Kosovo – a possible compromise on customs and the North

Finding a compromise solution on customs and the North – one that would help de-escalate the current confrontation – will require both Serbs and Albanians to abandon their maximalist positions, and the internationals to pursue a genuinely status neutral approach.

By Gerard Gallucci

The situation in northern Kosovo created by Pristina’s unilateral effort to change the reality on the ground – supported by NATO and EULEX efforts to push the Serbs to accept Kosovo customs – has become a tense standoff. KFOR “opens” a crossing point and dismantles a Serb blockade only to have the locals create another further down the road. KFOR blocks an alternative road, leaving others that can be used. KFOR cannot be everywhere and cannot afford to shoot everyone who disobeys. The internationals have lost the trust of the local community, the negotiations brokered by the EU have gone off the rails and the conflict over the north teeters on the brink of renewed violence.

What to do about customs and the north has become the pressing problem. EU facilitator Cooper reportedly visits the region next week for discussions. He must help find a formula for overcoming the crossing points stalemate for negotiations on other matters to resume with any hope of progress. I’ve written about a possible way for EULEX to approach customs in a status neutral fashion. Here I suggest a possible compromise that could allow everyone to protect their core interests.

For the northern Serbs, the essential demand is not to place Kosovo customs on the administrative boundary with Serbia and thus turn it into a political border. For Pristina and its international supporters, it is equally important to be able to close what they see as a hole in Kosovo’s “fence.” Before July 26, the north was outside anyone’s customs regime and some took advantage of the tax-free opportunity to trade in high value products both to the south and back to Serbia. EULEX says it is seeking to enforce a single Kosovo-wide customs zone and plans to collect fees and channel them to the Kosovo treasury. The Serbs say they will not accept Kosovo customs officers at the crossing points, nor pay customs to Pristina. They have barricaded the roads leading to the boundary crossings and to the south across the Ibar River.

The impasse has both political and economic dimensions. On the economic side, Pristina and Belgrade both want to capture the funds lost to their treasuries by smuggling through the north. Belgrade has solved one part of the problem by now subjecting the north to its VAT. Until July 26, Pristina was also gaining by collecting customs on goods as they reached south Mitrovica. A compromise from the economic perspective could be straight-forward: eliminate the tax advantage from exporting goods into the north from Serbia by Belgrade taxing them (i.e, the VAT) while implementing an approach to ensure customs is paid on all goods crossing into southern Kosovo. A side agreement could be made so that goods reaching southern Kosovo might have their VAT refunded to make up for the customs collected. Belgrade and Pristina would have good reasons to cooperate in this.

The political issues are harder to resolve but if the EU took a firmly status-neutral and balanced approach, it could be done. First would be to clearly retain EULEX control of any customs in the north. Second would be to ensure and assure that Kosovo customs would be collected only once goods reach south Mitrovica and not for those remaining in the north for use there. That’s the “easy” part.

The really hard part is what to do about Kosovo government officers at the Gates. The northern Serbs do not want Kosovo customs officials there. But having some regular Kosovo police (of whatever ethnicity) doing the routine boundary crossing checks – as before July 26 – should not be problematic. The core issue is the presence of Kosovo customs officers. A possible compromise here might be for the Serbs to accept Kosovo customs officers whose sole function it would be to observe shipments of goods bound for the south. These would not be “operational” but work to assist EULEX, which would report such data to Kosovo customs in the south. Goods passing through for local use would be free to cross without fees or the need to pass through customs in the south.

This is just an outline of a possible compromise. Important details would have to be worked out. But the essential element to reaching and implementing any agreement that would allow opening of the roads and de-escalation of the current confrontation is that both Serbs and Albanians accept they cannot have 100% of what they want, and for the internationals to take a truly status-neutral approach and make everyone stick to it.

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 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. Gerard is also a member of TransConflict’s Advisory Board. The views expressed in this piece are his own and do not represent the position of any organization.

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0 Response

  1. Interesting how the time has come to ‘compromise’. There was definitely no ‘compromise’ in 1999 when the law of the jungle sufficed. Back then, USA-led NATO were not interested in ‘de-escalating’ the ‘confrontation’ in Serbia’s province of Kosovo. Their sole interest was in ‘escalating’ via a 78-day relentless bombing campaign against tiny sovereign Serbia. The endgame was to establish a military foothold in the region, and Camp Bondsteel came into being.

    If there is a partition, ceding Kosovo’s north back to Serbia,what happens to the ancient Christian monasteries in the south of Kosovo? And, what happens to the remaining Serbs confined within barbed wire enclosed ghettos?

