Kosovo – the alternatives for the North

Though northern Kosovo has been relatively calm of late, albeit with a series of minor incidents, it is doubtful that this situation can persist without continued restraint and an eventual political solution based upon one of two alternatives – special autonomy for the north or partition.

By Gerard Gallucci

Despite a series of minor incidents, northern Kosovo has been recently calm. The local Serbs seem to have reached an accommodation with Belgrade on a new opposition government in North Mitrovica. The new head of EULEX appears to have put aside any plans for using force to alter the status quo in the north and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reaffirmed in the Security Council the UN’s continued role there despite criticism from Kosovo Albanians. The Albanians continue to inch their way into the north – stationing Special Police where they can in north Mitrovica to hassle local Serbs passing through and preparing for another season of unilateral construction near Serb areas. But with attention south of the Ibar on the December 12 general elections, and with the end-of-year holidays and cold winter weather looming, the relative quiet in the north should continue for the next few months.

Everyone is waiting too for the start of so-called negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina as referred to in the UN General Assembly last September. “So-called” because it is not at all clear what the two sides will be able to talk about, much less negotiate, given fundamental differences over Kosovo’s status. There is also considerable divergence in how each side sees the talks. The Quint countries supporting Kosovo independence – US, UK, Germany, France and Italy – expect these talks to be the venue for Serbia to finally, one way or the other, accept the reality of an independent Kosovo. They look to Belgrade to agree to putting Kosovo customs and courts in the north. President Tadic would like to accommodate the Quint and keep Serbia’s EU membership on track. But politically, he cannot accept any agreements seeming to recognize Pristina’s independence or authority in the north. For Tadic, Serbia’s “readiness” for talks is first of all a way to buy time while the Albanians have their elections and the holidays intervene. Beyond that, Serbia may seek to divert discussions onto topics on which the two sides might agree – missing persons, for one – or stake out status neutral positions on “technical issues” – such as the courts – that the Albanians will not accept (unless pushed by the Quint). Tadic may hope that, meanwhile, he will get lucky and the EU will reward him for playing nice.

At some point, everyone’s contrary expectations for “negotiations” could lead again to stalemate. But if real negotiations begin, then the question of the north will beg solution. If a frozen conflict over the north is to be avoided – and leaving aside the possibilities of conquest of the north through force or Serb surrender to Pristina – one of two alternatives will have to be chosen: special autonomy for the north (some form of Ahtisaari-Plus) or partition (adjustment of the border with Serbia to the Ibar).

Increased autonomy for the north within Kosovo might be the more elegant solution. But why rule out partition? It has been a constant refrain from pro-independence Balkanistas that partition of Kosovo would set a bad precedent for elsewhere in the Balkans. But it cannot be disputed that the independence of Kosovo – whether one views this as good or not – is an ethnic partition of Serbia. The precedent already exists. Furthermore, it is not at all clear why breaking states along ethnic boundaries is a bad thing. Where there has been internal conflict along ethnic lines, it may be best to allow people who wish to live in their own “national” community the space to do so. Some such communities might be deemed too small to be self-sustainable. In some places, groups may be too intermixed to make simple separation possible. But these are practical issues and not ones of principle. Where peoples can be separated and wish to be, why not allow them? Where separation is not realistic, then perhaps it is better for the international community to provide the necessary support for imposing a power-sharing regime with minority rights. This is what the Ahtisaari Plan provides for Kosovo and may work south of the Ibar, where the Serbs are surrounded by Albanians. But in the north, Serbs live as part of Serbia. Drawing the boundary at the Ibar would be a natural possibility.

Pristina’s international sponsors may have to decide which outcome they prefer – northern autonomy within Kosovo or partition – and then bring the Albanians to accept it. (The Albanians will hold out for everything, as long as they can.) The alternative seems to be the current frozen conflict and continued international presence in Kosovo for quite some time. But can calm persist in the north without continued restraint and an eventual political solution?

Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008. Gerard is also a member ofTransCconflict’s advisory board. The views expressed in this piece are his own and do not represent the position of any organization. You can read more of Mr. Gallucci’s analysis of current developments in Kosovo and elsewhere by clicking here.

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