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Kosovo Countdown: A Blueprint for Transition
Kosovo Countdown: A Blueprint for Transition
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The Kosovo-Serbia Agreement: Why Less Is More
The Kosovo-Serbia Agreement: Why Less Is More
Report 188 / Europe & Central Asia

Kosovo Countdown: A Blueprint for Transition

Kosovo’s transition to the status of conditional, or supervised, independence has been greatly complicated by Russia’s firm support of Serbia’s refusal to accept that it has lost its one-time province.

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Executive Summary

Kosovo’s transition to the status of conditional, or supervised, independence has been greatly complicated by Russia’s firm support of Serbia’s refusal to accept that it has lost its one-time province. Recognition of conditional independence has broad international, and certainly European Union (EU) and American, support. Under threat of Moscow’s veto, the Security Council will not revoke its Resolution 1244 of 1999 that acknowledged Serbian sovereignty while setting up the UN Mission (UNMIK) to prepare Kosovo for self-government pending a political settlement on its future status. Nor will the Council be allowed to approve the plan for a conditionally independent Kosovo devised by the Secretary-General’s special representative, Martti Ahtisaari, earlier this year and authorise the EU-led missions meant to implement that plan.

While the Troika of U.S., EU and Russian diplomats explored the bleak prospects for Kosovo-Serbia agreement over the past several months, Brussels and Washington have also been able to use the time to devise ways to support Kosovo’s transition to conditional independence without needing the support of the Security Council. The EU now has a better sense of the need to maintain its unity and take primary responsibility for the crisis. But Kosovo and the wider Western Balkans have become less stable, and further delay would worsen matters: this is not a situation that can drift comfortably into “frozen conflict” status. Once the Contact Group reports the inevitable Troika failure to the UN Secretary-General on or about 10 December, the “Quint” – France, Germany, Italy, the UK and U.S. – should, despite Serbian and Russian opposition, promptly begin implementing a plan to orchestrate a peaceful transition culminating in Kosovo’s conditional independence in May 2008.

The situation on the ground risks overtaking capitals. Belgrade and hardline local leaders have pulled Serbs further away from the Albanian majority in Kosovo, encouraging their boycott of the 17 November 2007 elections. Clashes involving Albanian armed groups have occurred in northern Macedonia and tensions, encouraged by Serbia and Russia, have increased in Bosnia. It will take perhaps into January for the winners of the Kosovo elections to form their new government, which will be one prepared to work with Western supporters but not to accept another round of talks with Belgrade. It is apparent from the intensive efforts of the Troika, which provided the parties ample opportunity to explore every possible solution, that there is no chance for a negotiated agreement.

Accepting paralysis is not a viable option, however. It would lead to an uncoordinated, unsupervised, possibly violent independence process that could stimulate instability in Kosovo’s neighbour countries. It would also seriously damage both the UN’s prestige and the EU’s development as a major political actor on the global stage.

Much now depends on the dynamics between the EU and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The EU must say officially at the 14 December European Council of heads of state and government that it considers the negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo to be over, that the Ahtisaari plan is the best way forward and that it is ready to deploy field missions (a rule-of-law mission under its European Security and Defence Policy, ESDP, and an International Civilian Office, ICO). Following that, the Secretary-General needs to make clear that he welcomes the EU pledge to create the new missions to further implement 1244. Thereafter, in early 2008, the EU should take the necessary action to deploy both missions.

The Secretary-General and Brussels have a degree of mutual dependence in this process. Without a clear and unequivocal message from the European Council meeting, Ban is unlikely to feel able to make any statement welcoming the EU missions. He cannot be expected to act against Russian pressure without certainty that the EU itself will be resolute. And without his help in giving at least some semblance of UN cover, the EU will be less likely to overcome last reservations and vote on actual mission deployment.

