Back to Pristina

I’m headed again to Pristina this week, where I’ll focus mainly on northern Kosovo issues. That’s the 11% of its territory that Serbia still controls and wants to hold on to.  To many readers not so interested in the Balkans, this will sound like a small problem in a small country, but it arouses great passions and has potential for unraveling several of the relatively new states that occupy the western Balkans, including not only Kosovo but Macedonia, Bosnia and even Serbia itself.

I think I understand the Kosovar side of this equation relatively well.  The Pristina authorities want to maintain the territorial integrity of the state they declared in February 2008.  They have been reasonably assiduous in implementing the Ahtisaari plan, the internationally imposed condition for independence that provides a wide margin of autonomy for Serb-majority municipalities.  South of the Ibar river, where most of them live, Serbs have more or less accepted Pristina’s authority (if not its independence from Serbia) and are participating in its institutions.

The Kosovars see no reason why the north can’t be part of Kosovo, and good reason why it should be.  Particularly troublesome from the point of view of most Pristina politicians (and the entire international community) is that partition of the north would strengthen irredentist Albanian passions for union with Albania and Albanian-majority portions of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro.  Partition would also open the door to extremists who don’t want any Serbs south of the Ibar.

In addition, Pristina wants to establish its customs enforcement at the northern border with Serbia.  This is particularly important because Serbia won’t take products made in Kosovo, while Kosovo imports a good deal from Serbia.  So the Pristina authorities want to be able to block Serbian imports, or at least collect taxes on them, and end the tax-evasion smuggling that deprives the Pristina government of tens of millions of euros.

I confess to less certainty about Serbia’s perspective.  When Belgrade used to say that all of Kosovo is its Jerusalem and therefore cannot be independent, I understand both the sentiment and the implications, even if I can’t agree with the conclusion.  But when Belgrade says, as it has lately, that it wants a deal to keep the north, that is more than a little puzzling.  None of the main Serbian monuments, churches or monasteries are in the north.  Most of the Serb population lives in the south.  And the north would have a wide degree of autonomy if the Ahtisaari plan were implemented there.

The only serious objection to the Ahtisaari plan I’ve heard is that it would make Belgrade’s legitimate payments (pensions, teachers, etc.) to the north go through Pristina; some worry that they might be blocked there.  This is a soluble problem, not an insurmountable one.

Some people tell me the real issue is Trepca, the large mine that has long dominated the economy of the north.  Others say it is face saving:  Serbia has to get something, if only “Ahtisaari plus,” whatever that means.  Otherwise, Boris Tadic and his Democratic Party will lose the next election to the more nationalist, but now rhetorically quite tame, Tomislav Nikolic.  Sometimes I think it is inat (usually translated “spite”) and the hope that by eventually surrendering Belgrade can extract concessions of more importance elsewhere (extraterritoriality for the Serb monasteries for example).  Some claim that taking the north is just part of Belgrade’s persistent attachment to the idea of Greater Serbia, and the underlying notion that wherever Serbs are in the numerical majority that territory should be part of Serbia.

But I really don’t get it, so I invite readers to offer contributions to  The rules of this game are the following:  no vitriol, no personal invective, just a clear and compelling statement to non-Serbs and non-Albanians (who constitute most of my readers, and I don’t anticipate any Serbs or Albanians will be converted by any argument, however compelling) of what Belgrade hopes to achieve in dividing the north from the rest of Kosovo.

Comments on my understanding of the Kosovar perspective are of course also welcome.  But again:  no vitriol or personal invective.  I’ll be delighted to be enlightened.

The preferred way to provide me with your contributions is to register with and submit a comment.  Otherwise, should get an email to me.   Editorial discretion is of course mine, and mine alone.


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18 thoughts on “Back to Pristina”

  1. Why u still talking about great serbia instead of great albania, thats whats going on after we asume Belegrade recognize Kosovo (wich will never happen) next goal for albanians is unity kosovo n albania and later autonomy or war for part of macedonia and this is so clearly to anyone who knows what happen here.
    U say greater Serbia when Serbia wants to preserve integrity on kosovo thats so spined and discredit you as a analyst.

