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Tag Archive for Hashim Thaci

The situation in Kosovo – five key observations

1. Kosovo is in crisis – but its institutions are actually proving to be quite robust

2000px-KosovoFlagMap.svgWhen writing about Kosovo, there is often a tendency for international commentators to focus on the negatives: the high unemployment, the political instability and the ongoing ethnic strife.  What is not said often enough is that the country’s institutions, which will only celebrate their eighth birthday on 17th February, are proving themselves to be relatively robust.

A key facet of being a successful state is that, when politicians throw visceral verbal barbs at one another and extremist elements threaten the violent overthrow of constitutional order, the country’s institutions hold steady – above politics and beyond interference.

Against a backdrop of violent protests on the streets of Pristina at the implementation of the government’s agreement with Serbia over the establishment of the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM), which included the firebombing of government buildings on Pristina’s Mother Theresa Boulevard and opposition MP’s deployment of teargas canisters on the floor of Parliament in order to stifle debate, the Constitutional Court has acted responsibly and proportionately.

While the issue of the ASM remains a matter for intense debate – and the court continues to raise some concerns about its compatibility with certain facets of Kosovo’s constitution – these have been raised in a mature manner that continues to give confidence to both a perennially sceptical Serbia and international community.  This should be noted and celebrated.

2. Vetëvendosje are not going away

protest, kosovo, tear gasIt is hard to imagine a European state with a more cynical and calculating political party system than Kosovo.  The “establishment” political parties, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), are controlled by competing business, family and regional interests and give the distinct impression of having little or no ideological basis whatsoever.

Kosovo’s proportional representation voting system means that, while not impossible, it is very difficult for a government to be formed without the two parties cutting some kind of a deal.  This is precisely what happened in December 2014 when, after six months of haggling, a deal was reached that saw the “winner” of the election, the PDK’s Hashim Thaçi surrender the Prime Minister’s office to the LDK’s Isa Mustafa in exchange for their support for his 2016 bid – a post that is awarded by Parliament.  After cutting a deal with a small breakaway party from the PDK and the numerous ethnic minority parties that are guaranteed twenty seats in the National Assembly (ten for Serbs, four for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, three for Bosniaks, two for Turks and one for Gorani), the PDK and LDK shared the spoils of ministerial office.

It’s not the fault of the LDK and PDK that the electoral system is structured in such a way; but perceptions of cronyism and corruption are.

Many international observers have sought to paint the recent rise of the nationalist Vetëvendosje (“self-determination”) as a response to anger at the Kosovo government “capitulating” to Serbia on the issue of the creation of the Association of Serb Municipalities, which has been painted as a back-door power-grab by Belgrade, the “surrender” of Kosovar land to Montenegro during negotiations over the demarcation of the state border and the formation of a special court to prosecute ethnic Albanians guilty of war crimes in the 1999 conflict.  While it is clear that these issues have provided the kindling and the spark for recent protests inside and outside Parliament; they are not the fuel that has turned them into an inferno.

Instead, the responsibility lies with the failure of the government to make real progress in tackling the country’s endemic economic problems.

“The young Europeans,” is a marketing line that is often used by the country – a hint at Kosovo’s status as the newest independent European state and the fact more than 50% of the population is under the age of 18 – but this is very much a double-edged sword.  A young population can only be expected to thrive where they find employment – and there is little to be found.  In the case of Spain and Portugal, many young people moved broad to find work during the recent economic crises to face their countries – yet Kosovars often find themselves hemmed-in by inflexible visa regimes.   Instead, the hopefulness and energy of the 2008 independence movement has partly given way to despondence and distrust of both the Kosovo government and the promises of international organisations.

Riding on a wave of anti-government and anti-corruption rhetoric, Vetëvendosje’s Shpend Ahmeti was elected Mayor of Pristina at the end of 2014, unseating the now-Prime Minister Isa Mustafa.   For the LDK to lose the mayoralty of the country’s largest, best educated and most cosmopolitan city was a tremendous shock.  It has not been a bad experiment, though.  While many – myself included – were suspicious of how Ahmeti may behave in office, he has largely gotten to grips with the city’s corrupt planning system and invested heavily in public spaces.  The city feels cleaner and more prosperous.