The U.S., UK and France will have to work hard in New York – and be prepared to accept some damage in their relations with Moscow – to ensure that the clear majority of the Security Council will lend support to such a course. It would be prudent to move quickly to obtain statements from the current membership in December, since most of the five new members who will rotate on to the Council in January 2008 will take a considerable time to familiarise themselves with the issues. The stage would then be set for the new Kosovo government in January to state its intention to declare independence on Ahtisaari plan terms in May, following a 120-day transition (also foreseen by Ahtisaari), and to invite the EU immediately to deploy the new missions, as well as NATO to keep its force (KFOR) there. The Quint and as many EU member states as possible would, following that statement of intention, pledge to recognise Kosovo’s independence promptly after the declaration in May 2008, provided it acts during the 120-day transition in conformity with the Ahtisaari plan.

Much else remains to be done. NATO, UNMIK and Kosovo institutions must agree on a security plan to ensure a peaceful transition. Pristina is behind in developing the laws necessary to implement the Ahtisaari plan. Considerable planning and liaison is required within the EU, between the Quint and Pristina, and between advance elements of the missions and Kosovo authorities to ensure that all know the post-independence division of responsibilities. The elected government and its institutions, not the missions, must be UNMIK’s primary successors, but those missions must be accepted to have the discretionary power to monitor and supervise as Ahtisaari envisaged even without a clear Security Council mandate. New joint commissions and procedures on the ground may be part of the formula.

Of course, even after a conditionally independent Kosovo is up and running, the international community will still need to help it and Serbia resolve their dispute in a manner that leads ultimately to the revocation of Resolution 1244, gains Kosovo UN membership and at last guarantees Western Balkan stability. In the immediate term, the EU will need to maintain consensus that the European Commission should help the new state get on its feet economically and travel the long road to EU membership. The West must keep pressures and incentives on Serbia to accept reality. That acceptance will take time. In the current political constellation in Belgrade, the prospect of EU membership is not alluring enough to produce a fundamental policy reversal. Nevertheless, if it is to retain its ability to resolve a latent conflict, the EU should not repeat its mistake with Cyprus and allow Serbia to join until it has squared relations with Pristina.

But the task of the moment is to make conditional independence operational, without further hesitation.

Pristina/Belgrade/New York/Brussels, 6 December 2007

The Kosovo-Serbia Agreement: Why Less Is More

The 19 April agreement between Kosovo and Serbia is an earthquake in Balkan politics: the ground lurched, familiar landmarks toppled, the aftershocks are still rumbling and the new contours are only slowly emerging.

The two prime ministers initialed a “First Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalisation of Relations” in Brussels. The brief, fifteen-point text is the first bilateral agreement between Serbia and its former province; as the title suggests, it’s unlikely to be the last. Curiously neither government has published it, though a reportedly authentic version leaked quickly in the Pristina press.

The spinning has been furious among advocates (the EU and both governments), opponents and commentators on both sides of the Atlantic. It is too soon to try to say what it all means. For now clarity comes from focusing on the few patches of firm ground.

There are only two sure things about the agreement, both are very important, and neither is spelled out anywhere in its text. The first is that the Serbian government has given up on keeping northern Kosovo in its system and has ceded its authority to Pristina. The second is that Belgrade has implicitly recognised that Kosovo is a state. These are tectonic shifts, whose effects will be felt no matter what happens with the early attempts to implement the deal.

The New Normalising 

The agreement’s title itself is misleading: ostensibly about “normalisation of relations”, the first twelve of the agreement’s fifteen points cover instead the governance of Kosovo’s Serb-controlled northern region. Only one point is explicitly about bilateral relations, and all it says is that neither party will block the other’s progress toward the EU.

The agreement specifies creation of an “Association/Community of Serb majority municipalities”.[fn]See Crisis Group Report Serbia and Kosovo: The Path to Normalistion.Hide Footnote The dual name is another sign of trouble ahead: for Serbia, it is a Zajednica (union or community) of municipalities, a governing entity newly established by the agreement, while for Kosovo, it is merely an inter-municipal association like one that already exists to help local governments coordinate and share expertise.

What Belgrade and Pristina have initialed is not so much an agreement as a set of principles that must be elaborated before they can be implemented, and the elaboration can be as hard-fought as the agreement itself. Consider the second point:

The Community/Association will be created by statute. Its dissolution shall only take place by a decision of the participating municipalities. Legal guarantees will be provided by applicable law and constitutional law (including the 2/3 majority rule).

