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EUROPEAN UNION TODAY
Deadlock in Serbia-Kosovo Talks
05 Apr 2013
Serbia and Kosovo failed to reach agreement on 2 April 2013 on the status of the Serbian population in majority-Albanian Kosovo. This setback in the normalisation of Serbia-Kosovo relations follows several rounds of EU-facilitated talks between Serbian Prime Minister, Ivica Dacic, and Kosovan Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci.
The EU-facilitated dialogue between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo began in March 2011, three years after Kosovo’s declaration of independence. The initial talks focused only on technical questions and after several rounds made some progress on issues like the recognition of university diplomas and trade. A major breakthrough came in February 2012, when the two sides agreed how to manage their border and on how Kosovo can represent itself at regional meetings. A week later, the European Council agreed to formally grant candidate status to Serbia, a major milestone in the country’s path to EU accession.
Talks stalled in mid-2012 because of elections in Serbia, which saw the pro-EU liberals losing power to President Tomislav Nikolic (a former radical nationalist of the centre-right Serbian Progressive Party) and Prime Minister Ivica Dacic (leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia, which was founded by Slobodan Milosevic). The history of Serbia’s new leaders caused some alarm among European politicians and media, but they have committed their government to EU integration and have demonstrated an unexpected degree of pragmatism in their approach to Kosovo.
In October 2012, Catherine Ashton jump-started the dialogue between the two sides by bringing Dacic and Thaci together for the first time. This was quite an achievement considering the background of the two politicians: Hashim Thaci was a guerrilla commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army and Ivica Dacic was the wartime spokesman for Slobodan Milosevic. Since then, she has chaired eight rounds of talks in Brussels with the two Prime Ministers and has been committed to overcoming the differences between the two sides.
The first tangible outcome of these newly invigorated, high-level discussions came in December 2012, when Serbia and Kosovo agreed to jointly manage crossing points on their disputed border and to send liaison officers to each other’s capitals. The next issue on the agenda was, however, the much more sensitive one of the status of Northern Kosovo, which has been under the de facto control of Belgrade since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008. This area consists of four Serb-majority municipalities that do not recognise the independence of Kosovo and that remain beyond the control of the Kosovan authorities because Belgrade funds their public services and administration, including town councils, health services and the education system. The local Serbs are strongly opposed to integration within the Kosovan system. In February 2012, over 99% of the population declared in a locally-organised referendum that they do not recognise the authority of the government in Pristina.
The Central Issue – Serbs in Kosovo
The Serbian government began the year by adopting a remarkably conciliatory approach to the issue of Kosovo’s territorial integrity. Prime Minister Dacic called on Serbs to ‘accept the reality’ in Kosovo and acknowledge that Belgrade had lost control of its former province. On 13 January 2013, the Serbian parliament voted to adopt newguidline for negotiations with Pristina that called for broad autonomy for the Serbs living within Kosovo’s borders. The vote reiterated that Serbia does not recognise Kosovo’s independence but, by calling for Serb autonomy within Kosovo, the negotiation platform implicitly recognised Kosovo’s territorial integrity and its jurisdiction over its northern region. This marked a radical departure from Serbia’s traditional approach of rejecting outright the legitimacy of Pristina’s control over Kosovo. The aim of securing Serbia’s ‘European future’ alongside the preservation of Serbia’s territorial integrity was acknowledged in the parliamentary resolution.
Talks on the status of Serbs within Kosovo began in February 2013 and strong differences between the two sides quickly emerged. The Serbian side called for an Autonomous Community of Serbian Municipalities, comprising the North and the six Serb-majority municipalities elsewhere in Kosovo. These municipalities would have executive and legislative powers, with maximum powers over local courts and police, but would be integrated into Kosovo’s legal and political system. In exchange for this, Belgrade would dismantle the “parallel” structures that it has been financing in northern Kosovo. In February, Prime Minister Dacic said ‘What Belgrade wants is to put new institutions run by the community of Serb municipalities in their place… This community should have significant authority, make Serb self-government possible and play an important role in the political life of Kosovo’.
Pristina is cautious about the degree of autonomy it is willing to give to Kosovo’s Serb communities. In March, Prime Minister Thaci said that, despite Belgrade’s insistence, Pristina could not agree to a community of Serb municipalities having executive and legislative powers within Kosovo. The Kosovan side insisted that the Serb communities must operate within Kosovo’s constitution, which would mean no separate judicial or police system. The government in Pristina is particularly wary about giving territorial autonomy to the Serb municipalities of North Kosovo, which could in future threaten secession. Belgrade’s proposal to make all Serb-majority municipalities, including those in the south of Kosovo that are currently integrated into the state system, autonomous would make it more difficult for the Serb Community to break away from Kosovo because it would not be territorially contiguous. However, Pristina is also concerned that uniting all Serbs in a single autonomous Community of Municipalities would radicalise the southern Serbs, who, unlike their northern co-nationals, currently accept Kosovo’s independence and participate in its political system.
