Tag Archives: Kosovo

In the wake of the EU brokered agreement, Serbs in Northern Kosovo are more likely to pursue pragmatic co-existence with Pristina

This article originally appeared at the LSE’s EUROPP blog, on 15 May 2013. 

Last month, Serbia and Kosovo reached an agreement on ‘normalisation’ of their relations, following protracted EU-led talks. No official version of the agreement appears to have been published yet – but most analysts have been referring to this leaked version. The highlights of this agreement include a provision for a ‘Community/Association of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo’, created by statute, and which will have ‘full overview of the areas of economic development, education, health, urban and rural planning’ as well as ‘other powers’. Other important points include the agreement on one police force in Kosovo, as well as a promise to that neither side will block each other’s EU entry.

On the one hand, the agreement appears pretty comprehensive, but on the other hand, it has puzzled some observers: what, if anything, will actually change as a result of it? As many will point out, Serb majority municipalities, under Kosovo’s decentralization laws, already have significant powers to run their own affairs in e.g. education. However, as it is also evident, most of the Northern municipalities do not seem to be using these competencies as much as they rely on Serbian financing, Serbian laws and Serbian institutions to run their affairs. Being largely beyond the control of Kosovo and Serbia, the North, in many ways, already acts as an independent ‘Community/Association’ with no clear rules.

As a number of observers have already pointed out, the North Kosovo Serbs are a crucial factor in implementing the agreement. So far, the community leaders have opposed the agreement. Recently, they declared that the agreement is ‘unacceptable for Serbs in Kosovo’, and that it should not be implemented until the Serbian Constitutional Court weighs in.  But, according to the Serbian media, the agreement is endorsed by Serb community leaders South of the Ibar.

What emerges from the North is often alarming, or alarmist. As the Kosovo-Serbia negotiations unfolded earlier this year, there were a string of minor explosions throughout the North, followed by protests composed of the residents of the northern municipalities of Zvecan, Mitrovica, Zubin Potok and Leposavic, and the creation of a ‘Civilian Defence Corps’. These have also been accompanied with strong, nationalist rhetoric from the Mayor of Mitrovica, Krstimir Pantic, whose anti-EU narrative is strongly reminiscent of the Milosevic era. He has recently stated that “We are sending a message to the enemies of the Serbian people that we will not surrender and allow them to seize Kosovo’. Much of this rhethoric is directed at both the Kosovan state and authorities as well as Serbia and its participation in the EU-led talks.

But, as a recent article correctly points out, the Northern Kosovo population itself is far from their usualrepresentation as ‘extremists’ and ‘criminals’.  Yet, surprisingly little is known about the political loyalties of North Kosovo Serbs. Are they really likely to boycott implementation of the agreement? Whilst their leaders – whose legitimacy is disputed –  may push for this, it is far more likely that the population of the North will adapt to the new realities in order to facilitate a more pragmatic (co)existence with Pristina. This has been increasingly the case with Serbs south of the Ibar river, who are much more isolated from other Serb communities.

Some evidence of North Kosovo Serbs’ political loyalties can be seen in the votes they cast in the 2012 Serbian parliamentary and presidential elections (they generally do not vote in Kosovo elections). First, as the official results indicate, the participation levels of Kosovo Serbs in Serbian elections seem to be dropping.

Another key trend is the relatively improved performance of Boris Tadic’s Democratic Party (as part of the Choice for a better life coalition) and the almost complete lack of votes for non-mainstream and extremist parties (such as the cleric-nationalist ‘Dveri’) is interesting – it demonstrates that support is moving away slowly from parties which make strong claims about Kosovo and emotional appeals to Kosovo Serbs.  The political support of Kosovo Serbs voting in the Serbian elections is still concentrated amongst the conservative parties (Serbian Renewal Movement; Democratic Party of Serbia and Dacic’s Socialist party), but it is beginning to fragment. In short, Kosovo Serbs’ loyalties to Serbia’s nationalist parties, are not as strong as they may first appear.

What, then, does this mean for the Kosovo-Serbia agreement? The narrative in Serbia at least, has moved towards discussing implementation. This is a key puzzle in the agreement itself, as it is not clear how many of those points will work in practice. Clearly, much of the ground will have to be prepared by political elites in Belgrade and Pristina. Local elites such as the Northern mayors may block implementation in various ways. However, the local populations are those that stand to benefit from any agreement which unblocks Kosovo-Serbia relations. Northern Kosovo Serbs may, politically, prefer to be a part of Serbia, but this may change soon as the agreement is largely interpreted by Serbian critics as a ‘sell out’ and an abandonment of Kosovo Serbs.

