Circling the wagons north of the Ibar

It should not be assumed that the developing arrangement between Pristina and Belgrade will put an end to North Ibar as a separate entity, any more than it will settle the overarching sovereignty issue. Still, the events of the last year indicate that the main threat to this Serb enclave comes from Belgrade rather than Pristina or capitals farther away.

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Conflict Background


By David B. Kanin

The main protagonists in the tussle over Kosova/Kosovo are working their way toward putting their dispute on ice. Pristina and Belgrade (at least those in Belgrade associated with prime minister Dacic’s side of the ruling coalition) have frozen the existential issue of “status” for the sake of convincing the European Union to move their membership hopes along. The long gestation period involved in bringing either of these states into the Union (especially for Kosova, given the contested condition of its sovereignty) meshes well with the desire of both governments to create a comfortable standard operating procedure regularizing how they will manage their dispute.

Serbs living north of the Ibar River are the clear losers in this process. This has little to do with the Kosovars – despite some hyperbolic claims, Pristina has no nefarious plot afoot to seize control to its north and is virtually absent from the internecine arguments affecting the Serbs living there.

This is an intra-Serb problem. The local politician and “businessmen” who run things in the Serbian-run sliver of Belgrade’s former province fear the machinations of politicians in Belgrade, not what is a more distant enemy in Kosova. The congealing conflict threatens to leave these Serbs with a Hobson’s choice – they can accept an liminal status neither in or out of either Serbia or Kosova, or else resist an emerging condition reached over their heads by people – both “friends” and enemies – who clearly are not particularly sympathetic to their demands for something other than the emerging status quo.

The Kosovo Serbs thus are becoming the latest in the line of Serbian communities to experience defeat in the still-ongoing unravelling of the former Yugoslavia. Defeats in the Croatian Krajina and on the battlefields in Bosnia (no matter Milosevic’s diplomatic success at Dayton) led to major movements of Serbs out of areas they believed they were entitled to and had attempted to retain in the wake of the Federation’s collapse.

References to Garasanin’s Nacertanje and the ceremonial mysteries of Ravna Gora notwithstanding, Belgrade chose not to resist these previous episodes of Serb communal diminution and emigration. Prime minister Dacic, who long has been on record as content with partition or some other solution short of the re-establishment of Serbian control over its former province, is behaving regarding Kosova pretty much as his mentor Milosevic did regarding the rest of Yugoslavia. So far, president Nikolic and the electorally larger piece of the Coalition appears willing to let this happen. Dacic and his advisers are successfully managing a much over-hyped “Platform” that was meant mainly to distract Nikolic’s constituents from the practical implications of his willingness – so far – to cede to Dacic active leadership of the government’s policy toward Kosova.

In a sense, this leaves the North Ibar Serbs in a situation similar to Jewish settlers in Palestine’s West Bank. They claim to be the spiritual and physical front line of the national identity, but fear that the larger community would prefer to treat them as annoying nuisances better ignored than taken seriously.

This is not an analogy that can be taken too far. The local Serbs live in what not too long ago was part of a unit inside Serbia (and, before that, the Serbian political piece of Yugoslavia), where they were a Staatsvolk willing and capable of dominating a local majority population. Jews on the Palestinian West Bank are attempting to convince the government in Jerusalem to annex a simmering Arab-dominated land that until now has not been part of the modern, sovereign Israel. Still, both tails are attempting the difficult task of wagging dogs they depend on for everything material by invoking hoary tales of history, religion, and mythology.

The good news for the spoilers north of the Ibar is that they do not face quite the same danger of isolation that confronts radical Jewish nationalists in Palestine. They need not worry about a Balkan analog of the growing international consensus in favour of a Palestinian state and opposed to the threat of Israeli annexation of areas east of the Jordan. Russia, China, five members of the EU, and other UN members form a considerable diplomatic bulwark blocking Kosova from the sovereign status it has been attempting to forge since the US decision by early 2006 to push this through.

It should not be assumed that the developing arrangement between Pristina and Belgrade will put an end to North Ibar as a separate entity, any more than it will settle the overarching sovereignty issue. In focusing on the practical matters of customs duties, electricity, liaison offices, and whatever else comes up, Kosova – far from attempting to force its way north of the river – is accepting a condition under which it will not have significant reach in that area. Meanwhile, the North Ibar Serbs will hope tensions inside the coalition in Belgrade will lead to early elections.

Internationals and a few Kosovars certainly will be around to plague local Serb notables and to attract those Serbs willing to trade communal separation for the sake of services their own authorities will not or cannot provide. Still, the events of the last year indicate that the main threat to this Serb enclave comes from Belgrade rather than Pristina or capitals farther away. The Ahtisaari plan is just an international slogan; the Dacic plan is much more than that.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

To read other articles by David for TransConflict, please click here.

