A rebellious referendum in Kosovo – who should fear it and why

Reactions to the referendum in the north suggest that it may be time to invite representatives of Serbs in Kosovo to sit at the negotiating table alongside Belgrade and Pristina.

By Jan Muś

The referendum of Kosovo Serbs from the north raises many voices of criticism in Belgrade, but why is this so?

First, there is a tendency for referendums in the Balkans to prompt an almost allergic reaction; unless, of course, the expected results match perfectly with the wishes of the rulers, such as the recent EU referendum in Croatia. Referendums were held shortly prior to the outbreak of the wars of the nineties and the subsequent blood-letting. One may argue that there was no direct link between the referendums held in the past and the tragic events that followed shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, many in the former Yugoslavia are well aware of the votes for independence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia at the beginning of the nineties, and the reasons for not holding such a referendum in Republika Srpska. In other words, to propose referendums on sovereignty – conducted without the respective capital’s involvement – can be compared to (theoretical) demands of the German federal government for an extra-territorial motorway to Russia through Poland, or to (not-that-theoretically) refer to the Armenian Genocide in the middle of international talks with Turkey.

Second, the form and results of the talks between the Kosovo and Serbian authorities directly influence their relations with the EU; the main sponsor of economic, social and political reforms in the region. The referendum causes so many controversies, because it has been organized by Kosovo Serbs in defiance of Belgrade’s stance; not to mention the attitude of Pristina. The four municipalities border with Serbia and, therefore, have a real perspective of joining the motherland. Whilst holding a referendum does not necessarily mean the secession of north Kosovo, it does however complicate Belgrade’s position vis-a-vis its negotiations with Pristina; especially by limiting Serbia’s ability to find a compromise with Pristina.

On the other hand, the referendum also serves to strengthen the ‘nationalistic’ attitudes of a part of Kosovo society. This discontent with ‘disloyal’ Serbs can have either ‘political form’ or – what is truly feared by Kosovo Serbs, especially those living in the enclaves – lead to riots.

Voting has been a hard blow against the Serbian government for yet another reason. Namely, it has become clear that Belgrade does not posses political control over its compatriots in Kosovo. Automatically, a whole set of question arises -who represents the Belgrade government in this struggle? If not the Kosovo Serbs, then should the argument of defending Serbodom still be used? With whom should Pristina conduct talks?

It would not be correct to expect some changes after the referendum. The Kosovo institutions do not exist in the north, and it is very unlikely that they will be established there soon. In fact, Kosovo Serbs have shown their dissatisfaction with, and lack of trust in, political leaders in Serbia. This general disappointment has been caused by the instrumental treatment of their fellow nationals in Kosovo and the protracted state of ethno-political uncertainty and tensions. This sort of physical and mental pressure cannot endlessly persist, but in Kosovo it has lasted, with only very brief interludes, since 1997.

Serbia’s president, Boris Tadić, holds that the referendum is against the interests of the Republic of Serbia; although his compatriots claim that he does not take into account their interests sufficiently. It is difficult to resist the impression that the Serbian authorities are once more using Serbs living in the neighboring countries as part of their political games, whilst ignoring their very interests, as was already the case in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina during the nineties. Maybe it is time, therefore, to let the third party to the conflict – Serbs in Kosovo, including those from the north – sit at the negotiating table alongside the respective negotiators from Belgrade and Pristina.

Jan Muś currently teaches courses on contemporary Balkan politics and on history of Balkan conflicts at the Catholic University of Lublin and Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities. Born in Poland, Jan has spent a considerable amount of time in the Balkans as a volunteer in a refugee camp, and later on as a researcher and scholar. He has cooperated with, and worked for, a number of public and private institutions involved in the affairs in South Eastern Europe.

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