The transformative potential of political contact zones: the case of Serbia-Kosovo relations

The doctoral defense of our HEPP researcher Marina Vulovic will take place on 23 June, 2021 online and onsite at the University of Helsinki.

Our HEPPster, Marina Vulovic, will defend her PhD thesis titled "Losing and Gaining Kosovo: How the Serbian Government Re-articulated its Claim to Kosovo within the Brussels Dialogue (2012-2018)" on 23 June at 11:15 a.m. EEST at the University of Helsinki. To follow the defense on Zoom, join via this link: The PhD thesis can be found in the online repository Helda.

In her thesis, Marina has investigated how the current regime in Serbia, led by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), has attempted to present a problematic situation as not problematic at all by articulating myths. By combining discourse theory and psychoanalysis, she investigates myths as attempts to make sense of our world in moments of crisis, in moments that challenge our understanding of the world as we see it. Namely, Serbia claims Kosovo as its province, as an integral part of its territory, while Kosovo has declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Currently, we have two profoundly contradictory discourses existing at the same time: that Kosovo is Serbia and that Kosovo is an independent country. The first one dominates in Serbia and many other countries in the world (Russia, China, Spain etc.), while the second one dominates in the Albanian-majority populated Kosovo and in the most powerful countries in the world (USA, Germany, UK, France etc.).

For Serbia, Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 has created political obstacles to their EU integration process and destabilized the dominant discourse that Kosovo is Serbia. In an effort to overcome this obstacle, Serbia and Kosovo started engaging in a political process called the Brussels dialogue since 2011. Within this dialogue, Serbia led by the SNS started engaging more actively with the Kosovo question and attempted to repair the challenged “Kosovo is Serbia” discourse by introducing two myths: one is the Brussels agreement from 2013 and the other is the idea of partitioning Northern Kosovo from the rest and claiming it as Serbian, while potentially recognizing the rest of Kosovo as independent (dominant in 2018). This thesis illuminates how myths emerge as efforts to repair broken or challenged discourses, and either present the broken discourse as not broken at all, or aim to substitute the same discourse with an alternative vision of how a solution might look like. The former is evident in the Brussels agreement, while the latter is evident in the idea of partition. The Brussels dialogue is thus investigated as a political contact zone, a conceptualization that can be extended to dealing with other conflicts in the world, whenever a mediation is happening.

In her thesis, Marina has examined in great detail how mythical discourses function to restore order into a disorderly situation, without having to resort to physical conflict. She argues that myths should be seen as necessary for politics, since politics revolves around contesting meanings. This contestation is often the result of crises and necessitates the institution of political alternatives, which myths embody as options for mending the crisis. As such, this research might be informative to anyone who is interested in myths more broadly, or in politics in the Balkans more specifically. By investigating the transformative potential of political contact zones, the framework she develops here can be used to examine other conflicts, for instance in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, or historical discourses, such as the Åland Islands dispute in the 1920s.