Tuende Kovac-Cerovic

It is a widely known fact, corroborated by many social-psychological investigations that the ethnic distance between Serbs and Albanians, despite living side by side, is bigger than between other nations on the Balkans. However, how does this ethnic distance play out? Does it create insurmountable barriers to any encounters? Around which contents are the stereotypes organized? Which messages do they convey? How does the actual political situation frame these contents? How do the adversarial messages feed into political discussion? These and similar questions are not easily answered by most social-psychological investigations.

The investigation reported in this article tries to shed light on possible answers to these questions, and to directly address possibilities and barriers of communication between members of the two nations, already facing war. Data in the report originate from immediately before the NATO air-strikes began, and in this respect, they reflect the atmosphere from the "time before". Nevertheless, the characteristics of the "time-before" have been crucial to the further developments – addressing them while thinking about what went wrong could be the first legitimate concern of the "time after".

Data were gathered in the period June 1998 – January 1999, 298 students participated in the investigation, 100 from Prishtina and 198 from Belgrade (1). Both samples had equal number of male and female respondents, and included students from most of the Faculties.

For the purpose of this research a new poll format was designed, which was question-oriented (and not statement-oriented), open-ended (not multiple choice), calling for empathy with the other, and contextually embedded in the possibility of actual communication.

The procedure was the following: students (both Albanian and Serbian) were interviewed by trained student-investigators. The interviewees were invited to suggest questions which they would like to be posed to students of the other nationality (Serbian or Albanian, respectively), by anyone who would be in position to communicate with the other side. The interviewers recorded the questions suggested by the students, and also rated the dominant affective tone of the interview on a 6-point scale. Hence, two major aspects of the interviews served as data: the characteristics of the questions posed, and the overall affective tone of the interview brought in implicitly by the studentsí attitudes towards the war in Kosovo.

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The interviews went without any reported problems, easier than expected given the fact that the investigation took place during the already very dramatic periods of the Kosovo war. Even the refusal rate was not high -- about 25%.

The overall affective tone of the respondents, assessed by the interviewers gave the following picture:


Albanian students

Serbian students

1. Expresses resentment toward the other side

36, 5%


2. Expresses disappointment with own leadership


3, 7%

3. Prevalent cynical tone

9, 6%


4. Neutral



5. Expresses concern and anxiety because war


5, 5%

6. Expresses empathy with students on the other side

3, 8%

5, 5%

These ratings are certainly subjective, however, they derive from assessments made by students of the same group as the respondents, so they still might reflect the dominant tone in each community towards the other side in the conflict.

The results are quite symmetrical, with two typical exceptions. A much higher level of anxiety because of war was registered on the Albanian side, the Albanian students felt a much higher level of danger, attributable to the war taking place in Kosovo and at that time not yet in Belgrade. On the other hand, the cynical tone of posing the questions was more often prevailing in the Serbian sample, thus reflecting an attitude of power-dominance.

On both sides empathy with the other side was very rare to find, as well as expressions of disappointment by own sideí s leadership. Also, about one third of both Albanian and Serbian respondents obviously expressed negative feelings towards the other side.

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The investigation resulted in gathering more than a 1000 questions (437 from the Albanian students and 770 from the Serbian ones). These questions were further categorized by topic and genre into the following categories:

Question topics:

Students, studies, University (protest, independence of the University, quality and language of studying)

Legal/political status of Kosovo, including human rights and minority issues

War in Kosovo (police repression, terrorism, killings, KLA)

Cultural and life-style differences between Albanians and Serbs

Everyday life circumstances

Relationship towards the authorities and political leadership

Question genres:

Open questions of curiosity

Argumentative questions

Judgment questions

Suspicious questions

Cynical-humiliating questions

Reproachful questions

Questions calling for empathy

The question topics were most frequently issues concerning students, studies, University (Serb – 36, 1%, Albanian – 29, 2%); status of Kosovo (Serb – 31, 2%, Albanian – 23%); and the Kosovo war (Albanian – 25, 9%, Serb – 14, 5%). The 3 other categories were much less present on both sides, never exceeding 10% of questions. The distributions are similar, with some difference in emphasizing more issues concerning the war (Albanians) or the legal status of Kosovo (Serbs), thus pointing to the major concerns in these communities.

