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?
The local elections that took place in Kosovo towards the end of 2013 were celebrated by the international community as a historic event and a turning point in the conflict over the status of the former Yugoslav province. They were also hailed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as a milestone for the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo and a clear sign that the Serb-dominated north of the disputed territory was finally prepared to become part of the Kosovar political system. Alongside the encouragement of ethnic Serbs to participate in the elections, Belgrade also committed to abolish its parallel political institutions. In return, Serb majority municipalities were granted the right to create a community with autonomy in areas such as economic development, health, education, urban and rural planning. Such initiatives helped to allay fears that the Serb minority would be dominated by an overwhelming Albanian majority.
Less than perfect conditions
However, the elections were far from being smooth, especially in the northern part of Kosovo. Voter turnout in Serb dominated municipalities was low and hovered between 15% and 20% of the electorate. The first round of elections had to be repeated in three polling stations after they were stormed by masked men. In the second round, ballots were transported to Kosovo Polje for no obvious reason instead of being counted at the polling station. In all rounds, employees of Serbian state-run enterprises were practically “ordered” to the polls. Whereas these circumstances would have warranted a critical assessment elsewhere, there seemed to be no appetite to engage in a prolonged discussion about the legitimacy of the elections – as long as they produced a result that everybody could live with.
Last week’s outbreak of violence between ethnic Serbs and NATO forces at the border between Kosovo and Serbia may not have been large in scale, but this latest of a number of incidents points toward an escalation of long-simmering tensions in Northern Kosovo. The developments are not just important symbolically; disagreements over the status of the North are the main obstacle to reconciliation between Belgrade and Pristina. They have implications for the wider region and, in effect, keep Serbia out of the EU and Kosovo out of the UN.
The positions are relatively clear-cut:
- Belgrade’s motto is ‘partition, then recognition’: it has made clear that the only way it will accept Kosovo’s independence is if Northern Kosovo becomes a part of Serbia
- Serbs in Northern Kosovo, who make up a large majority of the population, uniformly identify with Serbia and refuse to be part of an independent Kosovo
- For Pristina, partition is unacceptable
- The international community also wants to avoid changes to Kosovo’s borders, for fear of destabilizing the western Balkans and playing into the hands of Kosovo’s nationalists. The EU and the US have consistently insisted that Serbia accept Kosovo’s territorial integrity and work with its government on practical matters