Elusive Finality: Dispatch from Newly-Independent Kosovo
The International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses events in the Middle East and the Balkans. Dr. Robert J. Donia, President of the Council of the International Institute IFIMES and Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan, in his article “Elusive Finality: Dispatch from Newly-Independent Kosovo,” presents his view on the current situation in Kosovo. He has visited this region many times and on those occasions interviewed more than hundred people. He also explains developments before independence was declared. His article is here published in its entirety.
The Republic of Kosovo is now an independent country. The Kosovo Assembly declared it so on February 17, 2008, and shortly thereafter the US and leading European recognized Kosovo’s independence. Over strenuous Russian objections, and despite numerous Serbian government schemes and innovative arguments to undermine the new state, 43 countries (as of this writing) have extended recognition to Kosovo. Amidst the well-publicized international wrangling over its status, global media have largely ignored Kosovo’s unique internal configuration, in particular the special status of those institutions known by the global media as “Serbian parallel structures,” but better described as institutions that govern or serve the Serb population in Kosovo. In this report, I offer a personal assessment of the situation in Kosovo, based on this, my sixth visit to the region over the past five years, and more than a hundred interviews with Kosovars of various ethnicities and faiths.
SERBS AND SERB LEADERS: MITROVICA AND GRACANICA
Over 90% of Kosovo’s estimated 2 to 2.2 million inhabitants are Albanians. Serbs in Kosovo number between 100,000 and 125,000, thus accounting for less than 6% of the republic’s total population. (The remaining few percent consist of Turks, Gorani, Roma, Ashkali, Egyptians, and Bosniaks.) After the NATO bombing campaign led in June 1999 to a negotiated settlement embodied in UN Security Council Resolution 1244 and the withdrawal of Serbian security forces, the status of Kosovo’s Serbs emerged as the principal focus of negotiators’ efforts to reach a final legal status for Kosovo. Global opinion and the international negotiators were particularly sensitive to the Serbs’ position because of recent incidents of Albanian violence against them, in summer 1999 (in retaliation for a decade of oppression, imprisonment, torture, and killings at the hands of Serbian security forces) and again in March 2004. Serbs’ flight from Kosovo in the wake of that violence reduced the number of Serbs by almost half, from the 195,301 recorded in 1991, the last reliable census of the Serb population. But most importantly, international negotiators wished to mollify Serbs in the Republic of Serbia and therefore were prepared to give substantial guarantees that their clients, the Serbs of Kosovo, would be secure from future violence.
About two-thirds of Kosovo’s Serbs live in enclaves in the overwhelmingly Albanian area (comprising about 85% of the country’s land mass) south of the Ibar River; about one third live in the contiguous and now-overwhelmingly Serbian area known as Northern Mitrovica, formally comprised of the municipalities of Leposavic, Zubin Potok, Zvecan, and that part of Mitrovica north of the Ibar River. The security and political challenges facing Serbs in the enclaves are quite different from those in Northern Mitrovica, but they also share some common features.
Northern Mitrovica, in addition to being the largest cluster of Serb-inhabited territory in Kosovo, is directly adjacent to Serbia. For most purposes, it is governed from Belgrade as though its constituent municipalities were integrally part of the Republic of Serbia.
The Blue Bridge, for years an ordinary and well-travelled bridge across the Ibar River, is now a widely-recognized symbol of division between Northern and Southern Mitrovica. A billet of French KFOR (Kosovo Force – the international NATO-led peacekeeping force authorized in 1999 by UN Security Council Resolution 1244) is situated next to the bridge’s southern side. There is normally no checkpoint or legal barrier to free passage, but neither Albanians nor Serbs will cross without advance arrangements and security guarantees; absent such arrangements, they perceive their lives to be in danger. UN police keep a careful watch over those few persons – mostly international officials – who transit the bridge.
For nearly ten years, Serbian authorities have engaged officials of UNMIK (United Nations Interim Mission in Kosovo, also authorized by Resolution 1244) and KFOR in a diplomatic struggle over sovereignty, and the symbols of sovereignty, in Northern Mitrovica. The Serbs of Northern Mitrovica generally follow Belgrade’s instructions and have little use for UNMIK officials, for French units of KFOR, or for the international policemen who make up UNMIK Police. Nevertheless, these organizations have operated in the area without major interference, sufficient to satisfy UNMIK requirements and maintain the legal fiction that Northern Mitrovica is a part of Kosovo rather than the Republic of Serbia. Critical to meeting that standard has been the agreement that indigenous policemen in Northern Mitrovica, who are overwhelmingly Serbs, wear uniforms of the KPS (Kosovo Police Force, the internationally-organized domestic multi-ethnic police force that now operates throughout Kosovo). KPS officers in Northern Mitrovica are unwilling to report through the predominantly Albanian KPS chain of command, but by agreement they report instead to a commander of UNMIK Police, a deviation from the practice elsewhere in Kosovo where all KPS units report solely to KPS commanders.