Regarding the genre of the questions, however, substantially different patterns have been found in the two communities.

The most frequent type of the Serbian studentsí questions was the argumentative (37, 7%) and the open-curious type (36, 1). Next in rank came the cynical-humiliating one (12, 7%), all others being much more rare, and two categories even not found at all (questions of reproach and questions calling for empathy).

The questions of the Albanian students were more evenly distributed among all the categories. Most frequent were the open questions of curiosity (32%), then the judgment questions (21, 96%), the cynical (14, 46%) and all others with approximately 10%, except the suspicious ones, found only twice.

Based on these first findings, there are two important points to stress. On one hand, several results were running counter hypotheses of complete segregation of the two groups. About 25-30% of the interviews had a neutral affective tone, about one third of the questions were related to topics concerning studies, i.e. topics of mutual interest to both communities. Also, about one third of all potential communication was framed in an open-ended non-blaming and not directly resentful manner, despite the ongoing war and accompanying media propaganda. Even if these were not always real questions of curiosity, they were also not automatically rejecting – and not showing the mechanism of prejudice. On the other hand, possible communication barriers were identified, consisting primarily of negative feelings expressed toward the other group. Also, the crossing of most frequent genres of questions might have represented an unfortunate communicational barrier and contributed to an additional increase of misunderstanding. Especially prone to feed into the already existing dominant stereotypes was the crossing of the dominant argumentative type of questions (at the Serbian side) addressing issues more in an intellectualizing/legalistic manner, with the frequently present emotional tone in the questions of reproach and those calling for empathy on the Albanian side.

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The main open field of communication, as expected, related to matters concerning studies. Open questions were more often in this area than considering other topics, both with the Albanian and Serbian students. Some examples of questions from the Serbian students are: "What is it that bothers them on the Serbian University?", "What is their standard and does it differ from the standard of a Belgrade University student?", "Do they have any obstacles for further advancement in their careers on the University because of their nationality?", "What is the relationship of Serbian professors to them?". Or from the Albanian students: "What do you think of the education-agreement? Why wasnít it kept?", "What do you think of our University?", "What do you think of our conditions for studying on our University?", or, more rarely, "Would you like to have any contact with the students of Prishtina?", "Did you succeed with your protest?".

On both sides, interest often occurred to find out the image the other side had about them as fellow students ("What do you think about the Albanian students?" or "What do you think of us?", "What do you think of the Belgrade studentsí protest? ", "What do you think of our peaceful protest?", etc.). Frequent were questions concerning the studentsí protest in Belgrade and Prishtina, sometimes with rebuke because the other side did not support them. Common question in this category from the Serb side were also those asking how the Albanian students evaluated their studying on a parallel University.

Still, most questions addressing the issue of a parallel University had an argumentative tone, and created the next most common subcategory among the questions collected from the Serbian sample (e.g. "Why do they think that they need another university when they already have one?"). On the other side, there were almost no argumentative questions considering studies among the Albanian students. Instead, but they were (regarding the frequency) often replaced by a category of questions asking for the other sideís judgement, most often weather they think the demands for a free University were justified or not, and similar, or by questions of reproach ("Do you ever think about the students who are not Serbs?", "Why didnít you ever protest against closing the Prishtina University?", and very often: "How does it feel to be free?").

Regarding questions about studies, the Albanian students asked another very important type of questions – those calling the other side for empathy, and expressing a need to be heard and understood. This category is the most common one regarding studies asked by the Albanians, but it is not found among the questions of Serbian students at all. Examples of these questions are: " How would you feel to be studying in private buildings?", "How would you feel to have to prepare for exams in a situation when police can beat you any time?", "How do you think you would react if you had the work conditions like us?". Questions calling for empathy often also targeted the issue of war, e.g. "How would you react in our place, now, at war?", "Could you live under occupation?", "If your family lived in a war zone, how would you pass your exams?", "If someone from your family suffered, or were massacred, how would you react, would you continue your studies or join the army?", "If Albanians were killing you Serbs, would you accept living with them?", etc. The communication value of this genre of questions is hard to assess out of context. Some of them, in some situations certainly would dramatically open communication between students from both sides. However, these questions might also be heard as subtle expressions of reproach.

