North Kosovo – new reality, old problems

Despite the fact that the Brussels Agreement and the November election is a first step towards the bridging of differences between Kosovo on the one hand and Kosovo Serbs and Serbia on the other, the process of integration of Serbs into the Kosovan system will require time, good will on all sides and, above all, legal and political clarity.

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By Gëzim Krasniqi

Kosovo’s state-building process and the establishment of a separate citizenship regime has been challenged by local Serbs since its independence in 2008. The challenges have been mainly in northern Kosovo, as well as the state of Serbia, thus turning it into a contested and internally divided state. However, after three years of stalemate, and a status-quo in the north Kosovo that practically cemented the division of Kosovo into Albanian and Serb-dominated parts, the EU utilised the International Court of Justice opinion on the legality of the declaration of independence of Kosovo to bring both parties together at the negotiating table. Following the adoption of an EU-Serbia resolution at the General Assembly of the UN (A/RES/64/298), a ‘technical dialogue’ between Kosovo and Serbia began in March 2011 and produced several agreements on the return of civil registries and cadastre records, and on the freedom of movement of persons.  Regardless of the initial progress, tensions rose  in summer 2011 following the decision of the Kosovo government to send special police to the northern border crossings with Serbia in order to enforce a trade boycott of Serbian goods, thus triggering a violent reaction by local Serbs which left a Kosovan policeman dead and other international soldiers and policeman wounded.  This led to a series of other violent incidents and the establishment of a system of roadblocks to prevent free movement between the north and the rest of Kosovo. However, the EU eventually succeeded in re-launching the dialogue and through the use of strong leverage on both sides, EU negotiators obtained agreements on customs stamps and on the integrated management of the border crossings and representation of Kosovo in regional cooperation.

After ten rounds of often gruelling talks in the EU-facilitated dialogue, Kosovo and Serbia reached a landmark agreement on 19 April 2013, as the respective prime ministers initialled an agreement aimed at normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo. This agreement titled First Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalization of Relations is a 15 point document that establishes the parameters for inclusion of northern Kosovo within Pristina’s legal framework, while increasing the degree of autonomy for the four Serb-dominated municipalities in northern Kosovo. It foresees the creation of the Association/Community of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo, initially comprising four Serb northern municipalities of Kosovo, while leaving the door open for other Serb-dominated municipalities. The Association/Community will have governing authority over five key areas: economic development, health, education, urban and rural planning. The agreement foresees the dismemberment of the Serbian security structures through their absorption into Kosovo equivalent structures and creation of new local institutions emerging from free and fair elections organised by Kosovo with the help of the OSCE. The last point of the agreement contains a commitment by Kosovo and Serbia not to block each other in their EU integration path.

While the agreement will eventually enable Kosovo’s institutions to establish nominal control in the northern part of the country (through the integration of the existing judicial and security structures into the Kosovan system), certain elements of the agreement will enhance the position of northern Kosovo as a special territory within the country. This is evident in two fields: judiciary and policing.  According to point 9 of the agreement text, there shall be a Police Regional Commander for the four northern Serb majority municipalities (Northern Mitrovica, Zvecan, Zubin Potok and Leposavic). This imposed changes in the present organisation of the police in Kosovo, thus elevating northern Kosovo to the status of a separate region. Likewise, as regards the organisation of the judiciary, the agreement foresees the establishment of a panel composed of a majority of Kosovo Serb judges by the Appellate Court in Pristina to deal with all Kosovo Serb majority municipalities. A division of this Appellate Court, composed of both administrative staff and judges will sit permanently in northern Mitrovica (Mitrovica District Court). In an another attempt to separate northern Kosovo from the rest of the country, including the Serb-dominated municipalities south of Mitrovica, the Serbian government demanded that NATO provides written guarantees the Security Force of Kosovo (KSF), or a future Kosovan army, will not be present in northern Kosovo. This landmark agreement was followed by other agreements on the implementation of the April agreement, especially on the issue of elections, as well as on energy and telecommunications. However, a key momentum in the implementation of the agreement was the 3 November 2013 municipal elections, which would be the first Kosovo election organised through the territory since the new country’s declaration of independence.

