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Kosovo Decentralisation Plan Under Fire

Opposition complains the pilot scheme will reinforce Serb enclaves and cost too much money.
By Zana Limani

Plans by Kosovo’s government to decentralise power in five municipalities have run into sharp criticism from the territory’s opposition parties.

They say the scheme, unveiled on February 22, is tantamount to endorsing the effective division of local government on ethnic lines and is too costly.

The attacks mean a vigorous debate on the decentralisation plan is likely when it is discussed in the Kosovo parliament on March 10.

Under the pilot scheme (which if successful, will be applied elsewhere) five new municipalities will be created, in which local elected officials will wield the same powers currently enjoyed by the existing municipal councils.

Gracanica, a Serb enclave eight kilometres southeast of Pristina, will be one of the new municipalities. Another will be Partesh, a mainly Serb community near Gjilan/Gnjilane.

The other three are the ethnic Turkish village of Mamusha, near Prizren and two ethnic Albanian communities, Junik in Decan/Decani and Hani i Elezit in Kacanik.

The plan is that the new municipal bodies will function for a trial period of 18 months. If judged successful, they will take part in the 2006 local elections.

Lutfi Haziri, minister for local government, said the trial period was just that, an experiment.

“If after the period of 18 months, Gracanica, say, does not succeed in administering itself appropriately, it will no longer be a municipality but [return to being] a normal village,” he said.

The plan met prompt condemnation from the opposition, led by Hashim Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, however.

He and his deputies walked out of the Kosovo assembly on February 23 when the speaker refused to put the decentralisation plan up for immediate debate.

At a press conference held later, Jakup Krasniqi, head of the PDK parliamentary group, said the plan was illegal.

“Neither the Constitutional Framework [for Provisional Self-Government in Kosovo] nor UNMIK regulations on municipal government allow for the creation of new municipalities,” Krasniqi insisted.

Krasniqi said decentralisation was being forced through on ethnic lines, so sustaining the current Serbian enclaves and contributing to Kosovo’s potential territorial division.

However, Arben Qirezi, the government’s spokesperson, said that the decentralisation project would, in fact, lead to the breakdown of isolated, sealed-off, Serb enclaves.

“Gracanica and other Serb enclaves will have no need for parallel structures because the government will get public services closer to the inhabitants through this project,” he said.

Qirezi added that the new pilot municipalities would be more like sub-municipalities within existing municipalities, so their existence could not be used to sanction any changes to Kosovo’s external borders.

The spokesman pointed out that Kosovo’s previous administration had laid the groundwork for the changes.

“The local reform framework, which was a base for this project, was approved in July 2004 by the PDK and by Krasniqi himself who was public services minister at the time,” Qirezi said.

Enis Halimi, a political analyst, said decentralisation was a positive process in principle even if current political circumstances in Kosovo meant the timing was probably wrong.

“The lack of [final] status definition and [Kosovo’s] poverty mean this project is doomed to failure,” Halimi warned.

Halimi said that while Kosovo’s final status remained on hold and most authority was in the hands of international bodies, there was little power to devolve or decentralise.

“To decentralise before [final] status will raise fears in the public that the process is being done to legalise Serb enclaves like Gracanica, which so far have supported [the return of] Belgrade rule in Kosovo,” Halimi said.

Steve Duchene, a delegate of the Local Democracy Agency of Kosovo, based in Kosovo, disagreed, saying Kosovo stood to gain from the decentralisation process.

“Albanians must be ready to give something to Serbs, just as the Macedonians gave something to Albanians, and we know decentralisation has stabilised Macedonia,” Duchene said.

His remarks referred to the 2001 Ohrid peace deal that awarded substantial powers to Macedonia’s local authorities, including those in the mainly ethnic Albanian west.

“Everywhere in the world governments lose something during the decentralisation process but they do it because with it, they also gain stability,” Duchene added.

While some Albanians complain that Pristina is giving away too much, most Serb officials have taken the opposite line, saying decentralisation does not go far enough if it does not include powers over the courts and police.

Dusan Janjic, of Belgrade’s Forum for Ethnic Relations, says, “Local government reforms should include powers over the judiciary and security, meaning municipal courts and municipal police.”

However, judicial and police powers in Kosovo remain in the hands of UNMIK and while there are no clear plans for their transfer to the Kosovo government, they can hardly be transferred to municipal level.

Criticism of the local government reforms is not limited to concern about their ethnic character. Other complaints turn on the question of finances.

Writing in the daily Koha Ditore on March 2, Ibrahim Rexhepi, an economic analyst, said the new municipalities would add to the heavy burden on central government funds.

“This year’s budget doesn’t have anything planned for new municipalities and hardly any of these new municipalities have strong enough local economies to support themselves,” Rexhepi said.

“Even if [foreign] donations are found for this year, [they] won’t continue every year and the government has no plan of how to further finance and subsidise the extra administration needed for these municipalities,” he added.

Such arguments fuel the worries of analysts such as Halimi. “Projects like these need plenty of resources,” he said. “Kosovo is already poor and if all the expenses go on the Kosovo budget, there simply won’t be enough money.”

Zana Limani and Arben Salihu are IWPR journalists.