Posted on 04. November 2014
Two weeks ago I decided to make an exception in my daily routine of enjoying coffee with my friends after a long day at work. Instead, I accompanied my husband to a neighbouring pub to watch the football game between Serbia and Albania. Having heard pompous announcements of the game, I somehow knew that it wasn’t going to be an ordinary football match; incidents were almost bound to occur. I tried to reassure myself by remembering that I have always had an excellent, friendly experience with my Albanian colleagues whenever we met in seminars and conferences across Europe, giving me the impression that our two nations have finally overcome regressive nationalistic ideas from passed times. But that evening, I realized that neither I, nor the small number of my Albanian colleagues whom I had met represented a large number of our fellow citizens.
Things were heating up even before the match; the stadium was full of police officers, making it look like there was a revolution going on. Albanian fans were banned from attending the match and social networks were full of provocations from both sides. Albanian fans from Kosovo published photos on facebook, showing how they managed to come to the game despite the ban. And then, during the opening of the match, Serbian fans booed the Albanian national anthem. During the whole first half tensions were rising. The stadium echoed with Serbian nationalistic and xenophobic chants and it was obvious that the players on the field were under an enormous amount of stress. I observed the reactions of people in the pub and I was so disappointed to hear such negative attitudes.
Then, in the 42nd minute, the real disaster happened; a drone appeared above the field, carrying a flag of so-called Great Albania – a concept of a country that includes Kosovo, the Preševo Valley of Serbia, territories in southern Montenegro, north-western Greece and the western part of the Republic of Macedonia. This was a sure way of setting fire to the “Balkan powder keg”. We witnessed the chain of unfortunate events that followed: a mass celebration on the streets of Kosovo, the breaking of windows of Albanian shops in Serbia and consequently, international political repercussions. The incident quickly became a political problem; especially when the media claimed that the flying drone had allegedly been controlled by the Albanian Prime Minister’s brother, Olsi Rama, who was sitting in the VIP stands of the Belgrade stadium with the remote control in his hands. Mr. Rama denied having anything to do with the incendiary flag-flying stunt.
Nevertheless, this incident prevented a historic visit of Prime Minister Rama to Belgrade on 22 October 2014, the first of an Albanian leader since the former Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha came to Belgrade in 1946. Rama’s visit was supposed to represent an act of conciliation between two countries united in their common goal to join the European Union. However, it was decided to postpone the visit. The Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Ivica Dacic, said: “He [Olsi Rama] was supposed to be here as a guest. That gives the event a political dimension; this was a political provocation.”
The situation only worsened after UEFA’s decision to award Serbia a 3-0 victory (although neither side will get any points). Many Albanians saw this decision as a humiliation and many public figures expressed their negative attitude towards Serbians and called on Albanians to boycott Serbian products. Many of them were known as cosmopolitans and I was shocked that so many people could be caught up in this logic of nationalism because of one football game. That night in the pub, after the game was interrupted and having heard the comments of young people around me, I realized that the process of reconciliation between Belgrade and Pristina only took place in fancy conference rooms and at the office of Catherine Ashton, but never reached the people on the streets, in football stadiums, in pubs or in schools.
Last week I found out that there is a new EU fund, “Erasmus +”, available for the Western Balkans countries, which will expand scholarships for education, sports, exchange and lifelong learning programs. I really hope that this is a step in the right direction to expel xenophobia out of young people’s minds, so that in a few years from now, I will hear applause at the end of every national anthem at every football game, instead of booing.