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Kosovo and Serbia: A Little Goodwill Could Go a Long Way
Kosovo and Serbia: A Little Goodwill Could Go a Long Way
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 215 / Europe & Central Asia

Kosovo and Serbia: A Little Goodwill Could Go a Long Way

The dispute about Kosovo’s sovereignty continues to fuel tensions and violent clashes in northern Kosovo, halting Kosovo’s and Serbia’s fragile dialogue and putting at risk Serbia’s EU candidacy.

Executive Summary

A violent standoff in northern Kosovo risks halting Kosovo’s and Serbia’s fragile dialogue and threatens Kosovo’s internal stability and Serbia’s EU candidacy process. Pristina’s push to control the whole territory of the young state, especially its borders with Serbia, and northern Kosovo Serbs’ determination to resist could produce more casualties. Belgrade has lost control and trust of the northern Kosovo Serb community, which now looks to homegrown leaders. The international community, especially the EU and U.S., should encourage Belgrade to accept the government in Pristina as an equal, even if without formal recognition, but not expect it can force local compliance in northern Kosovo. All sides should seek ways to minimise the risk of further conflict, while focusing on implementing what has been agreed in the bilateral technical dialogue. They should build confidence and lay the groundwork for the political talks needed to guide a gradual transformation in northern Kosovo and eventually lead to normal relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

The current flare-up of tensions began on 25 July 2011, when Pristina sent police to two customs gates along the border with Serbia. Local Serbs surrounded the police and forced them to retreat; one officer was killed in an ambush, and a border post was burned. On 16 September, EULEX, the EU rule of law mission, started to airlift Kosovo officials to the border. All roads leading to the customs points were barricaded by Kosovo Serbs intent on obstructing deployment of Kosovo officials. While the roadblocks have generally been peaceful, violence ensued on at least three occasions during the last months of the year, when NATO’s peace enforcement mission (KFOR) attempted to dismantle the barricades, and Kosovo Serbs pushed back. It is perhaps some testament to the general commitment to limiting casualties that while there have been many injuries, only two persons have died.

The dispute over customs is only a symptom of Serbia’s and Kosovo’s disagreement over sovereignty, especially with respect to the North. Belgrade is loath to take steps that could be interpreted as recognition of its southern neighbour, making normalisation extremely difficult. Pristina feels Serbia has increased its influence over the North since Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, despite a 2010 opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that the declaration did not violate international law; it consequently believes it needs to demonstrate now that it controls its borders, lest partition take root. Northern Kosovo Serbs do not want to live under Pristina’s authority and see the deployment of customs officials and police as the first step toward dismantling their institutions and way of life.

The EU expects Serbia to treat Kosovo like a normal country and reach agreements with it, even if it has not formally recognised it. In the approach to the December 2011 European Council, Serbia made important concessions, especially in the context of EU-facilitated technical talks with Kosovo, in a bid to secure EU candidate status. President Tadić called for dismantling of barricades in northern Kosovo, at least three were taken down, and his negotiators signed an agreement for Kosovo and Serbia to jointly manage the border crossing posts. But this did not convince all member states; on 9 December, the EU summit gave Serbia three new conditions for obtaining candidate status in March 2012. These will be difficult to meet in their entirety, and if Serbia cannot do so, that will be postponed to at least December and perhaps well beyond 2013, when Croatia joins. A less EU-oriented government may well be elected in 2012, at the same time as the Eurozone crisis drains support for enlargement in key member states, thereby weakening the EU’s strongest tool for conflict resolution in the western Balkans. If positions in Pristina and Belgrade then harden, compromise would be out of reach.

Serbia should be proactive in implementing the agreements made in the technical dialogue and in demonstrating strong political will to meet the additional EU conditions. It should work closely with the Kosovo Serbs to encourage them to lift their blockades and join talks with Pristina on reducing tensions in the North. At the same time, EU member states like Germany should not push overly ambitious demands, such as quick dismantling of parallel institutions, that neither Belgrade nor Pristina can deliver peacefully at present. EULEX and KFOR should likewise act with special prudence in this sensitive period.

