Building Grassroots Support for Normalization Between Kosovo and Serbia

  • Valentina Diaz, Christie Fatica

2023 was marked by increasing tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. The ongoing hostilities compounded by the Russian invasion of Ukraine have raised concerns in the West about instability in Europe. Despite efforts by the U.S. and European Union (EU) diplomats to ease tensions and encourage a return to EU-facilitated dialogue, the outcome remains uncertain. As negotiations continue, IRI has been implementing the “Building Grassroots Support for Normalization” project that focuses on working with businesses in the information technology (IT) and agricultural sectors in both Kosovo and Serbia to demonstrate that normalization serves their mutual interest, transcending political differences. The project aims to foster a shared vision of a more stable and interconnected future by promoting understanding and partnerships. Progress made under this project is all the more significant given the complex regional dynamics.  

​​IRI identifies and integrates new stakeholders for this project through single-country meetings, cross-border business-to-business meetings, and field visits. Single-country meetings allow participants to collaborate on a smaller scale within their own country and brainstorm solutions to barriers for cross-border trade and collaboration. Cross-border meetings enable businesses to strategize on a larger scale and network with businesses on the other side of the border. Finally, field visits support businesses in forming concrete plans of how cross-border cooperation will benefit stakeholders by inviting potential partners to tour their facilities.​ 

Representatives from the Economic Expert Community Association from Serbia and the Association of Fruits and Vegetables Processors of Kosovo display signed copies of their MOU in Nis, Sebia on September 21, 2023.

A significant milestone achieved during the first year of the project was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Association of Fruits and Vegetable Processors of Kosovo (PePeKo) and the Economic Expert Community Association (ENECA) from Serbia, fostering sustainable economic collaboration. PePeKo provides opportunities for its members to enter regional and European markets. ENECA is a non-governmental organization that supports small businesses by providing training and consulting services and connecting institutions and entrepreneurs. Their MOU outlines their commitment to and responsibility for a Joint Food Hub—a cross-border entity to support food producers and processors from Kosovo and Serbia as they develop their network, expand their businesses across the border, exchange knowledge and technology, and create new brands.  

Under the second year of this project, multiple business deals have begun to take root. Following a recent cross-border business-to-business event in early March 2024 outside Prizren, Kosovo, multiple companies from Kosovo participated in a field visit to Serbia to see their potential partners. There, the companies solidified their intentions and ironed out the details of their cooperation. One Kosovar company will transfer its mushroom production technology to a Serbian company so the Serbian company can produce mushrooms in accordance with Kosovar consumer habits and requirements. Another Kosovar company specializing in blueberries will expand their blueberry production and transfer the excess supply to a Serbian company for processing, as their storage and packaging facilities are limited. 

These partnerships arose from IRI-led activities and highlight the potential for growth and development in the food and agricultural sectors through cross-border cooperation. By importing and exporting goods, businesses can utilize each other’s strengths and knowledge for their mutual benefit. By taking steps towards the growth of business in the region, businesses will be able to gather concrete data that demonstrates the benefit of normalizing relations and thus be better equipped to advocate to political decision-makers, supporting the overall goal of the project. 

Thus, despite heightened tensions in the region, IRI’s approach has received positive feedback and significant interest from business representatives, indicating the economic will for cross-border collaboration. Beneficiaries have effectively disseminated information about the project, integrating new stakeholders and promoting cross-border collaboration among small and medium-sized firms.  

IRI’s adaptability and commitment to grassroots support have yielded tangible outcomes, offering hope for normalized relations between Kosovo and Serbia. As the project continues its advocacy efforts, IRI aims to increase collaboration between stakeholders, political institutions, and actors to facilitate further cross-border cooperation and enhance the interconnectedness of the Western Balkans. 

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