Breaking Kosovo’s northern deadlock

A temporary and dynamic model that keeps the north within Kosovo whilst providing northern Serbs a solid degree of self-governance is what both Belgrade and Pristina should strive for, with the international community being prepared to lead a process of drafting and imposing such an agreement.

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By Shpetim Gashi

The century-old conflict between Serbs and Albanians has been reduced to a dispute over 1,000-kilometer square of Kosovo’s northern part, about ten percent of its territory, inhabited by a predominantly Serb population of around 50,000; about forty percent of Kosovo’s Serb population and about two percent of Kosovo’s total population. Serbia’s leaders have indicated that they would agree to a tacit recognition of Kosovo’s independence in exchange for the north’s incorporation into Serbia. Kosovo’s leaders, however, say Serbia’s recognition of their independence is not worth ten percent of their territory. They insist on the north’s full integration into Kosovo’s system. The third actor in the conflict, the international community, does not support the redrawing of borders – but it neither backs the implementation of Kosovo’s laws in the north by force.

With partition and full integration as improbable options, plus the unlikelihood of a permanent agreement on the north so long as Serbia disputes Kosovo’s entire territory, a temporary and dynamic solution – to be revised within five to ten years, or when Belgrade and Pristina agree to normalize their relations – that preserves Kosovo’s territory but gives northern Serbs a degree of self-governance would break the deadlock; opening the north to economic and political opportunities, and improving the European integration prospects of both Serbia and Kosovo.

The north’s partition is an improbable option. Kosovo Albanians would not give it up peacefully. Serbia is not able to annex it forcefully. Northern Serbs are not in a position to secede successfully. And the international community is not likely to force the Albanians to relinquish it. Furthermore, partition would solve only part of the problem. The majority of Kosovo Serbs – about 70,000 or sixty percent of Kosovo’s Serb population – would nevertheless remain within Kosovo’s ‘new’ border. This would not only weaken their bargaining power with Kosovo’s Albanian-dominated institutions, but could also make them a potential target of Albanian ‘retaliation’.

The north’s integration into Kosovo’s legal and political system in-line with the Ahtisaari Plan is not plausible either, at least not now. Northern Serbs have been running their own affairs for more than two decades – since the revocation of Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989 – and have established their own separate institutions after the declaration of Kosovo’s independence. Though not in a position to secede, northern Serbs have shown to have the capacity to derail Pristina’s efforts to establish its authority there, as demonstrated last summer by their resistance to the intervention of Kosovo’s special police units in the north. The quick withdrawal of Kosovo’s special police from the north demonstrated not only the ability of the northern Serbs to mount successful resistance, but it also exposed Pristina’s limited capacity to resolve the dispute by force; an unintended consequence that perhaps Pristina had not considered. The third actor – the international community – has stated that it would not allow partition, but would neither use force to establish Kosovo’s authority in the north.

A temporary and dynamic model that keeps the north within Kosovo whilst providing northern Serbs a solid degree of self-governance is what both parties should strive for. The temporary agreement would be assessed and potentially revised within five to ten years, or when Belgrade and Pristina agree to normalize their relations. The Ahtisaari Plan could serve as a basis for the solution. Belgrade agrees with a large number of provisions in the Plan and it does not have to accept the status section. Pristina should not feel threatened by potential modifications of the Plan. Perhaps President Ahtisaari would have himself included such modifications had he predicted the ensuing developments.

The model should primarily take into account the specific circumstances in the north and only secondarily the abstract interests and demands of the actors to the conflict. The north’s size, resources and population are key factors to be taken into consideration. The north does not have sufficient human and natural resources to sustain a model that provides for a separate executive, legislative and judiciary. Pristina would not support financially such a large institutional structure. Belgrade might initially agree to subsidize it, but would sooner or later be forced by its taxpayers and financial constraints to phase out such subsidies. And even if Pristina and Belgrade agree to provide such funding, the north’s endless financial dependence would undermines its very objective for more political independence.

Two options exist to reach such an agreement: Belgrade and Pristina take courageous steps and reach a solution themselves or the international community intervenes again. Experience to date has shown that Belgrade and Pristina do not take bold and unpopular steps without strong international pressure. There is no precedent of Belgrade and Pristina reaching agreements on their own or cooperating voluntarily. Even cooperation on humanitarian issues, such as missing persons, is a result of international pressure.

Thus a direct dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina would not help much. They lack courageous political leaderships that are willing to support solutions and face political perils. The recent dialogue sponsored by Brussels showed that the Serbian and Kosovo governments are not willing to set petty politics, emotions and bad feeling aside and deal with real problems. So it is unlikely that these governments would take the heat from their opposition parties and publics to break the deadlock in Kosovo’s north.

So the international community should, once again, lead the process to draft and impose such an agreement. Now is the best time for such steps. The Serbian government has almost four years, and Kosovo’s government two years, to mollify potential public anger before new elections.

The solution would provide immediate benefits to the northern Serbs, Belgrade and Pristina. The north would gradually be transformed from a ‘no man’s land’ into a stable area, with the potential to receive greater financial and political assistance. Though the northern Serbs might initially be unhappy with an agreement that leaves them in Kosovo, their discontent would be absorbed through eventual tangible benefits, and by the fact that the agreement is temporary and subject to revision. By ridding itself off this so-called “‘Achilles’ heel,” Serbia would accelerate the process of European accession. Kosovo, on the other hand, would gain immensely in terms of political stability and security. After 13 years of focus on political stability, attention could be finally turned to economic development. And the international community – once such a settlement is achieved and there would be no threat of violence or unrest in the north – would be released from maintaining such a large and expensive mission in Kosovo.

Shpetim Gashi is vice president of the Council for Inclusive Governance, an international non-governmental organization promoting responsive governance. The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization.

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