North Kosovo Meltdown
North Kosovo Meltdown
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 8 minutes

North Kosovo Meltdown

The long-simmering dispute over the Serb-held North of Kosovo has entered a dangerous phase. Serbia and Kosovo are raising tensions in the field despite making technical agreements at the negotiation table. On 2 September the EU brokered an agreement on customs stamps and cadastral records. Observers could conclude that the crisis started on 25 July at the border is now over. It is not. An important first step, the agreement says nothing about who will actually control the two disputed border posts and the customs revenue they generate. The real dispute is about the status of north Kosovo. Belgrade still believes it can partition Kosovo, keeping the Serb-inhabited north. Pristina is intent on asserting its practical sovereignty over its whole territory. Until the two work out a compromise the situation risks quick deterioration.

There are daily violent incidents. Over the weekend, there was an explosion in the town of Zubin Potok, accompanied by gunfire. Serbs are, reportedly, organizing high school instruction for students at a massive roadblock outside the divided town of Mitrovica. The conflict has already taken one life; if Pristina and Belgrade do not back down, it can take many more, and push Kosovo-Serbia relations into a deep freeze for years or decades. This is the highest risk of violence and death the western Balkans have faced since 2008 Crisis Group believes, as do many sober diplomats and international observers in the region. Escalation suits many interests.

Kosovo police special forces were the first to shatter the fragile status quo when on 25 July they tried to take control of the two border posts in the north; after briefly holding one, they were forced to retreat and then ambushed with one fatality and several wounded. KFOR now controls the official border crossings, which are closed to commercial traffic, and is starting to close the unofficial routes northerners use to bring in goods and smuggle. No Kosovo customs officials are present, and only one gate has Kosovo border police so the situation remains unstable.

Pristina turned up the heat because it felt that it had waited long enough to control the disputed territory where Belgrade-financed parallel institutions function. High level Kosovo officials promise more operations soon. Kosovo no longer believes that the international community, especially the EU and its rule of law mission (EULEX), will give the north back. It is oblivious to the depth of opposition to its rule amongst the Serbs who live there. By prodding KFOR into closing the border to commercial traffic, shutting off smuggling, Pristina believes that it did more to reclaim the North in one day than its international partners have in almost three years.

Pristina has been transformed by the 25 July operation. Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi, extremely weak just months ago, unable to place his preferred candidate in the presidency, with close party colleagues under indictment for war crimes, and facing steep economic problems, is now the supreme Kosovo leader. The opposition cannot touch him. The border operation was carefully packaged and televised as a kind of national catharsis: finally we are taking guns in hand and showing the world, and the Serbs, that this land is ours.

But Thaçi has not yet gained enough to assure his place in history: all he has done is temporarily stop smuggling by closing the border; he still has to get his customs agents on that border, re-open the Mitrovica court, assert full control over the Serb Kosovo police, and finally, hold an election in the North. Otherwise, as the weeks pass, his foray to the border will only look like a publicity stunt rather than the first step toward the integration of the North.

High level Kosovo officials have told Crisis Group repeatedly that Pristina will go ahead this fall – “at all costs”. They do not appear concerned about international requests to refrain from provocations or unilateral acts and over the following months are considering to:

  • Return border police or customs officials to the Northern gates. Kosovo police are legitimate authorities and KFOR will not oppose them. Local Serbs will respond with blockades, and probably violence.
  • Return judges and prosecutors to the EULEX-operated courthouse in North Mitrovica, site of the worst post-independence fighting in which almost 100 local and international soldiers and police were wounded in March 2008. The courthouse is guarded by EULEX; if Kosovars return unilaterally, the EU mission will have to protect and work with them. The courthouse is in a downtown location Serbs can easily surround.
  • Try to improve discipline among the Kosovo Police (KP) Serb officers in the North, whose loyalty is suspect (many draw a second salary from Serbia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs). Four Serb KP commanders have already been dismissed for refusing to follow orders. If Pristina forces the Northern KP to choose openly between Serbia and Kosovo, it will further marginalise the police and diminish their ability to operate.
  • Start to confiscate Serbian vehicle plates issued for the northern municipalities by unofficial Serb authorities. Northerners driving south into the rest of Kosovo can easily be stopped, but the KP may send patrols northward too, which would provoke a response.
  • Try to retake the Valač electric substation which powers the North or cut all of North Kosovo off for non-payment.

With limited security forces, to impose itself, Pristina will have to work in cooperation with – or make strategic use of – international forces, notably KFOR and EULEX. The steps outlined are designed to encourage or compel internationals to intervene on its side. Yet neither KFOR nor EULEX is prepared begin occupying the North and are deeply concerned with force protection.

