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Report 218 / Europe & Central Asia

Setting Kosovo Free: Remaining Challenges

Kosovo deserves to celebrate today as the international community converts the “supervised independence” it achieved four years ago to full independence, but it must also do more to guarantee full protection of minority rights, especially those of the country’s Serb population.

Executive Summary

Kosovo has implemented much of the Ahtisaari plan – the blueprint for its democracy, providing substantial rights for Serbs and other minorities – and deserves to be fully independent, but there should be no slippage, and remaining parts of the plan should be honoured. The Pristina government mostly abides by it, and many Serbs south of the Ibar River now accept its authority, obey its laws and take part in political life in a way unimaginable four years ago. These achievements are threatened, however, by the tense Kosovo-Serbia relationship, declining Serb numbers and Pristina’s frustration at its inability to extend its sovereignty to the Serb-majority northern areas and to achieve full international recognition. A surge in ethnically-motivated attacks shows peace is fragile. The government should remain committed to the Ahtisaari requirement for minorities. But the plan was not meant to work in isolation and cannot be separated from the overall Kosovo-Serbia relationship. Belgrade needs to earn Pristina’s trust and acquiescence for its continued involvement on Kosovo territory, especially the south.

The early years of Kosovo’s independence were supervised by an International Civilian Office (ICO) created by the Ahtisaari plan. On 10 September 2012, the ICO and international “supervision” end, leaving the Pristina government with full responsibility for the young country. This is a crucial time for Kosovo’s relations with its Serb population and Serbia; the Ahtisaari plan still provides the best model to guarantee peaceful co-existence.

Many Serbs in Kosovo cooperate with state institutions in order to protect their rights and interests, but those in the North remain intransigent. The government has written most of the Ahtisaari plan into its constitution and laws, with generous provisions for Kosovo Serbs, though implementation is sometimes unsatisfactory. It has devolved powers to municipalities, allowing not only Serbs but also the majority Albanians greater say in how they run local affairs. Nevertheless, many in Pristina are starting to question what they see as the preferential treatment given to Serbs. Communication is getting harder, as few young people speak the other’s language. After years with only a small number of inter-ethnic incidents, attacks on Serbs are becoming more frequent.

Serbia does not feel bound by the Ahtisaari plan and thus maintains a significant presence in Kosovo that increased after independence in 2008, when Belgrade was intent on showing that it retained some control over its co-nation­als. In northern Kosovo, Belgrade’s control over local administration is almost complete. In the south, it mainly pays many Serbs’ salaries and pensions and runs education and health systems without informing Pristina. The Kosovo government tolerates this but could attempt to close the Belgrade-based institutions in the south. Such a crackdown would probably cause many Serbs to leave quickly. When it agreed to the Ahtisaari plan, Kosovo accepted that Serbia would stay involved on its territory, though in a cooperative and transparent way. Belgrade has rejected this cooperation, however, and Kosovo is showing signs of impatience. If it will not accept the letter of the Ahtisaari plan, Belgrade needs to act in its spirit or risk losing what influence it still has in the south.

A decade ago, two thirds of Kosovo’s Serbs lived south of the Ibar, scattered among an overwhelmingly Albanian population, one third in the heavily Serb North. That north-south Serb balance has shifted toward parity, and the southern Serb population is rural, aging and politically passive. Its pool of educated, politically savvy individuals is tiny and out of proportion to the large role assigned the community in the Ahtisaari plan, especially as the Serbs in northern municipalities refuse to participate. They and other minorities depend wholly on privileges, including quotas; they do not have enough votes to win legislative seats in open competition. Their minority delegates in the Assembly seldom resist Albanian policy preferences. Serb delegates allowed the government to gut the Ahtisaari promise of an “independent Serbian language television channel”, for example, replacing it with a Serbian channel controlled by the state broadcaster.

The creation of six Serb-majority municipalities south of the Ibar has, nevertheless, largely succeeded; they have taken over most of the governing role from parallel structures financed by Serbia, even though education and health care remains under Belgrade’s control. The bigger municipalities like Gračanica and Štrpce have active assemblies, are implementing infrastructure development projects with foreign and Kosovo government funding and are taking on responsibilities in a wide range of areas. Other new municipalities are small, lack competent staff and struggle to raise the resources they need. But all municipalities in Kosovo are competing for limited public and private funds. Central authorities have a tendency to micromanage their spending and deprive them of means to raise money. Few municipal governments, Serb and Albanian alike, have the trained staff needed to exercise their devolved powers effectively, and they seldom cooperate with each other even in areas of mutual interest.

Pristina and its international partners have failed almost completely to overcome still strong resistance to the return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Many of these are content to sell their property and resettle elsewhere, but stymied by corruption, intimidation and courts without Serbian language facilities cannot achieve even that modest goal. Even the Serbian Orthodox Church struggles to realise the property rights it has under the Ahtisaari plan. Serbs living in enclaves within Albanian-majority municipalities are increasingly vulnerable and in need of protection. Some villages in Serb-majority municipalities are also exposed to attacks from larger neighbouring Albanian settlements, usually motivated by conflict over land. Their security is Pristina’s responsibility, and the government must take effective measures to protect vulnerable minorities and their return.

The greatest obstacle facing the Serb community, and the serious threat to the Ahtisaari plan, may be the sheer difficulty of making a safe and sustainable living in minority areas. Mistrust, lack of proper registration and outright hostility all make it hard for minority-owned businesses to market goods and services to the majority. As there is little to do beyond farming in most Serb-majority municipalities, many Serbs depend on salaries from Belgrade. If these end, many educated Serbs will be tempted to leave. Education is another sensitive area, and parents who do not trust the local schools will not stay. The Serbian schools and hospitals should be allowed to continue, but Belgrade and Pristina need to negotiate a mechanism for their registration and oversight.

