What was the problem?
The European region referred to as the Western Balkans is generally considered to be composed of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
In the 1990s the Western Balkans was one of the most troubled regions in the world. Armed conflicts from that decade left a legacy of war crimes, weakened states and ethnic nationalism, which continue to pose threats to the well-being and economic welfare of individuals, families and communities.
As the region has turned towards Europe—and individual states have sought to join the European Union (EU)—dealing with the legacy of mass atrocity has become a key issue in post-conflict reconstruction and state-building.
What did we do?
Associate Professor in Global Politics Denisa Kostovicova has focused her research on the Western Balkans and in particular around the issues of transitional justice, human security, and rebuilding trust in complex post-war situations. She has been particularly interested in the contribution that civil society can make to post-conflict reconstruction.
There have been three distinct strands to her work. First, in collaboration with Vesna Bojicic-Dzelilovic, a Senior Research Fellow in the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit in the LSE Department of International Development, she examined the cross-border nature of networks that perpetuate ethnic extremism. Her research found that such networks keep states weak and derail efforts devoted to nation- and state-building. It revealed the flawed nature of the EU's top-down approach, which overlooked the extent of criminal involvement in the conflict, and identified the weakness of individual states as a key obstacle to European integration.
A second strand of Kostovicova's research focused on developing a 'bottom-up' approach to the region's post-conflict transformation, especially as it affected transitional justice. The approach aimed to engage civil society as a participating actor in the process of seeking reckoning with war crimes legacy and rebuilding post-conflict states and societies.
A third strand reflected Kostocovica's interest in ‘human security’, an emerging paradigm for understanding and reacting to global vulnerabilities that focused on individual human beings rather than the 'national security' of the state, and which emphasised a bottom-up approach to policymaking. In a project funded in 2010 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), she led an exercise to collect data in line with the human security paradigm in Kosovo, based on a methodology that she developed. A team of LSE colleagues were involved, including Professor of Global Governance Mary Kaldor, Senior Research Fellow Mary Martin, and Bojicic-Dzelilovic.
In 2015 Kostovicova was awarded a prestigious Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship, which would allow her to conduct further research focused specifically on how regional initiatives can promote reconciliation.
'Kostovicova's research helped in forming and strengthening links between groups active in civil society in the Western Balkans and policymakers in the UK and in the European Union (EU).'
Kostovicova's research helped in forming and strengthening links between groups active in civil society in the Western Balkans and policymakers in the UK and in the European Union (EU).
Since early 2000s, she has collaborated with Serbia's Humanitarian Law Center, one of the founders of the non-governmental Regional Commission for Establishing the Facts about War Crimes and other Serious Human Rights Violations in the former Yugoslavia (Coalition for RECOM). RECOM was founded in 2008. It is an initiative advocating the establishment of a regional war crimes commission, which grew out of a grass-roots movement bringing together more than 1,500 civil society groups from across the Balkans.
In a move intended in part to help RECOM engage with the EU, Kostovicova and the Humanitarian Law Center organised a three-way exchange between policymakers, academics and civil society groups from the Western Balkans, to which the EU was invited. This took place in Belgrade in early February 2009. Taking European integration and transitional justice as its theme, the gathering challenged the regional states' tendency to marginalise discussion of war crimes, while demonstrating to the EU the importance of civil society's reconciliation efforts.
Ten months later, Kostovicova co-organised with the Humanitarian Law Center a follow-on seminar for EU policy makers in Brussels, which highlighted weaknesses in the EU's strategy for dealing with war crimes.
Dialogue then followed with Pierre Mirel, the then Director of the European Commission's Directorate General Enlargement Unit dealing with Albania, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo issues, on the need for a societal and regional approach to transitional justice. With input from the Humanitarian Law Centre, Kostovicova wrote the memo seeking the EU's support for RECOM's truth-seeking role, which Mirel then circulated to Members of the European Parliament.
These discussions and memo made a strong case for supporting a 'bottom-up', cross-border approach to transitional justice in the Western Balkans, and produced a significant shift in EU policy.
The EU approved €1.2 million funding to help the Humanitarian Law Center strengthen the role of civil society in post-conflict truth-seeking in the Western Balkans. When the EU adopted its resolution of 19 January 2011 on Serbia's integration into Europe, it specifically mentioned its support for RECOM. Additionally, in its key strategy document for the Western Balkans, the EU explicitly referred to RECOM's 'important role in enhancing reconciliation beyond governments among the citizens of the region'.
Citing Kostovicova's research, an EU representative invited her to share her expertise at a meeting organised by the European Commission in February 2012 to discuss the EU's new engagement with Balkan civil society.
Kostovicova also contributed regularly to discussions with EU and UK policymakers seeking to assess and shape policy for the Balkans. For example, in 2010 Ulkrike Lunacek, Member of the European Parliament and its Rapporteur on Kosovo, discussed with Kostovicova her recommendations on EU policy towards Kosovo. The UK Foreign Office also invited Kostovicova to speak alongside Lord Owen (former UK Foreign Secretary) and Julian Braithwaite (UK Ambassador to the EU's Political and Security Committee) on lessons from the Balkans for current foreign policy.
Kostovicova was also frequently invited to contribute expert comment to UK and international media on issues ranging from war crimes to the lessons of Kosovo's independence for South Sudan.