  2. You write that South of the Ibar Serbs have more or less accepted Pristina’s authority. What choice do they have? Even if Kosovo again becomes part of Serbia they will live in an autonomous Albanian ruled area. But the young are leaving because they don’t see a future in this climate.

    The Ahtisaari Plan gives in many areas Pristina the last word. Serbs or other minorities can decide but in the end some approval from Pristina is needed too and that opens the door to abuses.

    A good example of abuses are the Gorani schools that were closed for months by Pristina because they used the Serbian curriculum instead of a government approved curriculum. Never mind that there was no government approved curriculum in Serbian available. The Serb enclaves are at the moment still strong enough to withstand such attacks but one day it will be different. Everyone is aware that this kind of harassment will only increase once the internationals leave.

    You write “But when Belgrade says, as it has lately, that it wants a deal to keep the north, that is more than a little puzzling. None of the main Serbian monuments, churches or monasteries are in the north.”
    The whole idea of self-determination is that the people of an area determine how it is ruled, not the monuments that stand there. So Serbia is sticking closely to international law. On the other hand are the claims for territorial integrity for Kosovo weak: According to the Helsinki accords border changes can only happen with mutual agreement and until now such an agreement isn’t there on the secession of Kosovo and the majority of the countries in the world still insist that that is the way it should happen. In addition to that Belgrade has strong humanitarian arguments given the situation of the Serbs south of the Ibar and the many remaining refugees.

    So let me turn your question around: Why are the Albanians so insistent on keeping the North? Well, they aren’t: many would be happy to exchange it for Presevo and/or official recognition and the only thing that keeps Kosovo from discussing that option is a veto from the US and the EU. A few months ago we had a period when Kosovo officials cautiously discussed border changes in public. Then some US diplomat came along and it stopped again.

    Would partition strengthen separatist Albanian demands elsewhere? They will use it as an argument but that is not the same. South Serbia and Kosovo’s North tip are already linked so an agreement on the North would contain some solution on that subject. Most of Montenegro’s Albanians live near the coast and the border with Albania is not a former inner-Yugoslav border and as such has much greater authority. That leaves Macedonia. The situation there is still quite problematic and wouldn’t be astonished at all when we saw new Albanian actions once Kosovo’s independence is secure – just like their previous actions were after the 1999 war had separated Kosovo from Serbia.

    Finally you write that “Partition would also open the door to extremists who don’t want any Serbs south of the Ibar.”. I can’t understand this position. Pristina is perfectly capable of controlling those extremists. If Pristina is in bad faith in this they will also be in bad faith in other aspects – as many Serbs expect. It would be an extra argument to keep the Serbs in North out of their hands.

  3. “The young are leaving.” Not only from south-of-the-Ibar Kosovo, but from Serbia itself – especially the educated, the people Serbia needs to rebuild its economy. So the declining Serb population in Kosovo can hardly be blamed entirely on Albanian actions. Historically, Belgrade has had to persuade or force the Serbs living there to stay, to maintain Serbia’s claims to the region, ever since it began to acquire freedom from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Even under Yugoslav law it was illegal for Serbs to sell property to Albanians, who were willing to pay multiples of the going price for land. If it were inanimate particles that were involved rather than impulsive human beings, it would make sense to wait and allow individuals to diffuse in both directions across a permeable boundary to establish a stable equilibrium. That may be what Prishtina is counting on, counting on Serbia’s desires to join the EU to prevent serious violence in the meantime. If Albanians can envisage ending up with majority status in the North at some point, why would they negotiate away the territory now, when Serbia is not even willing to include formal recognition in the deal?

