The dispute between Kosovo and Serbia, which keeps the Western Balkans divided and insecure, is most acute in Kosovo’s northern municipalities.
North Kosovo: Dual Sovereignty in Practice, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines current realities, including local attitudes, Belgrade’s influence, Pristina’s limited attempts to engage, international strategy and problems in law enforcement, justice and border controls. The region’s largely Serb population is loyal to Belgrade, and most institutions operate within Serbia’s system. Kosovo wants to integrate the North and gain control of the border with Serbia. It is willing to provide substantial self-rule, but Serbs see it as their last stand against Kosovo independence.
A Kosovo-Serbia dialogue mediated by the EU began on 8-9 March and is likely over the coming months to look at regional cooperation, communications, freedom of movement and the rule of law. For now, however, Belgrade, Pristina and Brussels have decided that tackling the North’s governance or status is too difficult before cooperation on improving the region’s socio-economic development, security and public order is secured.
“For some time, the North will remain in effect under dual sovereignty: Kosovo’s and Serbia’s”, says Marko Prelec, Crisis Group’s Balkans Project Director. “Kosovo and Serbia will eventually have to decide what to do with this region. Until then, the local community needs Northern solutions to Northern problems”.
Northern Serbs reject integration into Kosovo, believing their land is still part of Serbia and doubting their rights would be protected in Kosovo. Serbian education, health care and administrative services seem better to them than Kosovo’s, and they, as well as Serbs in small enclaves further south in Kosovo, regard the North as their centre of intellectual and urban life. Unfortunately, neither Pristina nor the international community has made a persuasive case for integration, which Serbs believe offers them less than what they already have.
Observers in Pristina and friendly capitals argue that as long as Serbia’s massive payments sustain their way of life, Northerners have little incentive to compromise. Yet, Kosovo’s own constitution expressly permits Belgrade to fund local services for Serbs, provided it is coordinated with Pristina, which currently it is not. Only the relatively small amounts that support Serbian police and court systems directly undermine Kosovo’s integrity
Law enforcement is weak in the North. Kosovo police are the only sign of Pristina’s presence, but they have a poor reputation and little local trust. Serbia’s police are barred by a UN Security Council resolution but operate covertly. Kosovo’s district court in Mitrovica is responsible for a region much larger than the North but is paralysed and can hear only a handful of cases, judged by internationals from the European Union’s rule of law mission. Serbian court judgments are enforceable only in Serbia and limited in practice to civil matters and economic crime. Street crime is low; the main problem is rampant smuggling by Serbian-Albanian gangs, and intimidation against anyone associated with Pristina.
“Kosovo and Serbia should not allow their dispute about status to block progress for Northern residents”, says Sabine Freizer, Crisis Group’s Europe Program Director. “Until a comprehensive political solution becomes possible, they should instead seek flexible, interim solutions to improve law enforcement, customs collection, and allocation of financial aid in the North”.