The Brčko District model for north Kosovo?

The example of the Brčko District, in the north-east corner of Bosnia and Herzegovina, could serve as a sustainable solution for the disputed status of the north of Kosovo.

By Marko Jakšić

In august 2006 – thanks to a local NGO, ‘Jelena Anzujska’, I had the honior and opportunity to make a study-visit to Mostar and the Brčko District in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a part of an official delegation from Kosovska Mitrovica. I admit that prior to that visit I was not familiar with the details of the solutions applied in both of these cities, but I came back with a bunch of papers which I’m reading even now when I have free time. I also came back with a message that left a lasting impression on me, made by an American whose name I cannot recall and who was at the time Supervisor of the Brčko District; she said, “what you see here is one of the solutions for your problem”.

At that time, the process of negotiations led my Martti Ahtisaari was gaining momentum and it culminated with the ‘Comprehensive proposal for Kosovo Status Settlement’, which was never officially accepted by the UN Security Council or the Republic of Serbia, nor by Serbs living in Kosovo. In practice, however, it is functional in one part of Kosovo because the self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo is implementing it (partially) due to the support of the USA and a majority of EU member states. I don’t want to get into a detailed debate about the entire negotiation process, the change of stances of the leading negotiator, his potential partiality, or the proposed solution itself, but it is obvious that the plan did not contribute to the resolution of the Kosovo problem.

Today, the crisis in the north of Kosovo – which was created on July 25th, when ROSU special police units were sent to the administrative crossings, Jarinje and Brnjak; once again a unilateral move by the Pristina authorities (possibly with the consent of Christopher Dell, the US Ambassador in Pristina) – is not even close to being resolved. It was further deepened by the joint-action of KFOR, Eulex and the Kosovo government (supported by Ambassadors of the Quint) on September 16, when – after the expiration of a temporary agreement between Erhard Bühler and Borislav Stefanovic – Kosovo customs and border police landed with helicopters, which was followed by the construction of dozens of barricades by local Serbs, thereby isolating the entire North.

Although the situations seems to be calm, one spark similar to the one that occurred a few days ago in Jarinje can ignite violence, with unforeseen consequences which might include a new exodus in twenty-first century Europe. The patrons of Pristina and the Government of Kosovo have a firm stance that there is no going back to the way things were before the action of ROSU special units. However, the situation on the ground shows that the inhabitants of the northern municipalities won’t accept anything related to Pristina; so, objectively, nothing can be as it used to.

Would a solution similar to the one applied in Brcko District present an exit strategy for all four sides involved in this process? All sides are equally determined not to relent. The Western Forces (this is how I like to call them) are not ready to give an inch when it comes to their stance that the borders of an independent Kosovo belong to the unchangeable category and I honestly think that by saying this, they are not defending the integrity and sovereignty of Kosovo; instead, they are defending their political decisions from 1999 and 2008 – bombing Yugoslavia and supporting the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo). The officials in Pristina, led by Hashim Thaçi, are behaving like Milošević did in the nineties, with one major difference – they are supported by United States. They won’t accept any compromise and want it all.

With tensions in the north, it seems that it’s just like in the old Latin proverb, “panem et circenses” (bread and games), with Thaçi attempting to divert attention from very serious accusations about human organ trafficking, the questionable business dealings of his closest associates, poor living standards and huge unemployment. Serbia has been pushed to its red lines, in spite of Serbia’s determination that its future lies within EU. The manouvering space, apart from that attained through the on-going negotiations, has been significantly reduced. Serbs form the north of Kosovo have demonstrated very firmly their determination not to live in an independent Kosovo, under Pristina rule, by cementing their barricades placed towards the rest of Kosovo and by isolating both administrative crossings.

The Tribunal, in its Final Decision, tried to protect the territorial relationship between the respective entities, the Republika Srpska and the Federation by using the term ‘condominium’. Unlike the original term, “condominium”, which stands for joint ownership and control (such as the control of two or more states over a certain territory), the Tribunal deviated and said that the “entities will have no authority within the boundaries of the District”. Or rather, both entities have delegated their authority to the government of the District. This can be a first step towards resolving the problem of north Kosovo. By voluntarily delegating their authorities to a future Northern Kosovo District, neither Serbia nor Kosovo would have to abandon their current positions; primarily, the preservation of integrity and sovereignty. The principal verbal agreement would be accompanied by the unilateral legal activities of Belgrade and Pristina, which would – within their country’s legal systems – found the Northern Kosovo District and conduct the transfer of authority. The international patrons of Pristina could also relax because, in principle, the integrity and sovereignty of Kosovo would be preserved. They might even treat this as the so-called Ahtisaari plus package. The Northern Kosovo Serbs would essentially gain what they need to independently arrange their lives and institutions, plus the one thing that forced them to place barricades – no influence from Pristina. The Western Balkan region, meanwhile, could move on towards the European Union without this burden; which is a priority of the political elites and citizens alike.

