The status quo in the north is neither stable nor productive. Whatever responsibility Albanians have, Serbs must accept their own responsibility for the lack of perspective in the north. The duty of interested outsiders is to help the population see that its interests lie in embracing the change, not fleeing from it. Implementation won’t be easy by any means; but failing to confront the bracing truth, or learning from the mistakes of the past, won’t make it any easier.


Published May 16, 2013

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The 19 April ‘Agreement of Principles’ between Kosovo and Serbia has spawned confusion and consternation in some circles, and euphoria in others. While Pristina and Belgrade continue to tussle over ever more detailed points, there is a risk of losing the big picture. Historical context can help restore perspective and make plain the choices and risks — principally for the Serbs living in the north of Kosovo.

In late 1992, international envoys Cyrus Vance, the former Secretary of State, and David Owen, the former British Foreign Secretary paid a visit to the Serb leadership of the ‘Republika Srpska Krajina’ in Knin. Vance had already brokered a ceasefire in Croatia which had grown into the more ambitious Vance Plan to de-escalate the conflict. During the meeting, the Serb leadership voiced strident defiance, insisting that they would never live in Croatia. Fed up, Owen addressed his Serb interlocutors in his elite British accent, stating flatly, “Well, gentlemen, this territory IS Croatia.” The comment enraged the Serbs and the meeting ended shortly thereafter. UN officials in Knin also lamented Owen’s remark: “Why did Owen have to be so blunt? This will only set us back!”

Alas, the truth was that there was little progress to set back. Implementation of the Vance Plan had already ground to a halt in the face of determined Serb intransigence. Kindness to the Serb leadership in Knin had brought the UN no serious cooperation. The tone of defiance was impressive. At one point, struggling with lack of fuel to harvest crops, the ‘RSK’ leaders vowed, “we will eat stones before we will live in Croatia!” In 1995, the Knin Serbs rejected further international mediation, including a Russian-backed peace plan known as ‘Z-4’ that would have given them broad rights and privileges in Croatia. By August of that year, the breakaway ‘RSK’ mini state in Western Slavonija and Krajina was no more. Two Croatian military operations had vanquished the Western portions of the breakaway republic, sending thousands of Serbs into exile from their homes, most never to return.

In retrospect, Owen’s impolitic words look not only prophetic but refreshingly honest. Instead of indulging the Knin Serbs in the fantasy that they lived in a real, breakaway state, he spoke the truth. Had others perhaps sent similarly bracing signals, perhaps some Serbs in Krajina might have given some consideration to the Z-4 plan, sparing them their sad fate.

While no two situations are identical the Serb experience in Krajina, and in Croatia’s Eastern Slavonija as well as Sarajevo, are still instructive for the Serbs in the north of Kosovo. One can parse the differences – and one crucial one is that an Albanian ‘Operation Storm’ in the north is utterly out of the question: unlike in Croatia, NATO is, and for some time to come will remain in charge of security in Kosovo; and unlike in Croatia, there is no Army in Kosovo. (And Kosovo’s special police units, however much they are feared, have proven they are no match for local Serbs even when the special police have the element of surprise.)

While other differences stand out, undeniably the similarities among all these cases are more prominent. Each one involves a Serb population deeply anxious about the prospects of losing its nexus to Serbia, and desperate to avoid living as a minority in a state controlled by ‘the other.’ Yet the choices the Serbs made and the outcomes they experienced were quite different:

  • Krajina – The Knin Serbs dig in their heels on implementing the Vance Plan and later reject the Z-4 plan accepted by Zagreb.  They end up expelled from their homes. Croatian forces advance and even the term ‘Krajina’ is banished.
  • Sarajevo – Under direction from Pale, Sarajevo Serbs refuse to live under Federation control as per the Dayton Agreement territorial transfer of Serb municipalities in Sarajevo from the Republika Srpska.  In early 1996, as the transfer takes place, the Serbs exile themselves en masse, mostly to rural parts of Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, or for some, to locations in Serbia.  Many regret the move, which costs them their homes in a cosmopolitan capital for an uncertain future in a rural setting.
  • Eastern Slavonija – By contrast, Serbs grudgingly accept Croatian rule and work with the international community (the UN in this case) to implement the 1995 Erdut Agreement. A UN mission, originally given only a one-year mandate, jumps into action in no nonsense fashion, neither coddling the anxious Serbs nor kowtowing to the demands of Croats. The enduring result?  According to a recent census, Serbs today remain roughly in the same proportion of the population in Vukovar as they did before the war. Vukovar, a town devastated by Serb military might, has recently seen the reappearance of street signs in Cyrillic — a clear example of the ability of Serbs to assert their minority rights in Croatia.  Recently, when Croats vocally protested such a visible symbol of Serb control in a town that is synonymous with Serb brutality and Croat victimization, the government in Zagreb sided with the Serbs.

The question for Serbs in the north of Kosovo is obvious: which of the three examples do they want to draw from?  And do we help them reach the appropriate conclusion with blunt candor or by soft-pedaling the inevitable?

