Written by Khatia Davlianidze
Tensions between Kosovo’s Albanian and Serb communities have simmered throughout the 20th century, largely when the Slobodan Milosevic suspended Kosovo’s special autonomy status in March, 1989 and began to persecute ethnic Albanians. Kosovo’s autonomy as part of the Yugoslav federation was granted in 1974 under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito. Abolition of the autonomy status was a crucial moment that inspired political resistance, stoked up ethnic unrest and set the course towards armed conflict in the 1990s (Haxhiaj, 2020).
Fifteen years later, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic proposed amendments to the Constitution of Serbia which would strip Kosovo of most of its autonomous powers. This prompted violent protests and on 3 March 1989 a state of emergency was declared, imposing direct rule from Belgrade over the province. On 23 March 1989, the Assembly of Kosovo voted to accept the proposed amendments and five days later the Assembly of Serbia approved the constitutional changes effectively revoking the autonomy granted in 1974 (Nelsson, 2019).
Widespread violence occurred throughout Kosovo as the Albanians, angered by the surrender of the region’s sovereignty in the face of a sustained campaign led by the Serbian Communist Party chief, Mr Slobodan Milosevic, took up arms against the heavy presence of special federal paramilitary forces that have overseen a state of emergency in the province for the past month (Nelsson, 2019).
The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) emerged in 1996, and an armed confrontation began between the Kosovo Liberation Army and the local Serbian police, which led to the involvement of the Yugoslav armed forces in the conflict. Finally, the bloody conflict ended when NATO launched an air campaign, Operation Allied Force, in March 1999 to halt the humanitarian catastrophe. In 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia (NATO, 2022).
Moving forward in 2011, negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo started with the mediation of the European Union. Under the auspices of the European Union, Serbia and Kosovo signed The Brussels Agreement, formally the First Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalisation of Relations. Negotiations were led by Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dačić and Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi and mediated by the EU High Representative Catherine Ashton (EEAS, 2022).
According to the agreement, the Serbian municipalities of northern Kosovo, protecting the interests of the local Serbian population, should be subordinated to the authority of official Pristina; Serbia had to reject the “parallel political structures” in Kosovo’s northern municipalities and agree to their integration into Kosovo’s political and legal systems; The abolition of the Serb-run “parallel institutions” had to be balanced by the creation of the Association of Serbian Municipalities and granting it a wide range of rights.
The 15-point agreement provides for the merger of the four Serb municipalities in the north (North Mitrovica, Zvecan, Zubin Potok and Leposavic) subject to Kosovo law. This urban district would have powers over economic development, education, healthcare and town planning. One of the stumbling blocks concerned security. The agreement stipulates that only the Kosovo police force will be deployed in the north, but the regional commander will be a Serb and the force will reflect the area’s ethnic make-up. Regarding justice, a division of the Kosovo court of appeal will hold a permanent session at North Mitrovica, with mainly Serb judges. As for local councillors, elections will be held this year, also under Kosovo law. The Nato Kosovo Force currently deployed there will play a key role in maintaining law and order during the poll (Smolar, 2013).
Agreed in 2013 under EU-mediated dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the association of Serb-majority municipalities was designed to assuage some of the fears and concerns of the roughly 116,000 ethnic Serbs left in majority-Albanian Kosovo. But for Kosovo Albanians, wary of replicating the dysfunctional division of power in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was a painful concession in an otherwise vain effort to get Serbia to recognize their independence or at least clear a path to a seat at the United Nations (Isufi, 2020).
Due to the fact that Pristina and Belgrade had radically different visions regarding the association, the issue of creating an association of Serbian municipalities became the cause of intense controversy. Due to differences of opinion, the Brussels agreement has not been implemented until now.
Since 2011, a number of technical issues between Serbia and Kosovo have been resolved through the mediation of the European Union, but a comprehensive political agreement has not yet been reached.
Over the years, three main options have been considered to solve the Kosovo issue:
- Creation of Serbian and Albanian autonomous regions on the territory of Kosovo and Serbia (Morina, 2021)
- A land swap between Kosovo and Serbia (Bytyci, 2018)
- Expedite Serbia’s EU membership process, if Belgrade recognizes Kosovo’s independence (Kostic, 2022)
Creation of Serbian autonomous region in Kosovo and Albanian autonomous region in Preševo valley, a geopolitical region in southern Serbia, along the border with Kosovo
Under this option, on the one hand, the Serbs living in Kosovo, and on the other hand, the Albanians living in the Preševo Valley in southern Serbia, would receive extensive autonomy – their own basic law, assembly, police force, and source of funding. The only defence, foreign relations, monetary policy, and law enforcement will be under the jurisdiction of Pristina.
