Kosovo and Serbia: A little goodwill could go a long way

  
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A violent standoff in northern Kosovo risks halting its fragile dialogue with Serbia, and the latter's EU candidacy process, says the International Crisis Group.

The International Crisis Group is a non-governmental organisation that provides analysis and advise for governments. This analysis is a summary of an in-depth report on the situation in Kosovo and Serbia, the full version of which can be downloaded here.

“Priština’s push to control the whole territory of the young state, especially its borders with Serbia, and northern Kosovo Serbs’ determination to resist could produce more casualties. Belgrade has lost control and trust of the northern Kosovo Serb community, which now looks to homegrown leaders.

The international community, especially the EU and US, should encourage Belgrade to accept the government in Priština as an equal, even if without formal recognition, but not expect it can force local compliance in northern Kosovo.

All sides should seek ways to minimise the risk of further conflict, while focusing on implementing what has been agreed in the bilateral technical dialogue. They should build confidence and lay the groundwork for the political talks needed to guide a gradual transformation in northern Kosovo and eventually lead to normal relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

The current flare-up of tensions began on 25 July 2011, when Priština sent police to two customs gates along the border with Serbia. Local Serbs surrounded the police and forced them to retreat; one officer was killed in an ambush, and a border post was burned.

On 16 September, EULEX, the EU rule of law mission, started to airlift Kosovo officials to the border. All roads leading to the customs points were barricaded by Kosovo Serbs intent on obstructing deployment of Kosovo officials.

While the roadblocks have generally been peaceful, violence ensued on at least three occasions during the last months of the year, when NATO’s peace enforcement mission (KFOR) attempted to dismantle the barricades, and Kosovo Serbs pushed back. It is perhaps some testament to the general commitment to limiting casualties that while there have been many injuries, only two persons have died.

The dispute over customs is only a symptom of Serbia’s and Kosovo’s disagreement over sovereignty, especially with respect to the North. Belgrade is loath to take steps that could be interpreted as recognition of its southern neighbour, making normalisation extremely difficult.

Priština feels Serbia has increased its influence over the North since Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, despite a 2010 opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that the declaration did not violate international law; it consequently believes it needs to demonstrate now that it controls its borders, lest partition take root. Northern Kosovo Serbs do not want to live under Priština’s authority and see the deployment of customs officials and police as the first step toward dismantling their institutions and way of life.

The EU expects Serbia to treat Kosovo like a normal country and reach agreements with it, even if it has not formally recognised it. In the approach to the December 2011 European Council, Serbia made important concessions, especially in the context of EU-facilitated technical talks with Kosovo, in a bid to secure EU candidate status.

President Tadić called for dismantling of barricades in northern Kosovo, at least three were taken down, and his negotiators signed an agreement for Kosovo and Serbia to jointly manage the border crossing posts.

But this did not convince all member states; on 9 December, the EU summit gave Serbia three new conditions for obtaining candidate status in March 2012. These will be difficult to meet in their entirety, and if Serbia cannot do so, that will be postponed to at least December and perhaps well beyond 2013, when Croatia joins.

A less EU-oriented government may well be elected in 2012, at the same time as the eurozone crisis drains support for enlargement in key member states, thereby weakening the EU’s strongest tool for conflict resolution in the western Balkans. If positions in Priština and Belgrade then harden, compromise would be out of reach.

Serbia should be proactive in implementing the agreements made in the technical dialogue and in demonstrating strong political will to meet the additional EU conditions.

It should work closely with the Kosovo Serbs to encourage them to lift their blockades and join talks with Priština on reducing tensions in the North. At the same time, EU member states like Germany should not push overly ambitious demands, such as quick dismantling of parallel institutions, that neither Belgrade nor Priština can deliver peacefully at present. EULEX and KFOR should likewise act with special prudence in this sensitive period.

After months demonstrating against EULEX and Kosovo officials, northern Kosovo Serbs are tired and frustrated but undeterred. They no longer trust Belgrade to fully protect their interests.

Tensions can still spill over if Kosovo or KFOR try to coerce them to dismantle their roadblocks, or due to mishaps as the two new Serbia-Kosovo technical agreements on freedom of movement and management of crossing points are implemented. Serbia’s parliamentary elections (planned for May) are another flashpoint.

In 2008 they were organised also in parts of Kosovo with significant Serb presence, leading to parallel municipal governments in southern Kosovo and to the Serbian municipalities that currently govern the North. Priština may attempt to block a repeat in 2012 by impounding ballots, arresting organisers and closing the polling places it can reach.

No one involved wants armed conflict; yet, the stakes and tensions are high, and deadly violence remains a risk. All parties should focus on building the confidence and trust needed to open comprehensive and inclusive political talks between Kosovo and Serbia, with the participation of northern Kosovo community leaders, that can eventually lead to resolution on governance of the North and normalisation and recognition between Serbia and Kosovo.

Many Serbs in Serbia and in Kosovo refuse to accept that the North should eventually fit within Kosovo’s constitutional order, yet Belgrade appears increasingly to realise its EU membership ambition can be met in no other way.

For integration to be peaceful, however, it will have to be gradual and the result of political compromises and agreement. The forceful and unilateral methods applied at times in 2011 may appear expedient, but they create tensions and dangers that should be avoided in a still fragile region.”

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