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.

6 Responses to Kosovo: Of Talks and Violence

  1. Excellent analysis of the current situation in Kosovo and the problems surrounding the north and the implications for negotiations.
    I agree that both sides will be back at the negotiating table in no time, and that in a few weeks time the incidents that have been so intense in these days will be forgotten, like so many before them – in fact, the Jarinje border crossing has been on fire almost every year for the past 10 years, for one reason or another.
    However, I am still doubtful that the government in Pristina, particularly Thaqi organized the ROSU intervention without the support of the US, and in fact, without the direct instigation of the US representative. It has been one of the most important goals of the US policy in Kosovo to gain control of the north – which they’ve managed to do somewhat through the positioning of US KFOR troops at this moment; but the prevailing sentiment of the US in Kosovo with respect to the North has been that “law and order”, the Pristina-based one of course, has to be established in the north and that a “firm hand” must be shown to the structures based there.
    On the other hand, the government from Belgrade, and its representatives, are not welcome in the north, and the vigorous clean-up you mentioned is a plan the DS-led government has been trying to implement for years, but as we’ve seen, they haven’t had much success, and are still being undermined at every step by the people who are resolved to continue to profit from the “el-dorado” status there.

  2. Andreas Ernst says:

    Of course there is a law and order problem in North Kosovo – but at it’s heart is the sovereignity problem of this small area (10 Percent of Kosovo, 3 percent of its population, ca 60 000 people). This problem has to be addressed.

    Talks about “technical questions” as they were held under EU-auspices will not solve the sovereignity problem. And since last Monday we know that Pristina is not in a position to take over this territory and project its sovereignity by police – and the Western IC, which could do this for Pristina, is obviously not willing.

    The only way forward for Pristina and Belgrade is to talk about the status of North-Kosovo. Chances for a sustainable solution might be better if the strange taboo of a correction of Kosovos borders (incl a possible land swap) is forgotten about.

    The Kosovo conflict has been for a long time a territorial conflict and the solution will be accordingly. Why is this so hard to accept?

    • Florian Bieber says:

      Andreas, I agree that talks about the North is the key to moving forward, whether it is a special status for the region or a mutually agreed border change, but I’m afraid that last week’s events made such talks less likely in the near future.

      • Gezim Krasniqi says:

        Although i agree with most of the points made here, i wonder where is EULEX and EU’s role in all this. In my opinion, the main loser of all this situation is EULEX and EU. They appear to be weak, confused and without any clear idea. Though Ashton’s office strongly condemned the action (which is in stark contrast with their continuous pressure on the Kosovo government to do more to enforce rule of law and fight crime, corruption and smuggling), it seems to me that the UK and French governments were not that much against the action. Many EU states are frustrated with the apathy of the EU foreign policy in Kosovo (note that EU is not capable to appoint a representative in Kosovo and they have no idea how to call that mission) and the failure of EULEX do do any good in the north of Mitrovica.
        However, for me, at the end of the day this crisis is about borders. It is a life or death matter for both Serbia and Kosovo. The establishment of custom points there means that that part of territory will remain within Kosovo regardless of the internal arrangements. In the opposite case, Serbia would have strong argument to claim north Kosovo.

  3. Arianit says:

    Florian, I’m sorry to say but you have, as have many other analysts of Kosovo, failed to capture the gist of the problem. There are heavily armed men – former paramilitaries and policemen – operating in northern Kosovo willing to lash out at a moment’s notice from Belgrade. This problem won’t go away by itself, nor will Belgrade-Prishtina talks fix this. For too long Belgrade has kept northern Kosovo as a joker card. But neither Belgrade nor Prishtina control it. And KFOR even less. Unfortunately KFOR did nothing to rectify this problem for too long and now it has to bring troops back again.

  4. Alex says:

    One thing to note is that Kosovo is not a UN member and it is highly unlikely to become one any time soon. 2/3 of the countries in the world have not recognized Kosovo, and Serbia will never accept its independence. Few hundred thousand non-Albanians have been forced to leave and even with heavy international presence are not allowed to go back to their homes. One has to understand that if it was legal for Albanians to do this ethnic cleansing and declare statehood nobody can force remaining non-Albanina population to resist their authority in the same way they forced Serbian state out. And this is an issue that will not be resolved any time soon. Roots of Kosovo run deep in Serbian culture and history, their statehood and identity lies in ruins of destroyed churches that were not protected by NATO in 2004. Europe made a great wound that will not heal any time soon and will remain an open conflict for decades just because the rule who can get independence is applied with double standards: why not allow Serbian part of Bosnia to succeed, or have not granted the same right to Serbians in Kosovo? Kosovo issue can be solved only by applying universal principles equally, everything else is not going to bring peace in the long run.

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