Minority Serbs in Kosovo already enjoy considerable rights under the country’s constitution. Creating an association of Serb-majority municipalities will only further entrench the ethnic divide.
One topic currently dominates the so-called dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia – the political association of Kosovo municipalities with a Serb majority, otherwise known as the ‘Serb Association’.
As has often been the case, a topic that previously did not play such an important role suddenly becomes the focus of national and international politics and the media. This time, too, the motto is: if you can agree on this, then…
So far, the Kosovars in particular have believed these announcements, which are repeated almost like a mantra, especially on the European Union side. The moment the United States joins in the chorus ‘it must finally be a turning point’ in the otherwise sluggish negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia.
In the meantime, however, Kosovars have had to learn that this is more like the famous carrot in front of the donkey’s mouth. Confidence in improvement and belief in EU support in the integration process have suffered greatly in recent years since little has changed for Kosovo in the international arena. Today, within the EU, Kosovo is recognised as sovereign by only 22 of the bloc’s 27 members. It is the only country in the Western Balkans that still does not have visa-free access to the Union, and it has made little progress in its attempt to at least join the Council of Europe.
The formation of a ‘Serb Association’ in Kosovo is an essential part of an April 2013 agreement signed by Kosovo and Serbia under EU auspices. In return, Serbia pledged to no longer impede the process of Kosovo’s international recognition and integration. The Kosovo parliament ratified the agreement within weeks. The Serbian parliament has never followed suit.
One might assume, therefore, that an agreement from a decade ago that was not even ratified by both parties could hardly be of great importance, especially since Serbia has been vigorously undermining Kosovo’s efforts to gain greater international recognition and integration ever since, in clear contravention of its commitment not to do so.
The Constitutional Court in Kosovo, in turn, found the specific provisions of the agreement concerning the ‘Serb Association’ unconstitutional in many respects. Such a mono-ethnic organisation with executive powers fundamentally violates the spirit of the constitution, which understands Kosovo society as multi-ethnic. Needless to say, the agreement has not been implemented.
Kosovo is not a ‘multi-ethnic state’
More than two decades since NATO intervened to end Serbia’s brutal crackdown in Kosovo, very little has actually changed for the better in terms of the coexistence of the two states, in spite of the EU’s constant promotion of the ‘dialogue’.
No claim in the recent history of the Western Balkans has been made more often than that the ‘dialogue’ would soon lead to success. The contradiction between the political statements of all participants and also many non-participants and the reality of this still hostile neighbourhood could hardly be greater.
The 2007 Ahtisaari Plan stipulated that, under its constitution, Kosovo must be a “multi-ethnic state”. In fact, Kosovo was by no means a multi-ethnic state then, nor is it now; its neighbours aren’t either, nor, for example, is Germany.
In 2020, the United Nations mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, estimated that Albanians made up almost 95 per cent of the population in Kosovo, and Serbs just under 4.5 per cent.
The other four ethnic groups have hardly ever played a role in terms of numbers, but this construction of ‘multi-ethnicity’ also made it possible for the minorities to be granted considerable rights and privileges in the constitution. It is mainly the Kosovo Serbs who benefit from this, however, while the other minorities hardly ever received any attention.
A closer look can be limited to the already existing rights and privileges of the Serb minority in order to get an impression of what the formation of a ‘Serb Association’ would mean in practice.
Under the Ahtisaari Plan, accepted by Kosovo but rejected by Serbia, Kosovo was regionalised into 38 municipalities. Ten are mainly populated by Serbs and therefore also administered by Serbs. That’s roughly 25 per cent of all municipalities, for a community with a share of less than five per cent of the total population.
Some small municipalities came into existence for the sole purpose of giving the Serb population their own commune, since they could not form a majority in a larger municipality.
In northern Kosovo, there is a clear Serb majority, while the other Serb-run municipalities are dotted across the other 80 per cent of the country, alongside the Albanian residents.
Already strong minority rights at national level
Currently, Kosovo has roughly the same number of inhabitants as the German city of Hamburg, though migratory trends have led some observers to offer far lower estimates than the official 1.9 million.
The country has two official languages, Albanian and Serbian. This ‘division’ corresponds to many other areas of life on a national and municipal level in Kosovo, nationally in the public media or regionally in the daily isolation of the two ethnic groups.
The Kosovar parliament has 120 seats. Of these, the Serbs are guaranteed 10 seats, roughly eight per cent, regardless of the outcome of the election. Another 10 go to the other four ethnic groups.
Results regardless, every Kosovo government has at least one minister from the Serb minority and one from the other ethnic groups. If there are more than 12 ministries, the minorities have the right to a third ministerial post. According to the constitution, a total of only seven members of parliament from the minorities is sufficient to block amendments to the constitution.
In no other country in Europe are minority rights as extensively pronounced as in Kosovo, also because the international community was involved in the drafting of the constitution. Nevertheless, or maybe because of this, the willingness of the Serb minority to integrate into Kosovo society is very limited.
Almost without exception, parties in Kosovo are split along ethnic lines. The Srpska lista party, founded in 2014, is not only supported but controlled by Belgrade. Serbs who pursue a different, more integration-oriented policy have come under intense pressure from the party; some prominent figures have been persecuted, while one, Oliver Ivanovic, was murdered in 2018.
