The EU – with US support – has helped broker a framework that puts the current frozen conflict between Serbia and Kosovo onto a path that may eventually allow further mutual accommodation. But this opportunity could be lost if any of the parties try to move too quickly.
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By Gerard M. Gallucci
The November Kosovo elections have met the minimum standards to be considered a “success.” Not very high turnout in most places but – after an initial bump – just over 20% in North Mitrovica. More to the point, with some runoffs pending, Kosovo Serbs are set to win the mayor jobs in all of the big Serb enclaves including the four in the north. This overcomes a big hurdle in Serbia’s path toward EU membership. But much remains to be settled and done and Serbia will someday face the largest hurdle before getting into the EU, recognition. But perhaps things may work out over time.
For now, the biggest questions concern the north: How will the majority of northern Kosovo Serbs respond to the new elected governments? Will Pristina seek to use the limited election “success” to push for quick advantage in the north and, if so, will the Quint allow it. What are the borders of the new North Mitrovica municipality? Will “customs” function on the northern boundary and, if so, where will the collected fees go? What law will be applied in the north and who will pick the judges and police commanders? Will northerners be forced to use Kosovo ID and license plates? What about Trepca and Gazivoda? And, more generally, what about the Community of Serb Municipalities (ZSO)?
Most northerners did not vote and some that did reportedly were pressured to do so by Belgrade. So it remains clear that the great majority of northern Kosovo Serbs still reject Kosovo independence or being included in any Kosovo “state.” If a new status-neutral framework for including local government within a Kosovo-wide context is to work, it must be given space and time to evolve without interference or provocations from Pristina. Any effort to unilaterally introduce Kosovo Albanian police, judges, customs, officials or “returnees” into the north will likely cause conflict and obstruct further progress. Pristina efforts to dictate to local government in Serb-majority municipalities or to limit or control funding from Belgrade would do the same. It would ease peaceful change if the EU and US would facilitate the transition of Serbian judges and police into recognized courts and the Kosovo Police without having to pass any Pristina litmus test. Kosovo Serbs should be allowed to continue to use Serbian IDs and license plates – at least in their own communities and to cross to/from Serbia proper – as per Belgrade agreement with Pristina. Any customs fees collected on northerners should find its way unimpeded to the four northern municipalities.
The Ahtisaari Plan offers a sound basis for handling many of the details of implementing Brussels agreements on bringing north Kosovo into a Kosovo-wide framework. This includes the Serbian government’s focus on the establishment of the ZSO. Despite Pristina’s insistence that it won’t accept any “federalism” or other layers of government, the Ahtisaari Plan allows municipalities to form “partnerships” complete with “decision making bodies.” A community of Serb municipalities within Kosovo able to work together on shared local competencies, and with funding and support from Belgrade, Pristina and the international community, might go a long way toward winning gradual acceptance of the new framework.
North Mitrovica presents unique challenges and opportunities. Its enhanced competencies could provide for it to become a vibrant hub for Kosovo Serbs throughout the territory. As it remains the only large city with a still mixed population – including a sizable Albanian minority north – it can also provide a laboratory for demonstrating routes to reconciliation. As such, its border should be the Ibar.
Pristina has long had designs on Trepca North and the Gazivoda hydro-dam (which also supplies water for the Obilic power plant upon which Kosovo depends for much of its electricity). But these have functioned well under local Kosovo Serb management throughout the past years and might be best left out of politics and as to be agreed between Belgrade and Pristina.
The EU – with US support – has helped broker between Serbia and Kosovo a framework that puts the current frozen conflict between the two onto a path that may eventually allow further mutual accommodation. But this opportunity could be lost if any of the parties try to move too quickly. The proper timeline for change to take place would be best figured in years and as both Serbia and Kosovo prepare more generally for EU membership. Nothing should be “imposed.” This would be in NATO’s interest as well because peaceful change would certainly be better for everyone than any further effort to use force.
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.
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