Kosovo – of talks and violence

Though talks between Pristina and Belgrade are likely to continue at some stage in the near future, the recent violence is an important reminder that negotiations are determined not just on the negotiating table, but also on the streets of the north of Kosovo.

By Florian Bieber

Just three weeks ago, relations between Serbia and Kosovo seemed to have been the best in many years. A first agreement between the two governments paved the way for increased freedom of movement in regard to travel with ID cards, license plates and other technical issues. The atmosphere between the key negotiators – Edita Tahiri and Borko Stefanovic – seems professional.

The nationalist opposition in Serbia and Kosovo opposed the agreement, with Vetevendosje suggesting that it further undermines Kosovo’s sovereignty, and DSS and the Radicals in Serbia arguing that the agreement leads to Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo. In brief, it was exactly what the EU had hoped to accomplish – a practical first step which paves the way to further negotiations and building confidence between the parties which had mostly talked at each other. This outcome was more encouraging that most observers (including myself) had predicted due to the upcoming Serbian elections early in 2012 and the rather weak Kosovo government. The reason it became possible was combination of the Serbian government banking on the EU candidate status prior to elections and an agreement with Kosovo can only improve the odds. The Kosovo government, on the other hand, appears to have trying to regain its international legitimacy through serious talks, after Thaci was tainted through the Marty report and the flawed parliamentary elections.

How did this success in talks so quickly descend into the latest round of violence? The talks did not resolve the issue of Kosovo products being able to enter the Serbian market, which has been impossible to date and hurt the fledgeling Kosovo economy. In an apparent move to improve Kosovo’s bargaining position and in response to Serbia apparently stepping away from a deal of customs (talks scheduled for mid-July were postponed for September as parties were unable to come to an agreement), Kosovo banned the import of Serbian goods. As Tim Judah convincingly argues, this was an unpleasant surprise for the Serbian government, as it suddenly and unexpectedly upped Kosovo bargaining power in talks where the pressure on Serbia traditionally came from Brussels (or Washington), not Prishtina. Of course, the implementation of such a ban is impossible as long as the borders as permeable and the government has few options of preventing the import of Serbian goods. If it would stop such goods on the border between north and south Kosovo around Mitrovica, it would only help consolidate the partition. Thus, it dispatched the special police unit ROSU to take over the two main border posts between Kosovo and Serbia in the North. It reached one and was blocked by Serbs barricades at the other. However, it was not to stay for long and was forced to withdraw soon thereafter under international pressure. During operation, a ROSU member was shot and killed by a sniper, presumably linked to local Serb nationalist structures. The barricades erected in the North and the subsequent burning down of the Jarinje border post by hooligans (according to Tadic) or a local smuggler (according to Blic) mobilized the Serbian parallel power structures in the North and further raised the stakes.

Apparently, the Kosovo government sent the police without the consent of either the EU or the US government, and the operation seems to have been planned by the government rather than being a regular police operation. Altogether this would mean that the operation was effort by the government to create a fait accompli.

The incidents have fueled suspicions on both sides and encouraged both extremists and spoilers. While the Kosovo government and media appear to be convinced that the Serbian government was behind the burning down of the border post in Jarinje, the Serbian media had a hard time imagining that the police operation could take place without international support.

The Kosovo government now threatend that it would arrest the minister for Kosovo, Goran Bogdanovic, and the chief negotiator, Borko Stefanovic, if they entered Kosovo. While this is a symbolic gesture as the ability of the Kosovo authorities to arrest them in the North is limited, it undermines future talks and links the incidents back to the negotiations.

Although the official goal of the police operation failed, prime minister Thaci claims that there is no return to the status quo ante. He might be saying this to save face after the failure of the operation. Alternatively, one can consider the operation a success. He gained credibility domestically and for the first time the Kosovo government took the initiative without seeming to be remote controlled by the US embassy or others. The operation certainly put the status of the north on the agenda. The price the government might have been too high, though. First, the operation, which seems clearly reckless (it reminds of Saakashvili ill-fated intervention in S. Ossetia in August 2008) and without much promise to lead to a real rather than symbolic change, suggests that the Kosovo authorities have become more unpredictable and willing to use unilateral force to change the situation in their favor. Second, it would also seem to strengthen hardliners in Serbia who have warned about armed intervention of the Kosovo authorities in the North. Finally, the operation is unlikely to have earned the government international sympathies, even from close allies.

As the violence seems to have ended and Kosovo’s North returns to the “tense, but calm” status, where does this leave talks and the parties? Both sides come out looking more vulnerable. Serbia for the first time felt pressure from the Kosovo government through the boycott and the police action, even if brief and ultimately unsuccessful. Kosovo has noticed that it cannot established its authority in the North without international consent. The international presence is reminded that the situation can escalate very quickly and limited the escalation of violence requires a strong KFOR presence. One good side effect of the violence might be that it shed a light on the continued criminal security structures in the North. No matter how one thinks about the ROSU police operation, the killing by sniper of a police officer and the burning of border post suggest that these networks remain ready to use force quickly to protect their interests. While Tadic has been seeking to reduce the influence of the political representatives of these structures, the incidents might encourage the Serbian authorities to clean up the North of Kosovo more vigorously.

Despite all the posturing at the moment, it seems unlikely that talks will not continue, both governments have too much to gain, yet the violence is a reminder that negotiations are determined not just on the negotiating table, but also on the streets of the North of Kosovo.

Florian Bieber is a Professor in South East European Studies at the Center for South East European Studies of the University of Graz.

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