Also, both sides asked questions checking the studentsí relationship with their leaders (Slobodan Milosevic, police, KLA), frequently demanding they take distance from him/them. These questions were psychologically very similar and although often somewhat provocative in phrasing, they could have created a productive venue for further communication. Albanian students repeatedly asked: "Do you wish to change your current evil government?", " Would you vote for Milosevic to be sent to The Hague court?", " Have you ever contributed in any way to the stop of your governmentís repression on Albanians?", "Do you think Milosevic made all your dreams come true?". Serbs typically asked: "How many Albanian students are in the KLA?", "Do they know that they are just manipulated by the KLA?", "Do they condemn terrorism or not?".

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Considering the status of Kosovo and questions related to war, the communication field was already much less open.

On the Serbian side, argumentative questions dominated, often resembling the rethoric-argumentative questions encountered in the Serbian media. (E.g. "They speak of democracy as if they knew what that was, so let them explain to me what they consider democracy is?", "Who gave them the right to ask for some rights, when they are the first not to respect or accept anybody?", "Do you think countries being made in the world today are national countries or countries of interest? Which of these two types do you think function better?", "Do you know that since you donít have the status of a nation, but of a national minority, the UN charter doesnít allow you the right of self-determination?", "If they donít like it here, why donít they go live in Albania?", "Do they think they can get by with their harassing, that Serbian students canít strike back?", "What do we have that they donít in this country?".)

The most frequent type of Albanian questions regarding these issues were the curiosity questions ("Are you an optimist considering the Kosovo problem, do you think it will be solved peacefully?") and judgment questions ("Do you think Kosovo is an internal matter of Serbia or an international matter?"), together with all the other forms of questions, among which were those calling for empathy ("What would you do if you were treated as we are?"), but also argumentative ones ("If you call Kosovo your country, how can you be burning your country?"), questions of reproach ("Do you know how many Muslims you killed and massacred in Bosnia?", "Do you know how many Albanians you killed and massacred so far?", "How do you feel when you hear about a new massacre of Albanians? Are you proud?"), and also the cynical ones sensing exult because of the expected Albanian victory ("How many days are left before you give Kosovo away?", "Dear colleagues, you say Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. How will you live without the heart?", "Where will you run when NATO bombs Belgrade?", "Do you know you lost Kosovo, Vojvodina, and Sandzak?").

The most important limitations of the communication field came from cynical, insulting, and exulting questions present on both sides. Especially provocative were the questions hitting the deepest cultural differences, fully running ethnic stereotypes. They were often typical mirror images (Serbs: "Do they really live as they did 150 years ago, closed behind great walls?"; Albanians: "When are the Serbs getting out of the Middle Ages?"; Serbs: "Is Ïferedzaí still the main fashion detail for women?"; Albanians: "Why do old Serbian women look like witches?"; Serbs: "If they were allowed to use their own heads, would they still do what they are doing now?"; Albanians: "When will the Serbian people get smart?"), but often also tapping at different sensitive problems of the other side.

Hence, there were many Serb questions pinpointing the high birth rate of the Albanian population in Kosovo as a "primitive" trend. For example: "How did they understand the message ÏMake love natureí?", "How many members do their families have?", "If you consider yourself educated, how many children would your future family have?", "Why donít they use condoms?". Also, there were Serb questions implicating the "backwardness" of the Albanian population in a more general manner: "Do you consider Serbs superior to you, Schipetars, in every aspect?", "Name just three Albanian writers?", "Is there an Albanian singer famous further than the Albanian border, except for Ana Oxa, who is known never to say she is Albanian?", "Do you consider Albaniaís tourism highly developed?".