In accordance with the Final Decision, a unique and multiethnic Government of the District was formed, along with an independent judiciary and Assembly, which had a mandate to adopt laws for the Brcko district. With respect to northern Kosovo, the four municipalities (Zubin Potok, Zvecan, Leposavic and Northern Mitrovica) could form a joint Assembly which is authorized to pass laws which would be applied within the Northern Kosovo District. As an addition to the government as the executive power, the District might also have its own President.

In the north of Kosovo, there is also a second instance court which could take over judicial power, namely the First Instance and High Court in Kosovska Mitrovica. For appeals to the highest judicial body, the District might recognize the authority of a special Unit of the Supreme Court of Kosovo. When it comes to the application of laws, instead of Serbian or Kosovo laws and regulations, UNMIK laws and regulations may be applicable until new ones are adopted. The actual conditions on the ground, along with stipulations in Ahtisaari’s Plan, show that unlike Brčko, the North of Kosovo has primary and secondary healthcare. When it comes to education, apart from primary and secondary education, there is a fully-functional, internationally recognized University in Kosovska Mitrovica, existing as an autonomous educational institution. Also in the North there is a public company, ‘Elekto-kosmet’, which governs the hydro plant ‘Gazivode’ and which is independently ‘importing’ power from Central Serbia, which would make District independent from the rest of Kosovo when it comes to energy.  Apart from several private TV stations, there is also TV station ‘Most’, which is available in the entire northern Kosovo.

The issue of customs, taxes, VAT and other financial issues and revenues would be defined by the laws of the District and, similarly to Brčko, the taxes collected at the Jarinje and Brnjak crossings would be collected by the District. At the same time, the District would accept that it cannot place any customs terminals along the separation line with the rest of Kosovo, which would make Kosovo look like a unique customs territory. Brčko District is a demilitarized zone and all armed forces are prohibited from entering it, except for international peacekeeping international forces; an acceptable solution for northern Kosovo, because KFOR’s presence might be needed for several more years. In order to achieve this, the interested parties would have to agree not to send their special and armed forces onto the territory of the District without the District’s approval. The issue of police can also be resolved through acceptance of the present conditions on the ground. The police located north of the Ibar river differs even in this moment from the one located in the south – in name (KPS and KP), as well as in chain of command. In Kosovska Mitrovica there is also a prison, so the District would have a penitentiary which it would manage.

There are a lot of concrete elements that require further precise consideration and determination, but I would like to discus here the issue of symbols, which is always a major one in the Balkans. Unlike Brčko District, the future Northern Kosovo district could decide independently about the design of its symbols, even if they would be limited to the use of symbolic blue and yellow.

If the Northern Kosovo District would have all of the competencies stated above, plus some that were not here mentioned, would that make it a state? Certainly not. It wouldn’t have an army, since it would be a demilitarized zone. The issue of the citizenship of the District’s inhabitants would be settled in accordance with the Ahtisaari Plan; or rather, the inhabitants of the District would maintain their right to have dual citizenship – a Kosovo and Serbian one. The citizens of the Northern Kosovo District would participate in elections for their own institutions, but also elections organized by Kosovo and Serbia. The district would not interfere in the essential competences of Kosovo and Serbia in the creation and maintenance of diplomatic relations, unless the issues had a direct impact on the District, in which case the District would be consulted.

Many who read this text, and also many who are familiar with the Brčko District, will say that such a solution like the one proposed here cannot be applied when it comes to northern Kosovo because Brčko is an integral part of a creation which is composed of more than one entity, Bosnia and Herzegovina. I still think that creativity is something all sides need if they wish to find a solution. The specific circumstances require such decisions, if there is good will, and a Northern Kosovo District with the above stated position can be equally appropriated by Serbia and Kosovo as something belonging to them and as an integral part of each of the states, while in reality the District would be exclusively independent to a degree needed for the citizens of northern Kosovo to govern their own lives.

There are many details that must be elaborated further for the benefit of both sides and in order to accomplish peaceful and sustainable solution of the Kosovo problem. This is just one of the possible compromises and peaceful solutions that the author of this text contemplates, and there are just a few of those remaining – status quo, division or autonomy for the North. All others are pushing the Balkans toward new conflicts and the possible displacement of more than 70,000 inhabitants of northern Kosovo.

Marko Jakšić graduated from the Faculty of Law and is currently employed at the High Court in Kosovska Mitrovica.

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