    So, dividing Kosovo would potentially cause problems only in Macedonia? That’s not enough for you? As long as the Slav majority insists on calling the country the Republic of Macedonia (which, in my view, they have every right to do) and Greece continues to block its moves to join Nato and the EU on that basis, the large Albanian minority will see taking their land and joining a Kosovo with a “European perspective” as an attractive option, once borders become open to change, that is. And what happens to the rump Macedonia? Bulgaria may have some ideas …

    The problems of education for the Gorani can probably be solved without redrawing the country’s borders. In any case, allowing schools in a state to teach from the point of view of a hostile neighboring state is problematical. The Gorani problem is apparently that in order for children to attend Serbian-language high-schools they have to have studied the official Serbian curriculum for primary schools. Serbian high-schools (in Kosovo) allowing entry to minority children taught in Serbian according to the Albanian curriculum would be one solution, or perhaps having the Serbian communities fund Serbian-curriculum schools in the Gorani area, but considering the fuss Belgrade is making about Albanian textbooks – in Albania – showing a map of the distribution of Albanian speakers in the area (including parts of Italy), any compromise solution seems unlikely for the present.

  4. Mr. Serwer, B92 has an article (“Ministry reacts to incidents south of Ibar” about the burning of a Serb house in Gnjilane that they hink was ethnically motivated. Maybe you can check that out when you are there.

    Sure, youth are leaving for Western Europe all over the Balkans. But the situation amongst Kosovo’s Serbs is specially bad.
    I find your thoughts about Macedonia rather disturbing. You seem to think nothing of breaking up a country for the most flimsy reasons.
    My point with the Gorani schools was that I consider it completely unacceptable behavior to close schools for months just to please your nationalistic voters. You are hurting kids!!! Closing schools should be a measure of last resort after you have tried everything else.

    1. In no way did I mean to support the idea of Macedonia’s breakup, I mentioned it as one potential horrible result of dividing Kosovo, even if both Belgrade and Prishtina come to favor the idea. Chechnya has been using Russia’s changing its borders with Georgia by recognizing Abkhazia and So. Ossetia as an argument for changing other borders in the North Caucasus – “if they can do it, why can’t we?”

      Closing schools is definitely a bad idea, but what do you do when parents refuse to send their kids until the curriculum is changed to one that treats the government paying for the schools as illegitimate? (BTW, I haven’t heard anything about this since 2008 – do you happen to know how it all worked out?)

      Anyway, the Gorani live south of Prizren, dividing the country along the Ibar would in no way affect them directly. Dealing with minorities that don’t recognize the state government as legitimate is a problem, but in the case of the Gorani, with a couple of hundred kids (max.) involved, probably a minor one. If the Goranis do not want to use the schools the state pays for, I imagine they’re free to set up their own, with help from the Serb schools in Gracanica, perhaps. Although, since they’re Muslim, this could present its own problems.

  5. Ummm, the original question set was “what does Serbia want,” I think? Who’s Serbia – Tadic, the rest of the members of the government (trying to stake out their own approaches as the campaign for the next election begins), Kostunica et al., “ordinary Serbs” (who, according to today’s B92 posters, are getting fed up with being jerked around by the 40,000 Serbs left in northern Kosovo (Tim Judah’s figure, or the citizens of northern Kosovo – who also do not form a monolithic block?

    BTW, Tim Judah offers not only a clear explanation of the “customs stamp” problem but a link to a letter from Lamberto Zannier to the Serbian government explaining that it meets Res. 1244 requirements

    Strange that none of the Belgrade papers were never able to get a copy of it.

  6. Mr. Serwer.

    Considering that you have been involved in former Yugoslavia and especially Kosovo issue, it looks rather disturbing that you are not well verced in Kosovo-Serbia most important issue for years and that is status of North Kosovo, which was never governed and ruled from Pristina in last 11 years for a single day.
    Your opinion on Kosovo partition is quite clear, but obviously without vital arguments why not to happen.
    For further reading on Kosovo partition having in mind that you don’t understand the issue, I direct you to my article from 2 years ago, and after that we can discuss.