Although the April 2013 Agreement has been criticised for not containing the words “citizens” and “rights”, the issue of elections and participation of Serbs in them sparked debates on many citizenship related matters such as voting rights for deportees, ID cards, symbols etc. Whereas Kosovo agreed to allow Serbs to use any (including Serbian) ID cards during the vote, additional technical negotiations were required on the issue of voters residing in Serbia and the design of the ballot papers.  Local Serbs and Serbia insisted that Kosovo’s coat of arms does not appear on the ballot paper for, according to them, it violates the ‘status-neutral’ character of the agreement, thus prompting the Kosovan Central Electoral Commission (CEC) to redesign ballot papers.  Also, Serbia demanded that all the Serbs that are originally from Kosovo but have moved or been deported to Serbia after the war exercise the right to vote. Although Serbia submitted through the OSCE around 40,000 applications of displaced Kosovo Serbs who wanted to register to vote in Kosovo’s municipal elections, only half were added to the voters’ list before the election. Considering the strategic importance of the participation of northern Serbs, Kosovo’s institutions have pushed the CEC to violate its rules in deciding about various issues, including the ballot papers and voters’ lists.

The November vote, considered a landmark one due to the fact that it was organised throughout the territory of Kosovo for the first time, was characterised by a higher turnout from local Serbs and interruption of voting in three polling stations in North Mitrovica as masked men stormed polling stations. Despite this, the November election, which in the northern part was facilitated by OSCE, was considered “A Positive Step Forward for Democracy in Kosovo” by the EU Election Observation Mission (EU EOM, 2013).  Nonetheless, the repeated election in North Mitrovica on the 19 November, and the run off on 1 December 2013, resulted in the election of new Serb mayors and local councils in 10 Serb-dominated municipalities in Kosovo.

Although these elections represent a milestone in the implementation of the Brussels agreement, it is too early to predict the real effects of the Kosovo-Serbia agreement on the consolidation of Kosovo’s citizenship regime and integration of Serbs from northern Kosovo. The first signs are not very promising though. To begin with, Kosovo authorities and local Serbs failed to agree on the procedures regulating the inaugural sessions of the new Assemblies in the north. After days of intense negotiations mediated by the EU officials in Kosovo and Brussels, the newly elected officials signed the documents endorsing the oath of office only after the Kosovan coat of arms was covered. However, the newly elected mayor of North Mitrovica, KrstimirPantić, refused to sign the document, thus invalidating his mandate. Pantić’s refusal to assume office, which apparently is also related to the inner power-struggle within Serbia’s ruling coalition, means that new elections will be held in North Mitrovica on 23 February, thus prolonging the status quo in the north and postponing the creation of the Association of Serb Municipalities. Tensions rose even higher in mid-January following the assassination of Dimitrije Janićijević, a former mayoral candidate in North Mitrovica from the local Liberal Party, an ethnic Serb party that is part of Kosovo’s Albanian-dominated coalition government. Although there were no arrests after the crime, local officials believe this was part of a backlash by hardliners against an EU-brokered accord to end the country’s ethnic partition.

Despite the fact that the Brussels Agreement and the November election is a first step towards the bridging of differences between Kosovo on the one hand and Kosovo Serbs and Serbia on the other, the process of integration of Serbs into the Kosovan system will require time, good will on all sides and, above all, legal and political clarity. For, although the agreement presupposes that Kosovo’s legal system is supreme in the territory of Kosovo, Serbia’s insistence on the ‘status neutral’ character of the agreement can easily become an insurmountable barrier to the implementation of its provisions. A precedent has been set already with the refusal of Serbs and Serbia to use Kosovan IDs to vote or the Kosovo institutions’ logo on ballot papers because, according to them, it amounts to a claim that Kosovo is a sovereign state, which Serbia continues to reject.  Certainly this leaves an open door to the Kosovan Serbs to oppose various Kosovan legal provisions and institutional decisions, thus leading to a political stalemate and the continuation of the status quo.

