Contrary to Belgrade’s boycott calls, Serbs have in increasing numbers found ways of engaging pragmatically with Kosovo institutions, relying on them for services, applying for Kosovo official documents and accepting Kosovo (as well as Serbian) salaries. Belgrade’s policy of opposing all engagement has proved unrealistic for Serbs in the south, who, living among Albanians, have found there is no choice but to deal with the society around them.
The Serbian government’s approach has become even more difficult to sustain with the severe budgetary constraints resulting from the global economic crisis. Its funding of the Kosovo Serbs has included salary supplements and other perks for public sector workers, as an inducement to remain in Kosovo, but it has been forced to cut back, further reducing its leverage and control.
Ultimately, such financial incentives do not contribute to a sustainable future for Serbs in Kosovo. Providing for the educational needs of Serbs there through to university, for example, may mean jobs for teachers, but it does not create the conditions for young people to remain. Once they graduate, many leave for Serbia. The long-term future of Serbs can be secured only through integration in Kosovo institutions and society.
The Serbian government elected in May 2008 adopted a new approach to Kosovo and has in general given Serbs there greater leeway to find their own practical solutions for daily problems. This positive approach should be extended to include an end to support for parallel structures that have been rife with corruption. Belgrade should not sustain hardline elements, particularly in northern Kosovo, which hinder constructive Serb engagement in Kosovo, block the return of displaced people and hold up attempts to introduce the rule of law.
The planned decentralisation offers the best way to integrate Serbs in Kosovo, while enabling them to retain cherished links with Serbia. According to the blueprint laid out in the Ahtisaari plan, new Serb-majority municipalities should be created, with enhanced competencies in education, healthcare and culture. Belgrade would continue to provide technical and financial support to the Kosovo Serbs, but this should be transparent and coordinated with the Kosovo authorities. The Serbian government should not hinder decentralisation and should, at least tacitly, encourage Kosovo Serbs to engage in the process.
There is considerable Serb interest in decentralisation, especially south of the Ibar. However, many hesitate to participate in a process they fear would implicitly acknowledge Kosovo’s independence. Belgrade’s stance is critical, as most Serbs would be reluctant to take part in the face of its opposition. It is unrealistic to demand that decentralisation be neutral regarding Kosovo’s status, as Belgrade would wish. Pristina’s Ministry of Local Government Administration (MLGA) will have to be involved. But there is scope for meeting Serb concerns, while playing down the status issue.
International bodies should likewise adopt a low-key approach. The International Civilian Office (ICO) has an important role in decentralisation. This is troubling to most Serbs and anathema to Belgrade, which risks undermining the entire process. The ICO should remain in the background, allowing the MLGA to take the lead. As part of its regular work with local authorities and support for minority rights, the mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) should be involved on the ground in the practical implementation of decentralisation within its existing mandate. Everything should be done to encourage Kosovo Serbs to involve themselves with Pristina’s institutions.
To the Government of Kosovo:
1. Make decentralisation a central priority, while adopting a low-key approach stressing the local significance of the process and avoiding rhetoric linking it to implementation of independence.
2. Emphasise the benefits of decentralisation to the whole community at the local level, with an active outreach campaign aimed at all ethnic groups, not just Serbs.
3. Take steps to demonstrate the benefits of decentralisation to Serbs, through investment projects carried out in a way that involves and empowers Serb local government representatives.
To the Government of Serbia:
4. Do not discourage moves by Kosovo Serbs to engage in the decentralisation process or cooperate with Kosovo institutions including the Kosovo Police, following instead the example of Serbs south of the Ibar to seek pragmatic accommodations.
5. Provide technical and financial assistance to the Kosovo Serbs without undermining Kosovo institutions or isolating Serbs from the society around them; engage with the Kosovo authorities at a technical level to find ways of supporting Serbs constructively within Kosovo.
6. Cease support for parallel Serbian municipal structures in Kosovo that have largely failed to provide for the needs of Kosovo Serbs.
7. Withhold support from individual Serbs against whom evidence exists of corrupt or criminal activities and, in cooperation with the European Union rule of law mission (EULEX), hold them legally accountable.
To the Kosovo Serbs:
8. Engage pragmatically with Kosovo institutions, notably the Ministry for Local Government Administration (MLGA), so as to achieve the benefits of decentralisation.
To the International Community:
9. Facilitate dialogue between Kosovo institutions and local Serbs and persevere in encouraging dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina on matters affecting the Kosovo Serbs.
10. The EU should use its leverage over Serbia, as a would-be member, to insist that it act constructively in Kosovo, cease support for parallel structures and not oppose Serb integration in Kosovo structures.
11. The ICO and its head, the International Civilian Representative (ICR), should advise and work with the Kosovo government on the decentralisation process but stay in the background.
12. The OSCE mission, with its extensive field presence, should, as part of its regular work with local authorities and in support of minority rights, engage in the practical, on-the-ground implementation of decentralisation.
13. EULEX in particular should promote the establishment of a safe and stable environment to support the return of displaced persons throughout Kosovo, including Albanians to the north, and bolster Albanian support for decentralisation by providing tangible evidence of progress in integrating the north.
Pristina/Brussels, 12 May 2009