10 Things I learned on the Balkans in 2014

1. The revolution is not dead

Even though the protests in Bosnia in February did not last and few (if any) of the demands were met, smaller protests have continued and recent large student protests in Macedonia demonstrate that even the regime in Macedonia is not immune from popular discontent after years of small-scale protests. The protests show that representative democracy in recent years has not served citizens in the Western Balkans very well. Strong control by incumbents has made change difficult.

2. A one man show remains the best show in town

Aleksandar Vučić saved children from snow storms, commanded thousands of volunteers to save Šabac and other heroic deeds, like not sleeping and work while other slack. This brought his party an unprecedented victory for any party in post-1990 Serbian politics. However, any regime relying so much on one person will be fragile. A recent poll (not sure how reliable, but surely indicative) suggests that 80 percent of potential voters for SNS for the party because of Vučić.

3. The crisis is not over

After more than six years of economic crisis, the situation is become more dire as there are no immediate prospects of improvement and governments in the regions have not been able to set a clear path for economic development after the crisis. Nowhere is this more visible than in Croatia, where the current government seems to  have hoped on EU membership to solve the economic ills, with few effects.

4. A good press is a bad press

A free press has not fared well this year. Instead, slander and insulation are doing well. Informer and others like it are good to find out whom the governments want to target, but make for bad news. Reading between the lines is getting to be more important again, as the main news are not written in the lines.

5. Silly incidents matter, because political elites make them matter

While the flag carrying drone added a new dimension to provocations in football stadiums, but it could have been managed and calmed by political elites. However, neither in Serbia and Albania did governments manage the incident well. The result became a crisis of relations that had been rather marked by their absence.

6. Anniversaries are great moments for posturing and nationalist rediscovery


World War One did not figure prominently in national narratives in recent year. World War Two, wars of Independence or the most recent wars overshadowed the “Great War” in terms of public interest. However, this did not stop for a lot of nationalist posturing during this year. This functioned in symbiotic relationship with the generally strongly national commemorations across Europe and rather patronizing efforts to commemorate the war in Sarajevo this year.

7. Do not discount new friends from faraway places

Businessmen from China, sheiks from the Emirates have become more visible in the Balkans. These are promising new rail links, new urban developments and air links. Much of what has failed to come from Western assistance seems like it could be accomplished from elsewhere. On what terms and whether the wild dreams will materialize remains to be seen.

8. Some old friends are not really such good friends

Russia began as a good friend to Serbia (and the RS) 2014, but after (surely not because) Putin got rained on his parade, he dropped South Stream, notifying his friends via the media.

9. Engagement continues, wedding postponed


While Germany recommitted itself to the Balkan enlargement, the EU approach is lukewarm. With mixed signals, enlargement is being pushed down the agenda in the EU and the region. Yes, the process continues, but whether it will remain on track remains uncertain.

10. Borders change, war in Europe

The latest war in Europe is not in the Balkans. The newest border changes are neither. They both draw attention away, yet also cast a shadow. What the repercussions might be for the region is uncertain, but is hard to imagine that it will pass it by.

The good past and the bad past: Two Belgrade exhibits

A family tree

A family tree

Picturing the past

Picturing the past

Belgrade is hosting two very different exhibits these days, just a few meters apart: The exhibition Bogujevci—A Virtual History was opened with much public attention, it was less the few protesters who opposed the exhibit, but rather the visit of Ivica Dačić. Even now, a few policemen in front of the exhibit and out on the street keep a watchful eye. Otherwise, there is a steady trickle of visitors… just down the road another exhibit just opened, called Živeo život, a second exhibition about “what we lost and brought with us from Jugo”. Here, unsurprisingly, a much larger number of visitors listens to Yu-Music, marvels at sports stars of Yugoslavia or looks through the Yugoslav supermarket.

A painful reminder of the past

A nostalgic couch

A nostalgic couch

Both exhibits give a central place to a living room, complete with couches, TV, dark brown wall unit and kitschy decoration. In both, they are reminders of the past. The first represents the home of the Bogujevci family in Podujevo before most family members were killed in 1999, the second is generic living room of Yugoslavia. Both exhibits try to take historic events out of the larger political narrative of grand events and big politics to a personal level–literally into the living rooms. The exhibit about the Bogujevci family is neither pathetic, nor does it provides for a grand narrative of the wars. It simply shows the consequence of a war crime on a family and the very personal efforts of the family to see some of the perpetrators punished. The exhibit is testament to their effort to remind the public of the crimes. The “Live your life” exhibit instead offers an escape from the present. It puts the red Yugoslav passport into a golden frame, and presents the glories of Yugoslav life and consumerism with little irony or critical narrative.

