Kosovo’s long goodbye to the status quo

Recent campaign for local election offered little hope for Kosovo’s future.

"The only thing that has changed since the previous elections in Kosovo is that this time, Belgrade is taking part in the elections both in campaign and support," writes Idro Seferi [Reuters]

During the local election campaign in Kosovo, Serbs and Albanians behaved like they weren’t participating in the same elections in one country. Their flags, slogans and political statements did not match at all. The signing of the Brussels agreement in April, between Serbia and Kosovo, gave hope that there would be a normalisation of relations. However, this has not happened so far.

The only thing that has changed since the previous elections in Kosovo, is that this time, Serbia is taking part in the elections, both in campaigning and supporting, whereas the previous Serbian governments had appealed to citizens not to vote.

A realistic picture of division

At the start of the election campaign, it was clear that there would be divisions among the Serbs. There has been a public campaign organised by Serbian nationalists calling on Serbs not to vote. During previous elections in 2007, 2009, and 2010, Serbs who voted were singled out as traitors.

But what could the Serbs of Gracanica do when they are a minority in a city which is physically separated from the areas with majority Serbian population? They had been almost completely isolated until their entry into Kosovar civil institutions with the 2007 and 2009 elections. In the past, Gracanica was the scene of barricades, blocked roads and tensions. This is not the case any more, and the citizens’ needs are different now. They live and move more freely; they work and go on with their lives. What could they have done – stay as an enclave, living under the illusion that everything would sort itself out?

Strpce, a majority-Serb town, and Brezovica, once a popular winter resort, are also cut off physically from Serbia. They, too, participated in the previous elections. They could not wait for Serbia to come, and by some miracle, take Kosovo back under its control. The people there now work together and greet each other, like neighbours.

Change of consciousness

Since 1999, Kosovo has had parallel institutions for every aspect of public life. Serbia kept its pre-1999 administrative presence for the Serbian part of the population, while the Kosovo Albanians built their own institutions. This question came to the fore with the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Belgrade, where she clearly stated that the end was nigh for the situation in northern Kosovo. Serbia, as a candidate for European Union membership, had to fix its internal problems and the open conflicts with its neighbours.

There should be some honesty and real changes in this relationship. Sovereignty and territories are unimportant if people cannot live normally and move freely, if they cannot study, get jobs and start families.

When the leadership in Belgrade changed, and the Democratic Party lost the elections, it seemed as if everything would fall apart. However, the new leaders showed a willingness to cooperate, even to meet and reach agreements with those against whom they had issued warrants – like Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. This created tensions in Serbia, where the public had been used to seeing policies made under the premise, “We won’t do anything so that we don’t make a mistake.”

However, when it comes to the elections, it is clear now that the agreement signed in Brussels, and everything that preceded it, had not made much sense. The reason for this is that, there is no real co-operation between Belgrade and Pristina. Everything was whittled down to solving technical problems, but attitudes towards political relations did not change.

Tensions were already high before the elections because of voter lists and the discovery of surplus voters – the number of registered voters turned out to be higher than the population, and included names of people who didn’t live in Kosovo or were dead – which is obviously the norm for all Balkan elections. The decision to ban Serbian officials’ visits to Kosovo exacerbated the situation. However, visits from Belgrade were made during the election campaign, which did not help the situation either. The Serbian officials did not, even once, address the Albanians, who, as the Serbian Constitution states, are citizens served by the government in Belgrade as well.

It is clear that Serbian officials went to Kosovo to engage in a political campaign. It is also clear that their statements [Sr/Bs/Hr] often do not contribute to the reconciliation between Albanians and Serbs.

Missed opportunities

Unfortunately, the Serbian officials missed an excellent opportunity during the election campaign to diffuse tensions in Kosovo, and to create an ambience where people could live in peace with their neighbours. Strangely and irrationally, it seems as if Serbia does not really think much about the Serbs in Kosovo. Understandably, the Kosovo Serbs are spiritually closer to Serbia, that is natural, but they need the opening of roads towards new possibilities rather than barricades.

During the election campaign, the Albanians did not talk much about the Serbs. They did so only when they had to, and then, defensively. Such lack of interest that Kosovar politicians showed was worrying. It might be the case that they were just campaigning for the local elections and trying to win as many votes as possible, which would imply that the society in Kosovo had already moved from the early stages of the country’s formation. However, the Albanians should demonstrate that they are open for dialogue with Kosovar Serbs.

This aggressive election campaign which strengthened nationalism does not give much hope for the processes expected after the elections, unless, of course, Brussels becomes the capital of both Kosovo and Serbia. It looks like Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, will continuously need to keep two flags on her desk – those of Serbia and Kosovo.

It is expected that after the elections, the Serbs will form the Union of Serb Councils (as per the April 2013 agreement), which would bring together all councils where Serbs live, or at least where they win the polls. For Pristina, this will have the status of a council association. A similar one exists for all the councils in Kosovo, but it is clear that this new association will only deal with Pristina when it really has to. The Kosovo police force in northern Kosovo will mostly consist of Serbs (also provided for in the agreement) and it is very difficult to predict how that will function.

It is clear that Serbia wants to form special territories in Kosovo. Even Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said so [Sr/Bs/Hr] during his so-called religious visit to Gracanica. Dacic said he was there for religious reasons because he “believed in Serbia” [Sr/Bs/Hr] in Kosovo, and because these two regions are holy for every Serb, and visiting them is a pilgrimage.

But how can it be made to look like Republika Srpska (the majority-Serb entity) in Bosnia and Hercegovina, when not all the territories with Serbian population are linked? Or how can there be reconciliation when the mayors of Serbian councils won’t recognise anything that is happening in Kosovo?

New political behaviour needed

Serbia will continue on its path towards EU integration and negotiations will continue, but they will always return to Point 35 of the agenda, which covers Kosovo as a subject under “miscellaneous themes”.

Politically, this much is clear: Since EU accession won’t happen soon with any country in the region, Serbia will not recognise Kosovo until then. But at some point, it will have to truly deal with Kosovo. Otherwise, it will go towards new blockades, tensions, hatred and the suffering of innocent people.

There should be some honesty and real changes in this relationship. Sovereignty and territories are unimportant if people cannot live normally and move freely, if they cannot study, get jobs and start families.

It is important to change political behaviour. The legalisation of Serb institutions in Kosovo can take place, procedures can be ended and there could be promises that something would technically happen, but as things stand, Kosovo has not yet said goodbye to the status quo – especially not in the north.

Idro Seferi is an Albanian journalist and writer from Kosovo. A journalist since 2002, he moved from Pristina to Belgrade in 2007. He covers the region of former Yugoslavia for various Kosovar and Albanian media.