By Faton Tony Bislimi
In a marathon session which started at 8 PM local time on Sunday, April 21, and ended after midnight local time on Monday, April 22, the Assembly of Kosovo voted in favour of a resolution that supports and accepts in principle the agreement reached in Brussels between PM Thaci of Kosovo and PM Dacic of Serbia. The draft agreement, facilitated by EU’s Ashton and supported heavily by the EU as well as the US, is said to help the two nations normalize their relations.
The acceptance of the fifteen-point draft agreement which was initialled by the two PMs and Baroness Ashton on Friday, April 19, will enable Serbia to move on with its EU integration process. It will also enable Serbia to permanently be able to interfere in the internal affairs of Kosovo.
The agreement gives way to the establishment of a Community/Association of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo, which will exclusively include the four Serbian majority municipalities in the Northern Kosovo (Mitrovica North, Zubin Potok, Zvecan, and Leposavic). The Community, which can only be dissolved by its own members, will have a series of powers on different areas of governance such as police, judiciary, economic development, health, education, urban planning, etc. It will have a well organized hierarchical structure of leadership including a President, Vice President, Council, and Assembly. Kosovo’s central authorities can delegate more powers to the Community, but they cannot modify or withdraw any of the powers given to it by this agreement.
For almost fourteen years now, parallel structures of government, including local security agencies, supported and sponsored by Serbia have operated north of the Iber River. Organized crime, corruption, smuggling, and trafficking have been continuously present in Northern Kosovo. Kosovo authorities have had no access there, while UNMIK, KFOR and EULEX have only served as observers. Since 1999, about 15,000 ethnic Albanians have been forcefully displaced from their homes in Northern Kosovo, while a few have also been killed, including a Kosovo Police officer. Because of its high level of lawlessness, Northern Kosovo became known as a “crime haven,” for which a great deal of credit is owed to the local Serb security agencies, which promoted and protected those involved in criminal activities in return for funding and other kinds of support.
The recent agreement calls for the incorporation of existing security structures in the Northern Kosovo into the Kosovo Police. In other words, the agreement not only provides full amnesty for those involved in criminal activities in the North, but it also redeems them by legitimizing the same into the Kosovo Police.
Furthermore, given the relatively high number of powers that the agreement provides for the Community of Serb Municipalities, it gives this new creature a fully autonomous operational status. Yes, technically, they will be part of Kosovo, but practically, they will operate independently, as they will have all of the powers a regional government or an autonomous entity would have, including their own regional police commander, and a high court with a permanent seat in Mitrovica North. By virtue of the fact that a new, separate and ethnically based entity or structure of governance is being created in Kosovo, the slogan under which post-war Kosovo was built—multiethnicity—is now gone. And, it is exactly the idea of multiethnicity that the ethnic Albanians bought into when they accepted the Ahtisaari Plan. Quite well, this idea was brought into reality in most of Kosovo. For example, several Serb-majority municipalities were created throughout Kosovo (south of the Iber River), so as to give the local Serbs the outmost local government powers. These new municipalities—such as Gracanica, Partesh, Kllokot, for instance—without the need for a Community of Serb Municipalities, have functioned and fulfilled the needs and demands of the local Serb communities quite satisfactorily.
But, Belgrade wanted something more than the Ahtisaari Plan. It wanted the possibility to have a footing inside Kosovo, in a legal way, as it became apparent that the status-quo that allowed Serbia’s illegal institutions to operate in Northern Kosovo had to come to an end. This recent agreement reached in Brussels seems to provide just that: a permanent ability for Belgrade to shape and influence internal Kosovo politics through the permanent Community of Serb Municipalities.
And, was this a worthwhile compromise for Kosovo? Pristina argues that the agreement is historic as it enables Kosovo authorities to extend their sovereignty in Northern Kosovo as well. Pristina also says that with this agreement, Belgrade has recognized the new reality, as it has accepted the fact that Northern Kosovo must be within Kosovo’s existing borders and operate within Kosovo current constitution and laws. The agreement, according to Pristina, will also enable Kosovo’s path towards the EU. And, from the draft agreement, it seems that is the case—at least superficially. No new constitution is needed and no new laws are required for the Community of Serb Municipalities to be created and to function. However, what Pristina does not take into consideration is that just because the creation of this Community does not require new laws, it may not necessarily mean that its creation and especially its functioning is or will be fully legal, lawful, and in accordance with the Constitution of Kosovo. What if the Community undertakes measures that are in contradiction with the laws and the Constitution of Kosovo? Who or what institution can prevent them for doing so? Recall that the Community can only be dissolved by its own members, the agreement stipulates.
The Republika Srpska in Bosnia was initially established as a community of Serbian-majority municipalities in Bosnia. But, look at it now: Republika Srpska functions as its own state-like entity. Yes, the Dayton Accords foresaw no statehood for this “community”, but the reality seems to show the opposite has happened. Republika Srpska has its own assembly, government, and president with a permanent seat in Banja Luka not in Sarajevo as the Dayton Accords stipulated. Republika Srpska manages all of the affairs of Bosnian Serbs – such as health, education, economic development, urban planning, police, judiciary, etc. As such, Republika Srpska has become an unsurpassable barrier to Bosnia’s Euro-Atlantic integration process and a major challenge to Bosnia’s move towards prosperity as a whole.
While the Community of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo may not be equal to a new Republika Srpska, it certainly gives rise to the possibility that this new entity may become a barrier for Kosovo’s move towards prosperity and Euro-Atlantic integration. Governed almost completely independently from Pristina, this new entity may not follow Pristina’s guidance and leadership in many of the reforms that Kosovo needs to undertake to move closer to the EU.
The agreement stipulates that both parties undertake that they will not block or encourage others to block the other party’s path towards the EU. And, as stated above, Pristina turns to this point of the agreement to argue that accepting this agreement with Serbia is important for Kosovo’s European future. But, what one should not forget is that Belgrade has not been the most important barrier in Kosovo’s path towards the EU. Indeed, Belgrade cannot block Kosovo’s EU integration unless Serbia itself is a member of the EU. Kosovo’s path towards the EU depends much more on Kosovo’s own internal functioning as a democracy than its relations with Belgrade. And, with this Community being established, Pristina may have just swallowed a hot potato; one that can certainly become a major barrier in Kosovo’s path towards the EU; one that can certainly detriment Kosovo’s statehood; and one that can give rise to a new Bosnia or Cyprus on the EU’s doorstep.
Kosovo and Serbia must resolve their differences through dialogue. There is no other way. But, rushing to reach an agreement without clearly analysing its repercussions may give rise to new problems instead of solving old ones. The EU and the US have heavily invested in the state-building process of Kosovo. It is neither in the interest of Washington nor in the interest of Brussels to support an agreement which does not guarantee the resolution of the Kosovo-Serbia problem. The current agreement may, at best, put off the Kosovo-Serbia problem for some time so that the EU and US can devote more of their time to other major international problems facing them.
Faton Tony Bislimi is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Doctoral Scholar of Political Science at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.