For visitors, this is the opportunity to put on the pioneers’ cap and scarf, step on a vespa and listen to Yu-music. There is no mention of the inflation, the shortages, poverty, or the absurdities of the political system. Where the House of Terror in Budapest and similar exhibits  try to paint a picture of Communism as a period of pure horror, this exhibit does the opposite by mixing personal nostalgia with the memories of a country gone by. These two exhibits shed two very different perspectives on the past and how large events effected everyday life.

Red passport--golden frame

What the Belgrade-Prishtina Agreement means for Bosnia

The agreement between Belgrade and Prishtina, even if its implementation will surely hit some snags has repercussions beyond the two countries themselves. In particular Bosnia is going to be affected, being the other country in a continuous major political crisis.

First, the ability of the Serbian and the Kosovo government to find a compromise should put the current political elite of Bosnia to shame for not agreeing on some basic reforms, ranging from the implementation of Sejdić-Finci verdict to ensuring that Bosnian farmers can continue to export their dairy products to Croatia after it joins the EU on 1st July.

The second major consequence of the agreement will be for Republika Srpska and Milorad Dodik. Lately, he and his associates from the SNSD seem out of step with reality.When Tomislav Nikolić apologized the other day for Serbian war crimes, Dodik only commented that the interview (for BHT) was aggressive and that because he wants “good relations with Serbia and its leadership, there is no sense nor need to go into public comments and polemics“–hardly an endorsement for Nikolićs apology. Relations with Serbia have deteriorated after Dodik placed all his bets on Boris Tadić during the elections last year and thus is clearly not in favor with the current government, especially Aleksandar Vučić. The corruption investigations in Serbia that involve good “friends” of Dodik also did not help to improve relations.

Now with the deal between Serbia and Kosovo, Dodik has also lost his ability to evoke a credible alternative to Bosnia. His continuous suggestions that Republika Srpska might eventually become independent  has received a serious blow. While he never talked about the RS joining Serbia, it is clear that the RS could only leave Bosnia with Serbian support. The RS is too small and isolated to achieve this without a supportive neighbor, especially as few other countries in the region and in Europe are likely to take a favorable view. It never seemed particularly plausible that Serbia would support the RS in independence (instead of supporting it as an at least formal part of Bosnia) at the price of EU accession and worsening relations with its neighbors, but it has now become even less credible. The Serbian government has shown a degree of pragmatism and willingness to not pursue the idea of partition in Kosovo. So why would a government of Serbia “give up” on Kosovo, despite it being still part of Serbia according to its constitution and turn around and support the RS. As Dodik’s ally in Serbia, the DS also supports the agreement, Dodik seems rather isolted with his more critical view of the agreement. In fact, he is now closer to Koštunica and thus without strong allies in Serbia. Even if the DS were to return to power in Serbia (unlikely any time soon), it would be without Tadić as a friend and without the same ambiguity he displayed over the RS and Kosovo. Just a few days ago, Nebojša Radmanović, the Serbian member of the Bosnian presidency, evoked  in an interview the RS assembly resolution from 2008 that claimed if half of the UN members recognized Kosovo, the RS would also have the right to declare independence. Now, the count is over half with 98 (of 193) UN members recognizing Kosovo and a referendum on independence of the RS seems increasingly unlikely and evoking its might just start sounding a lot holler in next year’s electoral campaign.

Kosovo Lies and Dacic’s good cop/bad cop Routine

May the real Dačić please stand up?


In my home country Luxembourg, there is a traditional hopping procession (Sprangprëssioun) in the town of Echternach Tuesdays after Pentecost. It involves more than 10,000 people in a slow procession with  that takes two steps forward and one back.
Ivica Dačić’s statements in recent weeks about about Kosovo remind a lot of this dance–Two steps forward, one back. Last week, Dačić stated that “[f]or 10 years, Kosovo was taboo. No one could officially tell the truth…  Tales were told; lies were told that Kosovo is ours…the Serbian president cannot go to Kosovo, nor the prime minister, nor ministers, nor the police or army. Serbs can only leave Kosovo. That’s how much Kosovo is ours and what our constitution and laws mean there.” Just later the same day he noted that Serbia would not give up Kosovo for a date to begin EU accession talks: “Serbia showed the will for a compromise in the talks with Priština authorities. We don`t have anything else to propose except the Kosovo independence and we will never do it. Everyone must know one thing: we won`t give up on our legitimate interests just to get a date for the start of EU membership. Don`t count on it”  Of course, such contradictory statements did evoke some comments and questions about what Dačić really meant.