The first sentence is silent as to who shall legislate the statute: the Kosovo Assembly (as Pristina prefers), the municipalities in question (which operate under Serbian law) or newly elected municipal bodies (under Kosovo law). The second implies the entity cannot be dissolved by a court decision, which suggests it is to have some kind of constitutional status. The third mentions a “constitutional law”, something that does not exist in the Kosovo system (but does in the Serbian one), and a “2/3 majority rule” of which Kosovo has at least two. It also mentions “legal guarantees”, but not what they are to protect. Most of the other points are as diaphanous as this one, amenable to different readings and needing a lot of follow-up work to give them life.

The Brussels House Style - And Its Limits

Followers of the history of EU mediation between Belgrade and Pristina will recognise this ambiguity as the Brussels house style: get the parties to commit publicly to an agreement whose content is to be filled in later, often by EU officials, out of the spotlight. The advantage of this approach lies in making possible agreements that would be politically deadly if spelled out in black and white. The cost, however, is steep. Both sides can feel cheated, and Belgrade especially tends to squeal when implementation begins on terms that were only implied in the text itself.

Much of the agreement depends on the cooperation of the northern Kosovo Serbs and their leaders, all of whom reject the deal and promise to resist.  This community has a bad reputation these days; they are portrayed as extremists, criminals, or at best simply too few in number to matter. That portrait is unfair: as those who spend time in the North know, its people are little different from their neighbors across the Balkans. Rejection of the Belgrade-Pristina deal comes from a bedrock patriotism that is common to most populations who see state borders shift against their will. Given the near-total absence of law enforcement, the area is surprisingly peaceful; since Kosovo declared independence in 2008 there have been only four fatalities in the North linked to the dispute. During tense times, improvised bombs explode and pot shots ring out, but are meant to warn or intimidate and seldom injure anyone. The only serious confrontations have pitted locals against NATO’s peacekeepers when the latter tried to remove barricades in 2011 and 2012.

While the two governments can, and should, implement a few measures right away, it’s impossible to guess the shape that northern Kosovo government will finally take. The two governments should coordinate the transfer of all security sector staff in Kosovo from Belgrade payroll and jurisdiction to Pristina, which entails: taking existing Kosovo Police (KP) off the Serbian payroll (many have been drawing two salaries, one from each state) and otherwise leaving them alone, and transferring the several hundred (reputed) undercover Serbian officers over to Kosovo payroll. This is less provocative than it sounds, because the “Kosovo Police” brand is widely accepted in northern Kosovo and seen as essentially local, regardless of who pays. It is important the two capitals work together to ensure no interruption in payment and no interregnum during which displaced cops can be recruited by organised crime.

Too much focus on the agreement’s specifics is likely to mislead; many of its provisions will be modified in practice and some may be simply forgotten over time.

Implementing the agreement will require both countries to amend the relevant legislation. One or both may have to amend their constitutions. The issues will have to be aired in public, members of parliament will have to take stands. Early signs are not encouraging. Kosovo’s Assembly approved the deal after a raucous late-night session featuring angry denunciations by the opposition Vetëvendosje (Self-Determination) party, whose supporters rallied outside the legislature. The Serbian parliament refused to vote on the agreement itself, claiming that to do so would constitute recognition of Kosovo; instead, it approved the government’s report on the negotiations. Earlier technical agreements between the two are held up on appeal to Serbia’s constitutional court on grounds that the government impermissibly changed by decree issues that must be regulated by law.

Northern leaders are still stunned by Belgrade’s move, which took them by complete surprise. They have yet to digest its implications, and early reactions bear a distinct resemblance to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, and a few signs of depression and acceptance. They seem to hope the deal will die without their cooperation, but have no real plan. Some day soon, should Belgrade start to squeeze them in earnest, the residents of northern Kosovo will face stark choices. Their preference – the status quo, ignoring Pristina and largely integrated into the Serbian system – is no longer possible. There are many things Belgrade can do, starting with money (reducing or eliminating bonuses, cutting positions), and going on to dissolving municipal governments on a pretext and replacing them with more pliant staff, arresting key local leaders on real or trumped-up charges, closing various offices, and even the “nuclear option” of closing the two main employers, the university and medical centre. The limiting factors are legal (as in many ex-communist states, workers have many rights and are hard to fire) and political (they do not want to provoke a televised exodus, even a small one). One ironic component of this story is that Serbia will probably be tacitly encouraged to violate its own laws by the EU to make all this work, as doing it properly – amending all the relevant legislation and regulation – would take much longer than Brussels prefers.

