Reaching the point of enabling some degree of normality in the north and between local and central institutions in Kosovo and Serbia will be a significant achievement and an important step toward political stability in this part of the Balkans.
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By Gerard M. Gallucci
Kosovo has now held it’s first territory-wide local elections since the NATO intervention ended direct Serbian rule there. Turnout was mixed with most Serbs still not voting and still refusing to be part of an “independent” Kosovo state. Among the Kosovo Albanians, it was a bad time to be an incumbent. Dissatisfaction with both PDK and LDK was palpable. But most importantly, all the Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo – including the four in the north – will now have local governments fully recognized by Belgrade, Pristina and the internationals. As the terms of the Brussels agreements are further defined and implemented, the days of “parallel” institutions look to be ending.
Belgrade wants into the EU and was serious about making the elections a “success.” It cajoled and pushed Serbs to vote and to support its preferred Serbian List of candidates (which won all of the relevant municipalities but one). Belgrade has also worked to migrate at least some of its police into the Kosovo Police and apparently is preparing to do the same with its judges and court officials. Success here will depend upon Pristina fully accepting the Ahtisaari Plus approach taken by Brussels. The core of this approach – and essential to winning gradual acceptance among Kosovo Serbs – is local control of local life, free of interference from Pristina, and continued links to Serbia. This will be hard for the Kosovo Albanian political class to accept (but perhaps less so for the great majority of Kosovars who just want peace and a better life). The US will have to continue to press the PDK-led government forward even as Prime Minister Thaci faces rising frustration with the current political parties.
A chief challenge will be establishment of Belgrade’s Community of Serb Municipalities (SZO) within Kosovo. The Albanians will see this as an effort to establish a “Republika Srpska,” a separate entity within the territory of Kosovo but beyond its control. In this they will be essentially correct. Serbia and the Kosovo Serbs – certainly in the north – will not accept Pristina’s control or involvement in local affairs – including Trepca North and Gazivoda – and will want status neutral treatment for customs and boundary crossings in the north as well as with identity documents. But the SZO will not have the same semi-independent legal character as the real RS in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) and Kosovo Serbs will be expected to participate in central institutions without the elaborate redundancy of BiH. In any case, it remains unclear exactly what role Belgrade sees for the SZO, whether it is meant to simply complicate things for Pristina, help Kosovo Serbs while preserving Serbia’s claim to Kosovo and/or as a bargaining chip to trade away at some point. But reaching the point of enabling some degree of normality in the north and between local and central institutions in Kosovo and Serbia will be a significant achievement and an important step toward political stability in this part of the Balkans.
Even assuming, however, that all of the practical details of implementing the various Brussels agreements can be worked out, much will remain unsettled. The question of Kosovo’s final status – i.e., Belgrade’s ultimate position on Kosovo independence – looms over all. It is clear that the EU will not allow Serbia into membership while it retains its claim to sovereignty over the territory. Kosovo cannot get far into the EU – or the UN – as long as Serbia refuses to recognize it. But this issue need not be resolved just now and, hopefully, both Serbia and Kosovo will be allowed to move forward in the process meanwhile.
Indeed, overcoming the various ethnic and other divisions still clouding the future of the Balkans might benefit from some more imaginative and daring approach by the EU. Rather than wait for Serbia to surrender Kosovo, BiH to become more centralized and Macedonia to settle its name dispute with Greece, it could decide to bring all the remaining territories of the former Yugoslavia into EU membership as one, leaving aside the issue of internal boundaries and dealing with each unit individually without regard to its status. This might be the real way forward.
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.