It mostly means that Dačić seems to be well in tune with public opinion or at least is following them closely. Just as he made is flip-flopping statements, B92 published a new survey that suggest that his position is a good reflection of popular opinion. Not only does a majority consider him to be the best negotiator (61% approve and only 26% think a different negotiator would do a better job. Among the alternatives only Vučić is able to have some support), they also seem to share his views. A clear majority of 63% think Kosovo is independent, mirroring Dačić first statement. At the same time, most (65%) would be willing to forgo EU membership if a return of Kosovo to Serbian rule were possible (28% take the opposite view), reflecting Dačić’s second position.

Of course, the latter options seems like a misleading choice: While EU membership is realistic, if far off, a return of Kosovo under Serbian rule sounds completely impossible. Thus, the choice given is between a far off goal and an impossibility. So does this mean that Serbs prefer Kosovo over the EU? Not exactly, there is a different meaning to this number. First, EU and Kosovo have been discussed as a pair for the past six years: first as parallel tracks and more recently increasingly as alternatives. The numbers suggest that citizens do not like to be forced to make a choice or if they do, they might choose Kosovo.  Second, if the alternative is between material benefits (the primary association with EU membership) and “patriotic duty”, Kosovo wins as a hypothetical patriotic-political correct answer. It would be hard to opt for the EU, as long as it is framed as a ‘selfish’ economic choice over the self-sacrifice choice of Kosovo. This is even more so  as choosing Kosovo in an opinion poll has no practical costs or consequences. As a consequence, I would consider the poll as a reflection of pragmaticism backed up with a bit of hypothetical nationalist self-sacrifice. Citizens can live with Kosovo as an independent country, but appear not willing to give up the symbol of the possible return of Kosovo to Serbia, i.e. full recognition.

So what does this mean for Serbian government policy? Dačić’s contradictory statements suggest that he understands public opinion better than any of his predecessors. Opinion polls over the past decade in Serbia have often pointed to similar conclusion as the latest poll. However, his predecessors were unwilling or unable to pick up on the pragmaticism and emphasized the desired and unrealist goal of keeping Kosovo part of Serbia. When Dačić called the Serbian government policies a lie, he also clearly shifted the blame for loosing Kosovo to his predecessors. The opportunity for making such an argument was missed first by Djindjić and then his successors. Of course it take a considerable Chutzpah to make this statement, considering that Dačić has not only been in government since 2008, but also supported Koštunica’s minority government 2004-7, but Dačić has managed to steer clear of Kosovo to have sufficient credibility in making such a statement.

This leaves Serbia in a more pragmatic and realistic position than any time in the last decade. Dačić’s good cop/bad cop routine is clearly intended to satisfy public opinion, but also to move Serbia towards living with this new reality. This does not mean that he will not bargain hard and that finding a modus vivendi for Serbia and Kosovo will be difficult, but his statements suggest that the optimism of EU diplomats over the Serbia-Kosovo negotiations might be justified.




Notes from Ditchley


I returned a few ago from a very interesting conference at Ditchley on the Western Balkans. The discussions with policy makers and analysts did not raise any radical new ideas, but it was good opportunity to take the temperature on thinking about and from the region. It was also a lesson in bad metaphors. Many felt that carrots and sticks are not working, but theories why differed: People in the Balkans prefer meat to carrots or the carrot is actually a stick. Either way, the days of carrots and sticks seems to be over (nobody mentioned that the metaphor implies that the person in question is either a horse or a donkey).