After months demonstrating against EULEX and Kosovo officials, northern Kosovo Serbs are tired and frustrated but undeterred. They no longer trust Belgrade to fully protect their interests. Tensions can still spill over if Kosovo or KFOR try to coerce them to dismantle their roadblocks, or due to mishaps as the two new Serbia-Kosovo technical agreements on freedom of movement and management of crossing points are implemented. Serbia’s parliamentary elections (planned for May) are another flashpoint. In 2008 they were organised also in parts of Kosovo with significant Serb presence, leading to parallel municipal governments in southern Kosovo and to the Serbian municipalities that currently govern the North. Pristina may attempt to block a repeat in 2012 by impounding ballots, arresting organisers and closing the polling places it can reach.

No one involved wants armed conflict; yet, the stakes and tensions are high, and deadly violence remains a risk. All parties should focus on building the confidence and trust needed to open comprehensive and inclusive political talks between Kosovo and Serbia, with the participation of northern Kosovo community leaders, that can eventually lead to resolution on governance of the North and normalisation and recognition between Serbia and Kosovo. Many Serbs in Serbia and in Kosovo refuse to accept that the North should eventually fit within Kosovo’s constitutional order, yet Belgrade appears increasingly to realise its EU membership ambition can be met in no other way. For integration to be peaceful, however, it will have to be gradual and the result of political compromises and agreement. The forceful and unilateral methods applied at times in 2011 may appear expedient, but they create tensions and dangers that should be avoided in a still fragile region.

Pristina/Belgrade/Brussels, 2 February 2012

Report 218 / Europe & Central Asia

Setting Kosovo Free: Remaining Challenges

Kosovo deserves to celebrate today as the international community converts the “supervised independence” it achieved four years ago to full independence, but it must also do more to guarantee full protection of minority rights, especially those of the country’s Serb population.

Executive Summary

Kosovo has implemented much of the Ahtisaari plan – the blueprint for its democracy, providing substantial rights for Serbs and other minorities – and deserves to be fully independent, but there should be no slippage, and remaining parts of the plan should be honoured. The Pristina government mostly abides by it, and many Serbs south of the Ibar River now accept its authority, obey its laws and take part in political life in a way unimaginable four years ago. These achievements are threatened, however, by the tense Kosovo-Serbia relationship, declining Serb numbers and Pristina’s frustration at its inability to extend its sovereignty to the Serb-majority northern areas and to achieve full international recognition. A surge in ethnically-motivated attacks shows peace is fragile. The government should remain committed to the Ahtisaari requirement for minorities. But the plan was not meant to work in isolation and cannot be separated from the overall Kosovo-Serbia relationship. Belgrade needs to earn Pristina’s trust and acquiescence for its continued involvement on Kosovo territory, especially the south.

The early years of Kosovo’s independence were supervised by an International Civilian Office (ICO) created by the Ahtisaari plan. On 10 September 2012, the ICO and international “supervision” end, leaving the Pristina government with full responsibility for the young country. This is a crucial time for Kosovo’s relations with its Serb population and Serbia; the Ahtisaari plan still provides the best model to guarantee peaceful co-existence.

Many Serbs in Kosovo cooperate with state institutions in order to protect their rights and interests, but those in the North remain intransigent. The government has written most of the Ahtisaari plan into its constitution and laws, with generous provisions for Kosovo Serbs, though implementation is sometimes unsatisfactory. It has devolved powers to municipalities, allowing not only Serbs but also the majority Albanians greater say in how they run local affairs. Nevertheless, many in Pristina are starting to question what they see as the preferential treatment given to Serbs. Communication is getting harder, as few young people speak the other’s language. After years with only a small number of inter-ethnic incidents, attacks on Serbs are becoming more frequent.