  2. Nik

    The bottom line is that the North will never allow officials of Kosovo to be positioned there. As far as they are concerned, they have no authority or right to be there. The internationals will never take a truly neutral approach, we all know that and it seems there ongoing demands and pressures are not working to resolve anything. Those in the North have nothing left to loose unfortunately, and serrendering their homeland will never happen.

  3. nikshala

    Liz: “..78-day relentless bombing campaign against tiny sovereign Serbia”

    Nice choice of words there – poor little Serbia – the country that indirectly commited that biggest massacre of civilians in Europe since WW2, not to mention other atrocities. By that point, the intentions of Milosevic were clear and the west had learned its lesson in Bosnia.

    Regarding the article – as a compromise to achive temporary stability sounds fine but it will only revert the situation back to the status quo that was there months ago. It will not solve the fundamental problems that exist in north of Kosovo. EU beaurocrats should stop focusig on achieving temporary stability – calm does not equate peace. Dressing up partition into Ahtisaari Plus only delays the inevitable. Any compromise between, unified sovreign independent Kosovo on one hand, and partition partition on the other, equals Bosnia – a failed state.

  4. Nikshala, who/what are your sources, i.e. proving to you that Serbia/Serbs committed the biggest massacres since WWII?

    And, De Niro, you say that ‘Serbia wants a piece of Kosovo’. Nice try with that. Believe it or not, some of us know more about the region than you surmise. In brief, you should know who (in 1999, and since) wanted/wants – not only ‘a piece’, but the whole province. The law of the jungle should not suffice for any of us.

  5. Vasa

    This is the first and the best approach towards “Kosovo Problem” I have seen so far.

    And I wish it gest to the people who can make some decisiions, rather than to people who take offence from whatever side to whatever reason.

    I would just ad to this plan, there us a part in Serbia where Albinans live, Serbia could negotiate to give up that land to Kosovo, if they want to join a “New Republic”.

    It would make sence – Each party gives a bit and gets a bit.

    Why would Serbia want desgrantled Albanians (who now refuce to participate in sencus) and in the same way why would Albianans want Serbs with their barrickades.

    Let them all go where they want to be, and than they might become good neighbours.

    How about that solution?

    And PLEASE I am sick of reading who did what… Milosevic… Thaci (selling human organs) or any other idiot for that matter regardless where they come from.

    If you discuss should be in finding solution, not going back to re-open another attrocities that may easy happened. On either side.

    Good luck to all the parties involved, because it is not an easy thing for either of them.

  6. Vasa, really? You say “… I would just ad to this plan, there us a part in Serbia where Albinans live, Serbia could negotiate to give up that land to Kosovo, if they want to join a “New Republic”.

    It would make sence – Each party gives a bit and gets a bit. …”

    Interesting, I believe you’re saying that ‘Serbia should give up even more land to Albanians’. They haven’t given up enough already – via KLA’s NATO air force?

    ‘Negotiate’? Quite the concept! There was no ‘negotiating’ in 1999. What ‘bit’ of Serbia’s province of Kosovo would the Albanians ‘give’ back to Serbia?

  7. Albanians are not require Serbia to give us any part of its land, but to leave us alone and silent in our land which has kept occupied since many years which are the valley of Presevo,Medvedja,Bujanovac are inhabited with indigenous ethnically Albanian majority, even if so,we still do not seek to change the border ethnically. Kosovo is seeking more than to implementation of law and order in northen Kosovo that ordinary citizens to live their live like other Serbian and Albanian citizens in other parts of Kosovo. We will not allow smugglers to take either the central or local government because they should be imprisoned. We know that there are other Serbian literate and educated which deserve the rules in central or local government.

    Thank you.

  8. Drini, you are a prize. So, Albanians (in addition to Kosovo) now also want Presevo, Medvedja, Bujanovac, simply because your forefathers left Albania and populated that region. Surely, you wouldn’t wish it on your Albanian brothers in those regions to live ‘like Serbians in Kosovo’? That would be horrible of you to wish upon your kin.

  9. Pingback : Kosovo - compromise over customs now | TransConflict | Transform, Transcend, Translate - TransConflict Serbia

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  11. Albanian

    @ Liz
    “Interesting, I believe you’re saying that ‘Serbia should give up even more land to Albanians’. They haven’t given up enough already – via KLA’s NATO air force?”

    Liz, first of all, how many times do we have to repeat that we do not believe your Serbian history? As far as we are concerned, Albanians already gave enough land to Serbia. Historical Albanian lands include Nish, but we are not asking for it, are we? Presheva was Albanian before it became majority Serbian and then became majority Albanian again.

    Anyways, any reference to history is pointless, since we will never agree. Talking about medieval times and communist fairy tales does not help the discussion. The point is to be pragmatic and assess the current situation after the major recent wars.

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