There was broad consensus that overall things were heading in the right direction, but there were a number of warnings: many (but not all) thought that the state of democracy & rule of law and lack of deep rooted reforms in the economy will continue to be a source of difficulties in the years to come. There was a bit of a divide between a number of Western policy makers who felt that the EU and its member states were doing enough to bring the countries of the region into the EU and that it was up to political elites to make an extra effort and a number of analysts who thought the EU should do more and make the membership perspective more realistic. A specific suggestion was for the EU to begin accession talks with all countries of the region as soon as possible rather than wait for each country on their own to fulfill the specific conditions. Once talks begin–the symbolic year of 2014 was mentioned as start date–the negotiation process will force countries to shape up and carry out reforms in a manner that is unrealistic prior to the beginning of talks. It seemed clear that such a scenario is unrealistic at the moment with a many member states skeptical about enlargement and afraid (although unjustifiably so–see Turkey) that accession talks would lead to membership ‘on the sneak’. A problem that has become more pronounced in recent years is the use of individual member states to use the accession process to set additional conditions. This has made the accession process less predictable as the Commission cannot guarantee the next step in the process as individual countries might block whatever comes next for unexpected reasons that have little to do with accession. Of course, this also undermines the credibility of EU accession. The current approach of the Commission to launch dialogues with countries without accession talks has been a good way forward but without beefing up the DG Enlargement this cannot be expanded more broadly.

The most encouraging signals came over the Serbia-Kosovo talks which are expected to lead to some tangible conclusions before the summer and when the current window of opportunity might close. On the other hand, Bosnia was much discussed, but there were few new ideas on how to help the country out of its current deadlock.

I found it encouraging that there is a clear sense that incrementalism is the way forward, there is not going to be a big bang, but rather small steps that will change the region and resolve the open questions. For this to be successful, one needs to overcome the dynamics of what one participants aptly called the EU member states pretending to enlarge and elites in the Western Balkans pretending to reform.

Republika Srpska for Kosovo?

A few days ago the platform of the Serbian government for talks with leaked in the Belgrade press and Daniel Serwer made the non-paper of the Serbian government available on his blog. Serwer called the proposal Fantasyland and Hashim Thaci rejected it as a 19th century plan. Of course in negotations there is no reason for the other side to respond positively to a proposal that presumably outlines the starting position for talks. So what does the platform actually propose?

Press in RS is drawing maps of the “new RS in Kosovo” according to the government plan

Observers have likend the structures that would be set up in it to Republika Srpska in Bosnia (mostly positive in Serbia and negatively outside). The platform itself explictly only refers to Katalonia as a model rather then to the RS, but some feature seem to evoke the RS.

In brief ,the platform proposes establishing an “Autonomous Community of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo and Metohija,” with the nice-sounding abbrevision ZSO KiM  This would constitute a territorial autonomy of Serb majority municipalities in the North and in the South (including Štrpce, Gračanica) and would have competences in education, health care, sports, culture, public Information, environmental protection, urban planning, agriculture, as well as their own police and judiciary under formal authority of Kosovo and the ability to maintain direct ties to Serbia including funding and finally the use of own symbols.

In terms of institutions, this autonomous unit would have an assembly and government, liking it to an autonomous region. Although the plan calls this autonomous region “community” the plan does not contain any non-territorial forms of autonomy or feature of cultural autonomy (except for some semi-autonomous status of sub-municipal Serb settlements, but even they are understood territorially).

When looking back at the Ahtisaari plan, the differences between the decentralisation proposed therin and the competences requested by the Serbian government do not differ fundamentally. The plan forsees that municipal competences include “education at the pre-primary, primary and secondary levels; public primary health care; local economic development; urban and rural planning; public housing; naming of roads, streets and other public places; and the provision of public services and utilities, among others.” In addition some Serb municipalities received the right to organise higher education, hospital and secondary health care, cultural and religions affairs and an “enhanced role in the appointment of police station comanders. Furthermore, the plan does forsee the formation of “associations and partnerships with other municipalities in Kosovo to carry out functions of mutual interest” and the possiblity of “to cooperate with municipalities and institutions in Serbia, including the right to receive financial and technical assistance from Serbia, within certain clear parameters set by the Settlement.”

The main differences between the competences outlined in the Serbian government non-paper and the Ahtisaari Plan are the control over the police and judiciary and the establishment of seperate institutions, both of course substantial.

