The dispute about Kosovo’s sovereignty continues to fuel tensions and violent clashes in northern Kosovo, halting Kosovo’s and Serbia’s fragile dialogue and putting at risk Serbia’s EU candidacy, said the International Crisis Group.
Kosovo and Serbia: A Little Goodwill Could Go a Long Way, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines on-going instability in the North, the latest bout of which began when Pristina’s police tried to reach two customs posts on the border with Serbia in July. Local Serbs set up barricades and are still blocking the movement of Kosovo officials and the EU’s Rule of Law mission (EULEX).
“Northern Serbs reject the Kosovo customs officials and border police and block EULEX, fearing the deployment is the beginning of the end to their way of life in the North, which has been largely separate from the rest of Kosovo’s”, says Marko Prelec, Crisis Group’s Balkans Project Director. “They need to be respected as parties to the conflict, and it is wrong to assume that Belgrade can force them into compliance.”
The event was the first major move by Pristina to demonstrate control over the North and to secure its borders since it declared independence in 2008. Pristina feels that Serbia has increased its influence over the North, despite a 2010 ruling by the International Court of Justice that the declaration of independence did not violate international law, and worries that left unchallenged, partition may take root.
The current conflict is so difficult to resolve and likely to be drawn out because it is not a technical dispute about customs; it is over sovereignty, with customs only the field on which it is fought. The sides (Kosovo, Kosovo Serbs, Serbia and members of the international community) have fundamentally opposing interpretations of Kosovo’s status, the status of northern Kosovo and the boundary between Kosovo and Serbia.
All sides should seek ways to minimise the risk of further conflict, while focussing on implementing what has been agreed in the bilateral technical dialogue, facilitated by the EU, between Serbia and Kosovo. Belgrade has been given three conditions to receive EU candidacy status in March and should focus on meeting these. The sides should also lay the groundwork for broader political talks – with the added participation of northern Kosovo community leaders – that are needed for a peaceful transition to Kosovo sovereignty in the North and normalisation and recognition between the two sovereign states.
The government of Kosovo should abstain from operations to assert authority over the North in the current environment and without preliminary agreement of all concerned and engage with all elected representatives of the northern Kosovo Serb community. Similarly, the northern Kosovo community needs to engage with Pristina without preconditions. Serbia will have to ensure that roads to crossing points with Kosovo are free of barriers and continue to call on Kosovo Serbs to dismantle barricades.
“Many Serbs in Serbia and in Kosovo do not want to accept that the North will eventually fit within Kosovo’s constitutional order, yet accommodation is necessary for Belgrade to succeed ultimately in its EU membership ambition”, says Sabine Freizer, Crisis Group’s Europe Program Director. “For integration to be peaceful, however, it will have to be gradual and the result of political compromises and agreement”.