Reassuring Kosovo's Serbs
Reassuring Kosovo's Serbs
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Reassuring Kosovo's Serbs

One month after Kosovo declared independence, the sky has not fallen. As countries have one by one recognised the new state, the predictions of apocalypse have come to naught. Despite the violence in Mitrovica on March 17, massive displacement and regional instability that many said would occur simply never materialised.

The Pandora's box of further independence claims by entities as widespread as South Ossetia, Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, the Basque region, Scotland and Flanders was not flung open. The international order did not collapse. The US and Europe are still able to talk with Russia.

Most importantly, in Kosovo itself, the new government has reached out to the Serb minority, adopting multi-ethnic state symbols including a new flag. It is passing laws and finalising a new constitution. The EU has acted with remarkable unity. Even in the face of a few member states' hesitancy to recognise Kosovo, the EU approved the deployment of a large rule of law mission and a special representative. Nato is continuing to perform its assigned security tasks, and the UN is supporting governance in advance of turning these functions over to the Kosovans and the EU representatives. A multinational donors' conference is planned for June, and a number of foreign donors have already pledged major financial support.

Of course, it is still early days, and there is ample reason for caution. The violence in Mitrovica, involving Serb attacks on UN and Nato forces as they removed peaceful protestors who had occupied a regional court and led to at least one death, coincides with the four-year anniversary of rioting by ethnic Albanian mobs in which 19 died, hundreds of Serb homes were destroyed, and dozens of churches and monasteries were damaged. Kosovo's Serbs plan to commemorate the deplorable events of March 2004 with more large scale demonstrations. Unlike in 1999 however, most of Kosovo's Albanians and Serbs both now know that violence will do nothing to help their cause.

These ethnic divides are at the heart of the challenge for a future democratic Kosovo. Kosovo's Albanians and Serbs simply do not trust each other, they do not communicate, and they do not give the same meaning to events. The situation is obviously not helped by Belgrade encouraging Serbs to boycott Kosovo's new governing institutions, including the courts, police, hospitals and universities. These are precisely the forums where normal citizens have the chance to interact and overcome their differences.

The new Kosovo leadership also needs to be sensitive to the concerns of its Serb minority and realise that it is going to take time to integrate them into its institutions and society. The March 17 violence in Mitrovica shows how difficult this will be. While resisting an expansion of Serbian links with northern Kosovo and the Serb enclaves, Kosovans should move toward decentralisation of local governance and the creation of a new municipality for the majority Serb area of north Mitrovica.

The biggest tension line in Kosovo today runs along the Ibar river, north of which Kosovan Serbs are insisting on maintaining allegiance to Belgrade as if they were still citizens of Serbia. Serious violent incidents over the past month occurred here not only at the court but also at border crossing points between Serbia and Kosovo, manned by the Kosovo police service and the UN. Serbs do not want the border to be formalised because this would put an end to their illusion of living within Serbia and close down lucrative trafficking routes.

The international community - the UN, EU and Nato - should coordinate its message to Kosovan Serbs and make it very clear: we will protect your rights, but within the borders of Kosovo. The UN and Nato should seek to effectively control the border, police stations, courts and jails, and cooperate in reshaping their northern presence to aid transition and gradually introduce the EU rule-of-law mission (Eulex), first at border and customs posts. This will only work if the internationals have a comprehensive coordinated policy.

The world could also more actively embrace the fledgling state. A month on, 27 countries have already recognised independent Kosovo, including 16 EU member states. The US, EU member states, and Kosovo itself, should push for more bilateral recognitions to increase stability.

As for relations between Serbia and Kosovo, we need to take a long view. Some years from now, both countries will likely become member states of the EU. True, Serbia's upcoming elections may determine that Belgrade will take a nationalist detour first, but in the end, they will get there. As partners within a broader union, the natural advantages of economic, political and social ties between these two nations will help to overcome the tensions and animosity that manifested themselves over the past decades. No doubt, the past few weeks, despite some disturbances, have moved Europe closer to that end goal.

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