Is Belgrade's political opportunism harming the Kosovo Serbs?

Belgrade's plan to partition Kosovo along ethnic lines will have negative consequences on the majority of Kosovo Serbs. Without their northern cultural and educational hub, Serbs in central and southern Kosovo could chose to leave Kosovo altogether. Photo: Associated Press

NEW YORK, August 12, 2011—The recent border tensions between Kosovo and Serbia are revealing the presence of dual sovereignty in Kosovo’s northern territory, dominated by ethnic Serbs. While the objective of Kosovo authorities is to integrate and extend the rule of law to its northern municipalities, the Government of Serbia is openly signaling its intention to partition Kosovo by supporting the illegal parallel institutions and the entrenched organized crime groups.

However, are Serbia’s policies towards Kosovo in the best interest of the Kosovo Serb minority?

When Kosovo was under UN administration between 1999 and 2008, Serbia’s objective was to prevent it from gaining independence. The successive governments in Belgrade exerted continuous pressure on Kosovo Serbs to boycott the authorities in Pristina. For Serbia, multiethnicity in Kosovo had to fail.

During this period, Serbia’s negative propaganda campaign against Kosovo discouraged many Serb refugees from returning to their homes in Kosovo. A higher rate of refugee returns, at the time when Kosovo’s status remained unsettled, would have threatened Serbia by bringing Kosovo closer to independence by meeting one of the key benchmarks defined by the UN in the “standards before status” process. Belgrade constantly depicted the situation in Kosovo as unsafe for the return of refugees, even though specialized UN agencies assessed the environment in Kosovo to be conducive to return.  After years in displacement, many Serb refugees abandoned the idea of returning to Kosovo altogether after hearing the negative portrayal of Kosovo by Serbia.

In its efforts to deny Kosovo’s progress and even defy its statehood, the Government of Serbia still uses financial and political means to pressure local Serb leaders to refuse to cooperate with the authorities in Pristina. For example, following Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, the Government of Serbia demanded Kosovo Serbs resign from their posts in Kosovo’s institutions, including the multiethnic Kosovo Police. Furthermore, Kosovo Serb retirees and poor families were required to quit receiving benefits from Pristina, even though this had an adverse effect on their well-being.

Belgrade’s policies further contributed to the political and social isolation of Kosovo Serbs. Since 2004, Kosovo Serbs were dissuaded and pressured to boycott local and national elections in Kosovo. Consequently, local Serbs not only were barred from realizing their rights and enjoying the benefits of participating in Kosovo’s political system, but also were divided between northern Kosovo Serbs in ethnically homogenous settlements and those scattered in towns and villages throughout Kosovo. 

Serbia’s efforts to partition Kosovo will have negative consequences for the majority of Kosovo Serbs. This division would disconnect the Serb communities residing in central and southern Kosovo (about 65 percent of Kosovo’s 120,000 Serbs) from northern Mitrovica – their cultural and educational hub. Serbia would gain about 15 percent of Kosovo’s territory, which encompasses only 35 percent of the total Serb community in Kosovo, and politicians in Belgrade would claim a modest victory with their nationalist constituency. 

On the other hand, the partitioning of Kosovo would inevitably weaken the position of the remaining 80,000 Serbs in central and southern Kosovo. Their political leverage would decline at national level as the Albanian majority, claiming that Kosovo is no longer a multiethnic state, could amend the constitution to eliminate the reserved parliamentary seats for minorities. Moreover, the Government of Kosovo could abolish the recently established Serb municipalities that were meant to grant self-governance for Kosovo Serbs. Consequently, many Kosovo Serbs could predictably choose to leave Kosovo and move to northern Kosovo, Serbia, or elsewhere.

Serbia’s policies towards Kosovo are not in best interest of Kosovo Serbs. The politicians in Belgrade are trying to save face in front of their influential nationalist electorate for loosing Kosovo in 2008. However, their political opportunism will have long-lasting consequences for the Kosovo Serbs and multiethnicity in the Balkans. These policies are inconsistent with liberal democracies, which embrace diversity and multiculturalism. Instead, they will only delay economic development and the EU integration process for the Western Balkans.

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Pleurat Halili

Pleurat has written international news for the Communities since 2012. He is an entrepreneur, former UN staff member and a graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.  He is interested in economics, politics, media, the European Union, and Southeastern Europe.


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