In 2005, UNMIK officials gave Serb leaders of Northern Mitrovica three “red lines” that they should not transgress. First, Serbs were not to employ violence against KFOR or UNMIK. Second, they were not to break off contact with UNMIK. And third, they were not to interfere with the KPS. UNMIK officials assert that the Serbs of Northern Mitrovica have not substantially crossed any of these three red lines since they were set forth three years ago.
For some UNMIK officials, Serb observance of the red lines is sufficient. “We have maintained order and stability,” said Gerard Gallucci, UNMIK Regional Representative for the Mitrovica Region. He explained his approach to Northern Mitrovica. “It hardly ever seems productive to influence political outcomes through the use of force,” he said. He prefers “dialogue, negotiation, accommodation” and a “more gradual, longer process in which no one gets all they want.” Other UNMIK officials favor a harder line, fearing that the legal fiction of Northern Mitrovica being part of Kosovo has entailed too many compromises and crippled the capacity of both UNMIK and the Kosovo government to administer the region. Similarly, many Albanians, frustrated that they cannot safely enter a geographically substantial part of their newly-independent country, are rankled by his gradualist approach and are quick to call for more robust international measures to assert de facto as well as de jure Kosovo sovereignty in the north. Many Serb nationalists are equally eager to rid the area of KFOR and UNMIK. Indeed, no one has gotten all they want in Northern Mitrovica, but a modicum of order has prevailed. Several thousand Albanians remain in the Northern Mitrovica region, and a few of their leaders have participated with Serbs in governing institutions. Furthermore, Serbia’s leaders have gotten most of what they want in Northern Mitrovica. and consequently the government of Serbia is not clamoring to annex the area. Serbia’s leaders appear to realize that partitioning Kosovo by unilaterally annexing the north would provide few advantages and risk turning them into an international pariah for redrawing borders in the region.
Oliver Ivanovic is the telegenic spokesman for the Serbs of Northern Mitrovica. He and the hordes of journalists who line up to interview him would have you believe he is the spokesman for all Serbs of Kosovo, but he has both rivals and detractors among Serbs in Northern Mitrovica and few followers among Serbs south of the Ibar. A former karate champion and referee, he regularly voices moderate views quite at odds with those of Belgrade politicians, but he frequently yields to their directives. He opposes partition of Kosovo, fearing that Albanian guerillas would pose a constant threat to Serbs living in Northern Mitrovica. I spoke to him prior to the Kosovo-wide elections held on November 17, 2007, a few days after Belgrade officials had instructed Kosovo’s Serbs to boycott the election and exorted directors of Serbian schools throughout Kosovo to prohibit polling stations to be set up in their schools.
Some days before I met with him, Ivanovic had announced his intention to vote publicly and ostentatiously at 11:00 a.m. on election day, but when I interviewed him on the eve of the voting, he had changed his mind. “I would find it humiliating to vote in some container,” he told me, using a word that in Serbian suggests a large garbage bin or cargo trailer, but in fact referring to the mobile voting stations that were rushed into Northern Mitrovica by election monitors of the OSCE (Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe) after use of school facilities was denied. (In some mobile locations, not a single voter showed up; in others, only a handful.) Ivanovic was unwilling to admit the more plausible reason for his change of mind, namely the instructions from Belgrade to boycott the balloting. In this and other matters, Ivanovic freely voiced independent views, but he was ultimately unable to translate them into independent action.
Exemplifying the Serbs’ position south of the Ibar is the enclave of Gracanica, a town astride the major road linking the capital, Pristina, with southeastern Kosovo. Gracanica grew up around a 14th century Serbian Orthodox monastery, a priceless example of Serbian-Byzantine architecture dating from the fourteenth century. The monastery contains unusually well-preserved frescoes that honor Christian saints and the members of the Nemanja Dynasty that ruled medieval Serbia for several centuries. Outside the thick, high stone wall that surrounds the monastery grounds, two Swedish KFOR soldiers, with radio and rifles at hand, stand casually watching the traffic pass, providing the only security for the gated entry to the monastery. Episkup Artemija, head of the Eparhija of Raško and Prizren that includes Kosovo, lives and offices in the expansive structures recently built behind the monastery. An often shrill voice of Serbian Orthodoxy, he is revered by many Serbs but reviled by most Albanians for his overt support of Serb nationalist political goals.
