It should not be assumed that the developing arrangement between Pristina and Belgrade will put an end to North Ibar as a separate entity, any more than it will settle the overarching sovereignty issue. Still, the events of the last year indicate that the main threat to this Serb enclave comes from Belgrade rather than Pristina or capitals farther away.
By David B. Kanin
The main protagonists in the tussle over Kosova/Kosovo are working their way toward putting their dispute on ice. Pristina and Belgrade (at least those in Belgrade associated with prime minister Dacic’s side of the ruling coalition) have frozen the existential issue of “status” for the sake of convincing the European Union to move their membership hopes along. The long gestation period involved in bringing either of these states into the Union (especially for Kosova, given the contested condition of its sovereignty) meshes well with the desire of both governments to create a comfortable standard operating procedure regularizing how they will manage their dispute.
Serbs living north of the Ibar River are the clear losers in this process. This has little to do with the Kosovars – despite some hyperbolic claims, Pristina has no nefarious plot afoot to seize control to its north and is virtually absent from the internecine arguments affecting the Serbs living there.
This is an intra-Serb problem. The local politician and “businessmen” who run things in the Serbian-run sliver of Belgrade’s former province fear the machinations of politicians in Belgrade, not what is a more distant enemy in Kosova. The congealing conflict threatens to leave these Serbs with a Hobson’s choice – they can accept an liminal status neither in or out of either Serbia or Kosova, or else resist an emerging condition reached over their heads by people – both “friends” and enemies – who clearly are not particularly sympathetic to their demands for something other than the emerging status quo.
The Kosovo Serbs thus are becoming the latest in the line of Serbian communities to experience defeat in the still-ongoing unravelling of the former Yugoslavia. Defeats in the Croatian Krajina and on the battlefields in Bosnia (no matter Milosevic’s diplomatic success at Dayton) led to major movements of Serbs out of areas they believed they were entitled to and had attempted to retain in the wake of the Federation’s collapse.
References to Garasanin’s Nacertanje and the ceremonial mysteries of Ravna Gora notwithstanding, Belgrade chose not to resist these previous episodes of Serb communal diminution and emigration. Prime minister Dacic, who long has been on record as content with partition or some other solution short of the re-establishment of Serbian control over its former province, is behaving regarding Kosova pretty much as his mentor Milosevic did regarding the rest of Yugoslavia. So far, president Nikolic and the electorally larger piece of the Coalition appears willing to let this happen. Dacic and his advisers are successfully managing a much over-hyped “Platform” that was meant mainly to distract Nikolic’s constituents from the practical implications of his willingness – so far – to cede to Dacic active leadership of the government’s policy toward Kosova.
In a sense, this leaves the North Ibar Serbs in a situation similar to Jewish settlers in Palestine’s West Bank. They claim to be the spiritual and physical front line of the national identity, but fear that the larger community would prefer to treat them as annoying nuisances better ignored than taken seriously.
This is not an analogy that can be taken too far. The local Serbs live in what not too long ago was part of a unit inside Serbia (and, before that, the Serbian political piece of Yugoslavia), where they were a Staatsvolk willing and capable of dominating a local majority population. Jews on the Palestinian West Bank are attempting to convince the government in Jerusalem to annex a simmering Arab-dominated land that until now has not been part of the modern, sovereign Israel. Still, both tails are attempting the difficult task of wagging dogs they depend on for everything material by invoking hoary tales of history, religion, and mythology.
The good news for the spoilers north of the Ibar is that they do not face quite the same danger of isolation that confronts radical Jewish nationalists in Palestine. They need not worry about a Balkan analog of the growing international consensus in favour of a Palestinian state and opposed to the threat of Israeli annexation of areas east of the Jordan. Russia, China, five members of the EU, and other UN members form a considerable diplomatic bulwark blocking Kosova from the sovereign status it has been attempting to forge since the US decision by early 2006 to push this through.
It should not be assumed that the developing arrangement between Pristina and Belgrade will put an end to North Ibar as a separate entity, any more than it will settle the overarching sovereignty issue. In focusing on the practical matters of customs duties, electricity, liaison offices, and whatever else comes up, Kosova – far from attempting to force its way north of the river – is accepting a condition under which it will not have significant reach in that area. Meanwhile, the North Ibar Serbs will hope tensions inside the coalition in Belgrade will lead to early elections.
Internationals and a few Kosovars certainly will be around to plague local Serb notables and to attract those Serbs willing to trade communal separation for the sake of services their own authorities will not or cannot provide. Still, the events of the last year indicate that the main threat to this Serb enclave comes from Belgrade rather than Pristina or capitals farther away. The Ahtisaari plan is just an international slogan; the Dacic plan is much more than that.
David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
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