More significant are the differences in terms of the overall proposed structures of Kosovo in the non-paper. It suggests a bi-cameral parliament with an upper house called the “House of Regions and Religious Communities” and a lower house with guaranteed seats for Serbs. The idea of a “House of Regions and Religious Communities” does seem rather odd for a number of reasons: First, religion is a not a relevant category in the politicial divisions of Kosovo, ethnicity is. Thus, such a house, if at all, should represent national communities, not religions. The term might be a way to bring the Serbian Orthodox Church into the institutions, which in itself would be very problematic. Second, it might be a term to avoid the obvious parallels with the House of Peoples in Bosnia.

When it comes to voting the platform suggests that Serbs should not be outvoted “in matters that directly impact the competencies of the autonomous region and the rights of Serbs and other minorities. This is considerably less than voting rights of the RS in Bosnia where MPs from either entity can block any decision by a 2/3 majority, a power the RS has made extensive use of.

It would thus be misleading to equate the autonomy for Serb municipalities with the RS in Bosnia. First, the competences are large but less than those of the RS, secondly and more importantly, the ability of the Serb municipalities to block decision-making in Kosovo would be extremely limited in comparsion to the blockages the RS can and has been causing in Bosnia. This difference is of course not surprising considering that Serbs make up less than 10% of Kosovos population and the municipalities make up not much more of the territory of Kosovo.

The proposal could thus be considered to ask for an autonomy between a full entity-like structure in Bosnia and the propose Ahtisaari plan. This is not to say that there are some problems with the platform. First, the idea of a tw0-chamber parliament and the representation of religious communities seems unreasonble considering the size of minorities and the limited competences such an upper chamber would have. Considering cases like South Tyrol or the Aaland islands, both enjoy territorial autonomy, but no specific parliamentary representation in Italy or Finland respecitvely. Instead there are other mechanisms in the relationship between the autonomous region and the central government to protect the autonomy of the region.

The second problem which Dan Serwer in his comment mostly focused on is the idea in the platform that the entirety of Kosovo would remain part of Serbia and the constant references to the “Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija” seems rather anachronistic and is definetly detached from reality. The platform does not outline what Serbia would be willing to offer Kosovo in exchange for agreeing to establishment of the autonomy arrangement. The platform suggests that the Kosovo authorities could receive the official authorisation by the Serbian government, but within the framework of the Serbian constitution, i.e. without recognition of independence. There are two ways of looking at this. If this reflects the substance of the Serbian position, this platform offers little for Kosovo to agree to any of it: The proposal largely formalised the status-quo and thus Kosovo would have no incentive to accept any part of the propsal without a clear Serbian accepetance of Kosovo’s independence, if not outright recognition. However, if the platform is also made for domestic consumption and about the symbolic assertation of sovereignty over Kosovo, then it has better prospects.

The suggestion that the Serbian government could formally transfer the competences of the autonomous province to the institutions of Kosovo might sound absurd, but they would constitute a way for the Serbian government to argue that the current Kosovo institutions are authorised by the Serbian constitution  and thus provide for a manner to official and formally cooperate with Kosovo institutions while maintaining the legal fiction that Kosovo is part of Serbia. Although it would be preferable for the Serbian government to fully acknowledge the reality of Kosovo’s independence, this opening might provide for the tool to live with Kosovo’s independence. A second positive feature of the agreement is the apparant abandonment of partition as a goal. By linking the municipalities in the North and in the South into one unit, partition would be less likely and presumably the more numerous Serbs in the South would dominate such an institution.

The platform of the Serbian government is, as I have argued above, far from ideal and as any negotiating position per definition not a compromise, but the goal of one party. Still, I would take it is a reflection of the more pragmatic line of the Serbian government, rather than as just an effort to create a new Republika Srpska in Kosovo.

Oxford also in Kosovo, Bossi in Albania

Thanks to a colleague, I just found out that not only the Paneuropean University Apeiron, Slobomir University, Euro College and Megatrend, as I  noted  in my previous post, have been honored with an award from Oxford, i.e. the European Business Assembly, but also the Iliria Royal University in Kosovo received a recognition in “a solemn ceremony organized in the European Summit of Leaders in the Oxford University, nominated by the European Club of Rectors, University Iliria won the European Prize for Quality.” This means that of the ten universities I commented on last year, four received this honor.

Another university of list, Crystal University, got some attention in Italy (and here) recently for granting the son of Umberto Bossi, former head of the Lega Nord,  Renzo Bossi a university degree in just one year.

