More trouble in Kosovo

Just a quick post to draw attention to a remarkable – and troubling – election held last Sunday: a local election in four municipalities in the ethnically-Serb north of Kosovo.

The headline says that the two ethnically-Albanian parties won the elections “amid a low number of votes,” but you have to read on to find just how low. The figure is just 3.5%, fewer than 1,600 voters out of about 45,000 eligible. The only two Serb candidates who were still on the ballot papers received precisely seven votes between them.

Last time we looked at Kosovo, back in August, the Kosovo government had been trying to extend its control over the north with measures such as a requirement to use Kosovo licence plates. Tension was defused a little after it backed down, but the conflict continued to simmer. In December, the European Union produced a peace plan to reconcile the two countries, and last month Serbian president Alexander Vučić and Kosovar prime minister Albin Kurti both agreed to implement it.

From there, as could easily have been predicted by anyone familiar with the issue over the last decade or so, things began to unravel. The Serbs in the north don’t want to be part of Kosovo, and no Serb government is going to find it politically possible to abandon them. Kosovo pressed ahead with the local elections (postponed from last December), despite the Serb boycott, and on Monday Serbia voted against Kosovo’s admission to the Council of Europe, an apparent breach of the normalisation agreement.

The general shape of agreement, such as it is, between Kosovo and Serbia has not changed since at least 2013. Serbia promises, without recognising Kosovo’s de jure independence, to not obstruct it in practice, and Kosovo in return promises to grant extensive autonomy to the Serbs in the north. But neither is fully sincere, and each waits for the other to move first, resulting in repeated deadlock.

So now a set of Albanians (from two rival parties) have been chosen to administer municipalities with overwhelming Serb majorities. The EU merely pointed out the obvious when it said that “These elections do not offer a long-term political solution for these municipalities” and that “this process is not and cannot be considered business as usual.” But Kurti and the Kosovar Albanians have so far not offered an alternative.

As I noted last time, the war in Ukraine has probably made the problem worse, since it has led to greater European distrust of Serbia, historically a Russian ally, and to an increase in the (already strong) aversion to territorial compromise. But the fact remains that the sort of convoluted arrangements that the two countries keep negotiating are very much a second-best solution.

It makes more sense on every count to simply give the residents of the four municipalities what they want, and redraw the boundary to put them back into Serbia. There is nothing sacred about the current border; the area concerned represents only about 9% of Kosovo’s territory, and since its jurisdiction there is mostly nominal anyway, it would not be losing anything significant.

Serbia in turn would be much more likely to reconcile itself to Kosovar independence, and would get much less international sympathy if it didn’t. Vučić is not a wannabe Vladimir Putin scheming to swallow up his neighbors, he is a politician trying to meet the competing demands of his country’s European ambitions and its nationalist voters. Making life harder for him is not the best route towards peace in the region.

Far too many world leaders, though, seem to think that the whole international order will collapse if a precedent is set for revising borders. My view is the opposite: that the real danger comes from the refusal to address legitimate grievances, which instead are allowed to fester until they may one day break out into violence on a major scale.


4 thoughts on “More trouble in Kosovo

  1. Far too many world leaders, though, seem to think that the whole international order will collapse if a precedent is set for revising borders.

    The only just basis for political control over territory is the wishes of the inhabitants of that territory. But so many national leaders rely largely or wholly on other bases for their political claims that the resistance to this principle of justice is overwhelming.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In Africa, insisting that independence for ex-colonies could only be achieved through the existing colonial borders was one of the many stupid things that the UN has ever done. Multiple new states to match language groups (we don’t use “tribes” anymore) would have worked far better.


    1. Thanks Paul – I suspect you’re right, but at least in Africa the UN and the colonial powers had the excuse that redrawing of boundaries would have been a huge and complex task that would have been impossible to do in a way that would have satisfied everyone. There’s no such excuse in Northern Kosovo.


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