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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

Report 223 / Europe & Central Asia

Serbia and Kosovo: The Path to Normalisation

Serbia and Kosovo must build on a recent breakthrough in negotiations and extend dialogue to sensitive issues, especially northern Kosovo’s institutions, in order to keep their fragile relationship moving forward.

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Executive Summary

The ground shifted underfoot in Kosovo in December 2012. After years of posturing, punctuated by outbursts of violence, Serbia and Kosovo began to implement a landmark agreement on border control, opening joint posts at crossings that had been variously barricaded, circumvented or burned to the ground for much of the past two years. Bigger issues, including the courts, police and municipal structures in Serb-majority northern Kosovo, are now on the agenda of a high-level bilateral dialogue facilitated by the European Union (EU). The leaders of both states seem more ready than ever to compromise, but the northern Kosovo Serbs are staunchly opposed to integration, low-level violence is increasing, Kosovo nationalists are tense, and a spark could set off intercommunal fighting. Belgrade and Pristina should seize this chance to engage in a substantial discussion on the transformation of existing structures in the North and to offer a self-governing region that fits into Kosovo’s jurisdiction based on a flexible application of the Ahtisaari plan’s features.

Kosovo and Serbia still disagree on much. For Pristina, negotiation aims at winning Serb acceptance of the Ahtisaari plan – the framework devised originally by Martti Ahtisaari, the former UN special envoy – that set in place Kosovo’s internal structure and statehood. For Belgrade, the talks concern revision or improvement of agreements that it considers flawed or unacceptable, like the Ahtisaari plan. The gulf between the two expanded during years of little direct contact, ample mistrust and fractious domestic politics. Navigating a sure route through the waters will be hard, but recent developments provide hope, as results in the early stages of the talks have thawed some of the mutual rigidity. Serbia recently crossed a threshold by affirming, at least implicitly, Kosovo’s territorial integrity and jurisdiction over the North, though still denying its independence. Both capitals seem to have ruled out the use of force to reach a solution to their political dispute.

This report looks back at the technical dialogue conducted with EU facilitation since March 2011 and forward to the next stages of the high-level political talks that began in October 2012. The sides have resolved some practical issues: trade relations, participation in regional meetings and recognition of one another’s diplomas. Others – free movement of persons, personal documents, liaison offices, civil registry and property records – have been difficult, but some results are evident. Talks on telecommunications and energy have not led to agreement, and emotional subjects like missing persons have yet to be broached. The December opening of two jointly-managed border posts is the brightest achievement to date, and potentially an important one; the border regime touches almost every aspect of the Kosovo-Serbia dispute, from mundane practicalities to fundamental status and independence issues. Yet, the sides still have to finalise details, especially on customs controls, and Kosovo and EU police (EULEX) still must be granted full free movement to reach the Serbia border and carry out their duties.

The breakthrough was the first tangible result of talks between the two prime ministers and hosted by Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief. Until now, those meetings have been mainly about feeling one another out and making decisions on agreements framed earlier by experts. It has been possible to package results ambiguously enough to allow both sides to hold to their principles concerning Kosovo status. That period is ending, however. It will be more difficult to sustain ambiguity on the next agenda items, which deal with whose law and institutions will govern northern Kosovo.

In December 2012, EU member states set tough conditions closely tied to the gradual normalisation of their bilateral relations for Serbia and Kosovo to progress on their respective EU accession tracks. To begin membership negotiations, Serbia was asked to progressively deliver security and justice structures in northern Kosovo in cooperation with Kosovo. This means making substantial progress in discussions on how the local courts, police and municipalities are to be managed. While these institutions are currently outside Pristina’s control, solutions can be found that would affirm the state’s unity, while allowing local Serbs to retain their sense of ownership.

The transformation of northern structures into self-governing bodies that fit into Kosovo’s jurisdiction could open the way for offering the North a special arrangement as part of the overall solution. Much can be accomplished by flexible application of the Ahtisaari plan with regards to police, courts and regional government. One principle should be that Kosovo’s borders remain intact; another should be that the North govern itself as it wishes when it comes to issues of community concern, insofar as this does not damage Kosovo’s territorial integrity. Pristina also wants its status as an independent state affirmed, which Belgrade currently firmly rejects. Yet even here, there is room for compromise, with Serbia lifting its block on Kosovo’s membership in regional and international organisations and participation in international sporting and cultural events. These are complex, highly emotive issues the details of which can be worked out gradually, in step with Kosovo’s and Serbia’s EU accession processes.

But the dialogue is now at a decisive point. Belgrade’s and Pristina’s positions on northern Kosovo have never been closer. If they can finalise agreements on the border and make real progress in talks on governing institutions and the rule of law in the North before the European Council (summit) in June 2013, the EU is ready to reward both. For Kosovo, negotiating a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the European Union would ground it as firmly as the rest of the region in the accession process. For Serbia, starting formal membership negotiations would give a huge boost to its reform efforts. Coupled with Croatia’s EU accession in July, these gains would ripple through the western Balkans. But if talks collapse in the next few months, EU member-state politics would dictate a long pause that the fragile coalitions in Belgrade and Pristina might not survive, and the low-level violence that has racked the region in early 2013 could worsen. Such a promising opportunity may not come again soon, if at all.

Pristina/Belgrade/Brussels, 19 February 2013