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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
Security on the Line in Kosovo-Serbia
Security on the Line in Kosovo-Serbia
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

Security on the Line in Kosovo-Serbia

Originally published in Today's Zaman

The situation between Kosovo and Serbia has just become a lot more insecure. Last week, EU Special Representative Catherine Ashton announced it was the last time that she was meeting Kosovo and Serbia prime ministers formally in the context of the mediation effort she has led since October 2012. Serbia said that it rejects the European proposals. Unless some form of talks continue, tensions will rise, and the EU's credibility as a conflict resolution actor will suffer another serious blow.
After years of posturing, punctuated by outbursts of violence in 2009 and 2011, Kosovo and Serbia first agreed to take part in EU facilitated talks in March 2011. They clinched agreements on trade relations, participation in regional meetings and recognition of one another's diplomats. Ashton then took up the reins of the dialogue to focus more broadly on the political challenge of normalizing Kosovo-Serbia relations and transforming Belgrade-financed institutions in Serb majority northern Kosovo into ones that could fit into Kosovo's jurisdiction.

This is where the sides failed to agree. Different proposals to deal with local administration, police, courts, electricity and telecommunications in the north were tabled. Pristina wants these institutions to fit within its existing constitution, with no separate Serb decision-making bodies on its territory. Belgrade seeks broad autonomy for the Serb population, including a regional government with some form of responsibility for local courts and police. The two visions moved surprisingly close but did not meet.    

The sides had clear motivations to reach a deal. Belgrade wants to start formal EU membership negotiations. Pristina seeks a preliminary association agreement (SAA) with the EU. Both need the European Commission to give a green light on April 16, ahead of a meeting of EU member states in June on enlargement issues. Without a deal, the commission's report can't be positive and skeptical states won't approve the start of membership talks for Serbia. Germany needs at least eight weeks to get the parliamentary approval to start the EU talks in June. Time is running out.

After June, a series of elections in the second half of 2013 and in 2014 -- in member states and EU institutions -- makes it highly unlikely that Kosovo and Serbia's issues will be on political leaders' agendas again until late in 2014.

Clearly aware of this timeline, even after refusing the current EU proposals, Serbia has requested the urgent resumption of the dialogue with Pristina, with EU mediation, which some in the Kosovar government are also seeking. The mood in Pristina is however that they have met their part of the deal and there is no need for them to make any further compromises.

Worst case scenario

But there is. A complete collapse of the talks now would be the worst possible outcome. After April, the EU membership carrot may become weaker for Serbia, but normalization should be a Serbian goal in its own right to assure its security and boost economic development and investment. Kosovo too needs to find a peaceful solution to integrate its Serb population, especially those living north of the Ibar River. Recognition or memberships in international organizations were never part of the talks, and they most probably will have to be put on the table if Serbia wants Kosovo to give even more autonomy to the Serbs living in the north than what the EU has proposed.   

If talks are suspended, the implementation of agreements made so far may stop all together. Even though jointly managed border posts were agreed in December, Kosovar and EU police are still being airlifted to carry out their duties and avoid Serb roadblocks. The setting up of liaison offices in Belgrade and Pristina has similarly been held up.             

It will be much worse if Kosovo and Serbia again try to change realities on the ground instead of at the negotiating table. A repeat of the July 2011 events, when Kosovo sent heavily armed police units to secure two border posts in the Serb-controlled north of Kosovo and causing one death, is possible.  Similarly, the Kosovar Serbs in the north may try to seal themselves from the rest of Kosovo, eject the limited EU police presence and put an end to any integration efforts, like the work of a small Pristina administration office or the joint border posts. Kosovar Serbs may organize a new round of local elections in defiance of Pristina and declare their own autonomy. The credibility and legitimacy of extremists unafraid of using force on both sides will increase.

The EU's role

The EU's credibility as a conflict resolution actor is also on the line. The talks' failure put into question its mediation and the ability of enlargement to promote conflict resolution. As Lady Ashton pointed out on Monday, she has met the Serbian and Kosovar prime ministers eight times, sometimes in sessions that lasted more than thirteen hours. This effort should not be thrown away if Kosovo and Serbia ask for her help.

If the EU is seen as having failed, the ability of its over 2,000-strong rule of law mission (EULEX) to operate firstly in Serb areas, but then also in the rest of Kosovo where its mandate is up for an extension in June 2014, may also be compromised.    

It's a crucial moment when the EU's, Kosovo's and Serbia's leaders should step up and demonstrate to their people that the only positive outcome possible is an agreement -- ideally in the coming weeks to meet EU member state deadlines, but if not, then later in the coming months. The two former warring parties have already gone a long way toward resolving their differences. Neither has said that the process is over; it cannot be over for the EU either.