It is essential to point out that Belgrade supports the creation of Serbian autonomous regions in Kosovo and Albanian autonomous regions in the Preševo Valley, while Pristina categorically opposes them.
Ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo have a bitter experience of the past. They remember the autonomous province of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia – Kosovo, which in 1989 Slobodan Milosevic had suspended the status of its special autonomy and began to persecute the ethnic Albanians. Milosevic would go on to further fan Serbian nationalism, which ultimately led to the break-up of Yugoslavia and the ensuing wars of the 1990s.
Pristina fears that the creation of an autonomous Serbian region in the north of Kosovo will become a precondition for Belgrade’s interference in Kosovo’s internal affairs and the annexation of this territory to Serbia. In addition, often cites Bosnia and Herzegovina as an example of a dysfunctional state as an argument for the creation of autonomous regions (Keil, 2013).
A land swap between Kosovo and Serbia
In the summer of 2018, international media reported on a possible exchange of territories between Serbia and Kosovo, according to which, with the conditions for mutual recognition, three municipalities of the Mitrovica district in northern Kosovo (Leposavić, Zvečani, and Zubin-Potok), it was also listed that the majority of the population who are the Serbs, will join Serbia, and the southern Priševo Valley (Prisevo, Bujanovac, Medveja), inhabited by ethnic Albanians in Serbia, will become part of Kosovo (Delauney, 2018).
For the majority of the population of Kosovo, the exchange of territories is a prerequisite for ethnic conflict and a new war. Not only the exchange of territories for the population of Kosovo but also the granting of any kind of autonomy to the Serbian population living in Kosovo is unacceptable because it is considered that this will become a precondition for Serbia’s interference in the internal affairs of Kosovo in the future. The United States and the European Union support the end of years of conflict through the exchange of territories. Angela Merkel opposed this idea because she regarded the change of borders of Serbia-Kosovo on an ethnic basis which can have a domino effect and create new places of conflict in the Balkan region (Gray, 2018).
Several member states of the European Union – Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Slovakia, and Romania – do not support the change of borders, because there are strong separatist movements in these countries, and for this reason, they have yet not recognized Kosovo’s independence.
The Russian Federation supports the exchange of territories, however, not because it is worried about Kosovo’s international isolation or Serbia’s European integration, but because drawing borders on the basis of ethnicity will most likely set a bad precedent on the Balkan Peninsula, which will contribute to the increase of tension in the ethnically diverse region. The unstable political situation on the Balkan Peninsula gives the Russian Federation the opportunity to intervene in the internal affairs of the states of the region and spread its influence.
In the event that an exchange of territories between Serbia and Kosovo takes place, it is likely that the Serbs living in Bosnia-Herzegovina, who make up 30% of the country’s population (81% in Republika Srpska), and the Albanians living in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, who make up 25% of the population, will make similar demands very soon. It should be noted that neither the majority of the Serbian population nor the Orthodox Church supports a land exchange. For them, Kosovo is a rebel province of Serbia, and recognition of its independence is tantamount to defeat.
Reaching an agreement regarding the exchange of territories between Serbia and Kosovo is quite difficult due to several important factors: Apart from northern Kosovo (Mitrovica district), Serbs also live in the central part of the country. In two municipalities of Pristina District – Gračanica and Novo Brdo, in Štripce Municipality of District of Ferizaj, and in three municipalities of Gilan District – Ranilug, Klokot, Parteš – Serbs are the majority, although, in the case of territory exchange, they will remain under the rule of Kosovo. With the change of borders, the issue of ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo will remain unresolved, and part of the population living in the central part will still demand granting of autonomy; In the municipalities inhabited by Serbs in Kosovo, there are villages where the majority of the population are Albanians, and in case of an exchange of territories, they will likely be subordinated to Belgrade, an unacceptable arrangement for them. .
In addition to the fact that an agreement with Serbia is tantamount to a deal with the enemy for the majority of Kosovo’s population, they oppose the border change because of the economic importance of northern Kosovo. Mitrovica is home to the Gazivoda Dam, which supplies the country with water and electricity, as well as the Trepča mine, where gold, silver, lead, zinc, and ore are mined (Bancroft, 2020).
