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The Kosovo-Serbia Agreement: Why Less Is More
The Kosovo-Serbia Agreement: Why Less Is More
Briefing 56 / Europe & Central Asia

Kosovo: Štrpce, a Model Serb Enclave?

Štrpce, one of Kosovo’s largest Serb enclaves and one of the few with good Serb-Albanian relations and economic prospects, risks falling victim to the status dispute between Belgrade and Pristina.

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I. Overview

Štrpce, one of Kosovo’s largest Serb enclaves and one of the few with good Serb-Albanian relations and economic prospects, risks falling victim to the status dispute between Belgrade and Pristina. But it also has a chance to demonstrate to Serbs that they can protect their interests within Kosovo’s constitutional order. Since May 2008, the municipality has been governed by competing authorities, both Serb-led: an official government appointed by the UN in the face of local opposition and a parallel regime elected in defiance of Kosovo law. Neither has the capacity to perform its duties. The impasse has deprived this peaceful enclave of effective government and devastated its economy, notably by preventing regulation of its lucrative property market and blocking privatisation of the Brezovica ski resort. Local elections on 15 November 2009 can end the uneasy status quo, give Štrpce a legitimate government and unlock its economic potential. Belgrade, Pristina and the international community should encourage voting and thereafter equip the municipal government with the expanded powers and resources it needs.

Belgrade has long viewed Kosovo’s Serbs as an instrument with which to undermine Kosovo’s independence, sponsoring parallel elections under Serbian law and providing substantial economic support. But Serbia lacks the ability to provide meaningful government services in southern enclaves such as Štrpce. The parallel municipal government provides few benefits to residents and is increasingly irrelevant to their daily lives. Serbia should place the interests of Štrpce’s residents first and acknowledge that they require a relationship with authorities in Pristina. By supporting a multi-ethnic municipality, Belgrade would continue to play a role in the institutions most important to the local Serbs, such as education and healthcare, while at the same time it would give residents the opportunity to focus on everyday issues that are meaningful to them.

The Kosovo government has been slow to grant Štrpce and other municipalities the enhanced powers and competences envisaged by the Ahtisaari plan, the framework document developed by Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland, when he attempted to mediate the status dispute as the UN Secretary-General’s special representative before the territory declared independence. Pristina insists that such decentralisation develops in both the southern enclaves and hardline Serb north, partly to avoid setting any precedent that could stoke thoughts of partition. Many in the government also view decentralisation as a reward, not a right, and expect Kosovo’s Serbs to accept the central government’s authority explicitly before powers are transferred to their municipalities. Low Serb turnout in the election, in this view, would be justification for more delay in implementing decentralisation.

Some Serb parties will stand, but without the participation of the large, Serbia-based ones, turnout may be too low to produce an electoral result fully in accordance with actual demography and political preferences. In that event, Pristina should act to enable a united, multi-ethnic municipal government:

  • The ministry for local government affairs should in these exceptional circumstances appoint a local Serb mayor and new municipal assembly drawn from the registered Serb and Albanian candidates. This would provide Štrpce a genuinely representative municipal government, albeit one in which only the Albanians may have demonstrated this credential by receiving a true electoral mandate from their constituents. But the mandate of the Serb incumbents, already extended once, has no legitimacy and should not be extended again.
     
  • The Kosovo government should then entrust the new municipality with the enhanced competences and other tools it needs to manage Štrpce on behalf of all its residents.

Establishing a legitimate, effective municipal government would ensure that Štrpce can deal effectively with its main issues – Brezovica (Kosovo’s best known tourist destination) and the Weekend Zone, prime real estate in the heart of the Sharri/Šara National Park. The Brezo­vica ski resort features some of the best slopes in Europe; suitably developed, it could drive economic growth and job creation throughout the local region. Privatisation and development have been held up for a decade by ownership disputes and allegations of corruption; fresh local leadership is needed.

Once Kosovo’s environment and spatial planning ministry (MESP) prepares a comprehensive land-use plan and the municipality approves it, the resort should be placed on the market. Any property claims by Serbian companies can be resolved by the special privatisation chamber of the Kosovo Supreme Court, which has a majority of international judges.

A new approach is also needed for the Weekend Zone, where hundreds of luxurious villas have been built, many illegally, within the national park. Control over construction there has been one of the most lucrative perks for both current municipal governments. Inability to maintain order in the Weekend Zone saps credibility, harms the environment and deprives the municipality of tax revenue it badly needs. Demolition of illegal buildings is not the answer. Instead:

  • the new municipal authorities should impose stiff fines on owners and legalise existing houses, while preventing further construction; and
     
  • if necessary, EULEX, the European Union’s law enforcement mission in Kosovo, should use its authority to investigate and prosecute corruption.

Progress in Štrpce would likely have a catalytic impact on decentralisation throughout Kosovo. The municipality can serve as a model towards which newly formed Serb-majority municipalities can strive. With Belgrade boycotting decentralisation and Pristina seemingly uninterested in the process, visible, on the ground developments and benefits are the best bet for convincing sceptical Serbs that they have a future in Kosovo.

Pristina/Brussels, 15 October 2009 

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.