Serbia does not feel bound by the Ahtisaari plan and thus maintains a significant presence in Kosovo that increased after independence in 2008, when Belgrade was intent on showing that it retained some control over its co-nation­als. In northern Kosovo, Belgrade’s control over local administration is almost complete. In the south, it mainly pays many Serbs’ salaries and pensions and runs education and health systems without informing Pristina. The Kosovo government tolerates this but could attempt to close the Belgrade-based institutions in the south. Such a crackdown would probably cause many Serbs to leave quickly. When it agreed to the Ahtisaari plan, Kosovo accepted that Serbia would stay involved on its territory, though in a cooperative and transparent way. Belgrade has rejected this cooperation, however, and Kosovo is showing signs of impatience. If it will not accept the letter of the Ahtisaari plan, Belgrade needs to act in its spirit or risk losing what influence it still has in the south.

A decade ago, two thirds of Kosovo’s Serbs lived south of the Ibar, scattered among an overwhelmingly Albanian population, one third in the heavily Serb North. That north-south Serb balance has shifted toward parity, and the southern Serb population is rural, aging and politically passive. Its pool of educated, politically savvy individuals is tiny and out of proportion to the large role assigned the community in the Ahtisaari plan, especially as the Serbs in northern municipalities refuse to participate. They and other minorities depend wholly on privileges, including quotas; they do not have enough votes to win legislative seats in open competition. Their minority delegates in the Assembly seldom resist Albanian policy preferences. Serb delegates allowed the government to gut the Ahtisaari promise of an “independent Serbian language television channel”, for example, replacing it with a Serbian channel controlled by the state broadcaster.

The creation of six Serb-majority municipalities south of the Ibar has, nevertheless, largely succeeded; they have taken over most of the governing role from parallel structures financed by Serbia, even though education and health care remains under Belgrade’s control. The bigger municipalities like Gračanica and Štrpce have active assemblies, are implementing infrastructure development projects with foreign and Kosovo government funding and are taking on responsibilities in a wide range of areas. Other new municipalities are small, lack competent staff and struggle to raise the resources they need. But all municipalities in Kosovo are competing for limited public and private funds. Central authorities have a tendency to micromanage their spending and deprive them of means to raise money. Few municipal governments, Serb and Albanian alike, have the trained staff needed to exercise their devolved powers effectively, and they seldom cooperate with each other even in areas of mutual interest.

Pristina and its international partners have failed almost completely to overcome still strong resistance to the return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Many of these are content to sell their property and resettle elsewhere, but stymied by corruption, intimidation and courts without Serbian language facilities cannot achieve even that modest goal. Even the Serbian Orthodox Church struggles to realise the property rights it has under the Ahtisaari plan. Serbs living in enclaves within Albanian-majority municipalities are increasingly vulnerable and in need of protection. Some villages in Serb-majority municipalities are also exposed to attacks from larger neighbouring Albanian settlements, usually motivated by conflict over land. Their security is Pristina’s responsibility, and the government must take effective measures to protect vulnerable minorities and their return.

The greatest obstacle facing the Serb community, and the serious threat to the Ahtisaari plan, may be the sheer difficulty of making a safe and sustainable living in minority areas. Mistrust, lack of proper registration and outright hostility all make it hard for minority-owned businesses to market goods and services to the majority. As there is little to do beyond farming in most Serb-majority municipalities, many Serbs depend on salaries from Belgrade. If these end, many educated Serbs will be tempted to leave. Education is another sensitive area, and parents who do not trust the local schools will not stay. The Serbian schools and hospitals should be allowed to continue, but Belgrade and Pristina need to negotiate a mechanism for their registration and oversight.

Pristina and Belgrade have an interest to cooperate and avoid an exodus of Kosovo’s Serbs that would leave Kosovo with a multi-ethnic constitution ill-matched to a mono-ethnic reality, creating fresh tensions for the region and undermining its image among its international supporters. Serbia could ill afford another wave of migrants in a difficult economic environment. Pristina faces a hard struggle extending its authority north of the Ibar and must show that Serbs can have a good life in independent Kosovo if it is to do so. If Pristina and Belgrade wish, as they should – even out of different motivations – that Kosovo be genuinely multi-ethnic, they must cooperate in support of its Serb community.

Pristina/Istanbul/Brussels, 10 September 2012