Moreover, most of the agreements achieved in Brussels are very abstract and legally ambiguous, thus leaving space for different interpretations by the two parties. Even during the local election campaign in Kosovo, Serbs and Albanians behaved like they weren’t participating in the same elections in one country. Whereas for Kosovo the election was interpreted as a step towards the removal of Serbia’s presence in Kosovo, for local Serbs and Serbia this was seen as a way of legalising and legitimising the already existing local Serb institutions.  As a result, experts of both parties have been engaged in endless discussions about the terms of implementation of these agreements up to the point of de facto renegotiation. Judging from this, one can foresee a new round of extensive and long negotiations on the statute and functioning of the Association/Community of Serb majority municipalities. To begin with, the agreement uses a dual name for the Association of Serb Municipalities. So, as Marko Prelec from the International Crisis Group points out, while for Serbia it is a Zajednica (union or community) of municipalities, a governing entity newly established by the agreement, for Kosovo it is merely an inter-municipal association like one that already exists to help local governments coordinate and share expertise.

Irrespective of the fact that as a result of the Brussels Agreements Kosovo will be able to establish nominal control over the entire territory of Kosovo, the April 2013 Agreement has de facto created a self-governing sub-state political unit within Kosovo, which despite its legal ties to Kosovo does not recognise it as an independent polity. In addition, the April agreement reinforces the existing asymmetry of rights between Kosovo Serbs from the north and those Serbs living in the other parts of the country, thus creating two separate categories of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. Likewise, Serbia’s heavy involvement in the Kosovo elections through the creation and support of a single Serb list – the ‘Serbian Civic Initiative’, at the expense of other Serb political parties and associations in Kosovo, divided local Serbs even further and undermined democratic competition and pluralism amongst local Serbs in Kosovo.  Moreover, fearing a low turnout in the November 2013 elections, the Serbian institutions coerced local Serbs in Northern Mitrovica to go and vote. This certainly casts doubt on the democratic and free character of these elections.

Last but not least, the fact that the Brussels Agreement was negotiated and agreed without the participation of the local Serbs, who indeed opposed it, risks turning it into a dead paper. Likewise, the failure to address and solve citizenship-related issues such as the right to return, restitution of property, the issue of ID cards, which remain essential for Kosovo’s Serbs, but also for Albanians from the north, risks rendering the agreement a mere symbolic act.

In short, despite its symbolic importance and its effect on Serbia’s EU integration path – the opening of membership negotiations – and  also Kosovo’s – the initiation of the Stabilisation and Association talks – the Brussels Agreement has not answered or solved many crucial issues regarding the issue of sovereignty, citizenship related issues, and most importantly, the integration of local Serbs into the Kosovan society and polity. As the recent debates on the ‘status neutrality’ and Kosovo’s state symbols show, EU’s approach of ‘constructive ambiguity’ in dealing with the Kosovo-Serbia relations, might be sufficient to get the main negotiators, Ashton, Thaçi and Dačić the Nobel Prize, yet fail to solve the Kosovo impasse.

Gëzim Krasniqi holds an MA in Human Rights and Democracy in South East Europe from the Universities of Sarajevo and Bologna and another MA in Nationalism Studies with distinction from the Central European University (Budapest, Hungary). Gëzim is currently undertaking his PhD in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh and also working as a part-time research assistant on the CITSEE research project at the University of Edinburgh. His main research interests are nationalism, nationalist movements and citizenship issues. 

This article was originally published by Citizenship in Southeast Europe and is available by clicking here.

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16 Responses

  1. Brian

    This article leaves out the fact pristina appoints the Serb police commander meaning there is no Serb control of police! Albanians control the Serb police selection and therefore all Serb autonomy is abolished.

      1. Brian

        Exactly. Serbs can’t pick for themselves. Pristina Albanians control the person ultimately because they work for pristina. I have also haven’t seen any proof Albanians don’t pick the Serbs on the list in the first place. Why can’t Serbs elect their own chief? Why is pristina involved? Why is it ignored in the article?

        1. Anonymous

          Another question might be: why Albanians in southern Serbia cant picke theri police commander?? Or why Bosniaks of Sanjak (southern Serbia) can’t do it as well??!!

          The ultimate questions might be: why Kosovo Serbs in the north must be so special?? Did they come from planet Mars or what happened so they deserve so special treatment??!!

  2. Mike

    A good article that ultimately proves Kosovo remains mired in conflicting arrangements and vastly different interpretations of agreements reached. What really remains to be seen is how this Assembly of Serbian Municipalities will function as it has the capacity to be an autonomous body within Kosovo but largely, if not entirely, separate of Pristina’s authority.

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