Cynical questions of the Albanian students were also present: "Why do you think you are the heavenly people?", "Do you know where Kosovo is?", "Why do Serbs lie to themselves?", "Can you go to war with the whole world?". Often a sense of jubilating over the future Serbian defeat was coloring many cynical questions from the Albanian side: "Do you know that there will be no more Serbs in the next century?", or they served as a bitter reminder to the international condemnation of Serbia and Serbian people: "Are you embarrassed when out of Yugoslavia?".

There were not many questions of this genre (altogether 12-15% in both samples) but their presence in the communication field calls for great caution. The mutual stereotypes are played out in an especially dangerous way in them, which coupled with the power-asymmetry definitely create a complete standstill and a wall between the two communities.

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This research laid out a picture of the potential communication field between Albanian and Serb students, regarding the possible topics which would have been raised, and the communication style, i.e. genre in which these topics might have been addressed, in the period immediately preceding the NATO air-campaign. The general conclusion is that this field was not a homogenous, but a rather diversified field. Stereotypes and prejudices were visible, often in an unambiguously hurting manner, but they did not permeate into the whole range of possible topics.

The investigation showed that open curiosity still existed, especially regarding issues of mutual everyday or typical generation-bound interest – thus proving the validity and realism of those who would suggest framing communication between adversaries groups around topics of common interest. Also, a large body of questions were serving a need for clarification: what do the Others think of Us, what do they think of Theirs who are hurting Us – as if students were trying to map out the social reality in order to understand the problems better. For creating this map they really needed each otherís responses. These questions could have paved fruitful and mutually reassuring communication as well. Unfortunately these opportunities might be lost for a long time.

The more politically relevant issues of war and status of Kosovo were the topic of about half of the questions, and much less openness was found regarding these topics. Many genres of questions were used to address these sensitive issues, and in many of them the echo of the prevalent media propaganda could be heard. A peculiar communication barrier was also found, consisting of the miss-fit of the most frequent genres employed by the two communities (argumentative vs. calling for empathy), and probably played out by an impossibility of even setting a mutually acceptable language (not to mention the list of issues) for dealing with the political problems. This finding very well captures the impression gained from many failed Serb-Albanian encounters, and they highlight the evident need for well trained mediators to support such events. And, of course one should also mention that about 12-14% of the potential communications carried the load of clear-cut stereotypes and enemy images. Although rare compared to the other types, these questions were phrased in a cynical-humiliating manner from both sides, and their contextual fit made them often especially hurting. Due to the ease of feeding into escalation traps, they would have gained pervasiveness in the course of non-channeled communication encounters. It is important, though, to distinguish between their actual spontaneous emergence, and the impression gained from a later phase in the possible escalation circle.

On a more theoretical level, the investigation suggests that it might be more fruitful to think about stereotypes not as realities, but rather as constructions (though often inevitable) deriving from the escalatory mechanisms of un-channeled communication encounters, or from deliberate media-propaganda framing. And that might be the case in the Serb-Albanian relationship as well.

On a practical level, at this point one can just ask questions like: Why was the potentially open communication field not used as much as it could have been? Why was mediation in its communication-facilitative way not heavily capitalized upon? Were peace activists giving up earlier than they should have? Were we all caught in our prejudice about prejudice? Or were the issues of a completely different realm? Or else?

And, of course, regarding the future – Will there be any Albanian-Serb encounters at all? What might then serve as a starting point of mutual interest? Sharing feelings of hurt and despair? Making clear who has been doing what during the war? How will the possible communication topics change? And the genres?

For, unfortunately, the conflict is not resolved yet.


(1) The investigation was funded by a grant from HEKS to Group MOST's project "Crosscultural Dialogue". In Prishtina it was coordinated by Vjollca Krasniqi (Open Society Fund) and Petrit Tahiri (Nansen Group). Thanks to them this complex and delicate task was accomplished with great care and precision. The investigation in Belgrade was coordinated by the author.