North of the monastery is a complex of buildings, one of which houses the Health Clinic of Gracanica, a well-equipped, spotless primary clinic that serves the Serb population of Gracanica. Branch clinics of the Gracanica institution similarly provide health care for the other Serbian enclaves in southeast Kosovo. Clinic employees of the Gracanica clinic have performed well over a million procedures and diagnoses since 2003. Director Dr. Rada Trajkovic directs the staff of 650 health professionals, most of them formerly employed in Pristina hospitals and clinics. They were, she told me, expelled from those institutions in 1999 when Albanians took over medical facilities after Serb security forces withdrew and were replaced by KFOR.
The Gracanica Clinic is 15 kilometers from Pristina, which has numerous facilities for specialized and advanced medical care, but the Gracanica staff refers patients needing need for such care not to Pristina, but to medical institutions across the border in Serbia. Over the past six years, the clinic has transported by ambulance over 2,500 patients to hospitals in Serbia, and another 600 to medical facilities in Northern Mitrovica. Dr. Trajkovic readily supplied me with a schedule of all such procedures, but she does not report these numbers, or any other information, to the Kosovo government (known until the independence declaration as the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government, but uniformly here called the Kosovo government) in nearby Pristina. The clinic’s employees are paid by the Government of Serbia, via the Ministry for Kosovo and Metohija and the Kosovo Community Centers. A tour of the clinic made it clear to me that Dr. Trajkovic is universally respected, in fact revered, by her employees. She has, however, adopted the unpopular policy of firing any employee who accepts salary from the Kosovo government. She described to me a visit from an international official who sought to persuade her to accept funding from UNMIK, but she declined because only some of her employees would have received such salaries. Declining these salaries leaves Dr. Trajkovic utterly unbeholden to UNMIK or the Kosovo government but ultimately dependent on the Serbian government for the clinic’s very existence.
Northern Mitrovica and Gracanica embody the world of Serb institutions in Kosovo. Clinics, schools, and municipal service organizations are the three central pillars of this system. Like Dr. Trajkovic’s clinic, most Serb institutions are well-run and reasonably well financed, and some of them are used without incident by small numbers of Albanians from time to time. But all Serbs routinely turn to these organizations for medical care, education, birth certificates, drivers’ licenses, passports, pension payments, and municipal services. These institutions are liberally supported by the government of Serbia, in a sum estimated by international observers to be nearly half of the annual budget of the Kosovo government. In other words, one third of all state expenditures in Kosovo are exclusively devoted to 6% of the population. Serbian institutions function in the interest of a demographic strategy designed to perpetuate the presence of Serbs. They serve the interests of politicians in Serbia who want to sustain demographic claims to Kosovo, while devoting little to their economic betterment.
Contrary to the impression created by calling them “parallel structures,” Serb institutions operate above board; there is nothing clandestine about them, except for the shadowy activities of officers of the Serbian Ministry of the Interior in Kosovo. Until the independence declaration in February 2008, Serbian institutions in the south generally ignored UNMIK and the Kosovo government rather than directly challenging their jurisdiction. Except in the case of police forces, UNMIK in turn has neither challenged nor sought to dismantle these structures and has increasingly viewed them as a way to secure the survival of Serb communities without bearing the costs of supporting them. UNMIK further embraced the notion of separate parallel institutions by creating Municipal Community Offices, which replicated in embryonic form the ministries of local governments and distributed entitlements to Serbs so that they would not need to deal with Albanian-dominated institutions.
THE AHTISAARI PLAN: CEMENTING SERBIAN INSTITUTIONS IN INDEPENDENT KOSOVO
In November 2005, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed former Finnish Prime Minister Martti Ahtisaari as his Special Envoy on Kosovo’s Future Status and charged him with leading negotiations between Serb officials and Albanian leaders of Kosovo to reach an agreement on final status for Kosovo. Ahtisaari was also charged with submitting recommendations to the Secretary General for referral to the Security Council. Over many months, and through several rounds of negotiations, Ahtisaari tirelessly attempted to bring the two sides together, but Belgrade unconditionally rejected independence for Kosovo while Kosovo Albanian leaders would settle for nothing less. In March 2007, Ahtisaari submitted his report and recommended a highly conditional version of independence, contained in a lengthy “Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement.” The proposal, called hereafter the Ahtisaari Plan, provided for supervision of Kosovo’s independence by an International Civilian Representative (ICR), appointed by an International Steering Group. The ICR was modeled on the Office of High Representative in the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian war. The plan also called for a European Union mission in the area of the rule of law, which has since come to be designated as EULEX (The European Union Rule of Law Mission) to replace the UNMIK police in Kosovo.
