Last night, northern Kosovo saw public protests take another dark turn, with a potent mix of tear gas, rocks and batons, earth-moving equipment and armed soldiers, leaving scores injured, counting twenty-one NATO (KFOR) troops, now added to recent casualties that include two dead, one Serb and one Kosovo Albanian. Without concerted effort and political courage this situation is only set to get worse.
If you talk to the Kosovo Serbs who have clashed with KFOR troops, and who have been standing by barricades set up in early September to block Kosovo customs officials’ passage to the border with Serbia, you could come back convinced that this is their last stand to defend their way of life after more than a decade of death and destruction in the former Yugoslavia. The struggle is existential because “giving in to customs means accepting the [Kosovo] state” according to one local activist. Northern Serbs do not recognise Kosovo’s independence even as more and more countries – now eighty-five – do. They want the right to remain in Serbia. Every time KFOR takes down their barricades, they quickly build another one higher and stronger, and grow more emboldened themselves.
The conflict not only pits northern Serbs against Kosovo and Kosovo against Serbia, but also Serbia against the European Union, which on 16 September launched the operation to assist the deployment of Kosovo custom officials to two crossing points between Kosovo and Serbia, according to the EULEX commander, to implement a preliminary customs agreement reached in the framework of the technical dialogue being facilitated by the EU in Brussels.
In October, the European Commission called on Serbia to fully engage in dialogue with Kosovo, and implement agreements already reached in the talks, if it wanted to receive EU candidate status. Even more strict conditions were laid down to start actual membership talks. EU member states are set to decide on 9 December whether Serbia is now a formal EU candidate, a status the current Serbian government and President Boris Tadić have promised to deliver. Tadić and the Democratic Party are already trailing the main opposition by some ten per cent due to the growing economic crisis, they have to at least deliver on the EU to regain popular trust before Spring 2012 polls.
There is a simple solution to reduce the violence in northern Kosovo and resolve the conflict. Before the 9 December deadline, Serbia and Kosovo should agree a customs regime, such as the Integrated Border Management (IBM – which Serbs prefer to call the Integrated Boundary Mechanism) being discussed in the technical dialogue. The Serbian government should very publicly and transparently explain any agreed new customs regime, which would include deployment of Kosovo and Serbia customs officials, to ensure that all institutions implement it fully. It should encourage northern Serbs to dismantle the barricades, and it should restore freedom of movement for EULEX, KFOR and Kosovo officials. This would not signify Serbian recognition of Kosovo but even going this far will be a very tough sell in Serbia and even more so in the north of Kosovo.
After the 2012 Serbian elections, political talks could then be held between Kosovo and Serbia on how to gradually integrate the north into Kosovo. Pristina should present a detailed multi-year integration plan, including substantial subsidies, regulations for transparency of Serbian financing, OSCE- or UN-supervised elections of local authorities (for mayors and possible a new governor), and autonomy for local institutions including police, judiciary, education and health. If Kosovo wants to retain its credibility and international support, it should move slowly, and not attempt to change facts on the ground through crude assertions of its sovereignty on the north.
The problem is that the parties are stuck at the first stage of the process. Kosovo and Serbian negotiators who met in Brussels in the seventh round of their dialogue process on Tuesday failed to reach agreement on how to manage customs. Unsurprisingly, when negotiations freeze up, the action moves to the field and may have precipitated the KFOR show of force a day later over one of the barricades. The risk is that one of the parties may try to use “controlled” violence to put pressure on the other at the negotiations table. In Kosovo’s still multi-ethnic patchwork, this is playing with fire.
But if there is no solution on customs within the dialogue process, the future is bleak. It seems highly unlikely that Serbia will become an EU candidate in December, and thereafter the Serbian political elite will have little incentive to cooperate with EU member states at least until elections are over. Belgrade will continue to support Kosovo Serbs enough so that their local institutions – including municipalities, schools and medical facilities — function but it will not have enough leverage on them to demand that they pull down their barricades. KFOR and EULEX will be forced to expend their limited physical and financial resources on transporting customs officials. If they stop doing so, Pristina will ratchet up the pressure and seek new ways to exert its sovereignty over the entirety of its territory: predictably, Kosovo Serbs will resist. Then, next spring, we would almost certainly see greater levels of violence in Kosovo and the Western Balkans. A little political will now could avoid a big political crisis then.