Sunday, August 14, 2011

Autonomy for the North of Kosovo?

An increasing stream of articles from the Kosovo Albanian press suggests that the EU is working towards more autonomy for Kosovo's North. The municipalities should get a part of the receipts at the border crossings. Interestingly, the head of the Serbian negotiation team has denied that it is at the moment an issue. But as the EU likes to work around Belgrade in Kosovo whenever possible and mainly consults it when pressure on the local Serbs is needed it may be that Stefanovic is simply kept out of the loop. So lets have a look at the plan.

The first problem is that it contains the same problem as much of the Ahtisaari Plan: it is not real autonomy as they still will need approval from Pristina for nearly every decision they make. As the article says: "The municipalities will have a special budget line that will be controlled by Pristina." The firing of police commanders in the North a month ago showed just how little such Pristina monitored autonomy is worth.

Thereby comes that the attitude of the Pristina authorities hasn't changed much as events a few months ago showed: the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Special Forces entered the Serbian side of the divided city of Mitrovica and began to forcibly remove Serbian licence plates from vehicles, seized ID cards and passports and other Serbian documents. Even student discount cards issued to university students by the Republic of Serbia’s government were seized. Those who did not produce these documents on demand were forcibly searched.. As this outrageous behavior - there were similar reports from Kosovo's South - was clearly ordered by the government it shows how Pristina really thinks of minority rights.

A second problem that only can be found in Albanian language original of the article is the criminality in the North. According to the article such autonomy would be impossible as long as organized crime rules there with people like Marko Jakšić, Milan Ivanovic and the parallel structures.

This seems to me a rather unhelpful approach. First of all it not is very helpful to equate parallel structures with organized crime. It ignores that they have primarily a nationalist function. A second problem is that while Kosovo claims that all its problems come from its unresolved status it is the truth in the North. Very few people will invest there knowing how Serbs and Serb businesses are treated elsewhere in Kosovo. So smuggling is seen as a natural alternative. And the Serbs in Northern Kosovo are certainly not the only to accept help from criminals in their ethnic struggle. Support from Albanian criminals for the KLA was widely known and in the Bosnia war all sides had support from local criminals.

So this approach creates a kind of chicken and egg problem where the end of criminality is demanded as a condition for creating the kind of climate where criminality is no longer seen as needed to support the ethnic survival. It might help if the advocates of this approach studied the failure of "standards before status".

Thaci is in serious financial trouble. The wage hikes he gave before the elections were against his commitments with the IMF and the IMF has answered with sanctions - meaning less loans. Other organizations like the EU follow the IMF in this and it is estimated that in total Kosovo gets some 200 million dollar less. I wouldn't be surprised if one of these days Thaci is no longer able to pay wages. I suppose that this financial trouble was one of the main reasons for the attack on the border posts. The amount of money Serbia invests in Kosovo to support the Serb minority more than offsets the losses Kosovo makes at the border but that doesn't count in this context. I suppose Thaci's financial difficulties are also considered a problem by Western diplomats and that they won't be satisfied with a solution that doesn't at least partially addresses this problem.

Then there is the problem of the US. In the past the US has not exactly been cooperative when it came to proposals for more autonomy. An often heard objection is that they don't want a second Bosnia with its ossified ethnic relations. However, I think they misread Bosnia. The problem in Bosnia is not so much the entities, it is that these entities are constantly under threat to be abolished.

There is an old saying: "good fences make good neighbors". Its message is that when you don't trust each other completely on some subject you should make the agreement on that subject explicit. That removes that subject as a potential source of conflict and opens the way for a better relationship. For a similar reason rich people marry often with a detailed marriage contract. In the same way the entities serve as a guarantee that neither ethnic group will ever be completely powerless as they will always have their "own" area to fall back on. Just recently we have seen how the lack of such guarantees for the Croats evoked an escalation in the relation between Muslims and Croats.

The US may be pacified by calling it not autonomy but a "special status". It unclear to me what that will mean in practice.

border changes
As I have repeatedly mentioned I would prefer border changes in Kosovo. With their clarity they can avoid of a lot of the trouble that we see in Bosnia where - unfortunately egged on by outsiders - there is disagreement about the purpose of the agreement and some want to change it. The Western countries have raised objections but in my opinion they don't hold.

According to international law countries have the right to decide in mutual agreement to border changes. In the West this right might well be exercised in the near future, for example in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Belgium and no one objects to that. However, at the same time the West is denying similar rights to the Balkans. To me it seems that one more time - after 1878, 1919 and 1920 - the West imposes borders on the Balkan and believes that they will be eternal.

An often heard objection is the domino effect: other minorities like the Bosnian Serbs and the Macedonian Albanians would demand the same and the result would be an avalanche of ethnic conflicts. My position is that these negotiations should have been held already in 1991. They weren't because of intellectual laziness of Westerners that didn't want to be bothered with tedious negotiations about often minute details. They also hoped that once a new country was formed the issues would solve themselves but if things were so easy the border changes of 1878, 1912, 1918 and 1945 would each have settled things already. The interethnic relations are nowhere as bad as in Kosovo and I am convinced that these other countries can resolve their internal problems peacefully. Although of course it could help if some real mediators from the West kept an objective eye on it.

Some Americans and Europeans like to declare that a partition of the North is impossible because the Albanians reject it. However, some months ago we saw in the press one Albanian after another discussing partition. The discussion abruptly ended with the visit of an US official to Pristina. Albanians publicly reject partition primarily because they believe that it will diminish American support for their case - not because they are fundamentally against it. Westerners who see a fierce rejection are just hearing what they want to hear. It is their fear of a domino effect that is the primary obstacle - not Albanian extremism.

It will be great help if the West when new negotiations happen finally stops with its habit of rewarding violence as it did on many prior occasions, like the 10 day war in Slovenia, the 2001 war in Macedonia and most recently Kosovo's grab of the border posts. This policy of rewarding violence makes peaceful negotiations more difficult.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"According to international law countries have the right to decide in mutual agreement to border changes."

It's time for Serbia to completely let go of its aggressive and outdated "Kosovo is our imperial property" attitude. It must treat Kosovo for what it really is: a distinct nation. Only then can you have matters resolved properly like two nations can. The "we really own you and will conquer and destroy you" attitude prevents this.