Kosovo – Serbia still on Germany’s short leash

While the northern Kosovo Serbs have not openly defied Belgrade, the agreement cannot be fully implemented if they don’t fully engage in the process. Passive resistance and continued rejection of Pristina’s involvement in the north would make it difficult for Belgrade to simply cut the northerners off and would erode everyone else’s expectations that anything has really been decided.

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By Gerard M. Gallucci

Seems the EU strategy of using “diplomacy” and the leverage of membership has succeeded where Quint past efforts to use force failed. Serbia has imposed on the northern Kosovo Serbs a notional agreement with Pristina and has been “rewarded” with a notional date for membership talks to begin. Brussels gets to claim success – and what Ms. Ashton calls “irreversible” progress – while Germany continues to stand just behind with its Bundestag whip. But little has actually changed on the ground and most details of implementation remain to be determined.

Many of the various agreements between Belgrade and Pristina remain to be fully implemented and important matters – including telecoms and energy – remain undecided. There now seems to be liaison officers assigned to the EU offices in each other’s capitals and there is some form of joint boundary management (though it’s not clear what role Kosovo Albanian officers play in the north or how they are getting there). A Kosovo (Serb) police chief for the north has reportedly been appointed though it’s unclear what level of acceptance he has from northern leaders or how he will interface with Pristina command. The northerners have removed a blockade on the road from Mitrovica to Zvecan while two others remain on the north side of the Ibar. There’s no word about the border to be applied to North Mitrovica – the Ibar or some other line? – or about returns and property issues. All that’s been said on Trepca North has come from Pristina, which says it will never give it up.

The northerners have appeared eager to not complicate matters for Belgrade. They have not declared autonomy or formally rejected anything. They say they continue to support their government (in Belgrade). But their leaders remain opposed to rule by Pristina or under Kosovo law and institutions. They have also warned that Serbs would not take part in any elections called by Pristina (now set for November). As one official noted, this could set up a situation in which northern Kosovo Albanians do vote and elect their own to lead the northern municipalities that everyone else would then recognize. This would set the stage for conflict that would now put Belgrade on the side of Pristina and lend some apparent legitimacy to Quint efforts to use force against the “illegal” local Serb leaders.

Some in the EU may have favored giving Serbia an unconditional date for membership talks. Some may prefer to see it that way. But it’s clear that the date – by the “latest” January 2014 – remains in German hands. They expect full implementation of normalization and dismantling of “parallel structures” before anything can actually start. However, it would be wrong to assume only the Germans see conditions. Brussels and Berlin – with the US in the background – have adopted the old “good cop, bad cop” routine to keep maximum pressure on Belgrade. Ashton and others get to suggest that all is sweetness and light while everyone looks over their shoulders at the Bundestag still holding Serbia’s leash. This could, of course, work.

But then again, it may be that this is everyone’s way of simply kicking the can down the road. Well, everyone but Belgrade. The EU gets to claim a smashing success at least for a few more months, the US can stop browbeating Serbia for a while and the Kosovo Albanians can claim everything is going fine. As long as the northern Kosovo Serbs are not made to actually do anything with Pristina, they too can perhaps just enjoy summer. But for Serbia, getting a date conditioned on a happy ending leaves considerable uncertainty, not a good thing when your economy is already in the flusher.

None of this is to say that the agreement doesn’t offer hope. It provides a solid basis for real local autonomy. Details – such as dual citizenship, voting documents, funding from Belgrade, the UN role – may just need to be clarified. But one must consider other possible scenarios as well. While the northern Kosovo Serbs have not openly defied Belgrade, the agreement cannot be fully implemented if they don’t fully engage in the process. Passive resistance and continued rejection of Pristina involvement in the north would make it difficult for Belgrade to simply cut the northerners off and would erode everyone else’s expectations that anything has really been decided. A far simpler approach might be to adjust boundaries in an exchange of north Kosovo for Presevo. Why force Serbs and Albanians to live in countries they reject if the lines can simply be moved a bit?

Much remains to be done before January and the northerners need to be brought fully into the process if the EU’s desired change is to come peacefully. This cannot just be dumped on Belgrade.

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.  He will serve as Diplomat-in-Residence at Drake University for the 2013-14 school year.

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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