    I believe that problem of spurring major conflict if Pristina tries to take control here is big argument why it is not good idea.
    Second just like Albanians had right to choose where they are going to live, and follow their right for self-determination, Serbs are also doing that through its own means
    Third, in one of your comments to Galluci’s articles you are refering to Serbian mob. Yes it is a big issue, but not at all as important like people’ sentiment here. There is mob on both sides and they are cooperating greatly. Serbian mob is rather drop in the ocean for Kosovo budget or state, because they have more issues to deal with: unemployment, mob, organized crime, war crimes, etc. So, what Kosovar government is doing is more directed toward their own voters then that they reall want to take control over North and govern Serbs here, according to Ahtisaari agreement.

    As for the partition in the region is concerned, negotiated partition between Belgrade and Pristina is only long lasting arrangement. And anything else will be further steps away from stabilization of the region.

    All the best.

  7. The idea of an ethnically based partition of Kosovo is wrong in the first place because it would represent a revival of the principles that led to the bloody Yugoslavian wars in 1990s. Even if all sides – Kosovo, Serbia, EU and U.S. – agreed that the Serb-dominated north of Kosovo could be given (back) to Serbia, it would inevitably incite ethnic Albanian majority along the southern borderland of Serbia to demand, in turn, integration of their municipalities into Kosovo. On balance, the whole mess would only turn out to be nothing but a pure swap of insignificant pieces of the territory between the two states, causing mass migrations of the respective Albanian and Serb minorities which theretofore were normally living there.

    1. Milan, I think that your basic positions are wrong. Giving reciprocity of rights to Serbs on Kosovo south (enclaves) and to Albanians in Presevo valley can solve that problem. So there is no need for future disintegration.
      Second, I am proponent of civic (multiethnic) states and principles not ethnic (national) states, but it obviously does not work. Pouring millions for the sake of multiethnicity did not work for Bosnia, I can’t see it working for Kosovo either, first because ethnic Albanian state is already created (90% of population are Albanians), second, neither Albanians nor Serbs are multiethnically educated, and if it did not happen in 11 years, why would it happen now? There is no sense in what you are saying if you take a look in reality and reading any Kymlicka, Lijphart, Horowitz, Bieber, Serwer articles would not make any f***** difference.

      1. NWM, I am a proponent of civil secular state, where all its residents enjoy equal rights but also share equal obligations before the law, regardless of their respective ethnic origins and religious preferences. Any discrimination on whichever basis, including so-called “positive” one, is more often than not likely to generate tensions, sooner or later.

        As for Bosnia, its society is not arranged on the principle of multiethnicity as you believe but, just to the contrary, on inter-ethnic division which actually played the key role in the war there. The Dayton Peace Treaty thus virtually legitimated ethnic cleansing and genocide instead of punishing the aggressors (though it’s fair to concede that at that particular time the Dayton probably was the only feasible way to end the war without causing even worse consequences).

        And yes, I partly agree with you on one point: it really appears unlikely that the concept of civil (multiethnic) state would work here in the (western) Balkans. But even so, we should not judge it before we try it, should we?

        1. Milan, you forget that “multi-ethnicity” only works as long as most people don’t make a difference. Once the cat is out of the bag it is very difficult to get it back in. Blacks still are discriminated in the US. Kurds still are discriminated in Turkey. And it may take many generations to correct such a situation.

          In addition I can’t see much enthusiasm for a multi-ethnic Bosnia. The aversion of many Serbs and Croats is clear. And the fact that many Serbs and Croats no longer felt welcome in the Muslim-controlled part makes me doubt whether the Muslims are better motivated.

    2. The breaking up of Yugoslavia was partition. The independence of Kosovo is partition. It was in the Yugoslav constitution and it is in the Helsinki Accords that partitions should only happen with mutual agreement – what may imply border changes.

      The problem is that the West has ignored these basic principles in the early 1990s. Since then the West has been busy restricting the damage of this decision. But with each case where this principle is ignored for “precedent” reasons the house of cards becomes higher and the danger for future trouble bigger.