It’s true that the relationship between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo has been the most bitter in the Balkans, with mutual bloodletting stretching back a full century, far longer than in either Bosnia or Croatia. It’s also true that the recent history makes anxiety in the north understandable. The displaced Serbs living in the north did not get there by accident; many fled out of well-founded fear of violent persecution from Albanians in the south. The mixed areas of north Mitrovica remain volatile, while south Mitrovica is bereft of Serbs and mostly hostile to their presence.

But the south of Kosovo at large is not similarly bereft of Serbs. Indeed, a bare majority of the Serb population in Kosovo lives south of the Ibar River.  And while the memory of the violent pogroms meted out by Albanians in March, 2004 is not forgotten, it is undeniable that the situation of Serbs in the south of Kosovo has improved. Serbs in Gracanica or Istok or Strpce may not jump for joy about living in an Albanian majority country, but by any objective measure their prospects are better. This has especially been the case since the elections of 2010, when some Serbs stood for election to the Kosovo Assembly and then joined the government.

Like the Serbs of Eastern Slavonija, these Serbs have largely accepted the reality that they are living in another country. Many have deemed it in their interests to accept the Ahtisaari Plan, which provides for an array of special rights and protections. No less a champion of Serb rights than the Serbian Orthodox Church has, likewise, embraced a fundamentally cooperative posture towards the government in Pristina. (And with good reason. The magnificent sites of Serbian Orthodox patrimony in Kosovo, like Decani and Gracanica, are located in the south.) The Church has worked closely and effectively with international organizations in Kosovo and in Republic of Kosovo institutions to realize the rights promised it under the Ahtisaari Plan.

It may not be widely known in Belgrade, but the leadership Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo generally cringes at the violence and obduracy seen in the north, recognizing that confrontation there only complicates life for the majority of Serbs who live in the south. And Church leaders also cringe at Belgrade’s infatuation with partition as a solution to the Kosovo stand-off, knowing that it will put Serb patrimony at risk. By accepting this risk, the pro-partitionist undermine Serbia’s central claim to Kosovo: that it is the cradle of Serbian nationhood.

In other words, the Serbs of the north now have not one, but two positive examples to draw from in making their choice about the way forward — one from Kosovo and one from Eastern Slavonija. Making the choice (between intransigence and cooperation) even more stark is the fact that the terms of the Ahtisaari Agreement, as amplified by the recent 19 April Agreement, are arguably the most favorable to the Serbs of any such deal in the Balkans. The Ahtisaari Agreement and 19 April may not provide for an ‘entity’, as in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, but they do provide for a more highly elaborated nexus to Serbia, with wide local control on the issues that matter the most to the Serb population.

As they – and we – ponder their choice, it is worth remembering how counterproductive the path of intransigence and violence has been. Indeed, the turning point in Serb fortunes in Kosovo (following Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February, 2008) came in July-August, 2011 when Albanian-led special police launched a failed operation to put customs and border police at the two main crossing points in north Kosovo. (The operation followed months of foot dragging by Belgrade in EU-mediated ‘technical talks’ over a number of issues including easing customs restrictions, in part through use of a ‘customs stamp’ recommended by the UN.)  A shoot-out ensued, killing an Albanian member of the special police.

Easily overlooked is that the initial reaction of Brussels, and even Washington, to the failed special police operation was to criticize the Albanian-led government in Pristina, not the Serbs.  It wasn’t until the Serbs rioted a few days later, burning down the ‘Gate 1’ crossing point north of Leposavic that international opinion changed.  In the wake of the violence, in August, 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with then President Boris Tadic and publicly demanded that Belgrade end support for the ‘parallel structures’ in the north.  The subsequent wounding of German troops by north Serbs postponed Serbia’s initial opportunity for candidacy in December, 2011, paving the way for heightened scrutiny and conditionality of its EU bid.  The recent ‘normalization’ talks mediated by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton continued the approach of strict conditionality on Belgrade, inducing the Serbian government to make far-reaching concessions.

The lesson here for the north Serbs is that intransigence and violent resistance has not paid off. The north can slow implementation, for example, as it did on the IBM (Integrated Border Management) with months of check points in the north, but in the end it can neither defeat the EU nor KFOR, nor surely the Serbian government. Serbia’s EU aspirations have led both moderate and nationalist governments to make fundamental concessions – all in the direction of loosening Serbia’s role in Kosovo and, simultaneously in the direction of implicitly accepting Pristina’s writ over the whole of its territory. (In the wake of the NATO air campaign and UN Security Council Resolution 1244 which put the UN and NATO completely in charge of Kosovo, Belgrade long ago acknowledged that it no longer controlled Kosovo.)  What happened on 19 April is the near-culmination of a process where Belgrade has gone far beyond simply accepting that it no longer controls its erstwhile province. Indeed, Serbia has tacitly recognized an international border with Kosovo, replete with customs controls – an arrangement essentially incompatible with retaining sovereignty.

