Nikolić and the Northern Kosovo Knot

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Photo Description: Tomislav Nikolić, president of Serbia

On July 25, 2011, Kosovo police deployed north from Pristina and over the Ibar River to commandeer two checkpoints at the Serbian border in connection with a customs dispute with Belgrade. But the dispute was just a pretext. Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi of Kosovo was after much more: authority over the northern, Serb-majority portion of his country, where Pristina has had little control since the end of the 1998–99 conflict.

Supported by a Belgrade-funded shadow government, the northern Kosovo Serbs reject Pristina’s legitimacy and immediately resisted the police deployment last year. Young men burned the checkpoints and barricaded roads. A Kosovo police officer was killed in the unrest, and scores were injured amid sporadic clashes with NATO peacekeepers and interethnic violence.

Kosovo’s “frozen conflict” has teetered on the edge of open fighting ever since. The blockades continue. Interethnic tensions along the Ibar, the de facto border between the north and the Albanian-majority south, have rarely been worse. Last month featured coordinated assaults on Serb targets.

Brussels wants Pristina and Belgrade to settle what is, in effect, the final contest in the enduring battle for Kosovo—a fight that has turned the north into a separatist basket case, interethnic flashpoint, and human rights vacuum. The European Union will probably push for negotiations this fall, when its “bilateral dialogue”—launched in 2011 to improve Kosovo-Serbia relations—is expected to resume.

Pristina insists that any diminution of Kosovo state institutions north of the Ibar is a challenge to Kosovo’s sovereignty. Belgrade’s position is an open question following national elections held in May. Longtime opposition leader Tomislav Nikolić upset incumbent president Boris Tadić in what one analyst called an “electoral earthquake.” Last week, the new president’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) agreed to form a governing coalition with the Socialist Party, leaving Tadić’s formerly ruling Democratic Party in opposition.

Under EU pressure, Tadić had proved increasingly willing to compromise over northern Kosovo, but the local population didn’t trust him. Nikolić, a former ultranationalist, is popular in the north. Where will he come down on the issue? Is a breakthrough possible?

The stakes are high for Nikolić and the new government. Serbia won coveted EU candidacy status in March on the condition that it cooperate in the “dialogue,” and Berlin in particular wants progress. Nikolić plans to negotiate directly with Kosovo president Atifete Jahjaga, rather than working through the current envoys, in a key test of his commitment to Europe and its political ideals.

There are two prevailing positions on the north in Belgrade, where most leaders reject Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence but have largely abandoned the dream of reclaiming the former province. As a kind of consolation, hard-liners favor partition, or annexing the north, despite strident international opposition, detailed below. Moderates favor autonomy for the north within Kosovo. In January, Tadić proposed a four-point plan that envisioned a “Region Northern Kosovo” with a level of autonomy that some now see as the best bad solution to an intractable problem.

In July, Nikolić hinted at a policy of partition by saying Pristina would never rule in Mitrovica, the de facto capital of the north and a portrait of the dysfunction there. A relatively prosperous melting pot before the conflict, the city has been ethnically divided along the Ibar since 2000. Mitrovica North, as it’s known today, became an outpost for local Serbs suffering from ethnic Albanian reprisals after NATO pushed Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milošević’s forces out of Kosovo in 1999. As Serbs fled north, most of the city’s Albanians were forced south. Some initially returned to their homes, but the killing of 11 Albanians in Mitrovica North in February 2000 led to another exodus. Today, the ethnicities rarely mix. Many residents are refugees in their own hometown, unable to return to abandoned property across the river. Serbs now make up about 7 percent of Kosovo’s population, including those in a number of Serb-majority enclaves located south of the Ibar.

Partition is popular among the 40,000 Serbs in Mitrovica North and its environs. Nationalist local leaders especially, but also much of the population, consider the north a part of Serbia and increasingly view any encroachment by Pristina, NATO, or the EU’s rule of law mission in Kosovo (EULEX) as occupation, hence the recent unrest. The north enjoys significant though dysfunctional self-rule in practice, as well as access to Belgrade-funded “parallel” public services including education, health care, and security. The north is also a key Balkan smuggling corridor with entrenched organized crime.

Though Nikolić’s office backtracked on his statement about Mitrovica last month, the president refuses to take partition off the table. He also wants the new government to reach consensus on Kosovo, including the acceptable borders, before the “dialogue” resumes.

