Having achieved its aim of demonstrating that the northern resistance to the imposition of Pristina institutions is a genuine popular response, and not the result of criminal coercion, it is now time to reconsider the planned 15th February referendum.
By Gerard M. Gallucci
A few weeks back, I suggested that the controversy over the “referendum” called by the northern Kosovo Serbs was much ado about nothing. The four Serb-majority municipalities – after initial resistance in the DS-controlled assembly in Leposavic – had agreed to a vote in mid-February about whether they accept or not to be ruled by Pristina. The result would be a foregone conclusion but would have no practical effect. The northern leaders were not calling for a declaration of independence or separation from anything, but simply giving the local Kosovo Serb community an opportunity to clearly go on record and refute the accusations being flung at them that resistance to Pristina and the barricades against EULEX were just the work of “criminals” and “radicals.” I suggested the vote could simply be considered a poll.
Since then the controversy has continued with much of the pressure on the northerners not to carry out their plans coming from the Serbian government itself. Belgrade has told the northerners to cancel the referendum and said that holding it goes against broader state interests. The Tadic government has also suggested that those in the north pushing the referendum are doing so for political purposes. (Three of the four northern municipalities are held by opposition parties, with Leposavic being the exception, and it is likely that some of those behind the referendum do see it as a way of scoring political points against Tadic.) The Serbian parliament will consider the issue.
Some in the north believe recent severe electricity shortages and a delay in paying local salaries are also a form of Belgrade pressure. The Serbian government may be focusing now on getting the Leposavic municipal assembly to break ranks and cancel participation in the referendum, counting on that to stop the entire plan. The mayor of Leposavic reportedly announced Monday that the referendum should be immediately postponed.
It seems that some – in Belgrade and beyond – see in the referendum planned for February an echo of the series of referendums – from Slovenia in 1990 through BiH in 1992 – that ushered in the breakup of Yugoslavia. Belgrade is also anxious to meet the EU’s conditions for candidacy before the question is again taken up in March. The Quint is demanding that the barricades come down and the “parallel institutions” in the north be abolished. They seem to be leaving it to Tadic to interpret this as a demand that the referendum not happen as well.
All of this suggests that perhaps it might be normal to reconsider holding the referendum. Although the vote is just a kind of poll, it has been elevated into an important political fact by all those arranged against it. When facts change, it is wise to reconsider options.
The referendum was originally seen as a way to make the point that the northern resistance to imposition of Pristina institutions is a genuine popular response and not the result of criminal coercion. It seems to have already accomplished that aim. Only Pieter Feith and some extreme polemicists persist in calling the northerners criminals. KFOR has stopped calling the local municipal institutions “parallel.”
A far more important question is the upcoming elections in Serbia and whether they will be held in Kosovo or not. Tadic is trapped on this question. The Quint/EU would not like to see Kosovo included and Belgrade has noted it cannot hold elections there in places where there are no Serbs. To include the north and southern enclaves is the real issue. Tadic would love to please Brussels, but his hands are tied politically and constitutionally. It might be best for everyone to focus now on finding a formula for holding local elections this year that does not foreclose options for broader compromise solutions. The UN may be able to play a key bridging role here.
One more note. As the northerners have been refusing to drop the referendum, they have also been rejecting Tadic’s four-point plan – which still has not seen the light of day – for being a simple reiteration of the Ahtisaari Plan. This may be just a bargaining ploy as I know some of those doing the “rejecting” have actually been thinking seriously of the options. Finding a way to implement the Ahtisaari Plan in the north in a way acceptable to everyone – but especially to the northerners – might not be the best of all possible worlds, but it would be far from the worst.
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. Gerard is also a member of TransConflict’s Advisory Board.