Kosovo’s Albanian leaders accepted Ahtisaari’s plan as a basis for independence, but Serbia remained vociferously opposed. On March 26, 2007, the Secretary General then forwarded Ahtisaari’s recommendations to the Security Council for review. Western diplomats subsequently put forth six different draft resolutions for Security Council action, but Russia consented to none of them. By the fall of 2007, the US and key European countries had decided not to risk a Russian veto in the Security Council and opted instead to support a unilateral declaration of independence, provided Albanian leaders acquiesced to the terms of the Ahtisaari Plan and waited until a mutually agreeable time to issue the declaration.
The Ahtisaari Plan puts great stock in “decentralization” as the key provision to guarantee Serb political rights and security in newly-independent Kosovo. Kosovo Serbs gave their negotiating proxy to the Republic of Serbia, so Ahtisaari and Albanians of Kosovo’s “Unity Team” negotiated with the Belgrade leadership rather than directly with Kosovo’s Serbs. Even though Serb diplomats never acquiesced to the final agreement, the plan contains many provisions designed to meet the objections of the Serbian side, and may be said to serve the interests of the Serbian government as much or more than the Serbs of Kosovo.
The plan cites the “European Charter of Local Self-Government and, in particular, the principle of subsidiarity” (Article 1.1) as the foundation for its provisions on decentralization. However, the document makes clear that all municipalities will not be equal in independent Kosovo. Local governing bodies are instructed to have “particular regard for the needs of the non-majority communities and their members in Kosovo.” (Article 1.2) The plan mandates that the Kosovo Assembly enact a new “Law on Local Self-Government” within a 120 day transitional period, one that “reinforces the powers and organization of municipalities as set forth in this Annex” (Article 2.1). It further mandates that the Kosovo Assembly shall expand several existing Serb-majority municipalities by transferring certain Serb-inhabited territory from Albanian majority municipalities, and specifies that several new Serb municipalities will be carved out from existing municipalities. The plan mandates that the municipality of Mitrovica, divided into Serb and Albanian halves along the Ibar River since 1999, be split permanently, creating two municipalities out of one and extinguishing the hopes of many Albanians to reunite the two parts under a single jurisdiction.
The Ahtisaari Plan legalizes, strengthens and expands existing Serb institutions in Kosovo and in several passages assigns a special role to the Republic of Serbia. “Municipalities shall be entitled to receive financial assistance from the Republic of Serbia,” states Article 11 of the plan, subject only to a provision that such assistance be transparent, open to inspection by the Government of Kosovo. It further provides for pensions and other individualized transfers to be made with funds from Serbia. Serb municipalities within Kosovo are expressly permitted to “form and participate in an association of Kosovo municipalities for the protection and promotion of their common interests,” (Article 9.1) and may “cooperate, within the areas of their own competencies, with municipalities and institutions, including government agencies, in the Republic of Serbia,… including expert personnel and equipment” (Article 10.1) Those competencies are substantially expanded by the plan, to include (in the case of Mitrovica, Gracanica and Štrpce), “registration and licensing of health care institutions, recruitment, payment of salaries and training of health care personnel and administrators.”
The plan authorizes Serbs to influence or control the KPS and educational institutions in Serb-majority municipalities. “All municipalities in which the Kosovo Serb Community is in the majority shall have… (Article 4.1.3) enhanced participatory rights in the appointment of Police Station commanders (as set forth in Article 2.6 of Annex VIII). The section on education mentions the Republic of Serbia: “Schools that teach in the Serbian language may apply curricula or text books developed by the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Serbia upon notification to the Kosovo Ministry of Education Science and Technology,” which may object to “particular curriculum,” in which case an independent commission will review “to ensure conformity with the Constitution of Kosovo and legislation adopted in accordance with this settlement.” (7.1.1 and 2)
The Ahtisaari Plan thus firmly embeds separate Serb institutions into the legal structure of the Republic of Kosovo and privileges them with enhanced authority and the benefits of external support. The plan effectively fragments Kosovo’s sovereignty into two sets of institutions, one of them with fully authorized influence and financial support of a neighboring state.
