By Daniel Serwer, @DanielSerwer ,
Washington, 12 February 2024, dtt-net.com / peacefare.net – Kosovo is a young country, born from repression of Albanian peaceful protest and subsequent/consequent armed rebellion against Serbia. American-led NATO intervention made its travails shorter and less deadly than those of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It has also made Kosovo perhaps the most pro-American, pro-EU country on earth.
But it is suffering a period of estrangement from both the US and EU. I first met its current prime minister, Albin Kurti, when he was a university student. He was working with Adem Demaci, who did not advocate Kosovo independence but rather a Balkan confederation. That would have included Serbia, Kosovo, and Montenegro. Albin in the past has advocated union with Albania. Day dreams of the past.
Today Albin is a vigorous advocate of Kosovo independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. I would even describe him as a “sovereigntist,” meaning that he prioritizes Kosovo behaving like a sovereign state, despite its lack of universal recognition and UN membership. He often seems unconcerned with the consequences.
What Albin wants
Many Kosovo Serbs still regard themselves as citizens of Serbia and do not want to acknowledge the Kosovo state, especially those who live in its northern municipalities. Those four are contiguous with Serbia and have Serb majorities. Albin insists the Kosovo Serbs use Kosovo license plates and pay their Kosovo electricity bills. He contests Serbia’s still dominant institutions in the north, the presence of Serb security forces there, the organized crime networks that Belgrade exploits, and Belgrade’s control there of education and health services.
He also wants to see transparency and accountability for the resources that flow from Belgrade to Serb majority municipalities throughout Kosovo. That is one reason the Central Bank is saying it will enforce the law requiring transactions in Kosovo in the legal currency (the euro). The police have confiscated cash and records of Serbian government shipments to Serbs in Kosovo.
He may overestimate Serb acceptance in the north.
All this puts Albin at odds not only with many Kosovo Serbs but also with the Europeans and Americans. They worry about keeping Belgrade on side and stability in Kosovo. That means preferring the ad hoc arrangements that have allowed Serbs there, especially in the north, to live as if they are in Serbia. Albin’s inclination to act without consulting Brussels and Washington aggravates the situation. The Americans and Europeans aren’t used to a Kosovo leader who acts as if his country really is sovereign. They may or may not doubt the wisdom of insisting on euros for transactions, but in any event they want to be consulted and discuss the issues before implementation.
That may sound reasonable. But from Albin’s perspective, it is just as much an infringement on Kosovo sovereignty as the transactions in euros. A sovereigntist won’t want to comply, especially if his unilateralism garners popular support. That it does in Kosovo, which is far more democratic than Serbia has ever been. American diplomats can be certain that if they displace Albin again, as they did during the Trump Administration, that he will be back after the next elections with an even stronger mandate.
Winning hearts and minds
All this argues for a much better understanding of why the Kosovo Serbs are important to Kosovo and what can be done to win over those who are still resisting. Modern statehood in a democracy depends on popular support. The American constitution’s first three words say it well: “we the people.” There are not a lot of Serbs left in Kosovo–perhaps less than 6% of the population, as Kurti claims. But they are a key factor in Kosovo statehood.
They and their church and culture are a distinct characteristic of Kosovo that distinguishes it from Albania. Their attachment to Belgrade is a clear threat to Kosovo security. The Serbs have an outsized impact on Kosovo’s sovereignty and potentially its territorial integrity. Without their loyalty, Kosovo statehood will always be under threat.
Winning them over sounds like an impossible task, but it is not. The euro is a far better currency than the Serbian dinar, even if the latter is pegged to the former. Any reasonable person would much rather be using and receiving a currency managed from Brussels and accepted throughout the EU.
The Belgrade-inspired mass resignation of Serb judges, prosecutors, and administrative staff from their jobs and continuing boycott has seriously damaged the judicial system in northern Kosovo, to the detriment of the Serbs and others who live there. The Belgrade-instigated boycott of municipal elections in April 2023 was likewise damaging to Serbs, not Albanians.
Serbia’s security officials and organized crime gangs Belgrade directs impose indignities on Serbs in the north every day. Kosovo Serbs who join the Kosovo Security Force face intimidation and violence, not just targeted against themselves but also of their families.
Much of the Serb population south of the Ibar River has made its peace with Pristina. They don’t love it. But many tolerate it and some are coming to appreciate at least its largesse if not its sovereignty.
Protection of the Serb church and private property is particularly important. Most of the important religious sites are in the south. The refusal so far of the Pristina authorities to implement a 2016 decision on the Decan/i monastery property has damaged their credibility in the Serb community. A unilateral decision to proceed would give Pristina an important patch of moral high ground to stand on.
But Kurti needs to go further. His government should work as closely as possible with the northern communities to win their acceptance and eventual loyalty. He has good cards to play. The Kosovo Serbs need a hug. Give it to them.
Daniel Serwer is a Professor of the Practice of Conflict Management as well as director of the Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
This opinion was first published at peacefare.net website.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of dtt-net.com .