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6 Responses

  1. PEN

    As has been amply demonstrated in the past you make no secret of where your sympathies lie by your insistence in referring to the territory as ‘Kosova.’ This is entirely unnecessary(irrespective of whether the Albanians refer to it as such) as the overwhelming majority of the international community and most observers agree on Kosovo. The name is Serbian anyway (as with virtually everything else there) as I’m sure you very well know. Though I don’t wish to labour the point, I think it important for future reference to be aware of your bias from the outset.
    In so far as the article is concerned your comparisons with Jewish settlements in the West Bank are spurious and misleading. Jewish settlers offered inducements arrive from all over the world to occupy and build illegal towns on Arab land. Their connection to this land other than by the use of religious argument is tenuous in the extreme. The Serbs of Kosovo on the other hand have lived continuously on their land for centuries, despite the depredations of a hostile Albanian population and Ottoman occupation. To claim that they were somehow a settler presence implanted to wag the dog by ‘invoking hoary tales of history religion and myth’ is patronising rubbish.
    Furthermore you refer to the Kosovo Serbs as being the latest in the line of Serbian communities of the former Yugoslavia to experience defeat. Presumably as a senior former employee of the CIA you were part and parcel of that relentless process of defeat and expulsion. Given that the enemies of those very same Serbian communities were trained, aided and abetted by the United States military machine it is hardly surprising there are virtually no Serbs left in Croatia. This onslaught followed years of crippling economic sanctions unprecedented in post war Europe. Also instigated by the US government. The culmination of this process saw the brutal destruction of Serbia’s infrastructure and the terrorising of her people by NATO in 1999. A war crime by any legal standard worthy of the name. But conveniently ignored by the West.
    Serbs squabbling amongst themselves is besides the point. People there face an existential threat from those who would do them harm. The Serbs are not responsible for the destruction of their communities and cultural/religious heritage. Garasanin’s Nacertanje and the ceremonial mysteries of Ravna Gora are irrelevant to the plight of the Serbian people today. They are invoked to lend credence to the tired old refrain that the romantic Serbs are hopelessly lost in the past. They say more about the writers prejudice than they do about the Serb’s shortcomings.

    1. Fadil

      Historically, by very reliable evidence, the land of Serbs belong to Carpathian Mountains if you wish so. So PEN you better go there and ask “historical right” of your land. There is no SINGLE evidence that Albanians were settled into Balkan peninsula from anywhere.

      You say “virtually” everything is “Serbian” in Kosovo and I agree as its virtual bot not real. If historians know that Serbs ruled in Kosovo lesser than all the others (Byzantine, Bulgarian empire, Ottoman empire) we just can assume how “everything” in Kosovo is Serbian!!

      Only sick minds try to recreate the history and believe that repeating lies many times may spread it out and make it true!!

      Nevertheless, what is important here is understanding that nationalists, sick minded people, should be aware of the century we live. This is 21st century and in this century people vote and elect their leaders, regardless of race, faith, color and ethnic background.

      The other thing is that people are equal. So if all entities of former Yugoslavia got independent the good thing is independence of Kosovo as one of constituent entities of Yugoslav federation. Secondly, similar groups like Serbs in Kosovo or Albanians in Serbia must have EQUAL treatment. So whatever is given for Serbs in Kosovo must be given for Albanians in Presevo valley.

  2. Gerard Gallucci

    I beg to differ on the Albanian agenda for the north. It has always been clear to anyone working in Kosovo and aware of the essentially tribal nature of the conflict between Serbs and Albanians there that each side sees it as zero sum. What one side would gain the other would see as a loss. If the Serbs were able, they would prefer to push the Albanians out of the majority. If the Albanians got their way, they would flood the north with “returns” and seek to displace the Serbs. (In the run up to the 2008 UDI, the Albanians also expressed great concern about losing the water from Gazivode or the assets of Trepca.) Therefore, it’s always been a matter of finding a formula which avoids further ethnic conflict, cleansing or flight by recognizing in practice that Pristina cannot rule the north just as Belgrade can not rule the south. This, as you note, may be where things are heading.

    I defer to you on Serbian politics but note that few northern Kosovo Serbs have ever trusted Belgrade very much. They do seem aware, however, that their determined resistance to the various outside plans for “resolving” the north place limits on what can be done to them.

    1. Fadil

      So Gerard, probably, you personally would like to preserve the assets of northern Kosovo in Serbian hands. This is more than obvious as you always cite “UDI” and never mention Presevo valley. For the record the “UDI” was the case with Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosna&Herzegovina but you mention only Kosovo. Secondly, Presevo valle seems to be much more important for Serbia as there is a big project with water canal from Belgrade to Thessaloniki.

  3. Pingback : What difference does it make? |

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