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September 27, 2011

Intolerance and Local Government?

September 27, 2011

New conflict between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo last week was restrained by international troops. The new government of the largely Albanian (Muslim) country was trying to put its own customs agents at border crossings with Serbia, located in the  northern Kosovo region still populated mainly by Serbs (non-Muslim) and never under the new regime’s control. 

I was there, and what impressed me was not the convoy of NATO troops or the helicopters, or even the intense international press coverage of events in the tiny Serb town of North Mitrovica (pop. 20,000). No, what surprised me was the way that so many Albanians and Serbs took the brouhaha in stride,  treating the controversy as an inconvenient reminder of old conflict but mainly the affair of a small cadre of extremists motivated either by nationalist politics within neighboring Serbia or by the criminal opportunities  in lawless northern Kosovo.

A day later, visiting another Serb-majority municipality in southern Kosovo that isn’t a border town, I found a Serb mayor too busy to respond to phone calls from Belgrade to rise in solidarity with Serb brothers barricading the roads in northern Kosovo. Instead, this Serb mayor was worrying about how to collect garbage fees and how to get his municipal assembly to cooperate in budgeting. Indeed, my visit’s purpose was to celebrate the installation of interpretation equipment in the municipal assembly room so that Serbs and Albanians could work together more effectively. Nearby, another Serb mayor is working with the largest local employer, an Albanian spa owner, to create local jobs and improve local infrastructure to attract more tourists.

None of this diminishes the danger in the not-so-frozen conflict in Kosovo. Weapons and hotheads abound, and conflict here would ripple into other Balkan corners and further slow Serbia’s accession to the European Union, heightening tensions in Bosnia, Macedonia and southern Serbia.  But the normalcy and practicality of so much of what local Kosovo leaders—whether Albanian or Serb—are doing bears watching and emulating.   Getting on with governing, solving problems rather than using them to wage some larger culture war seems to be the predominant goal.  Kosovars so appreciate US help in creating space for this end to their civil war that they have renamed a main avenue in Pristina after President Clinton.

In the United States, unfortunately, intense local opposition to the construction of mosques at Ground Zero in Manhattan or Murfreesboro Tennessee may be seen as signs of increasing religious intolerance here. Given the press coverage of these events you could understandably worry that here in the US we are headed in some opposite direction from Kosovo, blind to the very visible costs of religiously intolerant government.  I took heart reading a recent Pew Research Center report showing that local US communities, like those in Kosovo, are largely more tolerant than some national political opportunists would prefer.  Pew assembled details of 37 mosque- construction controversies in the US over the past three years.  More than 60% have been resolved, allowing the mosque to be built.  Twenty percent were not built – and the fate of others remains undecided. Meanwhile, we have 700 more mosques in the US today than a decade ago, presumably built without controversy. So, despite the heated national rhetoric on these issues, Americans are overwhelmingly tolerant of an increasingly visible faith.

Tip O’Neil’s bromide that “all politics are local” seems under assault as political opportunists in Kosovo and the US try to impose their national agendas on local communities, stoking fears and passions on issues far from the everyday needs of citizens and the values of most communities.  Let’s not deny real tensions, but, as my trip to Kosovo confirmed for me, let’s also go beneath the surface of apparent tension and look at what people are actually doing – in Kosovo or in the US. Some suggestions:

-          In communities experiencing racial, ethnic, or religious diversity for the first time, civic leaders should invest real time (and money) in activities that encourage interaction, communication, and understanding.  “Community building” activities appropriate to the circumstance - block parties, cultural festivals, and inter-denominational religious ceremonies in some cases – or simply community clean up or small public works projects in others - can help people practice tolerance rather than fearing it. 

-          Since ethnic conflict and intolerance can so divide a community and deter needed job-supporting investment, the authors of business climate indices or quality of life indices ought to consider measures of ethnic and religious comity.

-          The processes by which ethnic antagonists reconcile and cooperate are not well understood or integrated into development thinking. Integrating insights from psychology, anthropology and political science we can surely have better advice for villages in post-genocide Rwanda or those in rapidly changing peri-urban spaces of the world’s fastest growing cities.

-          When there are examples of evidently successful tolerance of change, we need to understand how those individuals in that context came to achieve cooperation when history is so full of examples of failure.

Photo by Zveki/ AP

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Comments

Charles thanks for the firsthand account... Different perspective than many other reports!

Nice blog. Good you had nice time in Kosovo and spot on comment on the normalcy and the craving for normality being a driving force

Actually, today NATO forces shot at Serb civilians in the north to prevent them from protesting against efforts to make them submit to Albanian rule.