The situation on the ground in the north of Kosovo has changed little since 2009, despite often strenuous efforts by Pristina – supported by KFOR and EULEX – to bring the northern Kosovo Serbs to heel.
By Gerard M. Gallucci
In January 2010, I wrote in this space that “on the ground, 2009 ended much as it began”, with disputes over unilateral Albanian “returns” to the north and over customs. I noted that the internationals “stood back from, and in some cases assisted, Albanian efforts to bully the Serbs into accepting the Kosovo institutions that they dominate.” Since then, the situation has changed little despite often strenuous efforts by Pristina supported by KFOR and EULEX to bring the northern Kosovo Serbs to heel. The Serbs themselves continue to resist imposition of rule from Pristina and tensions over Albanian “returns” and customs are again spiking.
This past week, violence broke out again in the sensitive Brdjani area of north Mitrovica. Serbs and Albanians reportedly threw stones at each other, at the site of new Albanian efforts to build on the high ground above the majority Serb area, and someone fired shots. Starting in 2009, Albanians – supported by EULEX and KFOR – began building in this former no-man’s land as part of Pristina’s effort to change the ethnic balance north of the Ibar without resolving the issue of returns globally in Kosovo. Albanians would “return” north while Serb IDPs were not welcome south of the river. The Serbs say now that the new construction is being done by Albanians who never lived in the north. They are appealing to UNMIK to assert its authority in north Mitrovica and intervene. UNMIK has the UNSC mandate for administering north Mitrovica through its local administration (UAM). But UNMIK has not had the support of EULEX or KFOR and seems unable to rouse itself. A flash point remains a flash point.
Progress of a sort has been made on customs. Belgrade and Pristina agreed a year ago on a concept for “Integrated Border Management” (IBM) that would have EULEX perform customs duties in the presence of Serbian and Kosovo officials. As posted then the agreement was as follows:
IBM (fn1) Agreed Conclusions
1. In line with the Lisbon Treaty, and relevant EU legislation (fn2) and given that both parties are part of the EU’s Western Balkans agenda, they will be required gradually to harmonise their legislation with the EU acquis and in particular to apply the concept of IBM;
2. In the interest of faster and more effective processing, the parties, under the overall guidance of the EU, will apply the concept of IBM;
3. The parties intend gradually to set up joint integrated posts at all their common IBM crossing points. This cooperation will follow the best European practice as it is progressively further developed by the European Commission. The work will be given a high priority; the projects will be identified jointly and will be implemented as soon as practically possible;
4. The joint, integrated, single and secure posts will be located within a ‘common area of IBM crossing points’, jointly delineated, where officials of each party carry out relevant controls. Exceptionally, and limited to the common IBM areas, the parties will not display symbols of their respective jurisdictions;
5. The arrangements will include a balanced presence, in line with requirements, from both parties of all related services such as customs, police etc. and will cover matters such as the location of the crossing points, the nature of the facility, opening hours etc. In line with its mandate (fn3) at the crossing points Jarinjë/Rudnice and Tabavije/Bërnjak, this presence will include EULEX officials. EULEX will also be present at crossing points Dheu i Bardhë/Konqul, Merdare/Merdarë, Mutivodë/Mutivode and Depce/Muçibabë;
6. At the core of the arrangement there will be a clear assignment of applicable legal responsibilities and liabilities to each party’s jurisdiction;
7. A tri-partite implementation group, chaired by the EU, will be established to implement above arrangement as soon as practically possible. For that purpose, a technical Protocol will be developed and signed, if necessary separately with the EU, which will take account of the parties’ different views on the question of status. The implications of these conclusions will be taken into account in implementing freedom of movement;
8. This agreement does not cover any general or specific revenue or fiscal matters:
fn 1 – One party recognises the line as a border; the other party recognises the line as an administrative boundary.
fn 2 – As defined especially in the Schengen Borders Code, Frontex Regulation, Local Border Traffic Regulation, VIS Regulation and – Community Code on Visas;
fn 3 – As defined by Council Joint Action 2008/124 CEFSP, Article 3, Section a;
With EULEX performing the executive duties, this would seem fairly clear and essentially status-neutral. That it was not implemented owes in part perhaps to the intervening Serbian elections but perhaps more to the continued reluctance of Pristina (and certain Quint supporters?) to actually accepting a status-neutral approach to the two main northern crossing. The return of Serbian customs and police to anywhere in Kosovo would especially stick in Pristina’s craw. But so far, there seems to be no agreement on actually beginning despite meetings between Serbia’s and Kosovo’s prime ministers. On the ground, leaders of the northern Serbs say they reject the agreement and may bring back the road blockades only taken down earlier this year.
UNMIK’s SRSG in his recent visit to Belgrade reportedly encouraged the government there to please talk to its own people in the north about its plans for Kosovo. This is a good idea. If Belgrade plans to implement something like the IBM agreement of December 2011, it should brief the northern leaders and listen to their concerns. The issue of revenue – will it be collected and if so, where will it go – is an important piece still to be settled. But a status-neutral approach to the customs issue would still be an important accomplishment. The northern Kosovo Serbs should likewise think very clearly about their interests and avoid being led by the agenda of any particular political party.
It would be nice to report real progress and a lowering of tensions at the start of 2013. It would not be too early.
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.