      1. The question of when countries have a “right” to secede was argued at the ICJ, although the Court did not rule on it, since it was not included in Serbia’s request for a finding. Helsinki was not the only document cited on the matter – it’s an evolving concept. Peoples have a right to human and civil rights, and if a government seriously, over time, fails to respect those rights, there is an argument for their right to secede. Borders are not sacred, but neither are the rights of peoples to secede from a country simply because they would rather be part of another country, or independent. Serbia was seriously abusing the rights of the Albanian majority in Kosovo; the Kosovo government is not seriously abusing the rights of the Serbians there. You can understand why, with Russia and China on the Security Council, such ideas are not likely to be embodied in international law in the near future.

        Sudan was able to obtain international recognition because a tyrant calculated it was ultimately in his interest not to continue fighting, and so the change in borders was achieved “by mutual consent.” In the case of Kosovo, where the fighting was stopped to avoid additional bloodshed (from that point on, in Serbia itself), Serbia continues to hinder Kosovo from obtaining recognition by every possible means. “Mutual consent” may mean no more than fighting to mutual exhaustion, which doesn’t seem so much more noble than the age-old method of determining borders. Unfortunately.

  8. This polemic has meanwhile obviously gone far beyond its central topic, which is the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia. So, let’s get back to the issue.

    Kosovo is looking to impose its sovereignty in the north as it has already done in the rest of the territory. In reality, however, Kosovo cannot do that without at least a tacit assent from Serbia.

    Serbian ruling elite, on the other hand, is hoping to take the north of Kosovo back so as to create the impression for its domestic public that it has not lost quite everything.

    As neither side is likely to be a winner that takes it all in the end, a maximum that can be achieved is that the Serb-dominated northern municipalities be granted by Prishtina a really great level of autonomy which could even entail a sort of “special relations” with Serbia – similar to those of Republika Srpska.

    Given how big troubles RS has been causing for years, there are almost no grounds to believe that the situation would be any better with the northern Kosovo, but unfortunately such solution appears to be if not the best possible then probably the least bad one under existing circumstances.

    1. Based on Serbian actions in Montenegro, I don’t think more autonomy than what is granted under Ahtisaari would be a good idea. Greater autonomy wouldn’t be the end of it; it would at some point be viewed as a starting point for a “better” solution, as in RS. In any case, the question does not have to be decided immediately, in fact, waiting may produce what somebody unfortunately called a “biological solution,” which would at least not be subject to review.

      Serbia formally recognizes Montenegro as an independent state, yet it continues to make efforts to regain control, or at least, preserve its options for the future. The hope is that someday there will be another referendum, and this time the vote will be to rejoin Serbia. The Serb party in parliament is currently refusing to pass a judicial reform bill bill the EU says must be passed in order to grant Montenegro a date to start membership talks. (What it wants in return is a change to the constitution that would make Serbian an official language, on a par with Montenegrin, rather than a language in official use, like Albanian.) The Serb party did not have a problem with the judicial reform law, by the way, until visits to the country immediately before the vote by President Tadic and the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The EU could make its displeasure with interference by a neighboring country known by giving Montenegro a temporary pass on this provision, but the usual envoys from the north are maintaining silence on the matter, for now.

      In any case, now is a particularly bad time to force any decision on the status of north Kosovo, with an election campaign getting under way in Serbia. Kosovo is the nationalists’ last card – the Hague fugitives have been shipped off and disappeared from the daily news. Fighting for enhanced autonomy for northern Kosovo may be their only option. The government’s line – that the last three fugitives were holding the progress of the entire country hostage – seems to have been accepted. There are what seem to be increasing signs that non-DSS voters are beginning to view the Serbs in Kosovo in the same way, as a burden on the entire country. Combine a change in mood by a growing number of Serbians in Serbia with long-term demographic trends, and there really doesn’t seem to be any imperative to give in to Serbian blackmail over a few townships in northern Kosovo. It’s even questionable how adamant ordinary Serbs living in the north of Kosovo are about being part of Serbia – at least some of them are willing to say (to an American general, or under the cover of a screen name) that their problems are due to their own crooks and politicians, not the Albanians. The Serbs south of the Ibar have discovered they can cooperate with the Albanians if necessary; the Serbs to the north of it will eventually realize the same thing. If the Serbs absolutely have to get something out of the deal, maybe there could be a provision that the Serbs in Kosovo would have the same rights as the Albanians in the Presevo Valley. And vice versa, of course.