The success of Ahmeti’s spell in City Hall has allowed Vetëvendosje, whose previous public image was largely that of its leader Albin Kurti leading street protests and throwing rhetorical flame-throwers at the political class, to take on an air of mild respectability.   This is, of course, not helped by the spectacle of Vetëvendosje MPs deploying tear-gas canisters on the floor of Parliament in order to stifle debate – but, as Kurti and Ahmeti argue, there is space in their party for a Yin and a Yang.

As long as the economy remains stable and the political system remains a den of cronyism, Vetëvendosje’s progress towards the political mainstream will only continue.

3. Hashim Thaçi is still likely become President

photo_verybig_140448There have been some rumblings recently that Hashim Thaçi, the country’s former Prime Minister, and current Foreign Minister, may be at risk of losing on his long-held ambition of becoming President when the vote takes place later this year.  I do not yet share this view.

While he should be concerned by the public declaration by a number of LDK MPs that they intend to renege upon their party’s deal with the PDK to install Mustafa as Prime Minister in exchange for supporting Thaçi for the presidency, the numbers continue to stack up in his favour.

To secure the Presidency, he requires the support of either two thirds of MPs or, after three rounds of voting, a simple majority – 61 votes.   Assuming he can carry his own 34 MPs, two thirds of PDK members (18 MPs) and three quarters of the minority representatives (15 MPs), he will take the post with an absolute majority of 66 votes.

Fundamentally, the LDK have little incentive to stop Thaçi becoming President.  The job itself is very much ceremonial in nature, unlike Isa Mustafa’s current, influential post as Prime Minister.  If the party was to renege upon their deal with Thaçi and the PDK, the most likely outcome would be fresh elections – a high-risk political manoeuvre that could risk leaving the LDK empty-handed afterwards.

Finally, what is rarely said and never acknowledged by either Thaçi himself or the ethnic minority parties is the ease with which they have been able to cooperate with one another.   As Prime Minister, Thaçi worked relatively harmoniously with his Serb and Turkish Cabinet minister; apparently leaving them alone to run their own portfolios without much interference.  The ten Serbian MPs, in particular, may not be particular Thaçi fans but it is hard to see them backing a rival, Vetëvendosje-backed nominee.

4. The gulf between Serbs north and south of the Ibar is growing

800px-Zajednica_srpskih_opstinaOn 21st January, the former “leader” of the Serbian community in North Kosovo – an area physically divided from the rest of the country and home to vast ethnic Serb population – was jailed for nine years for his involvement in war crimes during the 1999 war.

The ruling has been widely greeted with derision in the north of the country, with street protests in the ethnically divided city of North Mitrovica and angry denunciations from leading politicians in Belgrade – some of whom have advocated the suspension of dialogue with Pristina.

What has been notable, however, is the relative silence of the Serbian community living south of the Ibar River.  While the sympathies of the Serbian community outside of the north will undoubtedly still lie with Ivanović, there is more than simply anecdotal evidence to suggest that these communities are beginning to develop some kind of acceptance of and accommodation within the Republic of Kosovo system.

The 2013 local elections saw the election of mayors in a number of newly-drawn, majority Serb-populated local government areas south of the Ibar; namely, Štrpce, Klokot-Vrbovac, Gračanica, Novo Brdo, Ranilug and Parteš.   With the drawing of these municipalities done in such a way as to ensure the election of ethnic Serbs to the mayoralty, this has provided a formal mechanism by which Serbs have had some latitude over local spending decisions within the Kosovo government framework.   When completed, the intention is that the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM) will reinforce the ability of ethnic Serb areas to pursue their own health, education and cultural policies.

There is a degree of realpolitik here.

Many ethnic Serbs south of the Ibar still remain aggrieved about being separated from Kosovo, yet have a basic choice – participate in elections in areas specially drawn to elect Serbs or see another community win the mayoralty with 200 votes; accept a degree of self-governance within the Kosovo state or risk seeing their concerns swamped in a 95% ethnic Albanian state.

