Can Europe Make It?

Autonomy and power-sharing in Kosovo

Kosovo has one of the most decentralized unitary governments in the world, with highly conflicted understandings over the nature of power-sharing. The paradox of conflict resolution in deeply divided societies is that it almost always creates new problems while attempting to solve old ones.

Michael Rossi
29 October 2014
The Prime Minister of Kosovo in Brussels. Demotix/Aurore Belot. All rights reserved.

The Prime Minister of Kosovo in Brussels. Demotix/Aurore Belot. All rights reserved.In the ongoing talks that will determine the formal relationship between Serbia and its former southern province of Kosovo, the issues mediated between officials from Belgrade and Pristina and supervised by the EU’s Foreign Policy Office no longer focus on Kosovo’s disputed sovereignty but the nature and scope of that sovereignty in relation to the Kosovo Serb minority and its links with the rest of Serbia. The decision by key Western powers to grant Kosovo independence from Serbia in early 2008 partially addressed Albanian national aspirations but created a restless Serbian community that necessitated a complicated peace settlement that risks weakening long term state cohesiveness and future prospects of a shared community. As a result, Kosovo has one of the most decentralized unitary governments in the world. This cumbersome design by committee, due in no small part to ameliorating Serb fears of domination, has left vague and conflicting understandings over power-sharing arrangements between the central government and local authorities; understandings the international community seems happy to leave to Serbs and Albanians to interpret and largely sort out by themselves.

The paradox of conflict resolution in deeply divided societies is that it almost always creates new problems while attempting to solve old ones. Kosovo’s situation is similar to conditions in Bosnia, Lebanon, Iraq, and most recently Ukraine, where ethno-political wartime associations solidified into peacetime civic and political societies that international mediators frame the future composition of the state around. In addition to empowering elements of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) into the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), one of the largest and most powerful political groups in the territory, the international community has also indirectly empowered Kosovo Serbs through similar fashions of resistance to form an alternative power base supported by Belgrade that has successfully stymied efforts in establishing a unified government.

These conditions in which Serb regions comprise a halfway house between Belgrade and Pristina raise questions of whether Kosovo should be reorganized as a federal entity like Germany, a bi-zonal confederation like Bosnia or Belgium, or remain a unitary state with constitutionally recognized areas of special autonomous status like Italy or Spain. Whatever the final outcome, it most certainly will be based on some type of consociational power-sharing; an arrangement that provides a minority group the opportunity to participate in government through a wide range of asymmetrical compromises and consensus-building measures. Whether it is through political coalitions, guaranteed seats in parliament, reserved executive posts, or regional autonomy, consociationalism is meant to incorporate an area that lies outside of the control of the central government but is still part of the state. These agreements are not only disproportionately generous to the minority group, but serve in a way to prevent future threats of separatism and further erosion of sovereignty. In Kosovo’s case, this primarily pertains to the compact territorial region north of the Ibar River that directly borders Serbia proper, and whose local leadership has prevented the government in Pristina in establishing its authority.

A definitive agreement on power-sharing arrangements will no doubt comprise a major part of the next few years of negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina in reaching an agreement on status. While both sides are expected to compromise, decentralization seems the most likely middle ground for two sides that have held diametrically opposed positions for years. What is most important is that is that the international community is slowly acknowledging that Kosovo Serbs will not and cannot be governed by Pristina, no matter how many times Kosovo’s supposed multi-ethnic heritage is rhetorically contemplated. Even if Serb-Albanian relations have improved over the years, ethno-federalization, an often-used solution for fractured societies in Bosnia, Lebanon and Iraq has made ethnocentric politics and political culture a lucrative enterprise for socio-political elites.

Under the plan for Kosovo’s statehood devised by UN Special Envoy Maarti Ahtisaari, power is decentralized to the municipal level, with a number of “enhanced competencies” given to ten Serb-dominant municipalities (of which at least five were gerrymandered from existing districts) to keep Pristina’s authority at a distance. In addition to having control over local economic development, education, healthcare, cultural sites, and urban planning, Kosovo’s Serbs are allowed to retain close ties with Serbia, which would continue to provide financial support, state pensions, supplemental salaries, and voting rights. The goal was not only to enfranchise local economic development through foreign investment and joint-partnerships, but to create conditions that would encourage as many Serbs to stay and even more to return in order to keep Kosovo’s multiethnic composition, despite Albanians outnumbering Serbs nine to one.