The Significance of the Belgrade-Prishtina Agreement

As most compromises, the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo concluded a few days ago contains its share of absurdity. Kosovo can now participate in regional meetings with a footnote referring to the UN SC resolution 1244 and the ICJ opinion the declaration of independence, but these two references are meaningless. 1244 refers to the interim status of Kosovo that has clearly passed, even within a new UN SC resolution and the ICJ opinion is clear on the declaration of independence, but does not tackle the independence of Kosovo itself. It is similar to attaching a footnote to an apple pie saying that apples can be prepared in many different ways and a second note that an apple pie can call itself what ever it wants.

However, the meaninglessness of these disclaimers aside, the agreement has greater significance: It is the first time that Serbia has accepted the Kosovo government to represent Kosovo at the international level directly, rather than being formally represented by the UN mission or being able to participate, but without a mandate. As a result, this solution could be path-breaking for Kosovo in the future. The solution could outline the direction in which Kosovo could eventually co-exist with Serbia in the international arena. Since the declaration of independence in 2008, the challenge has been to find a way in which Serbia can live with Kosovo without extending full recognition and this agreement outlines the mode through which this could be achieved. Serbia recognizes Kosovo as a separate entity with a government, while stopping short of international recognition. Such a solution could open the door for membership in other international organizations and also eventual EU membership. The step from extending this solution from regional meetings to international organizations is small and has now become conceivable. If the agreement holds and proves to be a acceptable solution for both Kosovo and Serbia, the ball is in the court of the EU to outline a credible EU integration perspective for Kosovo and for the five EU member that have not recognized Kosovo to reconsider their stance. Of course, relations between Serbia and Kosovo will remain on the agenda and the agreement does not resolve the many remaining questions, but it might turn out to be a bigger step than the mediators and the parties have anticipated.

The Risks and Benefits of Ethnic Citizenship

Millions of people in Southeastern Europe are citizens of more than one state. Many acquired this status when they were gastarbajteri [guestworkers] in Germany, Austria and elsewhere in Western Europe; others received a second passport as they fled the wars that accompanied the disintegration of Yugoslavia. For some people, dual citizenship seems due to a quirk of fate: for example, their father may have been born in a different Yugoslav republic than they and held that republican citizenship when Yugoslavia was still a single country and when republican citizenship had no practical significance. Due to some long abandoned vestiges of patriarchal rules, today they have the right to a second citizenship of a republic they never lived in. Among the many ‘multi-citizens’ of Southeastern Europe there are probably a million who have received passports from countries they have never lived in. Hundreds of thousands of citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina hold Croatian citizenship as a result of their ethnic Croat identity. Over 50,000 Macedonians also became citizens of Bulgaria after declaring themselves to be ethnically Bulgarian. Recently, Serbs from Bosnia (and elsewhere) have been able to become Serbian citizens by declaring their loyalty to Serbia—most prominently, President of the Serb Republic, one of the two Bosnian entities, and Milorad Dodik, who publicly submitted his request for citizenship to the Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić in 2007. Nearly a million Moldovan citizens have applied for Romanian passports and over 100,000 have been granted EU citizenship, on the grounds that they are descendents of former Romanian citizens who lost their Romanian citizenship when Bessarabia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944.

Read the rest of the comment at: http://www.citsee.eu/op-ed/risks-and-benefits-ethnic-citizenship


Kosovo: Of Talks and Violence

Just three weeks ago, relations between Serbia and Kosovo seemed to have been the best in many years. A first agreement between the two governments paved the way for increased freedom of movement in regard to travel with ID cards, license plates and other technical issues. The atmosphere between the key negotiators Edita Tahiri and Borko Stefanovic seems professional.

The nationalist opposition in Serbia and Kosovo opposed the agreement, with Vetevendosje suggesting that it further undermines Kosovo’s sovereignty and DSS and the Radicals in Serbia arguing that the agreement leads to Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo. In brief, it was exactly what the EU had hoped to accomplish, a practical first step which paves the way to further negotiations and building confidence between the parties which had mostly talked at each other. This outcome was more encouraging that most observers (including myself) had predicted due to the upcoming Serbian elections early in 2012 and the rather weak Kosovo government. The reason it became possible was combination of the Serbian government banking on the EU candidate status prior to elections and an agreement with Kosovo can only improve the odds. The Kosovo government on the other hand appears to have trying to regain its international legitimacy through serious talks, after Thaci was tainted through the Marty report and the flawed parliamentary elections.

