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Kosovo and Serbia, one year after: a quiet compromise?

Eric Gordy
18 February 2009

The relations between Serbia and Kosovo are not as bad as they look. But that is probably because both sides are trying to make them look as bad as they can, so that the extremely pale understanding they reach at the end will look as though it is something. The signs that a compromise may come are quiet and below the surface, just as it is likely that any upcoming measures of agreement will probably remain unannounced.

Eric Gordy is senior lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies of University College, London. He was formerly associate professor of sociology at Clark University, Massachusetts. He is the author of The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives (Penn State University Press, 1999)

Also by Eric Gordy in openDemocracy:

Serbia’s Kosovo claim: much ado about...” (2 October 2007)

Serbia’s presidential election: the best-laid plans…” (21 January 2008)

Serbia chooses a future, just” (5 February 2008)

Serbia’s political carousel”  (12 May 2008)

Radovan Karadzic: the politics of an arrest” (22 July 2008)A year ago, on 17 February 2008 - after nine years of United Nations administration, which followed several decades of uncertainty - Kosovo declared independence. It was a bold move, designed to cut through years of accumulated frustration over negotiations that were going nowhere and carried forward with assurances from the United States and Britain that it could be made to stick.

The first reactions from Serbia seemed ominous. The state’s officials - from the president, prime minister and foreign minister down - declared the act illegal, argued that the sovereignty of Serbia had been violated, and pledged to resist and never to recognise the new state. In Kosovo itself, popular outrage was confined to a few confrontations around border-posts and public buildings. In Serbia, the terrain looked much shakier. In the aftermath of a mass meeting called by then-prime minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and the hard-right Serbian Radical Party (SRS), Belgrade was shaken by a night of looting, vandalism and arson. Later investigation suggested that police had received instructions to withdraw so as to permit the mayhem to take place before intervening.

A new dynamic

But the interesting story here may be that the violence did not spread beyond a short outburst of arson and looting committed by hooligans who had received permission to commit it. Most people greeted the display with revulsion, a reaction that was intensified when an amateur video became an instant YouTube hit. The video, titled Kosovo za patike (“Kosovo for tennis shoes”), shows two young women taking advantage of the disorder to help themselves to a selection of the stock of several downtown shops.

Voters in Serbia proceeded to hand the nationalist parties that organised the violent protests a series of defeats. They re-elected president Boris Tadic to another term, and in May gave his party a convincing victory over SRS in parliamentary elections. They sent Kostunica's DSS to the political margins. Soon afterward, the SRS itself split into two competing parties. The larger portion of the membership and leadership defected to Tomislav Nikolic's new Progressive Party, while a smaller hard core remained with the group that is loyal to the titular SRS leader Vojislav Seselj (who has been in detention at The Hague, where his trial is now in progress, since 2003).

Some representatives from Kosovo have pointed to the election results of 2008 as signs that independence has had a moderating impact on Serbian politics. They might be right, in the sense that both a powerful lobby and a powerful argument of last resort have been taken out of play. Nearly all members of the majority Albanian population in Kosovo had boycotted elections since 1990, which gave disproportionate power to those Serbs in the province who would vote en bloc. Throughout the 1990s these voters provided a reliable base of support for the parties loyal to the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. After 2000, Kosovo Serbs were courted by the SRS with rhetoric and by the DSS with patronage. But with the DSS out of power and the SRS severely weakened, these patrons have little to offer.

Kosovo Serbs have been compelled more recently to vote in accordance with their interests, and disagreement has emerged among them as to what these interests are. The advocates of the hard line of resistance to the new state now have to compete with local actors who the long-term future of the Serb minority in terms of an accommodation with the state in which they live.