To be sure, Serbia can cling to the position that it has not recognized the Republic of Kosovo, but third-countries that have hesitated to recognize Pristina surely have less reason to hesitate now. And as the international recognitions of Kosovo continue to mount, the Serbian position on Kosovo will continue to become less plausible, while the reality of Kosovo’s independence will become more so. Should friends of the Serbs living in the north shield them from these truths, out of fear that being irrational and volatile, they will explode in violence or lead an exodus of Serbs from the north into Serbia? Or, to the contrary, is ‘tough love’ and candor, in fact, the more respectful and productive approach? The best interests of the Serbs living in the north lie in reminding them of the painful choices that other Serbs – equally tethered to their homes and equally loathe to submit to the rule of the ‘other’ – have made. ‘Fair’ or not, history clearly is on the side that cooperates. (Those who rue the ‘unfairness’ of these settlements might consider the situation of other minorities in the region who find themselves on the ‘wrong’ side forced to make accommodation with a government that doesn’t fully represent their interests, or perhaps reflect on the hundreds of thousands of Bosniaks rousted from their homes in the Drina River valley and elsewhere in Bosnia at the hands of Serbs.)

Yes, there is substantial disappointment, apprehension and confusion in the north of Kosovo with impending changes. But that is no reason to slow down the pace of implementation of agreements reached so far, nor of the implementation plan still being hammered out.  To the contrary, as we have seen both in the north and elsewhere in the region, stability is generally achieved by rapid, vigorous implementation of peace agreements, not tepid delay, which only invites intransigence, unstable stalemate and, sometimes, disaster.

The way forward is as daunting as it is clear:

First, the consistent message to the north Serbs must be firm: ‘You are living in a fundamentally new situation. If you choose to cooperate, you will have the full support of the still-substantial international presence in Kosovo. And there are plenty of opportunities to make this situation work for you.  Among all actors, you alone retain the single most important advantage: your sizeable demographic dominance in the north.  As long as you don’t give that up, the way that the Sarajevo Serbs needlessly and foolishly did, you retain a huge asset that should provide substantial reassurance. The terms of agreements provide enormous opportunities for you to shape your destiny in Kosovo, keeping substantial control over your lives free from excessive interference from Pristina. On the other hand, if you choose to resist and reject, well, history suggests that your odds are not good.’

Second, after years of demonizing the Ahtisaari Agreement, the Serbian government now has the obligation of explaining its advantages. The EU must also do far more than it has to date – in partnership with the Serbian government – to explain the details of the agreement to the population of the north, and as well, to its partners in the international community, particularly in Mitrovica.

Consulting leaders in the north is fine (indeed, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s recent meetings seem to have achieved progress.) But slowing down implementation or deferring to spoilers would contravene some of the hardest won lessons in the region, and simply invite destabilizing grid lock. It is imperative to agree on a timetable and begin working on implementation without delay. All conditionality with respect to achieving EU aspirations – for both Belgrade and Pristina – must remain in place.

Even if the Serbs living in the north express no willingness to cooperate, the EU and its international partners, most notably KFOR, nonetheless have the responsibility to provide assurances to the population. And diplomats must continue to press Pristina to avoid the unseemly triumphalism seen after the 19 April deal was struck.

For its part, Pristina must send its own consistent signals that the north Serbs are welcome in the Republic of Kosovo, while Serbia (and the EU) take the lead in explaining the terms of the agreement. (Note that it was Alija Izetbegovic’s glaring failure to send a welcoming message to the Sarajevo Serbs during the transfer of Sarajevo municipalities in 1996 that contributed to the disastrous Serb exodus which followed. Bosniaks themselves continue to pay the price for this short-sighted policy, as the departure of the Serbs from the capital solidified Bosnia’s territorial division. Albanians in Kosovo, too, can learn from the mistakes seen in Bosnia; as unforeseen negative consequences will flow to Pristina if it abandons its commitments to the Serb community, in particular, if it even begins to take seriously calls for unity with Albania.)

Finally, for those concerned about avoiding more conflict in Kosovo, the key is to remember the core point: the status quo in the north is neither stable nor productive. Whatever responsibility that Albanians have, Serb figures in the north bear enormous, continuing responsibility for the situation. Serbs must accept their own responsibility for the parlous condition and lack of perspective in the north. Indeed, if ever there were a piece of territory and a people who could benefit from the sweeping change of a landmark compromise, it is the Serbs living in the north of Kosovo. The duty of interested outsiders is to help the population see that its interests lie in embracing this change, not fleeing from it. Implementation won’t be easy by any means; but failing to confront the bracing truth, or learning from the mistakes of the past, won’t make it any easier.


Edward P. Joseph is  a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations. He brings extensive field and conflict experience in key foreign policy theatres to his writing and speaking. Edward served on the ground in the Balkans throughout the conflict period, from 1992 to 2003, including as the Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo until autumn 2012.