Kosovo Serbs Announce Break With Belgrade

Serbia’s policy of urging Kosovo Serbs to boycott the Kosovo government is creating resentment among local Serb leaders. By Arben Qirezi in Pristina (BCR No 566, 22-Jul-05) A gap has opened up between the Serbian government and Kosovo Serb leaders after one of the latter said he will join the Albanian-dominated local assembly in defiance of Belgrade. Serbia’s position is clear-cut: no participation without extra guarantees. As Serbia’s president, Boris Tadic, put it recently, "Serbia is asking for a more active policy by the international community and for guarantees for the Serbs from the local authorities. Without this, Serb participation in Kosovo institutions would make no sense.”

Tadic was speaking after meeting the UN envoy, Kai Aide, who vainly urged Serbia's leadership to start persuading Kosovo Serbs to join local institutions.

But Oliver Ivanovic, head of the Serbian List for Kosovo and Metohija, SLKM, now says he fears that Serbia is using the issue as a political football, to the detriment of the real interests of Kosovo Serbs.

“Everything is being done … for internal wrangling,” he announced this week. “These calculations may cost a lot to the more than 100,000 Serbs who have decided to stay in Kosovo." Ivanovic announced that his group will now take up the eight seats that it holds, but has not occupied, in the Kosovo Assembly, and will formally announce a decision to join the government over the next few days.

The announcement marks a sharp break with SLKM policy, which was earlier characterised by a willingness to leave all the big policy decisions to Belgrade.

On the urging of the Serbian government, most Kosovo Serbs boycotted the elections to the assembly last October.

With less than 1,000 Serb voters casting their ballot, the SLKM and the Civic List Serbia, CLS, took the 10 seats that had been allocated to the Serb community, irrespective of the number of votes cast. The CLS, with two of the 10 seats, led by Nebojsa Petkovic, immediately joined the assembly and took over the ministry of returns and communities.

With the Kosovo government focusing hard on returnee programmes, Petkovic found himself managing the biggest single ministerial budget, worth 14 million euro in 2005 alone. The ministry of agriculture, which is also reserved for Kosovo Serbs, remained without a minister, however, because the SLKM decided to continue with the Belgrade-inspired boycott. Although the UN’s framework for governing the territory, the Constitutional Framework of Kosovo, says representatives who fail to appear at assembly meetings for more than six months should be dismissed, the UN mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, declined to enforce this provision, clearly hoping the SLKM would eventually change its mind. In the meantime, Petkovic criticised UNMIK for giving so much importance to the SLKM, instead of allowing the CLS, "which has shown good will to work within the institutions, to take over the remaining vacant seats in the assembly and the government". Ivanovic's previous position, that the SLKM could not make any decision on participation in Kosovo institutions without Serbia’s support, was a calculated tactic, some observers said, aimed at maximising the Serb position and at ensuring Belgrade was granted a major role in any final-status negotiations.

"Belgrade counted that a continuous boycott of Kosovo Serbs would enforce the argument that Serbs need their own self-government within Kosovo,” said Bekim Kastrati, a political analyst from Pristina.

“On the other hand, as a Belgrade-sponsored political group, the SLKM lacked the internal strength to take decisions on its own."

But Ivanovic’s latest statements suggest these calculations have lost much of their original force.

Serbia suffered a major loss of prestige last year after the international community rejected its plan to set up five autonomous Serb regions in Kosovo, linked to each other by corridors. In the ongoing deadlock, a view has clearly emerged in Kosovo that Belgrade is now simply reinforcing its own position at the expense of the Kosovo Serbs, whose dependence on Belgrade has left them without a credible voice. Arben Qirezi is IWPR/BIRN Kosovo editor.