This alone represents a significant shift for Belgrade. A former hard-liner on the issue, Tadić offered his four-point plan after Berlin flatly told him that partition was unacceptable last August. To Pristina and Brussels, Kosovo’s postconflict borders are final. The international community fears that partition could inspire renewed conflict in Kosovo and prompt Serb secessionists in Bosnia to make good on threats to hold a referendum on independence, breaking the peace established by the 1995 Dayton Accords.

Pristina and the EU, led by Germany, want all parallel structures dismantled. Kosovo leaders want the north integrated into the country according to a 2007 proposal by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari. The Ahtisaari Plan had obliquely recommended Kosovo’s statehood after a period of supervised independence and in exchange for concessions to the Serb minority, including substantial local self-rule and further autonomy for the north on education and health care.

Pristina is implementing that plan south of the Ibar, but Belgrade and the Serbs of northern Kosovo reject its implication of statehood. As a potential compromise, many are talking about an “Ahtisaari Plus,” or the kind of autonomy Tadić envisioned. Several Western diplomats supported Tadić’s vision pending a counteroffer from Thaçi, which never came. And in February, the International Crisis Group (ICG) cautiously endorsed a version of “Ahtisaari Plus” that could include a regional legislature and executive for the north, among other features of self-rule.

Such a plan would encounter obstacles. Pristina would fight it. The northern Serbs would acquiesce only as a step toward partition, the ICG notes. The Serb communities of southern Kosovo might fear isolation. And it’s unclear how Nikolić could support Ahtisaari Plus when his own party rejected Tadić’s plan in January.

Nevertheless, autonomy is the likely baseline for negotiations this fall because Pristina hasn’t articulated an alternative to the original Ahtisaari Plan, which is anathema to Belgrade and northern Kosovo. For his part, Nikolić could encourage a breakthrough by finally bringing the northern Kosovo Serbs to the table. They have refused to talk with Pristina without Belgrade, which they increasingly distrusted under Tadić, and they are holding fast to an extremist, hostile position. Over Tadić’s objections, the north held a referendum in February in which voters overwhelmingly rejected Kosovo state institutions.

Nikolić, though, has credibility in the north thanks to his years in opposition. He and his party won easily there in Serbia’s May elections, which were conducted in northern Kosovo under international supervision despite Pristina’s objections. If any leader in Belgrade can persuade the northern Kosovo Serbs to sit down and compromise, it’s Nikolić. And progress is impossible as long as they remain isolated.

But does Nikolić want progress, or to fight old battles? In May, he signaled the latter by denying that the 1995 massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica was genocide, and by making a territorial claim against Croatia. After a June meeting in Brussels, Nikolić publicly affirmed his commitment to regional reconciliation and the EU. Yet he continues to use rhetoric that echoes the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo and his own ultranationalist past. This week, Nikolić again suggested that Srebrenica was not genocide, while insisting that the Kosovo Serbs face the threat of genocide.

“When you expel 40,000 people, regardless of whether they are women, men [civilians or] soldiers, and when you change the ethnic composition of the territory. That is genocide,” Nikolić told the Guardian. “There is a danger that Pristina would be prepared to go that far. I am convinced they wouldn’t mind doing that immediately.”

The facts suggest otherwise. By many accounts, Pristina is building a multiethnic state below the Ibar under the Ahtisaari Plan. Local governments are up and running in Serb-majority municipalities like Gračanica; many southern Serb voters participated in Kosovo’s 2009 and 2010 elections, which were boycotted in the north; and the parallel structures in the southern enclaves are reportedly weakening. Based on these and other signs of progress, the International Steering Group recently granted Kosovo full sovereignty as of September.

Nikolić is exploiting the “genocide” narrative to justify the parallel structures, which remain entrenched north of the Ibar. Northerners see this shadow government as superior to Kosovo institutions, the ICG notes, and thus fundamental to their way of life.

But this way of life is far from ideal. Mitrovica North lacks regular running water at night. Unemployment tops 50 percent. People won’t discuss politics for fear of who might be listening. Most youths have never met a Kosovo Albanian and know nothing but ethnic division. Many observers say the local leadership is in league with organized crime. Freedom of movement is restricted, and especially so since the border dispute began.

The northern Kosovo Serbs are hostages to the frozen conflict. Certainly, they share culpability. But on several trips to the north last year, I met many reasonable people who were eager for change yet intimidated by a culture of fear and division that undermines progress toward a stable north and hampers the European ambitions of both Serbia and Kosovo.

Belgrade, ultimately, has promoted that culture. And so far, Nikolić is only making it worse.

* S. Adam Cardais is a contributing editor at Transitions Online.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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