Kosovo – trust and distrust

That the EU dialogue has made certain progress – not all of it implemented in the north due in large part to the distrust – should not lead to excessive optimism. The northern Kosovo Serbs may some day come to accept something like Belgrade’s platform, but they almost certainly won’t go beyond that.

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Conflict Background

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By Gerard M. Gallucci

EU sponsored talks between Serbia and Kosovo continue. An encouraged International Crisis Group sees the possibility of an agreement emerging on the north along lines long suggested here. The EU seems pleased with itself for using its leverage over Serbia – prospective membership – to press Belgrade forward. Since the advent of the post-Tadic government, Belgrade has moved more briskly toward an accommodation over Kosovo. It proposed an approach in which Serbian municipalities would have a certain autonomy within Kosovo – certainly more pronounced for the north – but also links with Pristina as well as Belgrade. The issue of sovereignty would be put aside, with Serbia talking about an “autonomous” Kosovo and Pristina claiming Kosovo’s territorial integrity.

Significantly, Belgrade’s platform explicitly accepts the participation of Kosovo Serbs in central institutions. Should there be an agreement that proves to safeguard local self-governance for the northern Serbs, they might well participate in central institutions such as the legislature. Serbs could be king-makers in Kosovo politics given the various disputes among the Albanians. But all happy endings imagined for Kosovo must first overcome the considerable distrust that northerners have of the Albanians. They fear that any role in their communities given to Pristina will be used against them. Such an outcome remains exactly what Pristina seeks. The conflict remains zero-sum.

Prime minister Thaci has highlighted his government’s expectations from dialogue. It wants parallel institutions abolished – including municipal administrations, the courts and the police – and Pristina’s “authority” extended to the northern border on the terms of the Ahtisaari Plan as it has been (haltingly) applied south of the Ibar. Thaci claims there is no pressure from the internationals to go any further.

The way the southern Kosovo Serbs were bullied into submission and treated afterwards – land grabs, attacks, desecrations – does not engender trust. But beyond that, Pristina’s continued demand that its control be extended into the north underscores the fundamental reason for the distrust. The northern Serbs believe that Pristina will use any opening to exercise authority on their side of the Ibar to advance the Albanian agenda of replacing them, first in north Mitrovica and then elsewhere. The Ahtisaari Plan as written would give Pristina the ability to interfere and block transfers of funds from Belgrade, over-rule local decisions, take part in choosing local police commanders and have its courts and judges replace those now operating. The role in the transfer of funds could allow Pristina to put a stranglehold on the northern municipalities. Its ability to overrule local decisions could allow it to “nullify” local government and even create a seeming crisis of “legality” justifying intervention. Making local police commanders dependent on its approval could place Pristina in the position of injecting its police (or “army”) into the north without organized resistance. Placing its courts and judges in the north could allow the “legal” enforcement of one-sided property claims and returns.

Whether one finds credible or not the scenario of Pristina using any authority it gets to enact an agenda against the northern Serbs, it is how the northerners see it. They do not trust Pristina to do otherwise. That the EU dialogue has made certain progress – not all of it implemented in the north due in large part to the distrust – should not lead to excessive optimism. The northern Kosovo Serbs may some day come to accept something like Belgrade’s platform. They almost certainly won’t go beyond that. Belgrade understands this – even if the EU does not – and has made clear it will not simply disband its institutions in the north and hand them over to Pristina. The Nikolic-Dacic government has gone far in suggesting an open-ended framework with autonomous local institutions working under internationals – the UN, OSCE or a neutral EU? – within the Kosovo context. But Pristina would have to keep its hands off. That would require real EU/US peacemaking and probably continued peacekeeping.

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.