Reality bites in Serbia

By bne IntelliNews January 16, 2013

Nicholas Watson in Prague -

With even Serbia's nationalist government conceding in January that its erstwhile province of Kosovo is all but lost, the question that has lurked in the background but always promised to be a thornier issue with more immediate consequences is what can be done about the Serb-dominated north of Kosovo.

In a marathon special parliamentary session on January 12 that lasted over 14 hours, the Serbian parliament voted overwhelmingly (175 in favour to 19 opposed) to adopt a binding resolution that forms a "platform" for the country's negotiations over the now-independent ethnic Albanian-dominated state of Kosovo. These talks are being overseen by the EU and resumed on January 15. Some resolution to the Kosovo issue is a condition laid down by Brussels before Serbia can make progress in its bid to join the EU.

In a convoluted fashion typical for the Balkans, the resolution appears to say one thing while actually meaning another - a way, says Gerard Gallucci, a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper who regularly contributes to the Transconflict website, "to accommodate the diametrically opposed views of Kosovo and Serbia on final status while also recognizing the realities on the ground in north Kosovo."

No, yes, maybe

Belgrade's resolution has five basic principles for political negotiations with Pristina, with the first being that Serbia "does not and will never recognise" Kosovo's unilaterally declared independence in 2008 following the Nato bombing that ended the civil war between the Serbs and the ethnic Albanians. This is not surprising, nor is it actually a problem for the EU: Brussels has said recognition of Kosovo's sovereignty is not expected of Serbia; rather, it wants to see a "normalization of relations" between the two.

But in a big shift in policy, the document calls for wide autonomy for minority Serbs within Kosovo's borders, which analysts say indirectly recognises Kosovo's sovereignty and territorial integrity. This view was backed by comments from Serbia's nationalist government, a coalition led by the Serbian Progressive Party (nationalists who split from the hardline Radicals and headed by President Tomislav Nikolic) and the Socialists, whose leader is Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, who was the spokesman for Slobodan Milosevic's party during the Kosovan war. Dacic conceded during the parliamentary debate on the resolution that Serbia's sovereignty over the province is all but lost. "Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo is practically non-existent," he was quoted as saying. "We have to create a strong basis to save something... If Serbia keeps its head in the sand, it will have nothing to negotiate about."

While rejecting recognition of Kosovo as an independent state - Kosovo is recognized by over 90 countries including the US and most EU states - the document calls for the creation of an "Autonomous Community" of Kosovo municipalities with non-Albanian majorities modelled on the form of Catalan autonomy within Spain.

The document has inevitably been criticised from all sides. For very different reasons, the Serbian opposition parties the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) voted against the resolution. "While the LDP is calling for Serbia to drop its territorial claims and fully recognise Kosovan independence, the DSS strongly accuses the government of effectively cementing the border between the two sides," IHS Global Insight says. "In reality, the document is a bargaining ploy which strengthens Serbia's hand in negotiations on normalising the bilateral relationship between Kosovo and Serbia, and achieves a safe political platform at home for the dialogue with representatives of Pristina."

The Kosovan government also slammed the resolution for being a backward step; it has always (without a hint of irony) rejected any deal that threatens the territorial integrity of Kosovo. Gallucci says the Kosovo Albanians still want to win everything and reject the merest hint of compromise over the north of Kosovo, so their response - the one used successfully in the past - is to try to scare the international community by raising "the spectre of irredentism", where enclaves administered by another state are annexed on the grounds of common ethnicity or prior historical possession, actual or alleged - in the region. In other words, the "Greater Albania" that Serbs have so often screamed about and used to justify the Kosovo war in the first place. "The Kosovo Albanian side has often hinted that any effort to recognize the uniqueness of the north would lead to regional instability in the form of pressure from Albanians in southern Serbia and Macedonia," says Gallucci.

The resolution brought a bout of sabre-rattling from various nasty groups who always seem to emerge at moments like these and give the diplomats in Brussels conniptions. Gallucci says the so-called Albanian National Army (ANA) in Kosovo threatened armed action, reportedly saying that it would mobilize its members to defend against Serb threats to secede a part of Kosovo territory.

However, few expect violence on any wide scale. Rather, with no Serbian government ready to agree to recognize Kosovo's independence, this leaves nowhere to go to settle the Kosovo issue except by the formula that is now on the table. As Gallucci explains: "Set aside the issue of recognition, keep the north in Kosovo but with increased local autonomy, reach status-neutral approaches to issues such as customs, property, telecoms and electricity. Let both Serbia and Kosovo prepare for the EU."

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