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Kosovo: Time for a Restart between Pristina and the North?

Young Kosovo. Source: Tony Bowden

It was hoped that the Brussels Agreement would lead to the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia and stabilize the situation in Northern Kosovo in the process. Yet, while it’s true that ties between Pristina and Belgrade have improved, the same cannot be said about the Kosovar capital’s relations with its restive northern territory. Indeed, Pristina still lacks a dialogue with the Serbian minority in the north. Will a change of government help to rectify this situation?

Steps Forward…

The past year has certainly witnessed some promising developments. The majority of Serbian parallel institutions that once existed in Northern Kosovo have now been dissolved, most notably the police forces which have been integrated into the Kosovo Police. An integrated justice system is also in the offing. In late 2013, local elections were also held in Northern Kosovo for the first time. However, the north’s Serbian community continues to reject integration into Kosovo’s political structures and it still has no incentives, neither social nor economic, for institutional incorporation. In addition, it feels alienated by the negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina.

Crucially, the most important aspect of the Brussels Agreement has yet to be tackled. The Community of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo is expected to oversee the social and economic development of Kosovo’s Serbian communities (four in the north, six in the rest of the country). However, the Serbs in the north do not have confidence in the Community. They simply do not know what its creation will bring and fear a step towards institutional integration. The remit of the Community remains the subject of intense debate. While Serbia envisages an institution that enjoys far-reaching powers and privileges, thereby enabling it to exert influence over the Serbian municipalities’ fate, Kosovo is intent on minimizing the Community’s ability to act autonomously.

However, the soon to be formed body may constitute an auspicious way for Pristina to establish communication with the north, while guaranteeing it a certain degree of self-government. Kosovo Parliamentary elections scheduled for this summer might result in a government that is prepared to better connect with the Community of Serbian Municipalities and, indeed, the northern part of the country. This will effectively require the unseating of the allies and supporters of incumbent Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi, as well as the election of a cadre of politicians who do not have a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) background. There will also be a need to tacitly acknowledge that the country’s not-so-distant past still remains fresh in the minds of Kosovo’s Serbian minority.

Reservations

However, predicting the final outcome of these elections is undoubtedly a risky task. For instance, it is still not clear whether Thaçi will leave office or run for another term. Indeed, even if Thaçi does decide to step down there’s a distinct possibility that Kosovo’s electorate may still look to those politicians who are reluctant to revitalize ties with the north. Nor does the formation of a coalition government with a slim majority bode well for the future, especially if it feels a need to distinguish itself with a harder line on relations with Kosovo’s Serbs as well as Belgrade.

And let’s not forget that the Serbian community is likely to remain hostile towards Pristina irrespective of the final outcome of these elections. Their general refusal of the Kosovar state will remain strong, at least for the foreseeable future. It will undoubtedly take time for the new government to gain their trust. Patience and a ‘win-win’ mentality will be necessary if the next Kosovar government wants to make genuine progress. The Community of Serbian Municipalities could in this context turn out to be the forum for initial contact.

Looking Ahead

In addition, the new administration should aim to tackle shared economic problems from day one. How Pristina goes about the setting up of a war crimes tribunal in the coming months will also be important. If ethnic Albanians are convicted for crimes during the war, an acknowledgment by the new government would raise its credibility among the country’s Serbs.However, this will not be an easy task given that many Kosovars remain suspicious of the tribunal since it might tarnish the country’s international reputation and its national pride.

Ultimately, the replacement of the Thaçi government with a more progressive administration could provide Kosovo with a unique opportunity for rapprochement with the north. The Community of Serbian Municipalities may finally get a conversation with the Serbian communities in the north started. If this happens, a normalization of relations inside Kosovo could start soon.

Matthias Bieri is a Researcher in the “Swiss and Euro-Atlantic Security” team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zürich. He is co-editor of the
policy brief series “CSS Analyses in Security Policy” and author of Kosovo between Stagnation and Transformation.


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