23 March 2020

Everything started and ends in Kosovo?

Liviu Ioniţă

What could this be about? What started and will end in Kosovo? The first and foremost logical answer would be “Yugoslavia’s collapse”.

Image source: HEPTA/Mediafax Foto

Looking back at history, we could also talk about Serbia’s collapse, meaning Serbia’s hard time beginning, one of transformation into Ottoman Empire’s vassal, once with the Kosovo polje Battle, in 1389. If it was quite simple to give an answer for the first question, the second one raises some challenges.

A simplistic approach would impose a similar answer: Yugoslavia’s collapse ends with “Kosovo Republic” and Serbia Republic’s mutual recognition as independent states. But, given the context, we could witness “challenges” as well: the fear of continuing Republic of Serbia’s collapse or the fears (for many, the hope!) that the “Kosovo file” could be the proper moment to (re)open the “Srpska Republic file” from Bosnia and Herzegovina (SR BIH).

The factors presented so far referred to internal challenges, strictly tied to the Western Balkans space. But “Europe’s Powder keg” has a bigger potential currently, just like it had in the past, when it started the First World War. Now we are referring to Kosovo and Western Balkans’ role, in general, in geopolitics, in the fight between 21st century’s powers: US, EU, the Russian Federation or China, some battles being carried in states from the Balkan space.

A parallel state in Kosovo, in the communist Yugoslavia

The Constitution of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) from 1974 was a milestone moment.  Today’s Serbian historiography thinks that Constitution was the basis of SFRY’s disintegration process. Why? Because it offered a new status to the republics the Yugoslav state was composed of, practically, a state with its own governance. Here it is introduced the possibility for a republic to use its veto right, so the SFRY Parliament’s decision could only be adopted through consensus.

Also, the Serbia’s two autonomous provinces, Vojvodina and Kosovo, got a bigger autonomy, which included also Serbia’s Parliament “veto” right. Also, the provinces were recognized as federal units. Therefore, the provinces’ competences became more similar to republics (the difference was only a smaller number of deputies in the two chambers of the Yugoslav federal parliament and the lack of self-determination/secession right).

The supreme leader, Josip Broz “Tito”, got the president position of SFRY and supreme commander of the Yugoslav Popular Army and the “Muslims” got, for the first time ever, the nation status.

The new Constitution was not agreed in Serbia, due to the big decrease of its competences comparing with the two autonomous provinces. Therefore, more and more voices asked for Federal Constitution’s amendment, but also for Serbia’s.

As the new Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, gets the power, new radical changes take place. The leaderships in the two autonomous provinces are changed (1988) and, in 1989, they adopt new important amendments to Serbia’s Constitution, whereby it is drastically reduced provinces’ autonomy. The final breach is the new Constitution of Serbia, from September 1st 1990. Similar modification processes of the Republican constitutions were also developed in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia, in 1990. In Montenegro, a new constitution is adopted in 1992.

The first demonstrations in Kosovo, during the SFRY period, have started in 1981’s spring, under the catchphrase “Kosovo, republika”, but also the demand to recognize the Albanian community as nation (and not minority/ethny). Also then there were many claims and calls on the unification of all “Albanian” territories.  Belgrade’s authorities have set the necessity condition and the law enforcement forces, the police, the state security forces and the army (including tanks) have repressed the demonstrations, which ended in May 1981. There is no information on real number of the casualties and the death people resulted during the demonstrations, each side presenting its own version of the story.

After these events, the separation between the two communities in Kosovo, the Serbian and the Albanian, got deeper. Then have started some ethnic cleansing actions which have instigated or led the demonstration. Shortly after it started the processes, many people being convicted. So, it increases Albanian population’s intolerance to the institutions of the Yugoslav state, mostly the police, security and the army. 

Gradually, it starts a true segregation of Kosovo’s society, the Albanian population boycotting the national education system and getting less and less involved in the political and social life. Concurrently, the force structures develop increasingly strict control measures, also developing abuses. The Albanese ethnics find it more difficult to get a job, therefore unemployment becomes a serious issue for them. The employment of Serbian and Montenegrin ethnics instead of Albanian ethnics deepens the ethnical intolerance.

It is illegally proclaimed “Kosovo Republic” and Ibrahim Rugova is appointed its president. In 1994, it is founded the “Kosovo Liberation Army” (UÇK).

The Kosovo war

In 1996, UÇK attacks the Yugoslav and Serbian security forces for the first time.  Belgrade calls UÇK a terrorist organization, and the Albanian people from Kosovo calls it a guerrilla army, which fights against an invader, Serbia.

In 1988, UÇK already controls most of Kosovo and Metohija provinces’ territory, and Belgrade has to send a bigger and highly armed number of forces in the province (including the army, with tanks), which led to casualties among civilians.