Also in openDemocracy on Serbia, Kosovo and the region:

Julie Mertus, “Slobodan Milosevic: myth and responsibility” (16 March 2006)

TK Vogel, "Kosovo: a break in the ice" (2 February 2007)

Marko Attila Hoare, "Kosovo: the Balkans' last independent state” (12 February 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, “Serbia after Kosovo” (18 April 2007)

Neven Andjelic, "Serbia and Eurovision: whose victory?" (25 May 2007)

Paul Hockenos, “Kosovo’s contested future” (16 November 2007)

Juan Garrigues, “Kosovo’s troubled victory” (7 December 2007)

Ginanne Brownell, “Kosovo’s Serbs in suspension” (10 December 2007)

Mary Kaldor, “The Balkans-Caucasus tangle: states and citizens” (9 January 2008)

John O’Brennan, “Kosovo: the hour of Europe” (14 January 2008)

Timothy William Waters, “Kosovo: the day after” (18 February 2008)

Dejan Djokic, "Desimir Tosic (1920-2008): in memoriam" (20 February 2008)

Robert Elsie, “Kosova and Albania: history, people, identity” (25 February 2008)

Florian Bieber, “Kosovo: one year on” (17 February 2009)A political arc

Some of the more dramatic political measures that Serbia took a year ago have been quietly papered over by now. Countries from which ambassadors were withdrawn are getting them back. The state is no longer supporting strikes or blockages of institutions. The official strategy of the Serbian government continues to be:

  • to block all gestures of recognition
  • to boycott international meetings to which representatives of Kosovo are invited
  • to pursue a suit before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) requesting that Kosovo's independence be declared illegal
  • to continue to declare (as President Tadic and prime minister Cvetkovic did on the 17 February 2009 anniversary did yesterday) that Serbia will never recognise Kosovo.

There are two important things that are not a part of this strategy: violence, and the cultivation of parallel institutions. The new government has dropped the policy by which workers in public services in Kosovo received double salaries; this policy may have been the strongest force building an ethnic Serb clientele in Kosovo that was materially invested in the maintenance of a political stalemate.

At the same time, since the new government took office in summer 2008 a series of revelations has damaged the reputation of Serbia’s ministry for Kosovo and Metohija, which oversaw policy toward the province. These scandals include charges that funds were allocated for purposes for which they were not spent, that phantom employees were kept on payrolls, that there was a system of “sweetheart deals” involving local political and church officials and construction firms.

The scandals surrounding the activity of the ministry of Kosovo and Metohija have probably played a part in discrediting official resistance to independence. New details as they emerge make the project look less like a noble national purpose and more like an effort to put public money into a few private hands. At the same time, the policy of resistance has led to little demonstrable effect for the lives of Serbs in Kosovo. The greatest victory the Serbian government has managed so far was in October 2008 to persuade the United Nations general assembly to request an opinion on the legality of Kosovo's independence from the International Court of Justice.

The ICJ could find for either side, or come to some form of in-between ruling. It is of little consequence: probably a good deal of time will pass before a decision comes, and in any case it will not be binding. The cumulative effect of scandals and ineffectual politics has been to dampen enthusiasm in Serbia for resistance to independence, and probably also to persuade a larger number of Kosovo Serbs that Belgrade is not likely to protect their interests.

A time of transition

Meanwhile behind the scenes the mutual interests of Serbs and Albanians (if not their political leaders) remain strong. Kosovo and Serbia remain important trading partners for one another in agriculture, energy and labour. There continue to be massive shared needs in the areas of education, healthcare and pensions. They have vital interests in common in the prosecution of trafficking and organised crime. While politicians make public statements designed to reawaken resentment over the independence of Kosovo, it is more than certain that there are people doing their jobs and protecting public interests across the new borders who do not make statements to the press. The success of both sides in controlling the risk of popular violence over the last year offers a sign of this.

This anniversary, and the wider phase of which it is part, may well be a transitional moment until Serbia and Kosovo reach a mutually acceptable arrangement that will advance both of their prospects for European Union membership. It would probably be too much to expect the Serbian government to announce plans for recognition, just as it would be too much to expect the Kosovo government to announce plans for closer ties to Serbia. But if the two governments are quietly finding ways to meet the needs of their citizens, some kind of accommodation is likely.

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