The same concerns simply do not exist north of the Ibar.  In the city of North Mitrovica and surrounding towns of Zubin Potok, Leposavić and Zvečan, Serbs make up more than 90% of the population.  There is simply no inducement to engage with the Republic of Kosovo state, regardless of the efforts made by both the European Union and Pristina in this respect.  In the minds of local Serbs, the ASM will make little practical difference; largely because their present governance arrangements afford more flexibility than the proposed changes.

For all the talk of Serbian unity in some nationalist corners, ethnic Serbs are probably the single most divided community in Kosovo at present.

5. MEPs are guilty of looking at Kosovo with “rose-tinted glasses”

590a174bc965ea956cc162141dcd316de61ea3d2This week, the European Parliament rubber-stamped the latest in a round of reports examining the progress that Kosovo is making towards European Union accession.

It has long been my view that many Members of the European Parliament – well-intentioned though they are – have allowed their innate passion for EU expansion and sympathy towards the significant political, social and economic challenges the country faces to cloud their perceptions of the true situation in the country.  If ever the phrase “rose tinted glasses” was meant to be used; it was for Wednesday’s debate.

While MEPs, led by the Austrian Green Ulrike Lunacek, were right to praise the progress that has been made on reaching theoretical agreements on the establishment Association of Serb Municipalities, telecoms, vehicular insurance, mutual recognition of diplomas and the “normalisation” of the situation in the ethnically-divided city of Mitrovica, little attention was actually paid to the implementation of these accords.   Yes, Serbia has lifted its preposterous objection to Kosovo receiving its own international dialling code and yes, Kosovo has agreed that it will finally end its discriminatory policy of rejecting diplomas from the Serb university in North Mitrovica – but other than that, progress has been relatively meagre.

The report also makes a rather opaque reference to the “progress has been made regarding the judiciary” and problems that exist in relation to the “slow administration of justice and the significant backlog of cases”.  To describe the administration of justice in Kosovo as “slow” is as euphemistic as describing Waiting for Godot as a play about an irksome traffic delay.  The EU needs to recognise that Kosovo’s judicial and courts system are in crisis.  The last figures I have suggest that, in the first half of 2014, 693,975 cases were in process in courts (in a country with a population of less than 2 million!), with 455,699 having been inherited from the previous year.

It would be unfair to blame the Republic of Kosovo for this.  After all, the legal system Kosovo was handed when it declared independence in 2008 forces judges to simultaneously adjudicate verdicts on the basis of the legal systems of present-day Kosovo and, in the case of historic offences, the now-defunct legal codes of Serbia and Montenegro (2003-2006), the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1992-2003) and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (before 1992).   Increased financial and technical support is clearly required to help unlock this logjam.

Finally, the near-comical status Kosovo’s National Assembly has taken on in recent times was largely glossed over.   While, as I have already mentioned, Vetëvendosje MPs bear the sole responsibility for the violent and unacceptable scenes that have been witnessed on the floor of the Parliament, it is not enough for a European Parliament report examining the state of Kosovo’s institutions to “call on all political actors to resume political dialogue in order to break the deadlock and find a viable solution that restores the normal functioning” of the body.   The EU is often relatively effective at adopting a “carrot and stick” approach to states aspiring to membership.  In this case, the stick – such as an explicit rejection of the proposed visa-free regime unless the political climate improves – seems strangely absent.

Kosovo has made considerable progress in recent years but the rose-tinted approach adopted by so many MEPs is neither honest nor helpful in achieving real reforms on the ground.   This needs to change.

Kosovo elections: reflections on Prime Minister Haradinaj, a strong opposition and a sense of “normality”

ramushOn Sunday, the people of Kosovo went to the polls to vote in the country’s second general election since declaring independence from Serbia in 2008.

While the election results confirmed Hashim Thaci’s position as Kosovo’s most powerful politician and the PDK’s status as the country’s leading political party, it did not hand either the type of hegemonic power needed to rule without compromise or coalition.

In a short blog post I wrote on the morning of election, I wrote that “it would not be beyond the realms of possibility to see the political factions of former Pristina Mayor and centre-right LDK leader Isa Mustafa, former President Behgjet Pacolli and former guerrilla Ramush Haradinaj attempt to forge a governing coalition with ethnic minority parties to force Thaçi from office”.

