21 March 2006

Key to Kosovo Serb survival

SERBIANNA (USA), Friday, January 27, 2006 By Misa Djurkovic


For the Kosovo Serbs living since 1999 in enclaves heavily guarded by NATO troops, subject to murders, kidnappings and restricted freedom of movement, negotiations on decentralization of Kosovo in the first round of talks on the future status of the province beginning on 25th January in Vienna is an essential key to survival.


Indeed, when in the summer of 1999 Serbian forces retreated from the province and Albanian extremists waged a large-scale campaign of ethnic violence and intimidation, the Serb community managed to survive only in several enclaves in which it organized strongholds despite great suffering.


16-year-old Kosovo Serb, Dimitrije Popovic died when Albanian gunmen fired from a car into a group of young Serbs at a hamburger kiosk at 2 a.m. Saturday, June 5, 2004.


Since then, the key factor for the survival of Serbs in Kosovo has been the preservation of their own institutions, like health care, education and administrative offices issuing documents or performing civil marriage ceremonies.


It is thus not difficult to understand why all these institutions have become a special target of Albanian separatist militants in the past six years.


Despite the 2001 agreement between the UN mission in Kosovo and Belgrade, which recognized the legality of all those institutions, Albanian leaders and some parts of the international community are still referring to them as 'parallel', thus attempting to denote them as illegal, lawless and an obstacle to the development of a multiethnic Kosovo.


The reality is quite the contrary. It is exactly in the territories nominally proclaimed "multiethnic" that the arrival of Albanian institutions has led to the dismantling of the Serb institutions and the permanent dislodging of the Serb population. The Serb population is indeed unwilling to accept that their children must begin to learn in Albanian language or that they should be taught that the Serbs are "occupiers" in Kosovo. At the same time, Serbs neither trust the quality of Albanian hospital services, nor do they trust the competence of Albanian doctors.


In a situation in which the majority of the Serb population in Kosovo has no freedom of movement, these institutions are their only source of security.


The international community in Kosovo has realized that if it wants to preserve at least a part of the Serb population in Kosovo, it must allow them to autonomously lead their own institutions, with the help of the Serbian government. This has led to a tolerance of de facto autonomy for the Serbian communities in Kosovo, despite a staunch opposition from the ethnic Albanians.


While Belgrade's call for decentralization, as a model for survival of the Serbs in Kosovo, remained largely unaswered for years, the terrible anti-Serb violence of March 2004 served as a final wake-up call to the international community.


Decentralization came to be seen as a barrier against all those in the Albanian community seeking an ethnically clean Kosovo.


The Belgrade government plan of April 2004 had clear and well-defined ideas about decentralization, which included creating the possibility for the return of some 220,000 Serbs expelled by Albanian extremists from Kosovo since 1999.


The response of the UN Mission in Kosovo was to propose a plan which, a year and a half later, proved to be a failure: it offered too little to the Serbs, while the Albanians did not care to implement it.


Today, as the negotiations on the talks on the future status of Kosovo begin, it is key to understand that decentralization is a crucial matter for the Serbs and all other non-Albanian communities.


No matter where the border will be after the negotiations, if Serbs are to stay in Kosovo, they should be able to enjoy all essential freedoms and rights, which can only be guaranteed by a substantial decentralization process.


What should decentralization involve?


1. This project should officialize and legalize the type of autonomy which already de facto exists in those small communities where Serbs represent a majority of population. Per definition, it should formalize the already existing relationship with Belgrade. Every year, Serbia contributes 50 million euros to the viability of this project, for its administrative functioning and the solving of social problems of the territory. At the same time, it is crucial to find a mechanism for establishing a relationship with Pristina while performing all those activities.


2. It is important to gradually transmit some of the competency to the level of Serbian communities, especially in the domain of the judiciary and security. It is key to find a solution which would precisely define the division of authority between municipalities and ministries in Pristina.


3. Finally, if the international community and the Albanian leaders really want the Serbs to return to their homes, it is crucial to facilitate the establishment of new Serb municipalities, especially in those isolated enclaves which have the worst living conditions for the Serb population. Unfortunatelly, nowadays, Serbs can go back to Kosovo and integrate only in those communities in which the Serb population represents a majority and where it appears most possible to start building trust with Albanian neighbours.


As a result, no matter the final outcome of status talks, decentralization remains a key priority for the Serb community and a precondition for the development of a multiethnic Kosovo. Without decentralization it will be impossible to attract back Serbs who have been chased from their homes and provide safe and dignified life for Serbs still living in Kosovo.


Misa Djurkovic, former advisor to Prime minister Vojislav Kostunica, is a Researcher at the Institute of European Studies (Belgrade) and an Associate of the Institute 4S (Brussels).