Kosovo – what should the northerners do?

If the northerners come to decide it worth the effort to try to make the agreement into something they can live with, resistance as a tactic would have to include a willingness to participate in determining how it might work. Using the Ahtisaari Plan as a basis, there are ways to bend the current outline in the direction of special autonomy that puts buffers between Pristina and local government while preserving Kosovo’s territorial and political integrity and Kosovo Serb links to Serbia

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By Gerard M. Gallucci

All faces are now turned to the Serbs of northern Kosovo: will they accept the agreement between Belgrade and Pristina or not? The EU has made clear that it expects implementation of the agreement before rewarding Serbia, come June, with a date for EU accession talks. Belgrade is clear that the northerners should accept the deal for their own good as well as the good of Serbia as a whole. The government has cleverly spun the northern demand for a referendum by offering a simple “take it or leave it” national vote on the agreement if the northerners commit to accepting the result. The Serbs south of the Ibar are waiting for the northerners to join with them in staying in Kosovo, some fearing their northern brethren are really seeking to abandon them in a partition. Pristina is insisting on quick implementation beginning with abolishing Serbia’s security structures. They are hinting at possibly looking to NATO to enforce this.

In truth, removing Serbia’s security structures from northern Kosovo – whatever that’s supposed to include – would not by itself change anything on the ground there. The overwhelming majority of Serbs living north of the Ibar don’t like the agreement and see it as the leading edge of establishing Pristina’s control over them. This, they believe, would begin unraveling their communities and driving many of them out. The northerners have been making clear their refusal to accept implementation of the agreement. Mere huffing and puffing at them won’t change anything as they remain capable and seemingly committed to resisting on the ground.

So far, the northerners have nothing to fear from the agreement. It’s just an outline and needs important details to be filled in. Belgrade cannot move to cut off their support while these details are undefined. Holding a referendum would also take some time. Perhaps the northerners will be allowed to use this time to think deeply about their future and to be consulted on how the details might be filled in?

No one can decide for the northern Kosovo Serbs which direction to go: try to make the agreement into something they can accept or resist in the hopes of further developments. But it may be useful to examine the choice in terms of strategy and tactics. Tactically, a show of determined resistance makes sense whichever direction the community decides to go. But tactics must be tied to an overall strategy to be effective and strategy must be informed by a clear idea of a desired and achievable end state.

First question might be, do the northerners believe that prolonging the current frozen conflict remains a viable and stable outcome? Over the long-term, with Serbia having decided its future must be with the EU, can Belgrade’s continued support be counted on? Can the north survive without Serbian support? The answers to these questions might lead to the conclusion that it would be best to find a way to keep Serbian support within the context of finding a way to make the agreement workable. This is certainly Belgrade’s position.

If, upon reflection, the northerners come to decide it worth the effort to try to make the agreement into something they can live with, resistance as a tactic would have to include a willingness – a demand even – to participate in determining how it might work. Using the Ahtisaari Plan as a basis, there are ways to bend the current outline in the direction of special autonomy that puts buffers between Pristina and local government while preserving Kosovo’s territorial and political integrity and Kosovo Serb links to Serbia. Whether Kosovo is a state or a province could be left to the eyes of the beholder.

Some in the northern Kosovo Serb leadership may believe that resistance can stave off change or create sufficient crisis to lead to international acceptance of partition. It would be a big bet and one might wonder about the strategy to get there.

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.

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

To read other articles by Gerard for TransConflict, please click here. If you are interested in responding to this article, please do not hesitate to contact us by clicking here.

To learn more about both Serbia and Kosovo, please check out TransConflict’s reading lists series by clicking here.

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13 Responses

  1. “The Serbs south of the Ibar are waiting for the northerners to join with them in staying in Kosovo, some fearing their northern brethren are really seeking to abandon them in a partition.”

    My estimate is that it would be advantageous for the Southern Serbs when the North is split off. Such a split would be an implicit recognition that the area south of the new border is under Albanian control. Some Southern Serbs resist that as they like to keep the faith that one day Kosovo may again be under Serbian control. But by keeping that option on the table they provide Albanian extremists also with a strong argument for their misbehavior.

    As the Western countries keep sticking to their “no border changes” policies based on their faulty “precedent” argument (according to the ICG the principle reason the Macedonian Albanians stopped pressing for independence was the realization that that would displace a lot of Albanians too) it would be best to have a kind of semi-independence for the North that would achieve the same effect.

    Some parts of the agreement are simply wishful thinking. What to think of article 13: “Discussions on Energy and Telecoms will be intensified by the two sides and completed by June 15.”? As so often this is an open invitation to both sides to obstruct in the hope that the EU will force the other side to give in.

    The core seems to be article 4 and it is a bunch of contradiction. First it is said that the autonomy will be in accordance of the European Charter of Local Self Government and Kosovo law. As the first document is very vague it means that Kosovo law is in control. That seems in contradiction with the second part that says that “The Association/Community will have full overview of the areas of economic development, education, health, urban and rural planning”. If Kosovo Law or the way it is implemented is in contradiction with that “full overview”, who will prevail?

    It seems to me that the best the Northern Serbs can do is to press for a number of additional conditions. For example: no government investment or entry or presence of military or special police forces without explicit agreement of the regional government of the North.

    The way the government in Belgrade is playing it I think the strategy of the northern Serbs should primarily be one of convincing Serbian public opinion and politicians. For that purpose they need a set of concrete demands. Just saying that they are against the agreement won’t work.

  2. Wim: I agree that the best course of action for the northerners might be to seek further conditions. For that they have to have a clear and common understanding of their bottom lines. I suspect if they indicated openness to enter negotiations, they’d have some willing interlocutors among the Quint. The EU folks – other than the Germans – seem to want to close a deal.

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