Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Belgrade Plan Unworkable

Autonomous enclaves cannot help most Kosovo Serbs who live scattered throughout the territory.
By Duska Anastasijevic

As elections in Kosovo take place for the third time under international auspices, Belgrade faces the same dilemma.

Should it meet international demands and urge Kosovo Serbs to vote, or, hiding behind the reluctance of hard-line Serbs from northern Kosovo to cooperate with the UN administration in Kosovo, UNMIK, tell Serbs their future will be brighter if they avoid the multiethnic institutions UNMIK is trying to build there.

In previous elections in Kosovo, all the political forces in Belgrade, however reluctantly, united to encourage local Serbs to take part. This time, Belgrade is divided.

Bolstered by appeals from the Serbian Orthodox Church, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica remains firm that Kosovo Serbs should boycott the election. On the other hand, President Boris Tadic (and Serbia and Montenegro’s foreign minister, Vuk Draskovic) have called on Serbs to participate.

The Kosovo Serb elite has been divided ever since the international community took over the protectorate. Nationalist opponents of Serb participation in the election - both in Kosovo and in Belgrade – insist engagement in Kosovo institutions equals recognition of the entity’s independence. This in turn only confuses the remaining Kosovo Serbs, who remain traumatised by the wave of violence in March.

So a large turnout of Kosovo Serbs, along the lines of previous elections, cannot be expected, though the community will still obtain ten guaranteed seats in the Kosovo parliament, reserved for minorities. However, a poor turnout will raise questions about the legitimacy of these representatives.

What lies behind the stubbornness of Kostunica is his obsessive determination to “sell” the Serbian government’s plan on the decentralisation of Kosovo - adopted immediately after the March violence - to the international community. Kostunica told the media a couple of weeks ago that it would have to be abandoned if the Kosovo Serbs’ participated in the election.

In effect, he was signalling to the international community that unless it accepted the plan he would call on the Kosovo Serbs to boycott the ballot.

The Serbian government’s proposal shows the political elite in Belgrade still believes it can treat the Kosovo issue as a sort of territorial dispute, neglecting the genuine interests of the Serbs in the province.

The plan on which Kostunica stubbornly insists is, in fact, inapplicable. It fails to take into account reality on the ground. It envisages the creation of five ethnically clean entities, where Kosovo Serbs would have autonomy and their own local government, courts and police forces.

Such an enterprise would resemble a concoction of the Israeli efforts to settle Jews in the West Bank. Moreover, the formation of these autonomous Serb enclaves in Kosovo is unfeasible without a mass transfer of the local population, which the international community would never stomach.

Take, for example, the municipality of Gnjilane, where over 12,000 Serbs still live in six entirely Serb, and 10 ethnically-mixed, villages, while in the town itself there are no more than about 30 Serbs.

The Serb villages are scattered to the west, north and south of Gnjilane. To form a compact “Serbian” region, about 20 Albanian villages would have to be included in the autonomous region. Even so, some villages with a Serb population would remain outside the proposed entity.

On top of this, the plan wrongly assumes that most of the 200,000 or so displaced Serbs (this being the figure used in official reports) will rush back to the province if these autonomous Serbian enclaves are established.

Such an assumption is wrong. Firstly, the total number of displaced Kosovo Serbs is smaller than the figure used in the official reports.

According to figures obtained by the independent think-tank, the European Stability Initiative, ESI, around 128,000 Serbs currently live in Kosovo. Belgrade does not dispute this number. According to the 1991 census, around 194,000 Serbs and around 20,000 Montenegrins then resided there. This means that there are not 200,000 but about 65,000 displaced Kosovo Serbs in Serbia proper. Most of these fled Kosovo’s urban areas, and many have now sold their property in cities and towns like Pristina and Pec.

In other words, contrary to the deeply-rooted perception in Serbia, about two-thirds of Kosovo’s pre-war Serb population remains there. It is the urban Serb population, with the exception of the northern Kosovska Mitrovica, which has virtually vanished.

This figure is corroborated by the facts presented in the ESI report. These show that of 63 Serb elementary schools in Kosovo, 47 are situated in villages with less than 5,000 inhabitants, the exceptions being Mitrovica, Kosovo Polje, Gracanica, Obilic, Lipljan, Kamenica, Vitina and Orahovac.

It is highly unlikely that the Serbs who left Kosovo’s cities and towns will ever be prepared to return to Kosovo and start a new life in a village.

Then again, the majority of remaining Serbs, living scattered throughout the province, are farmers who have not moved. Also, again in contradiction to the general public perception in Belgrade, most live in scattered communities to the south of the Ibar river, which divides Mitrovica into southern Albanian and northern Serbian sections.

The only place where the Serbian government’s plan might succeed is precisely in the north of Kosovo, where about 60,000 Serbs live, and Albanians are a minority.

In addition, this northern area of Kosovo receives abundant assistance from the Serbian government budget, the biggest recipients being the university and hospital in Mitrovica. This area is, at the same time, the centre of Serbian resistance to any integration into Kosovan institutions and is the place where one most often hears threats about a division of the protectorate if it were to gain independence.

This idea - of division - is shared by some political circles in Belgrade. So there is room for real concern that the Serbian government’s plan, which is inapplicable to other parts of Kosovo, is actually a disguised proposal, intended to divide the territory.

If this were the case, Belgrade seems prepared to show it would leave in the lurch about 70,000 Serbs living scattered in the south and centre of Kosovo, from Gracanica to Strpce, for the sake of making territorial gain.

The government in Belgrade needs to honestly reply to this question about its priority in Kosovo. What comes first: the people – or territory?

Dushka Anastasijevic is a Vreme journalist and also works for the European Stability Initiative in Belgrade.