In accepting the Ahtisaari Plan as the roadmap to independence, Kosovo’s Albanian leaders committed themselves to make it the basis of the new state’s constitution. Those obligations are evident throughout the Constitution, adopted by the Kosovo Assembly in March and scheduled to take effect on June 15, 2008. Article 143 of the Constitution specifies, “All authorities in the Republic of Kosovo shall abide by all of the Republic of Kosovo’s obligations under the Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement dated 26 March 2007. They shall take all necessary actions for their implementation.” Furthermore, the Constitution elevates the “Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement” (i.e., the Ahtisaari Plan) to a status above that of all other laws and the Constitution itself: “The provisions of the Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement dated 26 March 2007 shall take precedence over all other legal provisions in Kosovo. … If there are inconsistencies between the provisions of this Constitution, laws or other legal acts of the Republic of Kosovo and the provisions of said Settlement, the latter shall prevail.”
The Constitution, in Article 146, binds Kosovo’s governing bodies to implement the decision. Article 147 assigns to an appointed international official the role given in most constitutions to a constitutional court or assembly: “Notwithstanding any provision of this Constitution, the International Civilian Representative shall, in accord with the Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement dated 26 March 2007, be the final authority in Kosovo regarding interpretation of the civilian aspects of the said Comprehensive Proposal. No Republic of Kosovo authority shall have jurisdiction to review, diminish or otherwise restrict the mandate, powers and obligations referred to in Article 146 and this Article.” The Constitution assigns to the head of the “International Military Presence” the same powers in military matters that the ICR has in civilian affairs.
In their effort to provide Kosovo’s Serbs with adequate security guarantees and meet Belgrade’s objections, international negotiators have enshrined in the heart of independent Kosovo institutions similar to those used by nationalist Serbs in the early 1990s to launch their projects of separation and ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Before those republics became independent states, Miloševic followers leveraged the power of municipalities, which had accrued considerable authority in the last two decades of socialist Yugoslavia, to resist republic-level jurisdiction and form Serb statelets. With the first multiparty elections in 1990, Serb nationalists came to power in several Serb-majority municipalities in Croatia in 1990 and in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1991. On June 27, 1990, Serbs in Croatia formed the "Community of Municipalities of Northern Dalmatia and Lika" consisting of the six Serbian majority municipalities of Knin, Benkovac, Obrovac, Donji Lapac, Gracac, and Titova Korenica. Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina founded the Autonomous Region of Krajina on April 25, 1991.1 Each of these entities evolved into an embryonic Serb separatist state – the Republic of Serbian Krajina in Croatia and Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina – by merging with other Serb autonomous regions, forming an assembly, adopting a constitution, declaring independence, and receiving immeasurable military and moral support from the Belgrade regime. Such break-away creations were declared illegal by the constitutional courts of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but in the case of the Republic of Kosovo, Serb institutions are enshrined in the legal foundations of the new state at international insistence.
Of course, the Serbs of Kosovo need not follow the path taken by their co-nationals in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s. The Ahtisaari Plan gives them a special status in Kosovo and legitimizes continued support from Republic of Serbia, their most reliable source of economic and demographic existence, and Albanian power-holders have hastened to fulfill their commitments to create additional Serb institutions. One hopes that Kosovo’s Serbs will accept, even if begrudgingly, their unique legal status characterized as “decentralization” within Kosovo and build a better life for the Serb community. However, the Ahtisaari Plan also transfers to the government of Serbia many capacities and much of the responsibility for the future of Kosovo’s Serbs. Thus far, that government has both supported them and exploited them as a political tool; it now remains to be seen which current will prevail in future Serbian government policies.
INDEPENDENCE: ALBANIAN RESPONSES
Predictably, independence was celebrated by Albanians of Kosovo (although with less fanfare than expected) and bitterly denounced by the Russian Federation and the Republic of Serbia. All leading Albanian politicians view independence with pride, but the response of many is better characterized as relief than ecstasy. Lutfi Haziri, then Deputy Prime Minister of the Kosovo government, was a member the Albanian “Unity Team” that negotiated with Ahtisaari and the principal architect of its positions on decentralization. “We paid a very heavy price for our independence,” he told me, reflecting the universally-held view of senior Albanian politicians. Indeed the price was high, but Albanian leaders paid it consciously if reluctantly in order to secure American and European support for their unilateral declaration of independence after the Republic of Serbia rejected the Ahtisaari Plan.
