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 www.peacefare.net 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 www.peacefare.net and submit a comment. Otherwise, firstname.lastname@example.org should get an email to me. Editorial discretion is of course mine, and mine alone.