How did this success in talks so quickly descend into the latest round of violence? The talks did not resolve the issue of Kosovo products being able to enter the Serbian market, which has been impossible to date and hurt the fledgeling Kosovo economy. In an apparent move to improve Kosovo’s bargaining position and in response to Serbia apparently stepping away from a deal of customs (talks scheduled for mid-July were postponed for September as parties were unable to come to an agreement), Kosovo banned the import of Serbian goods. As Tim Judah convincingly argues, this was an unpleasant surprise for the Serbian government, as it suddenly and unexpectedly upped Kosovo bargaining power in talks where the pressure on Serbia traditionally came from Brussels (or Washington), not Prishtina. Of course, the implementation of such a ban is impossible as long as the borders as permeable and the government has few options of preventing the import of Serbian goods. If it would stop such goods on the border between north and south Kosovo around Mitrovica, it would only help consolidate the partition. Thus, it dispatched the special police unit ROSU to take over the two main border posts between Kosovo and Serbia in the North. It reached one and was blocked by Serbs barricades at the other. However, it was not to stay for long and was forced to withdraw soon thereafter under international pressure. During operation, a ROSU member was shot and killed by a sniper, presumably linked to local Serb nationalist structures. The barricades erected in the North and the subsequent burning down of the Jarinje border post by hooligans (according to Tadic) or a local smuggler (according to Blic) mobilized the Serbian parallel power structures in the North and further raised the stakes.

Apparently, the Kosovo government sent the police without consent of either the EU or the US government and the operation seem to have been planned by the government rather than being a regular police operation. Altogether this would mean that the operation was effort by the government to create a fait accompli (on a side: Milos Vasic reminds us that seizing customs posts is also how the war in Slovenia began in June 1991).

The incidents have fueled suspicions on both sides and encouraged both extremists  and spoilers. While the Kosovo government and media appear to be convinced that the Serbian government was behind the burning down of the border post in Jarinje, the Serbian media had a hard time imagining that the police operation could take place without international support.

The Kosovo government now threatend that it would arrest the Minister for Kosovo Goran Bogdanovic and the chief negotiator Borko Stefanovic if they entered Kosovo. While this is a symbolic gesture as the ability of the Kosovo authorities to arrest them in the North is limited, it undermines future talks and links the incidents back to the negotiations.

Although the official goal of the police operation failed, Prime Minister Thaci claims that there is no return to the status quo ante. He might be saying this to save face after the failure of the operation. Alternatively, one can consider the operation a success. He gained credibility domestically and for the first time the Kosovo government took the initiative without seeming to be remote controlled by the US embassy or others. The operation certainly put the status of the north on the agenda. The price the government might have been too high, though. First, the operation, which seems clearly reckless (it reminds of Saakashvili ill-fated intervention in S. Ossetia in August 2008) and without much promise to lead to a real rather than symbolic change, suggests that the Kosovo authorities have become more unpredictable and willing to use unilateral force to change the situation in their favor. Second, it would also seem to strengthen hardliners in Serbia who have warned about armed intervention of the Kosovo authorities in the North. Finally, the operation is unlikely to have earned the government international sympathies, even from close allies.

As the violence seems to have ended and Kosovo’s North returns to the “tense, but calm” status, where does this leave talks and the parties? Both sides come out looking more vulnerable: Serbia for the first time felt pressure from the Kosovo government through the boycott and the police action, even if brief and ultimately unsuccessful. Kosovo has noticed that it cannot established its authority in the North without international consent. The international presence is reminded that the situation can escalate very quickly and limited the escalation of violence requires a strong KFOR presence. One good side effect of the violence might be that it shed a light on the continued criminal security structures in the North. No matter how one thinks about the ROSU police operation, the killing by sniper of a police officer and the burning of border post suggest that these networks remain ready to use force quickly to protect their interests. While Tadic has been seeking to reduce the influence of the political representatives of these structures, the incidents might encourage the Serbian authorities to clean up the North of Kosovo more vigorously.

Despite all the posturing at the moment, it seems unlikely that talks will not continue, both governments have too much to gain, yet the violence is a reminder that negotiations are determined not just on the negotiation table, but also on the streets of the North of Kosovo.

P.S. As reader pointed out, the Kosovo government was successful in as far as KFOR upon taking control of border posts at least temporarily blocked all further trucks coming from Serbia.


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