      1. Very good analysis, Amer, I enjoyed reading it. You obviously understand the nature of the issues related to Serbia very well. Basically, your views largely correspond with mine. What is worrying me the most as to the overall situation in the western Balkans is that the EU and the West in general might at some point unintentionally come to leave the region to its fate because of their own growing economic crisis. And, unfortunately, we all know very well what it usually looks like when this part of Balkans is left to its fate.

  9. On March 10, 2011 Ina Breuer and I published an oped in the European Voice in advance of the Brussels sponsored Belgrade-Pristina talks. I think it worth reiterating here some of the main points as I think they are perhaps more relevant now than ever.

    We noted in particular that “the dialogue in Brussels is expected to focus on technical issues such as licence plates, missing persons, and freedom of movement – everything, it seems, but the most important issue still dividing Belgrade and Pristina: northern Kosovo. The fear is that the issue is too difficult to resolve just now. But pushing the problem of northern Kosovo further down the road will not necessarily make it easier to resolve in the future, and may well make it worse.”

    We further observed that ” the international community, reluctant to openly challenge Serbia’s authority in the north and preoccupied with larger global problems, has preferred a soft approach to encouraging Belgrade to reconsider its policy. The EU has been especially hesitant to press Serbia because five of its members have not recognised Kosovo’s independence, and has thus taken a ‘status-neutral’ approach to dealing with the differences between Kosovo and Serbia. But the EU’s ‘status-neutral’ approach is, by default, a vote for the status quo…”

    We argued that “it is essential, therefore, that the EU, with the support of the United States, use the opportunity of the upcoming talks to build momentum in the direction of a resolution of the status of the north sooner rather than later. In practical terms, and from the perspective of a truly ‘status-neutral’ policy, this means placing primary emphasis in the initial round of discussion on the crucial issue of restoring full customs control in the north. To be sure, this is the most difficult of the technical issues on the table. Yet it is also the one issue that bears most cogently on the political status of the north and, crucially, on the establishment of normal relations between Serbia and Kosovo. Moreover, a resolution of the customs issue would contribute substantively to reducing illegal trafficking, organised crime, and corruption in the north, and thus promote the establishment of the rule of law, a key goal of the EU’s mission in Kosovo, Eulex.”

    We put forward proposals for resolving the issue: “…
    the EU – through Eulex – has established what amounts to a provisional customs control operation at Gates 1 and 31 at the border between Kosovo and Serbia. But a genuine status-neutral EU policy on this issue must promote a full-scale border and customs operation, in which movement back and forth over the Serbia-Kosovo border in the north is not strictly regulated by the Serbian authorities… The EU should work toward a customs agreement between Belgrade and Pristina that includes the construction of customs offices at the northern gates, the establishment of freight-forwarding operations, banking offices, the acceptance of custom duties, and the installation of electronic monitoring devices that would also be linked to the customs operations centre in Pristina. While this is likely to encounter resistance from Serbia and from those in the north who oppose any role for Pristina in the northern municipalities, anything less than this would constitute a maintenance of the status quo.”

    And we concluded: “The international community has been active in Kosovo since 1999, but after 11 years many of the core issues remain. The EU in particular needs to recognise that addressing technical issues between Belgrade and Pristina, while not without merit, does not necessarily lay the groundwork for a normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. A genuine status-neutral approach requires the EU to make clear to both sides that the current political and economic situation in the north benefits no one, prevents both Serbia and Kosovo from pursuing a path to EU integration, and promotes crime, corruption, and instability. Most importantly, the EU must make clear to Serbia that its continued de facto control of the north is not an acceptable solution to its relationship with Kosovo.”

  10. A problem is that European diplomats and policymakers count too much on Serbia’s proclaimed aspiration to join the EU, but that aspiration, apart from rhetorical commitment, is very debatable, to say the least. I just hope it won’t be too late once the Westerners ultimately realize that.

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