Ian Bancroft in Belgrade -
The four predominantly Serb municipalities in north Kosovo - Kosovska Mitrovica, Zvecan, Zubin Potok and Leposavic - seem set to push ahead with a planned referendum in mid-February on whether or not they accept the institutions of "the so-called Republic of Kosovo seated in Pristina."
Resisting pressure from Belgrade to call it off for the sake of the "national interest", the dispute has further sharpened the political divide ahead of May's general elections in Serbia. As Milos Subotic, international relations officer at the University of Pristina in Kosovska Mitrovica, tells bne, "the referendum is being misused by some Serbian opposition parties, the question itself is not formulated properly and, in the end, we won't gain anything politically. We will know what we already know now -that we do not accept Pristina's institutions, as six months of peaceful resistance, often in minus temperatures, have already proven."
Subotic goes on to add that Serbs in the north should be permitted to vote, as a last resort, on "leaving the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija".
Gerard Gallucci, the former UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, meanwhile, insists that "too much has been made of the "referendum", arguing it's really more of a poll on sentiment about being ruled from Pristina. "Everyone knows the northerners reject that. But Pristina and its international friends have insisted on referring to them as being led astray - and forced to the barricades - by 'criminals' and 'radicals'. The northerners want to show that resistance to Pristina is universal. But since they announced the date, most internationals have stopped calling them criminals. Nato now accepts the local leaders there as legitimate interlocutors. So maybe the northerners have already made their point."
Serbia failed to secure EU candidacy status on December 9 - as many had originally expected - primarily because of its lack of progress on Kosovo. Germany has been especially fervent, calling on Belgrade to remove the blockades (established after unilateral attempts to install Kosovo customs officials) and to abolish the so-called "parallel institutions" in the north. With general elections in May, however, Serbia's government is pushing hard for EU candidate status to be granted in March.
One main stumbling block concerns Kosovo's representational in regional forums, with Serbia insisting on reference to UN Security Council Resolution 1244 as a prerequisite for Kosovo's participation. In the absence of a compromise, Serbia is unlikely to secure candidate status. Indeed, Gallucci asserts that, "there may be nothing Serbia can do over Kosovo to gain Germany's support for its EU candidacy. It is politically impossible for Tadic to abandon the Kosovo Serbs and leave them to Pristina as Chancellor Merkel appears to have demanded. Berlin knows this. It may simply be a way of stopping the process of EU expansion during a time when Germany has to bear the load of the current debt crisis."
The EU - which recently appointed Samuel Zbogar, the former Slovenian foreign minister, as its Special Representative in Kosovo - has agreed to launch dialogue with Kosovo on visa liberalisation, seen as a key step on its European path. The Kosovo Assembly, meanwhile, adopted a resolution in late-January calling for an end to "internationally supervised" independence at the end of 2012, though international influence will be little diminished, particularly whilst status issues remain unresolved and problems with, in particular, corruption remain.
In that regard, Erhard Busek, the former co-ordinator of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, publicly called on Kosovo and Serbia to start discussing the prospect of partition, with north Kosovo being exchanged for the predominantly ethnic-Albanian south-east corner of Serbia, often referred to as the "Presevo Valley". Though described as potentially creating a precedent for other secessionist movements elsewhere, Kosovo's unilateral declaration was itself a precedent, despite repeated assertions to the contrary.
Uncertainty about the EU's future - including whether it will become a Union of one, two or multiple speeds or tiers - combined with falling support for membership in Serbia, continues to further complicate the calculations of Serbian politicians grappling with the need for concessions over Kosovo. Even if Serbia does enough to secure candidacy status, the deepening economic crisis means that its electoral impact will be diluted. Kosovo's political scene, meanwhile, continues to grapple with the increasingly vociferous Vetevendosje (Self-Determination), which has organised several protests to try to block the flow of Serbian goods.
In such a context, securing a lasting compromise will require that pressure be exerted on both parties to the conflict, not solely Belgrade.
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