The 55-65,000 Serbs of North Kosovo are the wild card in these delicate talks. They were not represented in the dialogue, but they would be the main group affected by the outcome. The Serbs of North Kosovo have been staunchly opposed to integration into the political and legal structures of Kosovo since the 2008 declaration of independence. At the start of the talks, they insisted that the Serbian-funded institutions must remain in North Kosovo as they ‘have been and remain the main guarantor of the survival of the Serbs in Kosovo’. In March, a senior Serbian official arguedthat the representatives of northern Kosovo municipalities would certainly not accept being governed by Kosovan laws and would insist on maintaining ties with the institutions of the Republic of Serbia. Deadly outbursts of violence in North Kosovo have in the past two years proven the ability of the local Serbs to destabilise Serbia-Kosovo relations and derail Serbia’s EU accession process. It is, therefore, necessary that the Serbs of North Kosovo accept any deal reached between the governments in Belgrade and Pristina.
On 2 April, Prime Ministers Dacic and Thaci met for the eighth and final time under the framework of the EU-facilitated dialogue in Brussels. However, the division on the question of the degree of autonomy that should be granted to Kosovo’s Serbs proved insurmountable on this occasion. After the twelve hours of talks, Catherine Ashton describedthe differences between the two sides as ‘very narrow, but deep’. The two Prime Ministers have said that there is still time left to reach agreement and that there will be more talks in Belgrade to try to reach a solution. The outcome of these talks must square the circle of affirming Kosovo’s territorial integrity, while granting local Serbs a sufficient degree of autonomy to give them a sense of ownership over their own fate.
EU conditionality has proven effective to this point in encouraging the two sides to overcome their differences, but insisting now on the normalisation of the situation in northern Kosovo as a precondition for advancing with talks could prove costly in the long run. In neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina, the EU’s rigorous application of conditionality has blocked the country’s progress for over a year and removed short-term incentives for internal political reform and stability. If Serbia and Kosovo were both to proceed on the path of EU membership, it would almost certainly make the normalisation of their relations less difficult. However, the argument for relaxing conditionality is unlikely to find much support among EU Member States, who are wary of opening the door of the EU to a frozen conflict.
A further destabilising factor in Serbia-Kosovo relations has emerged over the course of the recent negotiations and could feature more prominently in the future. Kosovan politicians are increasingly making a link between the situation in North Kosovo and that in Serbia’s Presovo Valley, which is home to over 55,000 Albanians. Both Albanians in the Presovo Valley and politicians in Kosovo have called for reciprocity between rights given to Serbs in North Kosovo and Albanians living in Serbia. The Presovo Valley experienced an outbreak of ethnic tension in January 2013 when Serbian police removed a memorial to fallen Albanian fighters. However, Serbia is firmly opposed to granting any autonomy to Albanians in its southern regions because this could open up similar demands from other minority ethnic groups, for example Bosniaks in Serbia’s Sandzak region. Demands to match any rights given to Serbs living in Kosovo with ones for Presovo’s Albanians could therefore cause problems in the case of agreement being reached between Belgrade and Pristina.
This week’s deadlock comes ahead of a 16 April progress report by High Representative Ashton and the European Commission that will help EU leaders decide whether to open membership talks with Serbia in June 2013. A positive decision in this respect would mark another important step on the country’s path to eventual EU membership. However, since the EU demands the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo as a prerequisite to this, failure to reach agreement over the next week could block Serbia’s progress towards the EU yet again.
A report on Kosovo’s reform progress and its commitment to the normalisation of relations with Serbia is also expected on 16 April 2013. A deal between Belgrade and Pristina would enable the European Commission to propose that negotiations begin on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with Kosovo. This would represent the first step in a long road to eventual EU membership and would be a huge boost for Kosovo, which is still not recognised by five EU Member States.
There is therefore a lot at stake for Serbia, Kosovo and the EU. If Belgrade and Pristina fail to reach agreement in advance of the 16 April progress reports, it will likely block their path towards European integration for the foreseeable future, which would almost certainly have wider political and economic consequences. This would be a particularly lamentable setback given the progress that has occurred over the past few months: the fact that the two sides are meeting and that Serbia has adopted a very pragmatic approach to talks with Kosovo are very positive developments that could easily be undone.
As an independent forum, the Institute does not express any opinions of its own. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author.