Serb Integration in Kosovo: Taking the Plunge
Serb Integration in Kosovo: Taking the Plunge
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
Report / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Serb Integration in Kosovo: Taking the Plunge

More than a year after Kosovo declared independence, integration of its Serb minority remains a key challenge.

Executive Summary

More than a year after Kosovo declared independence, integration of its Serb minority remains a key challenge. For Belgrade, isolating Serbs from Kosovo institutions is a main plank in its policy of undermining the independence of its former province. A further crucial goal is to stem the Serb exodus, by providing for their needs there. Belgrade has devoted significant resources to this end, but with only limited success, especially south of the Ibar River, where the majority of Kosovo Serbs live. Parallel Serbian municipalities there operate only to a limited extent and have largely been unable to meet the needs of Serb communities. The Kosovo government and international bodies are pressing ahead with decentralisation as the best way to engage Serbs in the institutions of the new state and persuade them they have a future in it. They need to show sensitivity towards Serb concerns. References to Kosovo’s status should be avoided, and Serb participation should not be presented as a triumph for independence.

Contrary to Belgrade’s boycott calls, Serbs have in increasing numbers found ways of engaging pragmatically with Kosovo institutions, relying on them for services, applying for Kosovo official documents and accepting Kosovo (as well as Serbian) salaries. Belgrade’s policy of opposing all engagement has proved unrealistic for Serbs in the south, who, living among Albanians, have found there is no choice but to deal with the society around them.

The Serbian government’s approach has become even more difficult to sustain with the severe budgetary constraints resulting from the global economic crisis. Its funding of the Kosovo Serbs has included salary supplements and other perks for public sector workers, as an inducement to remain in Kosovo, but it has been forced to cut back, further reducing its leverage and control.

Ultimately, such financial incentives do not contribute to a sustainable future for Serbs in Kosovo. Providing for the educational needs of Serbs there through to university, for example, may mean jobs for teachers, but it does not create the conditions for young people to remain. Once they graduate, many leave for Serbia. The long-term future of Serbs can be secured only through integration in Kosovo institutions and society.

The Serbian government elected in May 2008 adopted a new approach to Kosovo and has in general given Serbs there greater leeway to find their own practical solutions for daily problems. This positive approach should be extended to include an end to support for parallel structures that have been rife with corruption. Belgrade should not sustain hardline elements, particularly in northern Kosovo, which hinder constructive Serb engagement in Kosovo, block the return of displaced people and hold up attempts to introduce the rule of law.

The planned decentralisation offers the best way to integrate Serbs in Kosovo, while enabling them to retain cherished links with Serbia. According to the blueprint laid out in the Ahtisaari plan, new Serb-majority municipalities should be created, with enhanced competencies in education, healthcare and culture. Belgrade would continue to provide technical and financial support to the Kosovo Serbs, but this should be transparent and coordinated with the Kosovo authorities. The Serbian government should not hinder decentralisation and should, at least tacitly, encourage Kosovo Serbs to engage in the process.

There is considerable Serb interest in decentralisation, especially south of the Ibar. However, many hesitate to participate in a process they fear would implicitly acknowledge Kosovo’s independence. Belgrade’s stance is critical, as most Serbs would be reluctant to take part in the face of its opposition. It is unrealistic to demand that decentralisation be neutral regarding Kosovo’s status, as Belgrade would wish. Pristina’s Ministry of Local Government Administration (MLGA) will have to be involved. But there is scope for meeting Serb concerns, while playing down the status issue.

International bodies should likewise adopt a low-key approach. The International Civilian Office (ICO) has an important role in decentralisation. This is troubling to most Serbs and anathema to Belgrade, which risks undermining the entire process. The ICO should remain in the background, allowing the MLGA to take the lead. As part of its regular work with local authorities and support for minority rights, the mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) should be involved on the ground in the practical implementation of decentralisation within its existing mandate. Everything should be done to encourage Kosovo Serbs to involve themselves with Pristina’s institutions.

Pristina/Brussels, 12 May 2009

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