After declaring independence on February 17, 2008, Albanian leaders of Kosovo promptly began fulfilling their commitments to international diplomats. The assembly adopted a constitution filled with entire excerpts from the Ahtisaari Plan and ceding supreme decision-making authority to the International Civilian Representative in accordance with the plan. As required, a majority of assembly delegates passed legislation to implement specific provisions. As of this writing, the assembly has passed 25 laws, and government officials anticipate other laws will be passed in the coming few weeks. All their activities are directed toward June 15, 2008, the day the Constitution is scheduled to become effective. The following day, Kosovo’s President is expected to sign all the completed legislative acts, finalizing the legal process of founding the newly independent state. Despite wide differences among delegates and parties on how Kosovo should be run, assembly delegates overcame partisan divides and treated implementation as a technical matter. Kosovo’s Albanians are on the verge of completing all essential tasks the international community demanded of them as conditions of their independence.
INDEPENDENCE: SERB RESPONSES
Few events in modern times have been so widely foreseeable as the Kosovo Assembly’s declaration of independence on February 17, 2008. The end of effective Serb control in 1999 made an independent Kosovo the only logical long-term solution for stability in the region, and the anti-Serb violence of March 2004, reflecting Albanian impatience with diplomatic prevarication, made independence not only inevitable but a matter of considerable urgency for most UN officials and western diplomats. In the days and weeks following the declaration, Serb nationalists, both in and out of government, initiated a series of activities that bore all the marks of having been planned and coordinated well in advance. The Serb nationalists in Belgrade dug deep into the Miloševic playbook and appear to have adopted and followed strategies from the 1990s that successfully mobilized Serbs to challenge their respective republic’s governments.
Several interviewees, both Serb and Albanian, suggested to me that the Serb campaign was a project of only certain elements in Belgrade: Prime Minister Vojislav Koštunica; Minister for Kosovo and Metohija, Slobodan Samardžic; the Serbian Ministry of the Interior; and the Radical Party, which enjoys widespread support among Serbs in Kosovo. In fact the deep split in present-day Serbian politics, between the Radical Party and more extreme nationalists such as Prime Minister Koštunica on the one hand, and President Tadic and moderate, pro-European nationalists on the other, has extended to Kosovo and divided Kosovo Serbs more clearly than before Kosovo’s independence declaration. The division among Kosovo Serbs became publicly apparent after Serbian President Tadic and his allies signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the European Union on April 29, 2008, a step bitterly denounced by Radical Party leaders in Serbia. Among Kosovo Serbs, Oliver Ivanovic followed Tadic’s line and praised the signing, while another Serb leader, Marko Jakšic, member of the Serbian National Council and of Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), vehemently denounced it.2
Serbs opened their post-independence campaign against Kosovo by burning border stations erected by UNMIK on the Kosovo-Serbian border. They followed with a large street demonstration in Belgrade on February 21, 2008, that targeted the US Embassy. Demonstrators broke through the gates and set fire to the street-front building, which burned for about 15 minutes before police appeared and more than 20 minutes until firefighting equipment reached the scene. The assault on February 21 was followed on March 14 by a carefully-orchestrated occupation of the vacant municipal court building in Northern Mitrovica. After several days of demonstrations on the street in front of the building, demonstrators forced open the gates and 52 of them entered the building, walking peacefully past KPS and UNMIK policemen, who did nothing to obstruct them. In the early morning of March 17, UNMIK police, backed by KFOR, entered the building and arrested the 52 sit-in demonstrators, as a crowd of Serbs swelled outside the building. When the international security forces attempted to transport the detainees to Pristina for questioning, armed demonstrators attacked the UNMIK police and KFOR column with grenades and automatic weapons fire and were fired upon in return. A Ukrainian UNMIK policeman later died from wounds suffered in the exchange of fire, and many of the detainees escaped UNMIK police control in the melee. UNMIK officials claimed that agents of the Serbian government Ministry of the Interior were present at the demonstration and blamed the unrest on them, but the violent encounter was also an embarrassment to UNMIK police (who withdrew from the Mitrovica building and then returned 48 hours later) and KFOR. It has likely lessened the appetite of international authorities for directly confronting Serbian defiance in the north.