Pristina and Belgrade have an interest to cooperate and avoid an exodus of Kosovo’s Serbs that would leave Kosovo with a multi-ethnic constitution ill-matched to a mono-ethnic reality, creating fresh tensions for the region and undermining its image among its international supporters. Serbia could ill afford another wave of migrants in a difficult economic environment. Pristina faces a hard struggle extending its authority north of the Ibar and must show that Serbs can have a good life in independent Kosovo if it is to do so. If Pristina and Belgrade wish, as they should – even out of different motivations – that Kosovo be genuinely multi-ethnic, they must cooperate in support of its Serb community.

Pristina/Istanbul/Brussels, 10 September 2012

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Setting Kosovo Free

Originally published in Today's Zaman

Kosovo has been set free. The 90-plus states that recognize it lifted the Balkan state’s unique form of “supervised” independence on Monday, making it a fully sovereign entity.

The new country has accomplished much since declaring independence from Serbia in February 2008, but, despite this week’s welcome and deserved step, this is no time for its partners to walk away thinking the job is done.

Kosovo’s progress towards peace and democracy was not a guaranteed outcome four years ago, even for the countries that recognized it quickly, including the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Turkey. There were fears that hardliners from Serbia would try to force Kosovo back into their country, from which it split de facto after a war with Belgrade in 1999. For several days, Serbian nationalists rallied in Belgrade against independence, attacking foreign embassies and businesses, causing at least one death. The then-Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica proclaimed: “As long as we live, Kosovo is Serbia. Kosovo belongs to the Serbian people.”

But Kosovo has since shown that, though it has a clear ethnic Albanian majority, it can be a country for all its people: Serbs, as well as Turks, Roma and others. In 2008, Kosovo accepted the Comprehensive Settlement Proposal brokered by former Finnish President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, even though Belgrade refused to, and ever since, “the Ahtisaari plan” has formed the blueprint for Kosovo’s development. In over 60 pages it provided recommendations to Pristina on how to address human rights, decentralization, religious and cultural heritage, economic and property issues, security and justice and the international presence. The international community was invited to supervise, monitor and have all necessary powers to ensure the plan’s effective and efficient implementation.

Ultimately, Kosovo took most of the burden of incorporating the plan into its new constitution, passing laws, and taking concrete steps, particularly on minority rights. State-level elections, whose results were recognized by all participating parties, were held in 2010 and a coalition government, including a Serb party, has held together since. It was helped along the way by the European Union, United States and Turkey, especially. The European Union mission, EULEX, helped strengthen the rule of law, especially the functioning of the police and the courts. Turkey provided much political and economic support, and tried to build confidence with Belgrade to encourage Serbian leaders to see Kosovo independence as less threatening than they did in 2008. In July, Kosovo’s international supporters in the International Steering Board, where Turkey plays an active role, determined that the government had implemented Ahtisaari’s terms and could take the necessary measures to end supervision in September.

Kosovo demonstrates how even after a short but vicious war, a managed transition to independence is possible. It received a big boost in July 2010 when the International Court of Justice issued the opinion that its declaration of independence was not against international law. But the big challenges that remain show how difficult it is to establish the bases of a democratic multi-ethnic state. Most importantly, it is not recognized by Serbia, which retains an important presence in Kosovo’s Serb majority municipalities north of the Ibar River, where Pristina institutions are not accepted by local Serbs and cannot operate. Kosovo does not have full control over its northern border. It is not allowed to join many international organizations, to have its own phone code, or even to participate in the Olympics. Its development will be stunted unless these challenges can be overcome.

After much pushing and prodding, Kosovo and Serbia sat down to an EU-mediated technical dialogue to make agreements on how to share cadastral records, recognize diplomas, ensure that Kosovo could participate in regional forums and manage their shared border. While the agreements exist on paper, few steps have been taken to implement them. The political will, especially in Belgrade, is not there. And the election this spring in Serbia of a more nationalist government, which has promoted the partition of Kosovo in the past, is likely to make further agreements more difficult.

After the festivities and congratulatory speeches, the Kosovo government will need to continue the hard work of honoring the Ahtisaari plan. It should do more to encourage its Serb citizens to feel like full members of society and political life. The return of displaced Serbs is one area where Kosovo has failed miserably and done much worse than its neighbor Bosnia and Herzegovina. These Serbs require more help from the government to stop the rash of violent incidents that have targeted them in the past months. They deserve better access to official services in their native language and their own fully independent TV channel. A mechanism needs to be put in place to ensure that their numbers in parliament are not cut. Kosovo’s biggest challenge -- to gradually engage with its Serb citizens living in the north to normalize its presence there, in cooperation with Belgrade -- is still ahead of it.

Managing the Serbia-Kosovo relationship, and the protection of Serb rights in Kosovo and minorities in Serbia, is key to maintaining stability in the Western Balkans. Tensions can still quickly boil over, as they did in July 2011, when an officer was killed during a Kosovo police operation in northern Kosovo, or if murders, like the one of two elderly Serbs in July 2012, are repeated. Kosovo should stay the course but so should its international supporters. Kosovo still needs extensive monitoring and support, especially from the European Union, in which it seeks eventual membership, and from its strongest regional ally, Turkey. There can be much congratulatory back-slapping now, but it’s still too early to say that the Kosovo conflict is finally resolved.