The prime ministers of Kosovo and of Serbia initialed an agreement Friday to normalize relations between their two countries. This accomplishment—at the last hour and under the careful and forceful leadership of the EU’s Catherine Ashton—does not, by itself, reconcile the long-standing enmity between neighbors in Kosovo, a territory now recognized by 90 countries as a nation. The devil is in the implementation details yet to be worked out.
Hashim Thaci of Kosovo and Ivica Dacic of Serbia have each made a calculation that balances domestic political pressures from radical elements against the need to secure the economic and political benefits of more open trade with the EU and others, greater investor confidence, and wider opportunities for citizens. The frozen conflict left behind by the Athisaari Plan of 2006 has thawed a little as a special level of autonomy from Pristina has been agreed for the Serb-majority area of Kosovo, but most pointedly for the area north of the Ibar River. Until now, this territory has been outside the effective control of the Kosovo government, and only loosely policed by NATO-KFOR troops.
Reports of the agreement are that the laws of Kosovo will apply in the North. There is successful precedent for this. Six other Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo already have been working under the laws of Kosovo since 2008 and have formed effective and democratic local governments. They cooperate with their neighboring Albanian-majority municipalities in areas such as water distribution and solid waste management. They deliver most services to their citizens. Unlike the isolated communities in the North, they have been “getting on with getting on.”
The fifteen points of agreement reached on Friday just scratch the surface of needed implementation details, but two aspects are especially important: elections to be held ion 2013 in the communities north of the Ibar River, and the integration of police in northern Kosovo into the Kosovo Police Service.
The existing Serb-majority municipalities in southern Kosovo have already made these transitions. Serbs there voted and elected local governments in 2009, under Kosovo laws. The governing coalition in the current Kosovo government includes an ethnic Serb party. Also, Kosovo police operate in these communities, providing security that is increasingly professional. The same can be true in northern Kosovo, given both time and patience.
The Challenges to “Normalizing” Society
For all that the weekend’s news is worth celebrating, the road ahead will be challenging. Plenty of people have benefited from the lawlessness and conflict in northern Kosovo. Criminals who are smuggling fuel (or weapons) have found northern Kosovo’s lightly governed regions a safe place to do business. These criminals represent interests unlikely to welcome a return to order.
Separately, some officials have been drawing two salaries: one from the government of Kosovo and one from the government in Belgrade, both governments staking claims to the region. Though these officials represent a more orderly aspect of life in the North, they are not likely to think well of “normalization,” with its attendant pay cuts.
To date, key public services such as health care, water, and education have been provided in northern Kosovo (however poorly) by parallel structures elected outside Kosovo laws and oversight and funded by Belgrade. This structure evolved under the umbrella of the aging UN Resolution from which Kosovo emerged from war. This mishmash of authorities has fostered isolation and exclusion from the progress made in the Serb-majority areas of the rest of Kosovo.
Indeed, isolation, exclusion, and a weak governing structure have made room for criminal behavior. Serb firms based in the North routinely use violence to intimidate competitors and these “business practices” are often reported (incorrectly) as incidents of Albanian-Serb tension. Smugglers bring goods across the poorly controlled border with Serbia, avoiding customs duties and costing taxpayers in both nations hundreds of thousands of Euros each year.
The agreement represents an important step forward in relations in the Balkans, but it will not overnight solve critical issues of governance and rule of law. It is not simply that Serbs in the North have to learn to trust new institutions governed by Kosovo laws. They must also be protected from continued predatory or rent-seeking institutions that have filled the governing and commercial gaps left open by the status quo.
This agreement opens the path for Serbia—and eventually Kosovo—to begin discussions about joining the European Union. This process ought to be accompanied by close attention to, and measurement of, their cooperation in restoring law and order in the North, creating space for modern state institutions to supplant solely ethnic or criminal social bonds.
The Urban Institute has been working with local governments in Kosovo since 2009 and with the recently established Mitrovica North Administrative Office since 2012, under contract with USAID. However, the views here do not reflect the views of the Urban Institute or of USAID.
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