In March 1999, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia[1] (Republic of Serbia and Republic of Montenegro) rejects NATO’s ultimatum and the North Atlantic Alliance starts with a military intervention against Yugoslavia, initially focusing on police objectives and the Yugoslav army. Despite initial estimations foreseeing that it will only last a couple of days, the intervention lasts 79 days and ends with many casualties among the civil population, but also with huge damages for the infrastructure (road and railway bridges, manufactures, administrative buildings, airports and airdromes facilities etc.). The intervention ends after Yugoslavia and NATO sign the Kumanovo Military Technical Agreement (09.06) and the adoption by the UN Security Council of the 1244 Resolution (10.06). The mentioned documents foresee the end of the armed conflict, UÇK’s disarmament, the withdrawal of the Yugoslav and Serbian security forces from the province, the establishment, in the province, of a temporary administration of UN (UNMIK) and the deployment of a military force led by NATO (KFOR) to guarantee the security conditions for UNMIK’s activity, for the edification of a democratic society and the establishment of proper conditions for negotiations seeking a final tenable solution.

The negotiations between the Serbian and the Kosovar Albanese parts, in different formats and with different international mediators, fails, therefore, on 17.02.2008, the Prishtina parliament unilaterally declares the independence of “Kosovo’s Republic”. It is quickly recognized by many states, including by most of NATO and EU’s states (except for Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain).

Can something negative be also a “plus”?

In the first half of 2020, there were talks on resuming the "dialogue" between Belgrade and Prishtina and ways of leading the "parties" to a compromise. For the moment, Prishtina’s resignation from the surtax seems to be enough for retaking the "dialogue". Such an evolution is desirable, because lacking contacts, tensions can increase and an incident can escalate. The resumption of the "dialogue" also creates premises for ignoring other unilateral radical measures, which will affect not only the relations between Belgrade and Prishtina or between Serbs and Albanians, but also the (still relatively fragile) stability of the region.

Under these conditions, the "Ahtisaari Plan plus, plus" is being carried out, seeking for a solution.

One can hardly give a final answer to this solution/question, as there are arguments both for the acceptance of the plan and against it. From both "sides". Moreover, it is not even defined what this plan might entail, as each political analyst has its own vision.

The “Ahtisaari Plan” (February- March 2007) foresees Kosovo’s supervised independence, offering, also, a series of guarantees on Serbians and Serbia’s properties in Kosovo (including of the Serbian Orthodox Church) and other rights and liberties of the Serbian communities in Kosovo. Among the relevant provisions of the “Ahtisaari Plan” we have: a civilian international representative, international military presence, the foundation or reorganization of municipalities to create six new “Serbian municipalities”, “protection zones” near the Serbian churches and monasteries and important Serbian cultural monuments, the enlargement of the “Serbian municipalities” competences.  

Although the “Ahtisaari Plan” had many provisions easing Serbian ethnics stay in Kosovo, it was rejected by the Serbian side due to provisions on independence, be it “supervised”. Thus, it did not get to be approved in UN’s Security Council, because the Russian Federation suggested that it could use its veto right.

It may be worth mentioning that not all Albanian forces in Kosovo were satisfied with this "Plan", because they rejected any idea of external control.

After the unilateral declaration of independence (17.02.2008), Prishtina started implementing plan’s provisions , regarding decentralization, minority rights and the establishment of "Serbian municipalities", many provisions being integrated in the "Constitution of the Republic of Kosovo" (as of June 2008).

What could the "Ahtisaari plus, plus plan" provide? It is possible to depart from the "Brussels Agreement" (from April 2013), which, following the "Ahtisaari Plan" model, provided for a larger autonomy for the Serbian communities, by establishing the Association of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo (ZSO, which has broad, legislative, executive and even representative competences).

Therefore, the new plan could provide a bigger ZSO autonomy, similar or even the same with Srpska Republic from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Alternatively, Serbia would be asked (again) to stop blocking Kosovo’s access to UN and other relevant regional and international organizations (EU, NATO, OSCE, Interpol) and accept (even discretely!) the independence of its former province.

Regardless of what the modified “Ahtisaari Plan” provides, it is almost certain that it has to do with a series of provisions and rights for the Serbian community, but in an “independent Kosovar state”. This can hardly be accepted by Belgrade, especially if they would ask for its explicit recognition.

It is less likely that, in the current international context (the revoking or suspension, in the last two years, of many states of their previous recognition decision on Kosovo’s independence, the consolidation of the partnership between Belgrade and Moscow, an emergent economic cooperation between Serbia and China) or internally (the economic makeover of Serbia), Belgrade’s authorities will accept such a plan with no solid guarantees on provisions’ implementation related to Serbians from Kosovo’s liberties and rights and the provision of Kosovo’s Serbian church properties. Even if there would be such availability from the current governors, it is unlikely for such a plan to not be validated through a referendum in Serbia.