In that comment, I overlooked two things: the potential of former PDK stalwart, Parliament Speaker and acting President Jakup Krasniqi and KLA guerrilla Fatmir Limaj’s new Nisma party (Initiative for Kosovo) to cross the 5% electoral threshold or the ability of Pacolli’s New Kosovo Alliance (AKR) to fall under it.

Nevertheless, a deal appears to have been done that will force Thaci and the PDK from power.

According to a statement issued by the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) late yesterday, a deal has been done between themselves, Haradinaj’s Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) and Krasniqi and Limaj’s Nisma to share power.  As part of the deal, Haradinaj will hold the position of Prime Minister, the LDK will nominate the President, Parliament Speaker and bulk of the ministers and Nisma will hold the Deputy Prime Minister’s office.

Electorally, speaking the coalition just about works.

results2The LDK will have 30 seats in Parliament, the AAK 13 and Nisma seven.  Of the “Albanian parties” alone, this takes the coalition up to 50 seats.  This still puts it eleven seats shy of a working majority of 61 seats.

However, the coalition will undoubtedly be able to do a deal with the ethnic Serbian Srpska List (which includes the outgoing Deputy PM in the last coalition government, Slobodan Petrovic) who are guaranteed under the constitution to hold ten seats in the National Assembly.  Add in several representatives of the Turk, Gorani, Bosniak, Roma and Ashkali community, whose support for a governing coalition can often be secured on the basis of transactional promises revolving around investments in minority schools, housing in isolated rural areas and community facilities, then the coalition could conceivably hold up to 70 of the 120 seats in the National Assembly.

While it would be a departure from the status quo in which Thaci, as the leader of the largest party, has been Prime Minister, it would appear to possess a relatively sound basis for government.  Indeed, the last administration Haradinaj led between 2004 and 2005 was also constituted with the support of the LDK and with his party holding only a small number of seats – the deal ultimately resulting in his government holding 72 of the 120 seats in the chamber.

So, what would a Haradinaj administration look like?

Well, firstly, it’s worth reflecting on what a tremendous personal and political triumph it would represent for Haradinaj if he were to return to the office of Prime Minister after having seen his last term abruptly halted by him being carted off to International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to face war crimes charges.  Having spent the bulk of the past decade in The Hague beating off charges of crimes against ethnic Serbs and political opponents during the late 90s, Haradinaj will understandably feel a sense of vindication.

In the days ahead, it is likely that we will see many commentators question whether the Haradinaj administration will remain committed to rapprochement with ethnic Serbs across Kosovo.  I have already read several comments from observers of the region questioning whether his election marks a shift towards an aggressive form of nationalism.

I’d urge them to hold off on the rhetoric – for now.

During his previous administration, Haradinaj was marked out by members of both the Serbian community and international administration for his determination to try and engage with minority communities.  Indeed, a former British Ambassador to Pristina once described how Haradinaj had to be “calmed down” in this respect, for fear of destabilising his administration by offending Albanian ultra-nationalists with his overtures to minorities.

Haradinaj is no saint – no former KLA man could ever be – but there is no evidence that a government led by him which will be constitutionally forced to include Serb ministers will pursue a policy contrary to the interests of minorities.

The second point that lends credence to the view that a Haradinaj government is unlikely to deviate too far from the current path of “normalising” relations with ethnic minorities and the Serbian Government is the failure to include the ultra-nationalist Vetevendosje movement in the proposed coalition.

Had Haradinaj, the LDK and Nisma struck a deal with Vetevendosje, the coalition would have been able to hold as many as 85 to 90 of the 120 seats in the National Assembly.

For that support, Vetevendosje would likely have demanded a package of constitutional reforms that watered down minority representation, a halting of economic liberalisation measures and remaining privatisations and an end to the Pristina-Belgrade shuttle diplomacy which has seen both Kosovo and Serbia inch closer towards EU membership.

Vetevendosje will, instead, continue in opposition – and the international community will breathe a sigh of relief.  The failure to include them in the coalition speaks to a degree of maturity on the part of Haradinaj, Mustafa, Krasniqi and Limaj.

Reviewing the election results and integrity of the balloting process on Sunday night, many commentators remarked how “normal” the elections had seemed.

