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North Kosovo: Dual Sovereignty in Practice
North Kosovo: Dual Sovereignty in Practice
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
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 211 / Europe & Central Asia

North Kosovo: Dual Sovereignty in Practice

The dispute between Kosovo and Serbia, which keeps the Western Balkans divided and insecure, is most acute in Kosovo’s northern municipalities.

Executive Summary

The dispute between Kosovo and Serbia is most acute in Kosovo’s northern municipalities. The North has not been under effective control from Pristina for two decades; its sparse and predominantly rural Serb population uniformly rejects integration into Kosovo. Though small and largely peaceful, it is the main obstacle to reconciliation and both countries’ European Union (EU) aspirations. A Kosovo-Serbia dialogue mediated by the EU began on 8-9 March 2011 and is likely over the coming months to look at some of the consequences of the dispute for regional cooperation, communications, freedom of movement and the rule of law. For now, however, Belgrade, Pristina and Brussels have decided that tackling the North’s governance or status is too difficult before more efforts are made to secure cooperation on improving the region’s socio-economic development, security and public order.

For some time, the North will remain in effect under dual sovereignty: Kosovo’s and Serbia’s. Kosovo seeks to rid the region of Serbian institutions, integrate it and gain control of the border with Serbia. It is willing to provide substantial self rule and additional competencies as suggested under the Ahtisaari plan, developed in 2007 by the then UN Special Envoy to regulate Kosovo’s supervised independence. But local Serbs see the North as their last stand and Mitrovica town as their centre of intellectual and urban life. Belgrade will continue to use its influence in the North to reach its primary goal, regaining the region as a limited victory to compensate for losing the rest of its former province.

Serbia and Kosovo institutions intersect and overlap in the North without formal boundaries or rules. The majority Serb and minority Albanian communities there live within separate social, political and security structures. They have developed pragmatic ways of navigating between these parallel systems where cooperation is unavoidable. Yet, in a few areas – notably criminal justice – cooperation is non-existent, and the only barrier to crime is community pressure.

Northern Serbs across the political spectrum overwhelmingly cleave to Serbia. However, Belgrade and the Northern political elites belong to different parties and are bitter rivals. Apart from the technical work of managing the North, they share only one common interest: keeping Pristina out and blocking any international initiative that could strengthen common Kosovo institutions, notably police and courts. Two other groups, former local leaders who retain strong influence behind the scenes and an organised crime underworld focused on smuggling, share this one overriding goal. Belgrade prosecutes criminals and rivals selectively, allowing others room to operate; their presence in the North provides plausible deniability for many of its actions.

Observers in Pristina and friendly capitals see Serbia’s massive payments to the North as a major obstacle to the region’s integration into Kosovo. As long as Serbian money sustains their way of life, Northerners have little incentive to compromise. Yet, Kosovo’s own constitution expressly permits Serbian funding for education, medical care and municipal services, provided it is coordinated with Pristina, which currently it is not. Only the small amounts that support Serbian police and court systems directly undermine Kosovo’s integrity.

Virtually all Northern Serbs reject integration into Kosovo and believe their institutions and services are far better than what is offered south of the Ibar River, especially in education and health care. Recent scandals in Pristina, such as alleged massive corruption in the governing PDK party and a December 2010 Council of Europe report claiming implication of top Kosovo officials in organ trafficking, reinforce this view. Serbs distrust Pristina, believing that rights and protection promised now would be quickly subverted after integration. They are willing to cooperate with Pristina individually but not to accept its sovereignty. The North is subject to none of the pressures that brought a measure of integration to Kosovo’s southern Serb enclaves, and its views show no sign of softening.

Like Kosovo as a whole, the North suffers from a reputation for anarchy and domination by gangsters and corrupt politicians. And as in the rest of Kosovo, the reputation is largely false. Crime rates are similar and within the European mainstream; urban Mitrovica has more than its share of offences, the rural municipalities much less. Neighbouring Albanian-populated districts fall between these two Serb-held areas in rates for violent and property crimes. The real problems are contraband and intimidation directed at political and business rivals and anyone associated with Pristina.

Well-established Albanian-Serb networks, nevertheless, smuggle goods, free of duty and tax – especially diesel fuel – from Serbia via the North to southern Kosovo. The trade supports a criminal elite that, while small in the regional context, is still large enough to dominate Northern Kosovo. Curtailing this smuggling would benefit all and is achievable with the tacit support of Belgrade and most Northern Serbs. Some goods remain in the North, however, and residents feel no sympathy for policies that would enforce their separation from Serbia.

Nowhere is the North’s dual sovereignty as problematic as in law enforcement. Rival Kosovo and Serbian systems each have only partial access to the witnesses and official and community support they need. The Kosovo police lack the community’s trust and have a poor reputation. Serbia’s police are barred by a UN Security Council resolution and operate covertly. Serbian court judgments and orders are enforceable only in Serbia itself and are limited in practice to civil matters and economic crimes. Kosovo’s Mitrovica district court technically has jurisdiction north and south of the Ibar but is paralysed and can hear only a handful of cases, judged by internationals from EULEX, the EU’s rule of law mission. The insistence of Kosovo and international community representatives that the Mitrovica court can only fully function after Serbs accept its authority in the North adversely affects Kosovo Albanians in the south and undermines the sense that rule of law is the priority.

The North suffers from a near-total absence of productive employment and depends on state subsidies for its survival; rule of law is weak. These problems are real but insignificant compared to the North’s effect on Kosovo and Serbia. Neither can join the EU while the North’s status is in dispute. Addressing local problems by improving on pragmatic solutions already in place and finding a framework for criminal justice acceptable to the local population would likely perpetuate its uncertain status, by keeping it distinct from the rest of Kosovo. Belgrade and Pristina should use the EU-facilitated talks to consider autonomy for the North in exchange for Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo statehood, as Crisis Group recommended in August 2010. If the political will for this comprehensive compromise is lacking, the parties should not allow the dispute to block progress in other areas. They should instead seek flexible, interim solutions to improve law enforcement, customs collection, and allocation of financial aid in the North.

Pristina/Mitrovica/Brussels, 14 March 2011