Shortly after independence was proclaimed, the vast majority of Serbs employed by governmental organizations south of the Ibar walked off their jobs. (A further compromise kept Serbian police in Northern Mitrovica on the job, limiting the problem to the southern enclaves). Serbian interviewees told me that the walkout was ordered by Slobodan Samardžic, the Minister for Kosovo and Metohija in the government of Serbia. Most serious to Kosovo institutions was the police walk-out. Since then, a few policemen have returned to their jobs. In a few municipalities, all civilian workers have returned; in most, a few workers have returned, only to find themselves under continued pressure from Serbian operatives to walk out again. Most municipalities continued to pay the absent workers, but on May 29, the KPS Commander announced that absent workers would no longer be paid after the end of May. The walkout was reminiscent of Serbian defections from police forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina from September 1991 to March 1992, all in preparation for formation of a separate Serb police force on the eve of the war. However, police in Northern Mitrovica remained at their posts, possibly foreshadowing a struggle that would be carried out mainly in the southern enclaves of Kosovo rather than in the geographically contiguous Serb-inhabited north.
In the weeks after independence was declared, Serb organizers initiated a faithful imitation of a Miloševic-era strategy in preparing to organize Serbian municipalities in many parts of Kosovo where Serbs voted in the elections of May 11. It was made possible by the uniquely Kosovar phenomenon of dueling elections – not among rival candidates, but between rival sponsors of elections. Since 1991, Serbs, under instructions from their mentors in Belgrade, have boycotted all Kosovo-wide elections conducted by OSCE, except for that of 2002, in which Serbs participated in large numbers after receiving a green light from Belgrade to participate. First confronted after the 2000 elections with the dilemma of only a handful of Albanian voters determining the winners in municipalities with large Serb populations, the SRSG (Special Representative of the Secretary General, head of UNMIK) resorted to appointing moderate Serbs (the only ones prepared to even consider serving in UNMIK-backed institutions) to various positions. Two municipalities – Štrpce and Novo Brdo in southeast Kosovo – were governed by Albanian-majority councils from 2000-2002, then became Serb-majority after Serbs turned out to vote in 2002. When Serbs boycotted subsequent elections, the SRSG simply extended the mandates of those Serbs elected in 2002, most recently in a decision of December 18, 2007, that extended those mandates by six months, to June 18, 2008. This had the unfortunate result of pre-ordaining a governing crisis just three days after the scheduled effective date of the Constitution of the Republic of Kosovo.
Meanwhile, the Republic of Serbia held several country-wide elections and a Constitutional referendum after 1999, and in each election the government encouraged Kosovo’s Serbs to vote by establishing polling places in Serb enclaves throughout Kosovo. At no point did KFOR or UNMIK interfere with Kosovo’s Serbs as they voted in elections for offices in the Republic of Serbia, but when the Serbian government scheduled elections for May 11, 2008, the SRSG Joachim Rucker was faced with a new dilemma. The May elections were to be not only for the offices of president and assembly delegates of Serbia, but also for local municipal officials. Prior to the election, he ruled that Kosovo’s Serbs could freely participate in selecting Serbian officials but that Serb-sponsored elections for municipal officials in Kosovo would be illegal, and the winners of that polling would not be allowed to assume office. But as before, no international officials or forces interfered in the balloting on 11 May. Kosovo Serbs thus elected a new group of municipal delegates and created the prospect of a three-way rivalry among the winners of the Serb-sponsored elections, the SRSG’s list of extended appointments, and elected Albanian delegates.
The results of this unlikely cascade of events became apparent during my visit on May 28, 2008, with the mayor (president of the municipal assembly) of Novo Brdo, a municipality with a mixed Serb and Albanian population. On my previous two visits, in 2004 and 2006, I had interviewed the affable Serb mayor, Petar Vasic, who came to office as the leading vote-getter in 2002 after forming a local political party, “Da zivimo zajedno (“So that we live together”). This time, however, a young, energetic Albanian mayor, Bajrush Ymiri, who won the post in the Kosovo election of November 17, 2007, eagerly answered my questions and explained the situation in this geographically expansive but economically destitute municipality. All except two Serbs employed by the municipality had walked off their jobs when independence was declared on February 17, including all Serb officers of the KPS. Only one officer had returned to work, and he had received a phone call from his former commander, a Serb, who told him in uncertain terms that he needed to join the others in withdrawing. Mayor Ymiri blamed former mayor Vasic for organizing and ordering the walkout: His political party, uniquely named “So that we live together,” was leading the campaign to assure that they would work apart. Meanwhile, Ymiri had learned that Serbs were preparing to form a rival Serbian municipality, including a municipal assembly and government, in the tiny Serb village of Bostan directly across the street from the municipality offices. The Serb municipality, he expected, would observe the results of the May 11 Serb-sponsored elections. He had no doubt that those Serb municipal workers who had walked away from his employ would be hired en masse by the rival Serb municipality, their salaries paid by the government of Serbia.