The appointment of the new, Haradinaj-led coalition allows for this new-found sense of democratic “normality” to continue.  Why?

Since independence in 2008, Kosovo has operated on a “cartel politics” basis.  Elections have been fought but the result has usually been the same – a “grand coalition” between the two major parties and a few piecemeal, yet not particularly important smaller parties bought off my minor ministerial posts.   There has effectively been no real choice for voters.

With the PDK and Vetevendosje, two substantial, distinctive and vocal political movements seemingly shut out of the incoming administration, Kosovo could finally have the chance to experience what it is like to have both a stable government and a strong opposition.

Kosovo elections – chilly weather, feverish campaigning and high stakes

imageI have just arrived in Kosovo’s capital city Pristina ahead of Sunday’s local elections.

While much of the international attention is focussed upon the conduct of the elections in the ethnic Serb areas in North Kosovo, there are a number of key races taking place across the country – most notably in Pristina itself.

For the first time since independence, election for Mayor of Pristina is genuinely competitive with the incumbent Isa Mustafa of the centre-right Democratic League of Kosovo locked in a very tight race with Shpend Ahmeti, the nominee of the hard line nationalist Vetevendosje (self-determination) movement. Polls suggest that former Prime Minister and current Security Forces Minister Agim Çeku, the nominee of Prime Minister Thaçi’s Democratic League (LDK) and associated allies is trailing in third place.

As is so often the case in young democracies, the city is plastered with gaudy election posters touting the policies of each of the main candidates. Across the city, messages of support for individual candidates have been spray-painted on walls by overzealous campaign workers, stickers touting political party lists cover lampposts and posters advertising last-minute rallies are plastered everywhere.

The stakes are very high. For each of the main challengers, the outcome of the election could have profound personal and political consequences.

imageA loss for Mustafa, who also serves as leader of his party and will be its Prime Ministerial nominee next year, would be personally devastating with less than a year to go until the general election. A victory – however narrow – over the insurgent Vetevendosje movement would seal his reputation as a steely if uninspiring campaigner and would embolden him ahead of next year’s elections.

Victory for Vetevensodje would have implications that go much further than Pristina’s city limits. The party is openly hostile towards many of the international institutions operating in Kosovo and advocates pan-Albanian nationalist ideals. To see the capital city fall into their hands would be an international embarrassment for the government – particularly in light of the recent breakthroughs that have been made in respect of relations with Serbia.

While a type of “cordon sanitaire” (see Belgium and Vlaams Belang) appears to be forming amongst Kosovo’s mainstream political parties in order to keep Vetevensodsje away from the levers of power, the Kosovan electoral system effectively mandates coalition governments meaning it may be hard to keep them out of power forever. A victory in Pristina would give the party a tremendous shot in the arm ahead of the general election in terms of increased publicity and the power of political patronage.

imageIf Çeku finishes in third place it will be a powerful rebuke for a man who can rightly claim to be one of the “fathers” of Kosovan independence, having led the Kosovo Liberation Army to victory in the 1999 war. From an outsider’s perspective it appears that Çeku has struggled to find a niche in Kosovan politics in recent times given the strength of Hashim Thaçi’s hold on the political apparatus of the LDK and the return to frontline politics of his KLA ally Ramush Haradinaj after his acquittal from war crimes charges at The Hague. His nomination by the party for the Mayor’s race may have been an attempt to find him a more prominent political role. His likely loss will do much to advance the perception that his political career faces diminishing prospects.

I’ll be up early tomorrow to look around the city on the eve of poll, including searching for any examples of last-minute campaigning.

Until then, I’m off for some traditional Albanian food at Pi Shat, just off Mother Theresa Boulevard – an absolute must-try if you are ever in town.

Kosovo elections and ethnic Serb participation – the real challenge is North Kosovo

eulex_kosovo-ethnic-1The past months have seen a marked shift in external perceptions of the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia.

These changes have been largely brought about by efforts by the government in Belgrade to temper the more bellicose language used by its officials towards Pristina and a willingness of Kosovo Prime Minister Thaci’s administration to compromise on judicial and policing matters in order to strengthen the hand of the minority Serb community.  For both nations, the prospect of EU membership is no longer a pipe-dream but a genuine possibility.

