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The Association of Serb Majority Municipalities: The crux of tensions in Northern Kosovo

Western Balkans / COMMENTARY
Berta López Domènech

Date: 14/06/2023
Amid the recent escalation of tensions in the North of Kosovo, the EU required Pristina to start working on establishing the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities. The Association, included in the 2013 Brussels Agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, should be set up simultaneously as Belgrade withdraws from Northern Kosovo. These steps are essential if the two sides are to advance in the process of normalising their relations and approaching the EU.

A few weeks ago, tensions escalated again in Northern Kosovo when recently elected ethnic Albanian mayors of the Serb majority municipalities of Zvecan, Leposavic, Zubin Potok, and North Mitrovica tried to take office. Journalists, police officers and Kosovo Force (KFOR) troops were attacked by Serb demonstrators trying to prevent the new mayors from accessing municipal buildings.

The mayors were elected in an extraordinary vote on 23 April this year to fill the vacant posts after the withdrawal of Kosovo Serbs from Kosovo’s public administration in November 2022. The latter resigned in protest against Pristina’s decision to start fining drivers with Serbian-issued car plates. The vote was boycotted by Serbs, who represent around 90% of the population in Northern Kosovo, resulting in a low turnout – around 3.5% – and giving the victory to ethnic Albanian candidates.

The boycott answered calls from the Serbian government and the Belgrade-backed Srpska Lista, the Serb party in Northern Kosovo, which is closely linked to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and his party, the SNS. Srpska Lista controls the local institutions in the North of Kosovo and holds a monopoly on the political representation of Kosovo Serbs.

The EU and the US have blamed Kosovo for provoking the intensification of the unrest and asked the parties to de-escalate tensions. During the second summit of the European Political Community in Moldova earlier this month, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and urged them to repeat the elections as soon as possible, this time ensuring the participation of Kosovo Serbs. In the interest of good relations with the Union, they also asked the Balkan leaders to implement the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities (ASM) agreed in 2013 during the EU-facilitated Dialogue.

The creation of a body that would group the municipalities where ethnic Serbs are in the majority and grant them some level of self-government was already included in the 2013 Brussels Agreement, struck in the EU-mediated talks between Kosovo and Serbia. However, ten years later, the Association still needs to be implemented due to disagreements regarding its nature, which has become the main sticking point in the dialogue.

Last February, President Vučić and Prime Minister Albin Kurti endorsed a new EU proposal to advance the normalisation of relations but again disagreed on its implementation because of the Association. Belgrade considers the ASM as the starting point in the implementation process, while Pristina fears that the Association threatens its statehood integrity.

The vague description of the nature and competences of the Association in the 2015 Agreement leaves room for both sides to interpret the deal according to their interests. While Belgrade pushes to establish a layer of governance with executive powers that provide a high level of autonomy to Kosovo Serbs, Pristina refuses to grant self-rule power to Serbs and claims that the creation of a mono-ethnic entity is unconstitutional.

Pristina fears that the Association will become a Republika Srpska-style body that Serbia will use to institutionalise its control over Kosovo Serbs. For this reason, it is important that, in parallel to supporting the setup of the ASM, Serbia begins dismantling the parallel institutions that it funds in the North of Kosovo, which makes Kosovo Serbs dependent on financial and political assistance from Belgrade.  Serbia’s retreat is crucial for the Association to successfully incorporate Serbs in Kosovo’s political and institutional sphere.

The EU should ensure a smooth transition from the Serbian parallel institutions to the ASM to guarantee Kosovo Serbs’ everyday needs and rights, which have, so far, been left out of the discussion. Including citizens from ethnic Serb majority municipalities and civil society organisations as interlocutors in the dialogue about the Association could help to overcome the current impasse and prepare communities for the implementation of the agreements on the ground.

Establishing the Association would allow the two parts to move forward in the process of normalising relations and focus on implementing other aspects of the agreements, such as Serbia’s non-objection to Kosovo’s membership in international organisations. It would also pave Kosovo’s EU path now that Pristina applied for membership in December 2022.

Likewise, the Association would help Kosovo Serbs to integrate into Kosovo’s institutional setup. Pristina should accept some level of self-management for the municipalities in the North in the areas agreed upon in 2013, i.e. economic development, education, health, and urban and rural planning. Meanwhile, Belgrade should allow Kosovo Serbs to speak directly to Pristina and refrain from supporting Srpska Lista’s strategy of maintaining the monopoly on the political representation of Kosovo Serbs through intimidation.

The geopolitical turning point

The EU has become especially keen on resolving the Serbia-Kosovo dispute in light of the new geopolitical context transfixed by the war in Ukraine. The war set off the alarm about Russia’s threat to the EU and its neighbours, with many seeing the Western Balkans as the new frontline of confrontation between Moscow and the Union.

Serbia and the Serb minority groups in neighbouring countries – i.e. Bosnia, Montenegro and Kosovo – are Putin’s main partners in the region. The Kremlin has fuelled Serbian nationalism to maintain stability in the region and prevent the Balkan country from advancing on its Euro-Atlantic integration path. For its part, Serbia learnt to capitalise on its Russian connection when negotiating with the EU, presenting itself as the guarantor of stability and security in the region. Therefore, resolving the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia is key to neutralising Russia’s influence in the Balkans.

At the same time, Serbia is using the conflict with Pristina and the current violent episodes in the North of Kosovo to draw attention away from domestic problems such as the anti-violence and anti-government demonstrations that continue to gather thousands of people in the centre of Belgrade since the two mass shootings in early May.

Democratic standards have deteriorated in Serbia under the authoritarian rule of Aleksandar Vučić, with a notable decline in the rule of law. The media sector is almost entirely under governmental control, while independent journalists face violence and threats. Civil society also finds itself in an increasingly hostile environment. Corruption at the higher level remains a major problem, and links have been found between officials from the main party SNS and organised crime. Making the dispute with Kosovo salient allows Vucic to avoid dealing with all these domestic shortcomings.

Breaking the impasse

The Association has become a bargaining chip in the negotiations with the EU. President Vučić justifies its lack of commitment to the EU-sponsored dialogue by blaming Kosovo for failing to implement the Association. His counterpart, Prime Minister Kurti, hides behind the argument that the Constitutional Court ruled the creation of a monoethnic layer of governance unconstitutional. Kurti’s position, however, ignores that the same ruling has approved the creation of the body if the unconstitutional principles are addressed.

Normalising relations is a prerequisite for Serbia and Kosovo to advance on their respective EU paths. Therefore, political will is needed on both sides to find a workable model for the Association. To overcome the current impasse and reach a compromise, both parties must commit to creating a constructive environment and soften their positions.

Civil society organisations from Kosovo and Serbia recently called on their political leaders to meet the commitments made to bring peace and benefit to the populations. They highlighted the need to create a constructive environment based on goodwill and trust, to make it possible for political agreements to take hold. Will authorities in Belgrade, Pristina and Brussels listen to these voices?

Berta López Domènech is a Programme Assistant in the European Politics and Institutions programme at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.


Photo credits:
Armend Nimani / AFP

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