capitals, often for the very first time.  On the road from Prishtina to/from Belgrade often participants are challenged to cross not only exiting physical boarders and ID or passport controls, but other mental boundaries existing in people’s minds.  

Establishing new relations and new forms of communications between the two societies, especially young people, still remains a great need.  In that sense, the founders of the Visiting Program see a great potential in the recent creation of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office of the Western Balkans (RYCO). The program was announced during the 2015 Western Balkans Summit in Vienna and YIHR activists hope to continue developing and expanding their model of work. However, the challenge remains for these processes to be as inclusive, because of the “NGOization” risk of such initiatives, meaning when such programs are reduced to NGO projects at the cost of broader inclusive civic processes for social change.

The Mirëdita Dobar Dan Festival since its creation was meant to go beyond the NGO- only circles and target additional populations and audiences, such as art lovers.  The festival was born as a younger sibling of Days of Sarajevo/Dani Sarajeva, an earlier initiative launched in Belgrade in 2007.   

The festival’s program includes music, live concerts plays, films and roundtable discussions. Last year’s opening event featured the powerful Kosovar film Three Windows and a Hanging that deals with the legacy of the 1998-99 War in Kosovo, as well as with rape, silence and patriarchy.  One roundtable discussion tackled the issue of the missing people from the recent war.

As one of the organizers explained: “we believe that with Mirëdita we put our foot in the open door – meaning that the door can no longer be closed…Our aim is to enter city cultural institutions.  It may be a small step but if we manage to be consistent eventually artists from Kosovo will be invited directly by theatres and art institutions from Serbia, we will slowly pave the way to additional forms of normalization.”

In that sense, the on-going use of the term ‘normalization of relations’, as often used by officials in the EU led process in Brussels, gains new meaning when looking at a more inclusive process of conflict transformation, as understood by the Peace Scholar John Paul Lederach, author of Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies.

According to Lederach, the pyramid image is helpful in thinking of an integrative process as such: while the pinnacle, or top-level leadership, represents the fewest people [i.e. the Brussels process], the grassroots base of the pyramid should encompass the largest number of people [i.e. in this case artists, theatre, film and concert audience, citizens, civil society actors etc.] For the organizers of the festival, rethinking the term ‘normalization’ is crucial: “when EU negotiators use the concept of normalization of relations they only think about maintaining regional stability: that means no war but it does not mean peace. For us, normalization means something else. Not just normalization of relations between two prime ministers but between additional parts of the society.”    

In that process, it seems that the Mirëdita Dobar Dan Festival organizers in Serbia are aware of the risks and possible obstacles awaiting them.  While Bekim Fehmiu, a shared hero of the [Yugoslav] past, stands as the symbol of the festival, representing a “possible meeting point”, the organizers did not choose to simply run the same festival both in Belgrade and in Prishtina.

They wanted to avoid the relativization of the recent past: “we did not want this festival to be the same in both cities and simply say ‘ok we need to learn more about Albanians, and Albanians need to learn about Serbs’…if we want to change something in Serbia, we need to show here a much more nuanced picture.”  They therefore invite people to roundtable discussions to open up another channel of communications about the contested and often unspoken silenced recent past. 

One activist from Prishtina who participated in the first festival in Belgrade in 2014 spoke about his experiences.  According to him, “the problem is that the citizens themselves still have a lot of prejudices.” He spoke openly of his encounter with one older woman: “she was saying to me ‘You don’t look like a Shiptar’ because she was expecting me to look like I don’t know how…I think that we really have to get to know each other, how we look, how we speak, how we sound... And then, as a Kosovar I need people to be aware that on their behalf there were crimes committed, and I need to hear a simple phrase that they take a clear distance from these crimes.”

This need for acknowledgment and the difficulty of giving one on the other hand, is at the heart of what holds back such complex processes of conflict transformation.  Top down political processes should pave the path for such changes and when they do not, they may end up creating even more hostile realities.

But when they do, they must be accompanied by on-going processes of people-to-people exchanges, in efforts to combat racism and hate and allowing for the acknowledgment of the other. Alternative political platforms like Mirëdita Dobar Dan Festival and other such cultural exchanges are a good place to start. 

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