Northern Serbs would respond with large scale nonviolent actions, chiefly roadblocks and demonstrations. The belief in Pristina and some foreign capitals that Serbs are coerced or paid to participate is false. There are several hundred heavily armed Serbs, many linked to Mitrovica criminal gangs, who may well open fire on Kosovo officials, EULEX and KFOR. North Kosovo Serbs might also resist encroachment by Pristina, no matter what Belgrade tells them. In the worse case, a cycle of reprisals can translate into attacks on civilians throughout Kosovo. For example, Albanian villagers in the North have already threatened their own roadblocks which could cut Mitrovica off from Serbia. If they are attacked, revenge attacks on Serb enclaves in southern Kosovo, especially on the ancient Serbian Orthodox monasteries in Peja and Deçan are likely. These areas were targeted in 2004 but have since been peaceful.

Right now, the EU and U.S. should help Kosovo and Serbia find a limited compromise to defer conflict, give Pristina enough to feel it has affirmed its sovereignty over the North but not so much as to compel Belgrade to admit the North is lost. The immediate issue is stopping smuggling through the Northern border, a rule of law challenge which Kosovo and Serbia share. The key is to focus on this aspect of the problem and not its political implications where Kosovo and Serbia battle over sovereignty.

The EU helped by mediating a technical dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, which brought on 2 September an agreement on customs stamps. But agreements that work on paper still need substantial support in the implementation phase. The EU should continue its effective work on customs. Pristina has in the past agreed to delegate operation of customs at the northern gates to EULEX – something already anticipated in Kosovo law. The UN “six point plan” – a compromise that permitted EULEX to deploy in the absence of agreement on Kosovo independence – provides for the same, with the dues collected to be used “also, as appropriate, [to] benefit the development of local communities”. Pristina wants its own customs officers at the Northern gates and customs dues paid into the central Kosovo budget – both rejected by Serbs.

Given the impasse, the EU should step up, send its own officers to the gates, collect customs dues under Kosovo law, and deposit the proceeds into an escrow account for projects agreed by Pristina and the North. Alternatively, Belgrade and Pristina could agree to divert all commercial traffic to non-Northern gates, where Kosovo customs function normally, leaving gates 1 and 31 to handle only those goods needed by Northern residents. As a further gesture of goodwill, they could offer private cars owned by people living near the border an “Easy-Pass” lane subject only to occasional spot checks.

The key is to act against smugglers and other criminals and not against the northerners’ way of life, which includes their municipal representatives, elected under Serbian law. Pristina sees the latter as “criminal” too – and some of them may be as corrupt as the Balkan norm – but they are legitimate in ordinary Serbs’ eyes. Fuel smugglers, drug traffickers and tax cheats have no patriotic credibility. Pristina, Belgrade and EULEX can take them on with local support.

The EU and its member states also have a role to play vis-a-vis Serbia, a potential member. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped into the dispute on 23 August, telling Serbia that her country would block granting Serbia EU candidate status until it took steps to dismantle its institutions and lift its control over North Kosovo. This would signal that it was giving up on partition, now Serbia’s only strategy for Kosovo. The message shocked Serbia. The EU and U.S. have long taken a consistent position: Serbia need not recognise Kosovo’s independence but must accept its territorial integrity and work with its government on practical matters. Belgrade’s position has been the opposite: first partition of Kosovo, then recognition of its independence, until then membership in international organizations and sovereignty over the North is suspended. The German wake-up call may have been graceless, coming so soon after the arrests of Ratko Mladić and Goran Hadžić, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Finding a compromise on customs today is urgent. Finding a comprehensive solution to the North is far more important. Belgrade must realize that partition is impossible and formulate a new strategy. The U.S. and important EU states will not allow Kosovo to be pressured into buying its independence with land. Sticking with an approach based on the fantasy that Pristina, Washington and Brussels would someday agree to partition or an exchange of territory before Serbia-Kosovo relations have been normalised is a costly mistake for the governing Democratic Party (DS).

But at the same time Kosovo is wrong if it believes that it can win over the North through a cunning use of force. Pristina lacks the capacity to enforce its will on the North and escalation will only deepen Serbs’ fear and anger toward the Kosovo government. A EULEX customs deal will help Brussels get back some of the weight it needs to encourage Kosovo to avoid irresponsible provocations. Engaging Kosovo as a potential member, starting by providing it a road map of reforms needed for visa-free travel through the Schengen zone, will do more to build up EU credibility.

EU membership is still an important carrot and has a direct effect on developments on the ground. One of the reasons that Pristina acted as it did in July was due to fear that Serbia could get EU candidacy in December and possibly a negotiations start date with the status of the North still up in the air, leaving Brussels with fewer opportunities to impose conditionality on Serbia regarding Kosovo. Fall has barely started in Kosovo but the next few months are going to be a crucial test for the EU’s Western Balkans strategy of maintaining peace and stability through dialogue and accession.

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