The present period of relative détente between the two parties does, however, remain fragile.  While confidence-building measures have improved relations between the two sides, little trust exists.

The local elections scheduled to take place on November 3rd are one big confidence-building measure in themselves.

Traditionally, the vast majority of Serbs in Kosovo have refused to participate in the institutions of the independent Kosovo.  This refusal has been based upon two factors – firstly, personal anger at what some Serbs saw as an ethnic Albanian “power grab” when Pristina declared independence and secondly, because of the urging of Belgrade officials to boycott the polls.

The increased levels of cooperation between Belgrade and Pristina have precipitated a thawing in Serb opposition to the elections – largely as a result of realpolitik.  Serbs living in Kosovo realise that independence is now an irreversible reality for Kosovo and that non-participation in the election process is tantamount to handing power to the ethnic Albanian community.

On a visit to the Serbian enclave of Gracanica yesterday, Serbian Prime Minister Dacic said: “it is in their [the Albanians] interest to have as few Serbs as possible vote in the elections… we have to do something that does not suit them, and that is to take power and use it for our own interest”.

The two leading candidates for the office of Mayor of the Serbian portion of Mitrovica, Krstimir Pantic and Oliver Ivanovic are also urging Serbs to participate in the elections.

In an interview with InSerbia.com, Pantic said: “these will not be just local elections, and the vote does not mean the Serbs will recognize Kosovo independence… on the contrary, [we] will finally get institutions recognized by the international community and institutions that the Albanians will have to respect”.   Ivanovic added: “we have the option to maintain a good relationship with Serbia or stay all alone. We have no relations with Pristina, we have not had relations with Brussels for a long time, and in the event that we refuse to turn out, we will be left on our own, and that is bad, and disastrous”.

It’s a curious turn-around on the part of both Belgrade and figures formerly views as anti-Pristina “hard-liners”: rather than accuse Serb participants in the elections as traitors as in the past, leading Serbian politicians are instead urging their community to vote for positive, patriotic reasons.

From the perspective of anyone wishing to see stability in the region, the Serbian government is right to urge Serbs in Kosovo to participate in the elections.   Many Serbs in Belgrade are, however, too far removed from the day to day reality of life in Kosovo to understand that Kosovo Serbs are far from being a monolithic block.

Take the case of Gracancia, where Prime Minister Dacic made his comments urging Serbs to participate in the elections.   Gracanica is no more than fifteen minutes from the centre of Pristina and entirely surrounded by ethnic Albanian areas.   As pleasant as the village is with its stunning monastery and clutch of delicious small bakeries, it’s far from a metropolis.

For the Serbs that live there, interaction with the administration in Pristina isn’t an option but rather a reality if they wish to access healthcare, pensions and, for young people, a quality education.  They realised at the last round of local elections that the votes of their community could buy lasting political power in the area whereas non-participation would hand control of local government to Albanians.

The same is not true for the Serbian communities of North Kosovo that are largely physically divided from the rest of the country by the Ibar.

If one looks beyond the pile of rubble on the bridge separating north and south Mitrovica and the odd ultra-nationalist mural in the pretty town of Zvecan, there is very little difference between life in North Kosovo and the towns just over the border in Serbia proper.   For the citizens of North Kosovo, the institutions of the Serbian state remain in very much place – from schools and universities to pension offices to health clinics.   Serbian music still fills smoky cafes from Zubin Potok to Leposavic and knowledge of the Albanian language is, at best, threadbare.

While international troops continue to roam the streets, the residents of the north feel largely “safe” from the administration in Pristina that few trust and even fewer wished to see declare independence from Serbia.

Many Serbs in the North see the recent Pristina-Belgrade accords as having threatened their sovereignty and jeapordised their passionate wish to return to direct control from Belgrade.  Why, they ask, should they participate in elections they see as Pristina-led when they are already largely in control of their own destiny?  What, they wonder, is the real agenda of politicians in both Belgrade and Pristina?  Is Belgrade sacrifyincing them, they wonder, in order to pursue a greater EU dream at the expense of its own citizens?

Here is where the challenge lies in respect of the November 3rd.