Also, it is unlikely that the new Prishtina government, which is threatening Serbia with “full mutuality”, complaints on the genocide and the war compensation payment, could accept the legislative or executive competences for ZSO.

Therefore, there are less chances for such a plan to bring additional elements to that plan for all parts to agree with it.

Kosovo can (still) fluster waters in the region

One of the arguments of the former Prishtina governments to reject the ZSO establishment agreement with broad powers is precisely the fear that it will not turn into a federal/confederal structure, such as the "Serbian entity" in Bosnia and Herzegovina (RS BiH).

Currently, however, we have new re-enactments of topics of different "models" applied by the "international community" for Kosovo and, respectively, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). It is noteworthy that the Serbian side is the most discontent, because they would have been used double standards. Thus, according to the Serbs, while in Bosnia and Herzegovina the Serbs are forced by the international community to live in a state they did not want, do not want and are unlikely to want in the near future, in their other case accepted the unilateral declaration of independence, even before the "standards" (to ensure the protection of minorities, especially that of the Serbian community) had been met.

Given the need to organize a (new) international conference to bring reconciliation to the Western Balkans and to resolve the "Kosovo" and "Bosnia and Herzegovina" files, there are "pro" and "against" arguments. In addition, the most important Serb politician in BiH, Milorad Dodik (former prime minister and president of RS BiH, currently a representative of this entity in the BiH Presidency and chairman of the most important Serb party in BiH, Social Alliance of Independent Democrats/SNSD) supports the establishment of ZSO in Kosovo and a possible independence recognition for (a part of) Kosovo must be included in the independence of RS BiH. Such a solution would require northern Kosovo to stay in Serbia and RS BiH to unite with Serbia.

When M.Dodik made such a statement (September 2019), some analysts thought it might be one of the separation or delimitation options between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, mentioned on several occasions by the Serbian president , A.Vučić, but never explained. The establishment of the ZSO is understood.

The beginning of 2020 further "increased" M.Dodik's rhetoric favouring Republic of Srpska’s secession. Because recently the BiH Constitutional Court invalidated a provision of a law passed by the Republic of Srpska’s Parliament and ruled that agricultural land does not belong to the entity, but must be tabulated on behalf of the state, meaning Bosnia and Herzegovina. M. Dodik, the Republic of Srpska’s government and most of the Serb parties in RS BiH criticized this decision, calling it an unprecedented dangerous attack on the Dayton/Paris Peace Agreement (DPPA, November- December 1995) and announced that this decision will not be implemented (as many other decisions of this court have not been implemented). Moreover, M. Dodik again said that such decisions would disintegrate the BiH state. Accordingly, the entity's parliament ordered not only the implementation of court’s decision mentioned in Sarajevo, but asked the executive of the entity and Serbian representatives in the central institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina to reform the Constitutional Court of BiH and to remove from this court the three foreign judges, as well as to prevent any other decisions directed against the DPPA provisions.

Are we going to witness a “bigger Albania” or a “bigger Kosovo”?

As for the "Kosovo file", the Serbian side condemns the international community for facilitating the establishment of a pan-Albanian state, known as "Greater Albania", "Natural Albania" or "Greater Kosovo".

To support these allegations, Serbian politicians and analysts bring arguments such as the platforms and statements of Albanian political leaders in Albania, Kosovo and even in northern Macedonia, their coordination in a number of areas, as well as a series of measures taken by Tirana and Prishtina for the harmonization of foreign policies and the common use of diplomatic representations, the maximum reduction of customs controls at the common border or the close cooperation in several areas. A relevant example, in Serbs’ perspective, is that the foreign minister of Albania is an ethnic Albanian from Kosovo.

Occasionally, Tirana's political leaders (including current Prime Minister, Edi Rama) warn the international community, especially the EU, that Albanians in Albania and Kosovo will have to move to the "physical union" of the two "states", if the accession process to EU of these two states is not hastened. However, it is unlikely that Western partners in Albania and Kosovo will accept such a move, as it could cause large reactions, with unpredictable consequences not only for Western Balkans region’s security, but for the entire continent.

Such a physical union is also problematic from the perspective of the future organization of the reunited state. Which would the capital be, how would the important functions be divided, etc.

Seeking solutions

Indeed, Kosovo is an important political, diplomatic, economic and security “file”, included also as an equally important piece in world’s geopolitics.  Many analysts are claiming that big powers, through their position on this matter, are settling their scores and creating advantages for negotiations in other important “files”.

