The conflict between Kosovo and Serbia is focused Northern Kosovo— approximately one thousand square kilometers, or approximately 10 percent of the territory of Kosovo, inhabited by a predominantly Serbian population of approximately fifty thousand people, or approximately 40 percent of the Serbian population of Kosovo and approximately 3 percent of the total population of the Kosovo. This small piece of territory has been a major source of tension between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs as well as between Pristina and Belgrade for more than two decades. Many models to solve this problem have been tried and failed. A agreement in 2013 in Brussels allowed for smooth integration, but these gains were reversed last year when thousands of Serbs quit their jobs– including police officers and judges – as part of a broader Serbian boycott of Kosovo’s institutions. The leaders of Serbia and Kosovo also attempted, unsuccessfully, a few years ago, a “territorial solution” focused on the future of the north.
Kosovo’s leaders now insist on unconditional integration of the north. Kosovo Serbs equate this integration with subordination, instead insisting on autonomy in local affairs as a precondition for integration, a position supported by Belgrade and the international community. sympathize with.
The new impasse is untenable and, if left unchecked, could trigger a series of clashes between Kosovo and Serbia and between Kosovo authorities and local Serbs.
There are at least four major sources of tension that require special attention.
First, small incidents could lead to uncontrollable violence. Relations between the predominantly Albanian police and the local Serb population in the north are tense. Serbs say they are intimidated by the massive, mono-ethnic police presence – an overwhelming majority of police officers are Albanian in a territory with more than 90 percent Serbs. One small incident could turn this strained relationship into widespread violence.
Second, northern Serbs feel disenfranchised. Despite constituting an overwhelming Serb majority, the four northern municipalities are now led by Albanian mayors elected in elections boycotted by the Serbs, with a total turnout of below 4 percent. In addition, thousands of Serbs resigned from Kosovo’s institutions last year. Although Albanians and Serbs disagree on the reasons for the boycott – Albanians say Belgrade orchestrated it while Serbs say Kosovo’s discriminatory policies pushed them to leave – the feeling of exclusion of Serbs could undermine diplomatic efforts to reintegrate the region. This feeling could also fuel resentment which could then lead to active Serbian civil disobedience, which could escalate into violence. Although unable to secede, northern Serbs have the capacity to derail Pristina’s efforts to establish authority there, as demonstrated this summer by their boycott of Kosovo’s elections and local institutions. and their violent demonstrations.
Third, Tensions in and around the north have triggered a new wave of nationalism in Serbia and Kosovo that could further intensify, undermining not only the gains of the past decade but also undermining future peace efforts. So far, the leaders of both countries have kept this radicalism in check. But if nationalism reaches uncontrollable levels, leaders will likely feel compelled to respond to increasingly extreme public expectations by undertaking risky actions. Combined nationalism and resentment could guide the governments and public opinion of Kosovo and Serbia towards an inevitable confrontation.
Fourth, Kosovo could take more steps to establish its control in the north, which could further alienate the Serbian population. Pristina appears to want to remove from public places Serbian-funded institutions that provide services to the Serbian population, such as pensions and salaries for thousands of teachers and doctors employed in the Serbian-funded system
The path to follow
Kosovo and Serbia could take immediate steps to ease tensions and create the necessary conditions for the reintegration of Serbs in northern Kosovo. The key will be for Kosovo and Serbia to decouple northern integration from the seemingly intractable status dispute – to view northern integration as a non-status issue – and to commit to implementing all agreements on Serbian integration by the end of the year. This includes the implementation of Association/Community of Municipalities with Serbian Majoritya proposal for greater Kosovo Serb control over local affairs in the ten Serb-majority municipalities first agreed between Belgrade and Pristina under the 2013 Brussels Agreement.
Kosovo should take the initiative, because its own citizens and territory are at stake. Kosovo should not view possible additional rights for Serbs through the Association/Community as concessions to Serbia, but as making part of an integrationist policy aimed at welcoming a part of its own citizens who, for various reasons, are reluctant to integrate their motherland into a state, Serbia does not recognize. Serbia, in turn, should unequivocally support the reintegration of Serbs into Kosovo’s institutions. Serbia should not view this as a concession to Kosovo, but as a way to improve the situation of this rather small and poor Serbian community caught in the crossfire. Serbia and Kosovo can clash on other fronts, and they have many. And Kosovo Serb leaders should act autonomously from Belgrade in local affairs.
How could this be achieved? The parties should first agree on new local elections in the north, in which Kosovo Serbs would commit to participating. At the same time, Kosovo should draft a statute for the association/community that will be formed as soon as the new mayors are elected. Another important step is to facilitate the return to their workplace of thousands of employees who have resigned, particularly police officers.
Although a controversial policy, if formed in good faith, the association/community will not lead to the partition of the north, as Albanians fear, but rather could serve as a path to sustainable integration of the Serbs. A permanent minority in central institutions – all high positions are occupied by Albanians – Serbs want to have more of a say in local affairs in municipalities where they constitute the majority. More specifically, the Serbs want Pristina to grant them more autonomy in matters of local economic development, urban planning, education and health. Such demands might be considered normal in developed democracies, but that is not the case in Kosovo, a country marked by deep ethnic divisions where even insignificant transfers of power appear to carry high stakes. Albanians could, for example, offer northern Serbs an important national position, such as speaker of parliament – an integrationist technique frequently applied in other countries facing similar ethnic challenges – to give them a sense of be a stakeholder in the future of Kosovo.
To facilitate Serbian integration, all Kosovo Albanian political parties must support the formation of the association/community. No party, no matter how strong, can afford to form it alone, given the likely painful political costs. Not because the association/community is necessarily bad for Kosovo – in fact, it would phase out Serbian institutions with over ten thousand employees and facilitate their integration into the Kosovo system – but because most Albanians seem believe him. Bipartisanship is therefore essential. And it shouldn’t be difficult. After all, all parties accepted the association/community in one form or another during the decade-long negotiations with Serbia. Furthermore, the Kosovo parliament has already adopted this policy. Serbian integration is a key test of the ability of Albanian political leaders – both government and opposition parties – to build a liberal democratic state capable of striking a balance that satisfies both majority and minority communities.
For such an integrationist approach to work, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic would need to transform their belligerent interactions into a working relationship. Some messages of reconciliation have begun to make headway. Kurti agreed. offer more self-management to the Serbs, reversing its previous position. At the same time, Vucic recognized that peace with the Albanians was beneficial for Serbia. But in general, leaders continue to speak in ways that spark more anger than reconciliation. Of course, this will require a change in attitude, both from leaders and the general public. Although public opposition to the normalization of relations is widespread, it remains superficial. It is not based on fundamental political positions or ideological opinions.
Thus, public opinion could quickly shift toward greater support for reconciliation if leaders in Belgrade and Pristina advocate it. As European Union-led talks between Serbia and Kosovo continue this week, it is imperative that Kurti and Vucic take the necessary steps to reduce tensions and facilitate the reintegration of Kosovo Serbs.
Shpetim Gashi is vice-president of the Council for Inclusive Governance.
Milica Andric Rakic is program manager at the New Social Initiative.
Fri June 2, 2023
Protests this week in Kosovo, as local officials took office, left NATO peacekeeping troops injured and raised fears of a further escalation of violence. Atlantic Council experts answer crucial questions.