Serbia does not have the financial means to keep supporting North Kosovo (perhaps one of the key reasons for its unexpected support of this agreement?). As it now hopes that the agreement will unlock EU membership – something on which the current government has suddenly made its priority, having been, in the past, somewhat more ambivalent about accession – it is likely that it will start to meet other demands, such as the dismantling of parallel institutions in the North. The absences of these – schools, hospitals, municipality offices – and the jobs and finances it provides, will also translate into Serbia’s lessening influence on the ground. Eventually, it is envisaged that Kosovo or ‘Community/Association’ institutions will replace these. Either way, the Serbian population of North Kosovo, is much more likely to approach the issue with pragmatism and look to the instructions providing them with jobs and real prospects, than follow any rhetoric of Northern mayors, for the sake of political loyalties.

Kosovo’s First Elections

On December 12, 2010, Kosovo held its first general election since declaring independence from Serbia in 2008. The elections were a test of Kosovo’s democratic institutions – unfortunately, they are unlikely to be remembered as a resounding success.  You can read the full analysis which appeared in Chatham House’s current affairs publication, The World Today, written by Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik.

Western Balkans in 2010: small improvements and big scandals

The Western Balkans, as a region in transition, are prone to bouts of activity, and are rarely out of the news. The past year was no exception. Several events stood out – the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled on Kosovo’s declaration of independence in July 2010, expressing its opinion that this move was not against international law; former Croatian president Ivo Sanader was accused of corruption; the current Prime Minister of Kosovo, Hasim Thaci, was implicated in an illegal organ smuggling racket in a Council of Europe report, whilst Kosovo held its first elections since independence; Schengen visas were waived for Bosnia and Albania and Montenegro’s Prime Minister, Milo Djukanovic, resigned.  Some minor but significant events also took place: Serbia and Turkey signed a visa waiver agreement and in Serbia itself, a spate of arrests and anti-corruption investigations against high profile public figures took place, and the government officially approached the INTERPOL to seek assistance with two remaining war crimes suspects, Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic. At the same time, the leading Serbian daily, Politika, opened up the debate on pros and cons of Serbia’s NATO membership.

With the exception of fraud and smuggling allegations, the developments in the region have been, on the whole, positive. Importantly, they indicate that important changes are taking place in the formerly war-torn and unstable region, and most of those are geared towards Euro-Atlantic integration. The prospect of EU membership particularly, has long been a catalyst for change in the Western Balkans, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina where it is deemed to be the only common goal of a still ethnically divided population. But, as events of 2010 indicate, changes in the region are starting to take place much faster than they used to. Serbia, for example, has been criticised for its slow, reluctant and often non-existent cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), but in the space of two years, has achieved a much more positive progress report from chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz.  Serbia, for its part, has finally taken the process of EU integration seriously, complying with its war crimes conditionality in a much more serious (if not altogether productive) way.

Similarly, the commitment and readiness of Croatia and Serbia at tackling corruption is a strong indicator that politics in both countries are finally maturing and are approaching something that we may expect in a stable, European democracy.  For decades, corruption across the Balkans has been endemic, reaching the highest echelons of power. The sudden flurry of activity at tackling corruption amongst the business elite marks a very important change in the governance of the region. Thanks to a serious commitment a transparency and democracy, the region in general, but Serbia in particular, is finally demonstrating that it is starting to overcome its legacies of conflict and Communism.

Of course, not all developments in the past year have been positive as the case of Kosovo demonstrates. The elections of 12 December 2010 are still marred by accusation voting irregularities, and it is believed that only two Serbs out of an estimated 60,000 in Kosovo’s disputed northern territory, turned out to vote. Only days later, a Council of Europe report dealing with the grotesque case of organ smuggling (implicating Serbs from Kosovo), raised serious allegations against the current Prime Minister Hasim Thaci. The report raised tensions between Serbia and Kosovo – Thaci denied all allegations, whilst the Serbian leaders and media responded angrily to the report and threatened to suspend any future Kosovo-Serbia negotiations. However, only days later, the Serbian President Boris Tadic responded in  a much more measured way that the dialogue will continue. The report will be considered in detail by the Council of Europe in January 2011.

Despite this, the region has demonstrated that, it is perfectly capable of working together to solve its main obstacles of EU integration. Cooperation between states has certainly improved as has the political will to tackle corruption. This bodes well for 2011. Although the road to EU membership has been long and does not look like it will end any time soon, the prospect of candidacy has spurred on some real changes in the region this year, demonstrating that when the political elite is mature and understands the importance of change, huge leaps can be made in cooperation and improved relations in a relatively short time.

This trend of small improvements spurned on by prospect of Euro-Atlantic integration, looks set to continue in the next year. The case of Hasim Thaci will continue to mar regional politics until it is finally resolved,  but if Kosovo demonstrates real commitment to the case and takes it as seriously as Croatia has the Sanader case, then the prospects are positive, demonstrating that Kosovo is well on its way to becoming a serious player in regional politics. If, however, Kosovo authorities dispute the case before its ultimate conclusion, this will only agitate Serbia and Republika Srpska (Serb entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina), potentially also drawing in others into the argument and threatening to undo all the current progress on regional cooperation.