As in Novo Brdo, Serbs in other municipalities are reportedly at work hastily convening municipal assemblies and creating new municipal structures based on what UNMIK continues to characterize as the “illegal” Serb-run elections of May 11. In the Serb-majority municipality of Štrpce, winners in the May 11 balloting expelled the former mayor, Stanko Jakovljevic, himself organizer of an earlier purge of an insufficiently zealous Serb mayor. Jakovljevic became the only Serb to continue to accept employment and salary from the Štrpce Municipality. Albanian and Serb officials from several other municipalities told me they either anticipated or feared that a Serbian municipality would be established in the coming weeks. Each episode seemed to validate the hypothesis that the Serbs of Kosovo are being led by radical nationalists in Belgrade along the same path as the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1991. Early in May, Marko Jakšic (member of Kostunica’s DSS) promised that Serbs would form a Serbian Assembly, an act reminiscent of the Bosnian Serb Assembly established in October 1991.3
If the Bosnian experience is any guide, one might reasonably speculate that Serbs in Kosovo may announce the formation of Serb municipalities, and perhaps a Serb assembly, on the eve of June 15, enabling them to muster an argument that those institutions predate the constitution’s jurisdiction and therefore trump its validity.
I returned to visit Dr. Trajkovic and the Gracanica Clinic, wondering what she thought of the process whereby Gracanica would separate from Pristina Municipality and become a new municipality with all the status and assurances in the Ahtisaari Plan. But first she wanted to express her unhappiness with the schemes being launched by Koštunica and the Belgrade Radical leaders, including the expanded role of Serb security forces in Kosovo and the walk-outs of municipal workers. She prefers Tadic’s more moderate approach, but she spoke almost wistfully of colleagues and friends who were distancing themselves from her in response to pressure from Serb nationalist elements. She complained (as she had in a previous meeting) that UNMIK and Albanian tariff policies were restricting the delivery of needed medicines to her clinic, and she cited a few incidents of Serbs being abused by Albanian KPS officers who had been hired to replace Serbian officers who had walked out of the Gracanica police station. But she was most concerned that the aggressive Serb provocation campaign might redound to the detriment of Kosovo Serbs, whom she sees as victims both of Albanian discrimination and exploitation from Belgrade.
“I cannot bring myself to acknowledge Kosovo’s independence, but I am prepared to abide by the law of the land,” Dr. Trajkovic told me. The law of the land, of course, is the Ahtisaari Plan, as the new Constitution specifies. “I’ve concluded that you westerners are great at planning for wars, but horrible at planning the peace,” she opined. “But this Ahtisaari Plan is technically okay.” Having reluctantly acknolwedged the realities of today’s Kosovo, she opted to focus on the work of her clinic and advancing the interests of Kosovo’s Serbs rather than engaging in political machinations orchestrated from Belgrade. She even dared to hope that the long-term demographic attrition of Serbs in Kosovo’s enclaves might be reversed, and Serbian refugees might return to better prospects and greater security in Kosovo.
The future of Kosovo’s Serbs is more than ever in the hands of Belgrade nationalists who both champion their cause and exploit them for grander political purposes. In accepting the Ahtisaari Plan as a condition of independence, Albanian leaders have given Kosovo’s Serbs the institutions and guarantees to secure their future. But that same plan gives to the government and political formations of Serbia an expanded repertoire of legalized mechanisms to challenge and undermine the Republic of Kosovo. Having observed Dr. Trajkovic’s guarded optimism and pragmatic thinking, I came to hope that she and other pragmatists might seize the moment and use the Ahtisaari Plan provisions to better the lot of Kosovo’s Serbs and even expand their demographic presence in the country whose independence they do not acknowledge. They can acknowledge the realities, while simultaneously maintaining a different formal position, no less than UNMIK officials have accepted the realities in Northern Mitrovica and affirmed that the area remains a part of Kosovo. But it is also possible that Belgrade’s cabal of reckless Serb national irredentists will advance their Miloševic-inspired schemes to isolate, manipulate, and eventually abandon those Serbs of Kosovo who genuinely seek a better life in their Kosovo homeland.
Ljubljana, 03 June 2008
International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) – Ljubljana
Zijad Becirovic, M.Sc.
1 Glas, 27 and 28 April 1991, p. 6.
2 “Kosovo Serbs divided over Serbia-EU Deal,” BalkanInsight.com, 30 April 2008, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/main/news/9742/.
3 “Kosovo Serbs plan own Parliament,” BalkanInsight.com, 7 May 2008, http://balkaninsight.com/en/main/news/9956.