A Self-Governing North, and the De Facto Recognition of Kosovo

The big irony here is that Belgrade’s preferences on implementing the deal are more threatening to the northern Kosovo Serbs than are those advocated by Pristina or the EU, because it is much easier to resist the latter. Serbia wants to form the Community quickly, out of the existing municipal governments; name a senior Serb police officer to take charge of integrating the illegal Serbian security presence into Kosovo institutions; and transfer the existing Serbian court to Kosovo jurisdiction. These steps would bundle the local population and their leaders into a loose Kosovo jacket that could be tightened over time as tempers cool. Kosovo wants to defer forming the Association until the OSCE organises local elections; supervise the transfer of security officials; and dissolve the Serbian court and staff a new Kosovo court. Northerners can easily boycott or sabotage all of those measures and probably remain confident that Pristina would stick to its positions.

The North has fourteen years of experience resisting pressure from Kosovo,[fn]See Crisis Group report North Kosovo: Dual Sovereignty in Practice.Hide Footnote with a large arsenal ranging from community pressure and civil disobedience to organised boycotts, intimidation and occasional pitched battles. But they do not know how to fight Belgrade. In the near term, the stronger Serbia’s influence over northern Kosovo is, the more that territory will integrate with Pristina; and the more Serbia pulls back, the more the North will maintain its independence from Kosovo. The clearest example of this paradox is Serbia’s plan to pass a constitutional law transferring its governing authority over Serbian municipalities to what it calls the “provisional institutions” in its “autonomous province” of Kosovo. Pristina would surely reject such a law and see it as an insult; yet it would leave the North no legal avenue to keep rejecting integration into the Kosovo system.

With or without a Serbian constitutional amendment, there is no way for northern Kosovo to keep saying it rejects the Belgrade-Pristina agreement but is otherwise a normal part of the Serbian legal and administrative system, because Belgrade is transferring it to Pristina’s authority. The North is thinking of three options. It can submit to integration into the Kosovo system, and work to expand the space of autonomy it offers them. It can declare independence, with an aim of negotiating a better deal with one or both of the states that claim it. Or it can strike out on its own without any formal declarations, subverting and obstructing the agreement where it can and hoping for a re-negotiation.

Curiously, all three courses lead toward the same place: a largely self-governing region, with some ties to a Kosovo whose independence it rejects, and with other ties to Serbia. The differences are in emphasis and symbolism, emotionally powerful but with modest practical implications. Pristina and Belgrade should refrain from sudden or provocative moves. So far there has been no surge in violence against Kosovo institutions in the North but that is a risk in the near future, with the North Mitrovica Administrative Office and its staff being the most obvious targets. These should be protected.

There is no point holding elections without significant local support. If the North is firmly opposed, there is a risk of violence against the organisers, and polls that require hefty KFOR protection would be of little use. Belgrade and Pristina need to explain, in detail, what the agreement means for northern Kosovo. They should take the time necessary to prepare the ground.

All previous accords were packaged as deals between Serbia and some external player – the UN or the EU – acting as Kosovo’s proxy. This is the first high level agreement between the two states, and shows that Serbia can deal with Kosovo as an equal. It is a kind of de facto recognition of Kosovo and that may be its greatest long-term significance. Whatever else happens, it is easier today to imagine that Serbia may one day formally recognise the independence of its former province. Yet the thaw in Belgrade-Pristina relations is still fragile and easy to reverse. Both capitals should make improving their bilateral ties the priority, and should not allow lingering disagreements over northern Kosovo to impede them. Better state-to-state relations are much more important than administrative details governing the North.