The recent turmoil in North Kosovo over Pristina’s use of police to impose minority (Albanian) mayors there has had led to a sea change in the Quint approach. These erstwhile supporters of Kosovo independence have finally put the breaks on Albin Kurti’s efforts to subdue the North by force. The U.S., NATO and EU all sanctioned Kosovo and have now made it clear that Pristina must give greater autonomy to the Serb-majority municipalities in the north if it wants to eventually join NATO and the EU. While Kurti continues to play the tough guy, Kosovo’s more pragmatic president has reportedly now offered to hold new elections in the north if 20% of voters there signal they want them.
New elections tied to implementation of an Ahtisaari Plus Plan – in the form of an association of Serb municipalities – may well have significant support among Serbs in the North. It would allow them to work within the confines of a Kosovo framework while preserving their own local institutions and ties to Serbia. The northerners have lived in an uneasy and conflicted reality since 1999 and as long as Kosovo’s final status remains undecided they cannot live a normal life.
Some local leaders, most notably Oliver Ivanović, have sought some accommodation with the “independent” Kosovo. But it has been a dangerous undertaking. Ivanović was murdered in January 2018 for his efforts. No one has ever been held responsible. But local Serb hooligans likely under either the impression they were doing Belgrade’s bidding or in fact acting under such encouragement were most likely the culprits. Whatever the case, Belgrade has consistently used the northern Kosovo Serbs as hostages to its continued sparring with Pristina and its Western supporters. As long as Serb President Aleksandar Vucic has a northern card, he can gain nationalistic points domestically and fend off any final resolution of status. Pristina’s own efforts to win it all – including the North – has allowed Vucic to get away with this.
It is well-known that Belgrade keeps a tight rein on the northerners. It continues to fund the north and has its own security forces there (not to mention the local mafias eager to keep things unsettled). What it says, goes. Many northerners may have been ready to vote in local election but were ordered by Belgrade to refuse. As the U.S. and its fellow EU members of the Quint pressure Pristina to offer solutions, they must either pressure or entice Vucic to allow the northerners to decide for themselves. Serbia must play fair too.
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 was Diplomat-in-Residence at Drake University for the 2013-14 school year and now works as an independent consultant. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.