Expedite Serbia’s EU membership process, if Belgrade recognizes Kosovo’s independence
There is another option that the accelerated membership of the European Union will likely push Serbia to recognize Kosovo.
In 2018 Aleksandar Vučić said that the country is ready for a compromise in exchange for integration into the European Union – “only compromise, not humiliation of our people” (RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, 2018).
According to the Serbian constitution, the de jure recognition of Kosovo requires holding a referendum and obtaining the support of the population, while the recognition of Kosovo’s independence is unacceptable for the majority of Serbs. Making concessions on the Kosovo issue by the Serbian authorities is, in fact, tantamount to political suicide. For the majority of the Serbian population, the recognition of Kosovo’s independence is a “humiliation” (Morina, 2021).
Pristina constantly accuses Serbia of obstructing its membership in various international organisations. There is no guarantee that Serbia, if it joins the European Union before Kosovo, will not stop its European integration process (Albahari, 2022).
In October 2022, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić confirmed the existence of a German and French proposal for a deal on Kosovo’s status, claiming that the plan suggests that Kosovo should get UN membership without Serbian opposition while Serbia should get financial aid and a fast track to EU membership. But he said that Serbia’s position is that it is unacceptable for Kosovo to become a member of the UN, as this would contravene Serbia’s constitution (Isufi, 2022).
“We will stick to [our Kosovo policy] until the damage caused to Serbia is so much greater that we would have to accept a different reality. Maybe a future government will make a different decision” – Aleksandar Vučić.
Despite the fact that Serbia has been a candidate for the European Union since 2012, some of the EU members believe that Serbia is not yet ready for integration into the European Union. Serbia under Vučić does not seem willing to prepare the country to let go of Kosovo, just as it is not ready to fully endorse EU values; to date, Serbia, as an EU candidate country, has failed to strengthen rule of law, accountability, or transparency (Morina, 2022).
A logical question is asked – how should Serbia quickly become a member of the European Union, when there is no common attitude on the issue in the European Union? It’s interesting, what will happen if Serbia becomes a member of the European Union before Kosovo? It should be noted that any member state of the European Union has the right to block/impede the accession process of the applicant country.
Due to the backdrop of war in Ukraine and with strong governments in Paris and Berlin, there is a window of opportunity for the EU to revive the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, but achieving a comprehensive political agreement between Serbia and Kosovo is difficult due to several important factors: Lack of trust between Serbia and Kosovo – there is a bad track record in terms of political dialogue. After the negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo started in 2011 with the mediation of the European Union, a number of agreements were signed, most of which have not yet been implemented (Russell, 2019); The sensitivity of the Kosovo issue for the Serbs – for the majority of the Serbs, Kosovo is part of the Serbian territory, therefore, for the ruling team to compromise and recognize its independence is tantamount to political suicide. Absence of political will and consensus – in both Serbia and Kosovo, there is no broad political consensus regarding important political issues for the country. The opinion of the population, ruling team and opposition political unions nevertheless stand divided (Morina, 2021).
For Kosovo, the normalisation process with Serbia has also been burdensome. This is not only due to the current dynamics of the leaders but because there has been no continuity in the leadership in the process, no internal cross-party coordination and no politically cohesive strategy on how to deal with Serbia (Morina, 2022).
Democracy and the rule of law in Serbia have continued to remain problematic problems, and Aleksandar Vucic is often accused of authoritarian rule. Media freedom is declining, harassment of journalists is becoming more widespread, media ownership concentration results in pro-government bias, parliament fails to exercise effective oversight, the opposition is increasingly weak, elections are not fully free and fair, judicial reforms are lagging behind, civil society is under an attack, etc. For EU membership, two major issues need to be resolved. Firstly, it needs to normalise its relations with Kosovo, something that will probably require recognizing its former province as an independent state, or at least withdrawing its objections to other countries doing so. Secondly, it will need to show greater commitment to democratic values. Addressing both these issues will require major concessions from Belgrade (European Parliament, 2022).
Apart from the fact that the settlement of the dispute between Belgrade and Kosovo will pave the way for these states to European and Euro-Atlantic integration, a final agreement will bring lasting stability to a conflict-ridden Balkan Peninsula, and it will eliminate the opportunity for the Russian Federation to spread its political influence in the region (Mjekiqi, 2022), But if an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo is not reached on the basis of a broad political consensus in both countries, with the support of the international community and taking into account the possible risks, a noble attempt to resolve the long-standing dispute may turn out to be the cause of a more serious problem.