“Independent Kosovo: Day One”
Alex Anderson in BalkanInsight.com
15 February 2008
Kosovo looks set for a relatively smooth transition to independence, however, the new state’s Albanian leaders need to do more to reach out to the Serb minority, both to avoid potential trouble and to integrate them into society.
Kosovo’s declaration of independence, expected in the coming days, has chances to pass peacefully. The signs are encouraging from both Kosovo’s Albanian majority and the Serbian government.
Kosovo Albanians need the respectability that a smooth transition will gain their nascent state: violence would only reduce the number of countries willing to recognise it, frighten potential foreign investors, and require a tighter grip from the European Union field missions that are set to supervise it.
And despite its fury at the move, Belgrade does not want trouble either. Premier Vojislav Kostunica summed it up with his appeal Wednesday that: “Our people in Kosovo should stay and live in their homes, in their province and in their Serbia.”
Having understood that it cannot prevent Pristina’s declaration, Serbia’s government has silenced its earlier threats that it will trigger violence, chaos, draconian embargoes, exodus of the remaining Serbs from south of Kosovo’s River Ibar, and spontaneous partition along it. Officials stress that today’s Serbia can defend its claims in a “different, smarter” way than in the 1990s, without fighting.
Serbia plans to respond with legal challenges, by cold-shouldering Kosovo’s institutions on the ground and entrenching its own parallel local administrations, schools and healthcare in Serb areas, both in the north and in the scattered patchwork of enclaves south of the Ibar where the majority of the remaining Serbs live. Belgrade expects international security forces to shield them from Kosovo Albanian interference.
A tranquil transition allows Pristina and its supporters — the US and most of the EU – to claim that everything has changed, with the new state safely launched. Belgrade and its ally Russia can assert the opposite: that Serbia has retained sovereignty, annulled the “illegal” declaration, and asserted legitimate Serbian institutions in place of the upstarts.
The stage will then be set for a multi-year contest for influence over Kosovo’s Serb areas, with the EU missions liaising and playing referee, using the supervised independence plan devised last year by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari – with its generous decentralisation provisions for Kosovo Serbs – as their rulebook.
Still, these alignments do not guarantee a trouble-free transition. Communication between Kosovo’s Albanians and Serbs is very poor, and suspicions high. Albanians still fear that Serb paramilitaries will appear. Serbs fear a repeat of the March 2004 riots that saw Albanians cleanse them from several more areas of Kosovo. Exuberant, disorganised Albanian celebrations could set off a chain reaction of mutual Albanian-Serb provocation and clashes.
The divided city of Mitrovica on the Ibar is particularly vulnerable to such a breakdown. Mainly on the Albanian side, small armed extremist groups pose a menace. The NATO-led 17,000 troops, the UN mission’s 2,000 international police, and the 7,000-strong indigenous Kosovo Police Service will have to be on their toes.
More should be done to narrow the odds against such accidents. Pristina’s outreach to Kosovo’s wary Serbs must quickly become more energetic and better targeted. Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and President Fatmir Sejdiu each visited a carefully-chosen Serb village in recent weeks, voicing expected platitudes.
Thaci donated a tractor to a grateful Serb smallholder. For their part, EU diplomats have adopted individual Serb villages. But no one has addressed larger enclaves or Serbian media with reassuring or substantive messages.
Nor have they addressed the key fear that Kosovo Serbs keep repeating to International Crisis Group researchers: that independence entails Albanians’ automatic destruction of their Belgrade-financed parallel institutions, such as schools and medical centres, for them a cornerstone of their community security, a source of prized jobs, and a guarantee that they can maintain a Serbian way of life in Kosovo.
In fact, the Ahtisaari plan envisages both the accommodation of these institutions into Kosovo’s state institutions and a continuing supportive role for Belgrade. However, Serbia will not yet play ball, and will still see its parallel institutions as tools for resisting independence and for dividing Serbs from Albanians.
Because of that, Thaci has to send Kosovo Serbs a reassuring message on this: that there will be no Albanian takeover and that the parallel institutions will instead be gradually negotiated into a relationship with the Kosovo state, through the offices of the EU missions, and on terms that Kosovo Serbs are comfortable with.
This public outreach is essential to create the confidence that all parties need in the uncertain period ahead. Broader communication and bridge-building could give Kosovo’s Albanians and Serbs a shared script for the transition. Simply put, such a script could be: “We disagree on the status, but we agree not to fight about it”.
Alex Anderson is Kosovo Project Director at the International Crisis Group, ICG. Balkan Insight is BIRN’s online publication.