Serb participation in the local elections south of the Ibar will, of course, be seen as a great success for both Serb and Kosovan EU ambitions.  But it might not be enough to satisfy EU power-brokers.

These elections can only be judged to be a success of the 75,000 Serbs of North Kosovo can be persuaded that participation is in their patriotic interests.

With less than two weeks to go until Election Day, the word on the ground is that participation on the North is unlikely to exceed a disastrous 20%.

The last months have heralded significant improvements in Pristina-Belgrade relations.  The next challenge is how to go about improving trust between Belgrade and North Kosovo.

Ivica Dacic and the art of the possible

There’s an interesting piece on the Balkan Insight website this evening reporting comments made by Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic regarding the future status of Kosovo.

Referencing the 1995 Dayton Agreement which brought about an end to conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina by dividing the country up into two functionally autonomous regions linked by only the very loosest central government ties, Dacic argues in favour of a “new Dayton” to resolve the conflict between Serbia and the majority-Albanian government in Pristina about the future of Kosovo.

Unsurprisingly, the suggestion has been dismissed out of hand by the government in Pristina.  After all, why would they feel compelled to accept a sovereignty-sharing arrangement with Belgrade?

Kosovo’s independence has been recognised by the United States and twenty-two of the EU’s twenty-seven member states (those that don’t – Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania, and Greece – have problems with irredentist or secessionist movements and are unwilling to recognise Kosovo for fear of setting an internal precedent).  Furthermore, 93 of the 193 United Nations members recognise Kosovo, just shy of the “magic number” (100) require for them to apply for UN membership.

The charming and urbane former Serbian State Secretary for Kosovo Oliver Ivanovic, who I have had the pleasure to meet on a number of occasions in his home-town of Mitrovica, offered a withering response to Dacic’s suggestion: “only Serbia thinks that Kosovo’s status has not been resolved, while for the [Kosovo] Albanians and the West the issue is resolved”.

The government in Belgrade increasingly gives the impression of advocating a position on the Kosovo issue that it itself knows is untenable and unrealistic, while at the same time losing out on genuine opportunities to improve the lives of Serbs in the province.  On a diplomatic level, Serbia enjoys a level of confidence and trust akin to that of a Greek covered bond.

Despite the dogged international support it has received, backed up by tens of millions of Euros in US and EU funding, the Ahtisaari Plan which was supposed to ensure the safe return of Serbs to Kosovo and their integration into the country’s political system has, for most part, been a failure.

While a small number of Serbs hold posts in the Kosovan government and in municipal authorities, large tracts of the country remain total “no go” zones for Serbs.  In the past four months alone, two elderly returnees were murdered close Urosevac, two men were shot while driving in Istog while Serb homes near Zac were pelted with stones and daubed with extremist graffiti.

These communities are exactly the ones forgotten by the Dacic government in its almost-daily clamour to announce new and untenable “solutions” to the Kosovo conflict.  Politics is the part of the possible and, try as he might, Dacic will not achieve the impossible: the reunification of Kosovo and Serbia in a unitary state.

It’s time for Dacic to wake up to what he can positively achieve for his people.

In the short-to-medium term the Serbian government should aim to secure two successful outcomes from their EU-led negotiations with Pristina – and avoid any talk of reunification, beyond that of the majority Serb provinces in the north of Kosovo where Pristina’s writ has never run.

Firstly, a clear pledge should be extracted from the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) to refocus its resources on guaranteeing the safety of Serb returnees to an area that is, at least in theory, a “multi-ethnic Republic”. Secondly, the government should push for the security checks and (in some cases spiteful) customs levies being levelled on Kosovo’s northern and western borders with Serbia to be removed in order to allow a free flow of people and goods.

In return, Serbia should promise to continue working with Belgrade on projects such as the sharing of cadastral records, the mutual recognition of educational diplomas and the re-opening of railway links between Pristina and Belgrade – an economic link Kosovo badly needs.

Such a solution would go some way towards achieving a sense of normalisation between Kosovo and Serbia that is of benefit to both its peoples – without the word “sovereignty” passing Ivica Dacic’s lips or giving Kosovan Prime Minister Hashim Thaci the opportunity to level his usual allegation of Serb “aggression”.