North Kosovo referendum – not binding, no surprise but it changes everything

The referendum makes clear that the northern Kosovo Serbs reject the imposition of Pristina’s institutions that has been the centerpiece of Quint policy for Kosovo since 2008.

By Gerard M. Gallucci

Through two days of cold, snowbound weather, the Kosovo Serb community north of the Ibar River went to the polls February 14-15 to vote in a “referendum” with one question – do they accept living under Pristina authority or not. According to local figures, of some 35,500 eligible voters, 26,725 voted with 26,524 (99.74%) of those saying “no.”

The north Kosovo referendum had no legal character and called for no actions. It was a poll on popular sentiment, an effort to refute charges that only “criminals” and “extremists” reject the “benefits” of rule from Pristina. Its results were no surprise. Yet politically, it changes everything. It makes clear that the northern Kosovo Serbs reject the imposition of Pristina’s institutions that has been the centerpiece of Quint policy for Kosovo since 2008. The determined and peaceful resistance, since last July, to efforts to impose Kosovo customs in the north, plus this poll, mean that any effort to change circumstances on the ground would have to be implemented through force. And force would not work, it would generate violence and full partition or ethnic flight. In any case, NATO and the EU have no stomach for it. After the poll, it must be clear that the policy of seeking to subject the north to Pristina has nowhere to go.

The referendum also shows that the current government in Belgrade cannot force events in north Kosovo either. Despite all its huffing-and-puffing, the northerners withstood the pressure and held their vote. No matter how much Serbia’s president, Boris Tadic, might want to make a deal with the EU to give up the north, it is clear he could not enforce it. Even if he were willing to cut-off funding for the north, politically he cannot (and the northerners would likely find a way around that anyway). If Belgrade arrested northern leaders to force their community to surrender, that would split the Serbian electorate and not change anything on the ground. The way to impose Pristina institutions does not pass through Belgrade.

The vote also helps make clear that the negotiations are going nowhere. Tadic cannot make deals that he can enforce, not with the north and not during the current election campaign. Pressure on the Thaci government from its critics – most notably Vetevendosje (‘Self-Determination’) and Albin Kurti – likewise means Pristina cannot make and enforce compromise deals, such as on regional representation.

All this clearly suggests that either a deal must be struck on the north acceptable to the Serb majority living there or the conflict will remain frozen. There is no other choice.

It may remain a frozen conflict. The key players could be more comfortable with the current situation than anything that might replace it. Pristina gets to continue to claim the north as an integral part of Kosovo. With its international agents – the ICO and EULEX – it can have an office just north of the Ibar – with its “municipal preparation teams” – and continue to fly its customs officers to the northern crossing points. That the office and teams do nothing and that the customs officials man unused crossing points does not lessen their slight, but still useful, symbolic value. The Quint gets to pretend through its “negotiations” that it is still working on the problem. They also get to use the Pristina-Belgrade “dialogue” to keep President Tadic on edge for the next few months over EU candidacy.

Tadic may not enjoy this outcome but it could be argued that Serbian policy on Kosovo – guided as much by what Washington and Brussels wanted as anything else – brought Belgrade to this end. It gave away its leverage with everyone as the Quint tried to extract too much, too quickly and gave him nothing in return.

All in all, the most stable outcome within reach may be the continuation of the current status quo. Perhaps over time, with some patience, a way can be found to regularize the situation. That would mean, however, recognizing that the northern Kosovo Serbs will not accept being governed from Pristina. That much must be clear by now.

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.

To read TransConflict’s recently-released policy paper, entitled ‘The Ahtisaari Plan and North Kosovo’, please click here.

To read other articles by Gerard for TransConflict, please click here.

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