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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 223 / Europe & Central Asia

Serbia and Kosovo: The Path to Normalisation

Serbia and Kosovo must build on a recent breakthrough in negotiations and extend dialogue to sensitive issues, especially northern Kosovo’s institutions, in order to keep their fragile relationship moving forward.

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Executive Summary

The ground shifted underfoot in Kosovo in December 2012. After years of posturing, punctuated by outbursts of violence, Serbia and Kosovo began to implement a landmark agreement on border control, opening joint posts at crossings that had been variously barricaded, circumvented or burned to the ground for much of the past two years. Bigger issues, including the courts, police and municipal structures in Serb-majority northern Kosovo, are now on the agenda of a high-level bilateral dialogue facilitated by the European Union (EU). The leaders of both states seem more ready than ever to compromise, but the northern Kosovo Serbs are staunchly opposed to integration, low-level violence is increasing, Kosovo nationalists are tense, and a spark could set off intercommunal fighting. Belgrade and Pristina should seize this chance to engage in a substantial discussion on the transformation of existing structures in the North and to offer a self-governing region that fits into Kosovo’s jurisdiction based on a flexible application of the Ahtisaari plan’s features.

Kosovo and Serbia still disagree on much. For Pristina, negotiation aims at winning Serb acceptance of the Ahtisaari plan – the framework devised originally by Martti Ahtisaari, the former UN special envoy – that set in place Kosovo’s internal structure and statehood. For Belgrade, the talks concern revision or improvement of agreements that it considers flawed or unacceptable, like the Ahtisaari plan. The gulf between the two expanded during years of little direct contact, ample mistrust and fractious domestic politics. Navigating a sure route through the waters will be hard, but recent developments provide hope, as results in the early stages of the talks have thawed some of the mutual rigidity. Serbia recently crossed a threshold by affirming, at least implicitly, Kosovo’s territorial integrity and jurisdiction over the North, though still denying its independence. Both capitals seem to have ruled out the use of force to reach a solution to their political dispute.

This report looks back at the technical dialogue conducted with EU facilitation since March 2011 and forward to the next stages of the high-level political talks that began in October 2012. The sides have resolved some practical issues: trade relations, participation in regional meetings and recognition of one another’s diplomas. Others – free movement of persons, personal documents, liaison offices, civil registry and property records – have been difficult, but some results are evident. Talks on telecommunications and energy have not led to agreement, and emotional subjects like missing persons have yet to be broached. The December opening of two jointly-managed border posts is the brightest achievement to date, and potentially an important one; the border regime touches almost every aspect of the Kosovo-Serbia dispute, from mundane practicalities to fundamental status and independence issues. Yet, the sides still have to finalise details, especially on customs controls, and Kosovo and EU police (EULEX) still must be granted full free movement to reach the Serbia border and carry out their duties.

The breakthrough was the first tangible result of talks between the two prime ministers and hosted by Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief. Until now, those meetings have been mainly about feeling one another out and making decisions on agreements framed earlier by experts. It has been possible to package results ambiguously enough to allow both sides to hold to their principles concerning Kosovo status. That period is ending, however. It will be more difficult to sustain ambiguity on the next agenda items, which deal with whose law and institutions will govern northern Kosovo.

In December 2012, EU member states set tough conditions closely tied to the gradual normalisation of their bilateral relations for Serbia and Kosovo to progress on their respective EU accession tracks. To begin membership negotiations, Serbia was asked to progressively deliver security and justice structures in northern Kosovo in cooperation with Kosovo. This means making substantial progress in discussions on how the local courts, police and municipalities are to be managed. While these institutions are currently outside Pristina’s control, solutions can be found that would affirm the state’s unity, while allowing local Serbs to retain their sense of ownership.

The transformation of northern structures into self-governing bodies that fit into Kosovo’s jurisdiction could open the way for offering the North a special arrangement as part of the overall solution. Much can be accomplished by flexible application of the Ahtisaari plan with regards to police, courts and regional government. One principle should be that Kosovo’s borders remain intact; another should be that the North govern itself as it wishes when it comes to issues of community concern, insofar as this does not damage Kosovo’s territorial integrity. Pristina also wants its status as an independent state affirmed, which Belgrade currently firmly rejects. Yet even here, there is room for compromise, with Serbia lifting its block on Kosovo’s membership in regional and international organisations and participation in international sporting and cultural events. These are complex, highly emotive issues the details of which can be worked out gradually, in step with Kosovo’s and Serbia’s EU accession processes.

But the dialogue is now at a decisive point. Belgrade’s and Pristina’s positions on northern Kosovo have never been closer. If they can finalise agreements on the border and make real progress in talks on governing institutions and the rule of law in the North before the European Council (summit) in June 2013, the EU is ready to reward both. For Kosovo, negotiating a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the European Union would ground it as firmly as the rest of the region in the accession process. For Serbia, starting formal membership negotiations would give a huge boost to its reform efforts. Coupled with Croatia’s EU accession in July, these gains would ripple through the western Balkans. But if talks collapse in the next few months, EU member-state politics would dictate a long pause that the fragile coalitions in Belgrade and Pristina might not survive, and the low-level violence that has racked the region in early 2013 could worsen. Such a promising opportunity may not come again soon, if at all.

Pristina/Belgrade/Brussels, 19 February 2013