Kosovo: Opening Gambits?

By Gerard M. Gallucci
Thursday, 20 Sep 2012

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A few weeks ago, two top officials of the US Department of State European Bureau visited Belgrade and Pristina. I speculated at the time that it might be part of a US-led Quint effort to re-orient its approach to settling the issue of north Kosovo. (from TransConflict.com)

Perhaps the Quint had finally taken on board the fact that efforts to impose Pristina’s rule north of the Ibar through intimidation and use of force simply would not work.  So some compromise might be in the works, something going beyond the current form of the Ahtisaari Plan. The US would have to take the lead because only it could bring Pristina forward from it’s maximalist stance of getting everything on its own terms.  Now perhaps we are seeing – repeat, perhaps – opening gambits from both sides.

The new government in Belgrade has suggested it is ready for serious negotiations and wants first to reach an internal consensus on what Serbia’s bottom lines in Kosovo are.  It makes sense to clarify, openly, Serbia’s real achievable goals vis-a-vis Kosovo.  It’d be a good start.  President Nikolic and other members of his government have covered this “approach to an approach” by reaffirming that Serbia will never recognize Kosovo independence and with an offer by Nikolic to provide autonomy to Kosovo within Serbia.  The latter cannot be taken as anything but some protective smoke thrown over the possibility of reaching some more realistic accommodation with an independent Kosovo.  Pristina, of course, was quick to reject any such within-Serbia formula.

The more interesting development may have come from the Pristina side.  According to press there, Pristina will offer “new concessions” to the north to include increasing the number of Serb seats in the Kosovo Assembly, tax amnesty for citizens in the north and the Serb Orthodox Church, and adding another Serb representative to the Consultative Council for Communities.  The four northern municipalities would also be able to set up a special association with its own Assembly and would deal with management of the funds allocated to them from the Kosovo budget, Serbia and the international community.  Four senior officials would be appointed for police, culture, education and religious affairs, and for economic development and infrastructure to coordinate projects in the north.  The northern district court would reflect the population in the north and judges and prosecutors in the north would be appointed in accordance with UNSCR 1244.  Internationals would man customs at the northern Gates with funds collected in the north going for projects there.  These later elements would reflect the approach suggested by the UN Secretary General in 2008.

Pristina has been quick to call “ridiculous” the press reporting of this new package.  But it may be a trial balloon or something leaked by internationals trying to nail Pristina’s feet to the proposal.  The proposals themselves – if seriously put forth at some point – would be worth considering.  The special association for the northern municipalities and the district court reflective of the ethnic composition in the north are nothing new.  They are contained within the Ahtisaari Plan.  But it is nice to see them spelled out.  Making clear that the association would manage the county budget and police through its own four appointed officials suggests an important element of self-rule.  An agreement to deal with the northern boundary and customs in a status-neutral manner would be an important step.  The extra seats for Serbs in central institutions is an additional sweetener for northern Serb participation at that level.  Along with those south of the Ibar, that could make Kosovo Serbs a significant political force in Pristina.

The new “concessions” do not make clear what role exactly Pristina would have vis-a-vis the north.  How much control, for example, would it have on outside funds before they reach the north?  Could it overrule local decisions on local matters?  How about flags?  As the Albanian flag is allowed to be raised in Kosovo, would the Serbian? And would an international mission remain to help ensure implementation?  Many details would need to be fleshed out and agreed. But it would be a serious opening offer.

Some in Serbia and the north may cling to the stand that Kosovo remains part of Serbia and always will.  However strongly and righteously felt, this leads nowhere.  If Serbia waits for history to reverse itself, it will never move forward.  It must cut the anchor of Kosovo free.  A continued frozen conflict might serve the interests of some, but it is a drag on the great majority.  A compromise that allows the north to remain functionally as part of Serbia, while also part of Kosovo, offers a way forward, as would redrawing the border.  Both Serbia and the north Kosovo Serbs need to think seriously about their future and how best to serve their own national and local interests.  It’s about time to start doing so.

Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. Gerard is also a member of TransConflict’s Advisory Board.