April 6th was International Day of Sport for Peace and Development. For that reason, I’ve included selections from a recent focus story I wrote for my study abroad program on the role sport is playing in Serbia-Kosovo relations, independence, state building, and etc.
BELGRADE – “We want to compete, and we will win,” said Nemanja Andjelkovic, a 32 year-old native of Smederevo, Serbia. But despite his passionate conviction, even Anjelkovic knows that sports in his homeland are not just about winning.
For this loyal Crvena Zvezda fan and others like him across the Balkans, sports define national identity and culture, even breaching into the political realm. Particularly between Serbia and Kosovo, the Yugoslav-era autonomous province that Serbia still legally recognizes as its own, political issues like independence and sport go hand-in-hand.
Although relations have progressed since the signing of the Brussels Agreement in 2013, political relations between Serbia and Kosovo remain icy. Recent events outside of the political realm, however, seem to be building up to an impending standoff.
A year ago on March 5th, Kosovo played in its first FIFA-sanctioned friendly opposite Haiti. Then, in early December, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted—after five years of deliberation—to ratify Kosovo’s membership, as did the International Basketball Association (FIBA) on March 16th.
“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 Anjelkovic. Kosovo has taken especial notice of this mutually supporting role of sport, politics and identity.
According to sports and national identity Ph-D candidate Dario Brentin, originally from Croatia, “There is no social field free of ideology and ideological struggles and hence sport and politics always mix. Sport is…particularly important in terms of symbolic politics.”
Serbian sports journalist Ivan Loncarevic agrees. “Sports and politics, especially in this part of the world, are always in the mix,” he said. “Politicians are using sport to emphasize differences, political mostly.”
Others, like the celebrated Serbian NBA star and head of Serbian National Olympic Committee Vlade Divac, advocate that sports and politics should be approached separately. In an interview with Reuters, he said, “I had a similar situation when we [Yugoslavia] were banned from competing in 1992 Olympics, so I insist that we look at this issue with sporting eyes and let the politicians do their job.”
But are the two—sport and politics—already intertwined in this case?
“Although Mr. Divac is a basketball legend, he does not represent the majority’s way of thinking in Serbia,” said Andjelkovic. “Sporting eyes cannot be opened while the real ones are closed.”
Ultimately, Loncarevic suggested collaboration. “The first thing needed is willingness to start from the beginning, as equal partners, neighbors, he said, “But that first step is sometimes ignored.”