A feature article analyzing the relationship between sports and politics in Serbia-Kosovo relations, this piece was originally published in Serbian by VICE Serbia – “Srbiji su vezane ruke oko učešća Kosova na Olimpijskim igrama“. Read the English version here.
Dates: May 2015
Skills: Feature writing, News writing, Journalism, Photography, Conflict studies, Peace and reconciliation, International relations, Research method and ethics
BELGRADE – Mazlam Dzemailoski is on a tight schedule.
“You came at exactly the wrong time,” he said with a gracious smile.
“We are collecting our Men’s National Team to go to Iceland tomorrow. There are players injured, there are flight arrangements…there is so much to do.”
Still, the Serbian Handball Federation international secretary has time to chit chat over match results and training as I sip traditional domaća kafa—domestic coffee—in the Federation’s Belgrade office.
But I don’t know handball, and I actually came to talk politics.
In April, the Serbian Junior Women’s handball team blew past their first obstacle to the regional championship 40-19. The win was notably over Kosovo, Serbia’s breakaway southern province whose independence they have yet to recognize.
This game was the first meeting between Serbia and Kosovo national teams in any sport. It is also a marker of how far Kosovo has come since it began lobbying for international inclusion after declaring independence in 2008 despite fierce opposition from Belgrade.
The match itself went largely unnoticed, but women’s and youth sports tend to have less of a following in the region—particularly when played outside of either team’s borders.
Regardless, the Serbian Federation doesn’t have much to say about Kosovo. “When I spoke with journalists after the match, I told them not to ask any politically charged questions,” said Dzemailoski. “We will keep this just about sport.”
In the Balkans, however, a game is rarely just that. Often, sport enables expression of culture and identity, acting as a political metaphor.
And with Kosovo’s December 2014 admission into the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as Rio 2016 hovers on the horizon, the tension is palpable.
“Since wars and politics have played main roles on the social scene in the past several decades, [sport] has been one of the few means through which common people could send their message to the world,” said Nemanja Andjelković, a football and basketball enthusiast from Smederevo, Serbia.
“It gives us a chance to have a fair game with neighboring countries, some of whom we share an unpleasant history with.”
For many in modern Serbia—including Andjelković, whose Serb grandparents migrated from the former province—“the heart of Serbia” still beats in Kosovo.
Even sixteen years after the ’98-’99 War between Serbia and the ethnic Albanian majority for the territory, reports of wartime atrocities still continue to surface from both sides.
And when sports embody fresh memories over seemingly irreconcilable pasts, the politics often follow…
…Continue reading here.
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