by Nikos Pasamitros
On the 10th of November 2014, the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama was the first senior official to visit Serbia after 68 years. Unfortunately, for the relations of the two countries, the two premieres managed to turn a historical meeting to an on-camera quarrel. At the Press Conference, Rama said that “An independent Kosovo is a reality accepted by a great number of countries,” and “The sooner you recognize that, the faster the progress we can make in all aspects.”[i] The Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic replied; "I had not expected a provocation from Mr Rama, that he would talk about Kosovo, because I don't know what he has to do with Kosovo, […] I have to reply to him because I will not allow anybody to humiliate Serbia in Belgrade. Kosovo is part of Serbia under the constitution and it has nothing to do with Albania nor will it ever have".[ii] This dramatic diplomatic downturn is the second blow to rapprochement in a row after the Serbia versus Albania football match incident of mid-October where a remote-controlled drone intruded the field, carrying a flag with the map of Greater Albania. Preceding the incidents, in April 2013 the Brussels Agreement signed between Serbia and Kosovo set the 15 points that normalised the Serb-Kosovar relations and paved the way for the accession negotiations of Serbia with the EU and the initiation of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement talks with Kosovo.[iii]
For many thinkers Von Clausewitz was right when writing that "War is the continuation of politics by other means." Strategists stress that the state is the only important player in diplomatic practice. One step further, state-centric approaches phobically call for the exclusion of non-state actors from diplomatic conduct. Liberalism goes as far as soft power, and structuralism along with neo-Marxism focus on the international aspects of class struggle. Unfortunately, concentration of power in the hands of a few elites - political, financial, military etc. - is the lasting trend. Fortunately, it is not theory that shapes reality, but rather theory that attempts to contain an overwhelming reality in a mind of finite possibilities.
Likewise, terms such as civil society, public sphere, grassroots politics, bottom-up approaches, non-governmental organisations and third sector try to tame a modern reality to the desires of the advocates or the adversaries of the aforementioned terms. Whatever theory says, citizens diachronically show their interest in getting involved in the shaping of politics including the foreign relations of states. The traditional, indirect, democratic channel that offers them this possibility is voting. Yet, modernity offers non-traditional and more direct channels for such involvement. Social protest and reactive action in general is one. Civic participation and civic engagement is another. Regarding the foreign policy level, civic participation takes shape as unofficial diplomacy meaning in a general sense, all diplomatic efforts beyond the official ones. The most common example of such a successful action is the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.[iv]
Citizen Diplomacy is the unofficial contacts of people of different nations or groups that want to be involved in problem solving and attempt to reshape or transform a conflict. Citizen diplomacy takes many forms; from exchanges, roundtables and scientific events to athletic and cultural activities. Of course, such unofficial approaches cannot and do not try to replace the official ones. They only facilitate official diplomacy in the sense that they keep the channels and issues open in cases of a deep division of state or party officials. Even more important is the contribution to grassroots contact between citizens that creates links between people and seed a culture of cooperation and compromise. The promotion or obstruction of these contacts lies in the hands of governments. Official policy may judge such procedures as useful and complementary to official diplomacy or as useless and provocative. It is true that it is hard to assess the effectiveness of Citizen Diplomacy since it tries to address intangible factors. One pessimistic step further, this effectiveness is not only hard to estimate but highly questionable too. It is one thing to discuss burning issues at low cost, build interpersonal relations and break stereotypes, and another to project the abovementioned aspects in official policies and agreements.
Then again, the experience from unofficial diplomacy is quite big. There are dedicated people, long established initiatives and, the most important, desire to act. In addition, several examples of official agreements that failed to address the peoples’ needs have bred perpetual discontent to their receivers.
Going back to the Serb-Albanian incident example, one could argue that the two states are not in war thus, official diplomacy is effectiveenough to let unofficial actors enter the picture. But, is settlement good enough? Non-war is by no chance sustainable peace. Since elite politics tend to draw away from the people, maybe it is time for governments to subsidise peoples’ diplomacy in order to keep an ear out for their needs. These needs could work as a draft of general directions towards lasting solutions.
To conclude, it is quite a long shot to say that citizen diplomacy is the missing part to complete a party’s diplomatic toolbox. Yet, officials should not turn a deaf ear to the demands of their peoples. Anywise, adversaries could profit from grassroots rapprochement attempts in their effort to resolve conflictual conditions. Therefore, governments should not only let people smell the pot, but let them be part in cooking. On their part, if people and civic organisations wish to be in the game, they have to get more involved, try harder and turn the focus from protest to positive engagement. After all, experience shows that negative reaction does not guarantee attention. Societies are now mature enough to move from a romantic give peace a chance to a down-to-earth give people a chance.
© Inter Alia 2013