This arrangement was enhanced further in the April 2013 Brussels Agreements. Among the points reached towards normalizing relations, the most important was the establishment of an Association of Serbian Municipalities, which would serve as an institutional body for Kosovo’s Serb community. Its functions and duties are expected to carry out rights previously enshrined in the Ahtisaari Plan, but within what appears to be an extra institutional layer separating local Kosovo Serb authorities from Pristina. The Agreement provides no specifics for how this Association will function in relation to control over telecommunications, energy, and the role of the police and judiciary which in theory are to operate within Kosovo’s institutional framework, but in reality will have a high probability of independent decision-making.

While Albanians are adamant about keeping it as a coordinating body that merely implements policy from Pristina, Serbs see this as the first step towards the formation of a legislative body with autonomous decision-making. What is most telling about this arrangement is the advantage Belgrade was indirectly given in exchange for removing its direct presence. At the insistence of Germany, which demanded Belgrade dismantle all “parallel institutions” as a key requirement for its own EU accession, the big question everyone quietly asked was what will become of these institutions, especially in the Serb-controlled northern part of Kosovo, which has never come under Pristina’s control. After years of successfully thwarting efforts at integrating it with the rest of Kosovo, with not so subtle approval from Belgrade, the international community is coming to recognize that, like every other fait accompli in the region, it is better to work with it than around it or against it.

As agreed on at Brussels in 2013, Serbia was to support region-wide elections in Kosovo that for the first time would place all Serb institutions within Kosovo’s constitutional framework. But what this also meant was that Belgrade could, and actively did, campaign on behalf of officials and parties that appealed to its own interests in the region. Many, if not most, of the previously functioning ‘parallel’ institutions were repackaged into the Civic Initiative Srpska, a group that seemed more of a collection of Belgrade loyalists than an established political party. The ensuing elections last November resulted in the Srpska movement winning nine out of ten Serb municipalities throughout Kosovo.

The November local elections did not so much dismantle these parallel institutions as it legalized and expanded their reach under a new name and logo that, via the Brussels Agreement, functions loosely and nominally within Kosovo’s constitutional framework with little specifics on how they can be controlled. As noted by at least one Kosovo Albanian think-tank, what was previously a battleground for Pristina’s authority in the north has now, through internationally sanctioned elections, been ironically extended to at least six more municipalities in Kosovo’s centre and south; municipalities that were long thought considered 'integrated' but have now essentially regained their links with Belgrade via a Kosovo-based movement that will form the leadership of an internationally approved Association. Whether this was planned or an unintended consequence, Belgrade has strengthened its hand in the negotiating process by reorganizing its interests within a framework acceptable to the EU without losing any of its assets.

What this effectively means is that Kosovo’s Serb community has been given the clearest sign yet that it has the potential to wield significant power and decision-making, and will be a force the Albanian majority can neither afford to ignore nor antagonize. While many fear giving Serbs too much power may create an intractable Bosnia-like scenario, it is more likely the European Union will support something akin to the autonomy of South Tyrol, whose governmental functions enable ethnic Germans to maintain close ties with Austria and also draw directly from EU funding and development as a region with special status in Italy. The Association not only has the potential of developing Serb municipalities into economic hubs largely free from Pristina’s interference, but it also gives the Serbs a potential monopoly in decision-making over key economic enterprises like the vast Trepča mining complex and hydroelectric power station at Gazivoda Lake in the north, and even the ski resort at Brezovica in Kosovo’s southern municipality of Štrpce, all of which could significantly deprive Pristina of much needed economic revenue.

The empowerment of Kosovo’s Serb community is both a long-term benefit and goal for the region, but its realization still needs to be met with Pristina’s approval. This is especially acute now that it is obvious Belgrade has found a legally sanctioned back door in the Association as a way of exerting its influence. However, this seems to be part of a larger coordinating package between Belgrade and Pristina that seeks to pave the way for membership in the EU and the UN respectively, and in which both goals seem inextricably tied. Part of Serbia’s requirement for EU membership is to ‘normalize’ relations with Kosovo, which might not require formal recognition, but at least lead to an agreement where other countries that have not recognized Kosovo, particularly those in the  EU and in the UN Security Council, to lift their own blockades and allow Kosovo to continue its development towards full sovereignty. If one final concession to Serbia is the institutional empowerment of Kosovo’s Serb minority community within a territorially guaranteed Kosovo, it is highly likely it will be supported in the name of regional stability and cooperation. 

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