After the most recent elections, Srpska lista was able to take all 10 seats reserved for the Serb minority in parliament. In this way, Belgrade always has a foothold both in the Kosovo parliament and in every Kosovo government and helps steer Kosovo politics.
All Kosovo communities already have jurisdiction over their budget, e.g. economic structuring, public services, infrastructure, primary and secondary education or primary health care. In the large Serb municipalities such as Mitrovica-North, they have even more competences in education and health care (tertiary).
In municipalities where at least 10 per cent of residents belong to minority groups, at least one representative of this ethnic group is entitled to hold office in the municipal assembly. Since the police is organised nationally, all Kosovo citizens have access and the police is required to reflect the multi-ethnic situation in Kosovo. However, in practice – also according to the 2013 agreement and the applicable police law – the presence of the police at the municipal level tends to reflect the respective ethnic majorities. In the municipalities with a Serb majority, Serbs also have the right to nominate the police commander.
A look at the current responsibilities in the education system makes it clear in which direction the country is moving.
In Serb-majority municipalities, Serbian is taught and studied, while Albanian is not even offered as an optional subject. In the Albanian-dominated municipalities, the exact opposite is true. It can already be stated that future generations of this small country will at best understand each other via a transfer language (e.g. English). Even educational content differs greatly – the history of Kosovo is certainly presented differently by Albanians in the classroom than by Serbs … especially in a system of isolation that is already cemented.
In short, it can be said that a ‘Serb association’ as being demanded would consolidate and presumably expand the already extensive autonomy of Serb administration at the local level with a national representation of interests.
This association would be regulated according to the existing Kosovo laws, but at the same time be included as a parallel structure, as an additional, executive level, which the Kosovo constitution does not provide for. According to the judgment of the Constitutional Court, such a structure is therefore unconstitutional.
Such a structure would further increase Belgrade’s influence and contribute to the further disintegration of Kosovo politics.
The agreements of 2013 even stipulate that police and judiciary sovereignty in the Serb-inhabited municipality should be expanded, while the Kosovo Serb security forces, financed by Serbia until then, would then be integrated into the Kosovo police force and be paid for by the Kosovo state.
A look at day-to-day practice may make it clear once again that actual legality can hardly be established under the current conditions of division in Kosovo.
EU risks making another big mistake in the Balkans
Kosovo Serbs in the north have not paid their electricity bills for 20 years. So far, the costs have had to be borne by the remaining Kosovars. In any other state, consumers who fail to pay would have their power turned off. But in Kosovo, there would be Serb protests, or at least protests initiated by Serbia.
The debate about car licence plates, which seems so ridiculous to outsiders, also shows how strong the status quo of Serbia’s absolute rejection of Kosovo is. Only those who have tried to cross the border, e.g. as a German, in a vehicle registered in Kosovo, get a glimpse of the ‘everyday madness’ [do not show your passport under any circumstances, as it does not contain an entry stamp for Serbia, remove the Kosovo number plate and attach a sample Serbian number plate, pay the administrative fees…].
When Kosovo wanted to end this nonsense, there was a revolt and immediate ‘appeasement’ from the international community. Even this seemingly ridiculous topic is far from resolved, so who in Kosovo should still believe the full-bodied statements of international politicians who have been announcing a quick solution in the so-called dialogue for more than 10 years?
The EU made itself the moderator of a so-called dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, without actually having a clear mandate from all of its member states. There is no other way to interpret the fact that five EU member states have not even recognised Kosovo as an independent state. So how is this compatible with “admission of the Republic of Kosovo to the community of states of the EU”?
Would not internal EU clarification be the order of the day before assuming the role of mediator?
Kosovars have repeatedly had to suffer from this ambivalence in EU policy far more than the Serbs. After all, Serbia has been official candidate country for years now, as has Albania and other non-EU Western Balkan countries. Bosnia and Herzegovina became an official candidate at the end of last year.
Serbia and the states mentioned certainly do not meet the accession criteria any better than Kosovo does. Just look at freedom of the press, independence of the judiciary and many other core issues of integration. Compared to Serbia, but also to its other neighbours, reports from international organisations show progress in Kosovo in the areas of rule of law and democratisation, especially since the Vetevendosje party took the helm.
Serbia even received candidate status despite having unresolved border disputes with its neighbours. In Kosovo, it is increasingly the opinion that there is no uniform yardstick for EU integration. Instead, geopolitical interests prevail. Serbia openly plays the ‘Putin card’ and, in future, will probably play the ‘Xi card’ if it does not get the exceptions and special treatment it demands.
There are also economic interests because Serbia is (again) a sought-after economic partner for some EU countries and has “more to offer” than Kosovo, which already in the former Yugoslavia was left behind industrially and economically. Unfortunately, for many Kosovars, Germany seems to be part of this pack.
So if you look at the current situation in Kosovo and its relationship with Serbia, there is little cause for optimism.
The international community has done much damage in the Balkans as a whole and made a number of serious mistakes. Today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina may only serve as an example.
The current hysteria in the EU and Serbia about the absolute necessity of establishing a ‘Serb Association’ would bring about another ‘trend-setting’ mistake by giving small minorities so many privileges that this would only support further and stronger demarcation tendencies – and not social integration.
Kosovo would become a divided country – in language, history, and politics, but also in everyday life.
Anyone who thinks of peaceful coexistence and even integration must be a dreamer, because such a one-sided policy has never led to a sustainable common understanding and a common, stable identity for a state and its citizens.