2020 has the chance, alike the last 3-4 years also had it, but did not implement it, to be the “decisive year” for the “Kosovar” file solution. Also true is that anything can happen at any time to block the dialogue between parts and to postpone the implementation of already agreed agreements. Also, Kosovo’s status can hardly suffer quick and significant changes in the EU accession process. Not just because of the slow and few reforms in Kosovo, but also due to the issues the Union is facing, Brexit’s effects and the migration crisis, the clearer definition and implementation of enlargement methodology up to the malign mixture of other factors (the Russian – in the political and security field, or the Chinese – in the commercial and economic areas).

Due to the tergiversation of identifying and implementing a final, tenable solution, Kosovo’s citizens, and even those in the region, are the ones to lose the most, regardless of nationality. Big investors are quite rare, products, capital and people’s circulation is disadvantaged, there is a lot of money allocated to defence costs, instead of investing more in the edification and development of all types of infrastructures. Furthermore, young generations are still educated in a confrontational manner, and the breach between ethnical communities gets deeper: new generations have less direct contact, they do not know the language of the other “part” and have no interest in intercultural communication.  From this point there is just one step to “radicalization” (for ethnical, religious or even social reasons), as any dialogue gets replaced with confrontation.

An improved “Ahtisaari Plan” could get accepted by the Serbians and Serbia only under specific conditions, to be (almost) simultaneously met: strong security guarantees for the Serbian community in Kosovo (freedom of circulation, private and churches’ properties security), real local autonomy (education correlated to Serbia’s education system, the abidance of the ethnical proportion in the local administration, focusing on police and justice fields), the identification of new methods for the property rights on vital systems (water and energy supply, especially in Serbian population areas), the provision of Serbia and Kosovo’s quick access to EU, with no explicit recognition of “Kosovo Republic” independence (however, Serbia would give up blocking Kosovo’s access to relevant regional or international organizations, like EU, OSCE, NATO, UN, UNESCO, Interpol etc.).

Such a solution could only be implemented through intense common efforts from all interested parts, firstly from Serbia, Kosovo, US and EU, but also from other “secondary factors”, like Albania. Such a solution, however, requires time, as there are also involved intermediary phases, which ask for reforms for the real democratization of the Serbian and Kosovo societies and reconciliation.

But there are no radical signs for reconciliation, as long as both former belligerent parties in Kosovo do not admit that representatives of both Serbian and Albanian communities have committed war crimes and have not been punished, and, instead, each party only highlights the elements that make them agree. The Serbian side emphasizes that its institutions acted accordingly with the legal framework and imposed the constitutional order, while the Albanian side considers that it had the right to fight by any means against an invader, including by methods and means that can be qualified today as terrorist. There is no doubt, however, that members of both communities (Serbs and Albanians) have committed atrocities that can be described as war crimes in Kosovo.

Belgrade officials say they informed the participants in the 1999 war about the provisions of international humanitarian law and took measures to investigate and punish suspects who committed war crimes, most of them being submitted to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, from Hague (ICTY), and some being tried and convicted by the specialized national court. Following serious international pressures, Prishtina accepted the establishment and collaboration with an international court (based in Hague) for the trial of war crimes committed by former UÇK fighters. This court has not initiated any trial at the moment, as in Hague preliminary investigations are underway (hearings of suspects and witnesses).

Given the lack of trust, not only between the ethnic communities in some states, but also between the states, an initiative to ensure the free circulation in the Western Balkans, for people, capital, goods and services, also called "Little Schengen" and considered positive by the EU and the US, is regarded with suspicion (mainly by Phristina and Podgorica). Such an approach cannot support a solution to region’s problems.

The German and American pragmatism could also contribute to a tenable solution, placing their economic interest, respectively the cooperation of both communities (and even of all nations in the region) before the ethnical reconciliation to increase the living and ease the economic and trade exchange. Germany proved such thing through the “Berlin Process” and US through their initiatives to restart the air and railway traffic between Belgrade and Prishtina and by supporting the already started project of the Niš-Prishtina highway.

To contradict even more that everything started and ends in Kosovo, some analysts think that Yugoslavia’s collapse could have two more subsequent “episodes”: the secession of Sandžak / Raška[2] area or even the secession of Vojvodina province. However, we think that there are less chances for the two processes to happen, and Kosovo’s secession may end up being the last episode of the former Yugoslav state’s dissolution.

Translated by Andreea Soare


[1] Established in 1992 by Republic of Serbia and the Republic of Montenegro.

[2] The Sandžak region (in Serbia, it is better known as the Raška region) is a former administrative region from the Ottoman Empire, currently divided into two areas from Serbia (it includes six municipalities: Nova Varoš, Novi Pazar, Pribo, Prijepolje, Sjenica and Tutin) and from Montenegro (includes the municipalities: Andrijevica, Berane, Bijelo Polje, Plav, Pljevlja and Rožaje), with a majority or significant Bosnian population (Muslim religion).