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

Serbia: Kosovo Document Less Than It Seems

Government rules out independence for Kosovo in a move seen as a bid to curry favour with voters.
By Tanja Matic

The Serbian parliament has given its backing to a declaration that Kosovo will not be allowed to become independent, but the controversial document may have more to do with domestic electioneering than with scuppering forthcoming talks on the province.

The declaration, which parliament approved on August 27, maintains that as far as Belgrade is concerned, Kosovo will only ever get autonomous status within Serbia. And even that will only be discussed once “all provisions of [United Nations] Security Council Resolution 1244 are fulfilled”, namely when the Serbian army and displaced Serb civilians are allowed to return.

The document got a lot of publicity in Serbia, and there was some fiery rhetoric. In language redolent of the Milosevic era, Serbian prime minister Zoran Zivkovic urged parliamentarians to vote for it to “demonstrate a resolve to protect Kosovo with courage, wisdom and unity”.

Deputy prime minister Nebojsa Covic, who is in charge of Serbia’s liaison office with Kosovo, met leaders of the Orthodox church – still regarded as embodying the national spirit – to win their blessing for the document. As it went through parliament, the church issued its own statement calling Kosovo a Serbian Jerusalem.

The first ever talks between Belgrade and Pristina are scheduled for September. They will deal only with low-level issues such as identity cards, vehicle registration and electricity supplies.

The declaration was presented as Serbia’s official position for the talks, and its explicit refusal to countenance anything like the independence the Kosovo Albanians are seeking looked like a move to limit the scope for negotiation.

It certainly raised a few hackles in Kosovo. Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi dismissed the document, saying it will “only be valid for Serbia and Montenegro, but not for Kosovo”. Ramush Haradinaj, who heads Kosovo’s third biggest Albanian party, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, said independence should be declared as soon as possible.

But many believe that in reality, the declaration will have little impact on future discussions over the running of Kosovo, and is really no more than a tactical move designed to deflect the Serbian electorate’s attention away from a series of scandals involving the ruling DOS coalition in Belgrade. The coalition may soon be forced to call early elections, and Kosovo makes a convenient bandwagon since it is back on the agenda following an upsurge in attacks on Serbs living in the province.

“The overarching reason why parliament adopted the declaration on Kosovo and Metohija is domestic politics,” Djordje Vukadinovic, editor in chief of the political quarterly Nova Srpska Politicka Misao, told IWPR. “Serbia’s political elite wanted to pacify the Serbian public, which is upset over the terrorist attacks on Serbs in Kosovo, and thus to demonstrate its concern for the Serbs living there.

“The consensus with which the declaration was announced does not mean that a consensus really exists on the issue either among the political elite or among the DOS leadership. Neither Serbia nor the international community have any idea what should happen to [the protectorate] – unlike the Albanians, who have a real, total consensus on an independent Kosovo.”

Political analyst Ivan Torov, writing in the daily Politika last week, agreed that the declaration was less about Kosovo and more about reaching “an inter-party consensus on one important issue, and forestalling an international community that has no idea what to do with Kosovo”.

“It may score some political points ahead of an election,” he said. “It may also be about certain political, economical and social traumas that Serbia is currently going through, but in the long run, it stands a good chance of running into a brick wall.”

The international community was dismissive of the impact the Serbian document would have. Harri Holkeri, the new head of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, insisted that such moves by Serbia would make no difference when the status issue was eventually discussed, “This may sound repetitious, but the future status of Kosovo will be decided in the UN Security Council, and not in Belgrade or Pristina.”

UNMIK spokeswoman Izabella Karlowicz told IWPR that Belgrade’s new stance would have no effect on the September talks, because they will be about practicalities and not final status issues.

Some Serbian politicians admit in private that the fixed view the declaration presents of a settlement for the province cannot be imposed on the international community.

One Western diplomat told IWPR that during an unofficial meeting with a senior Serbian government official a month ago, he had been told that Belgrade would not insist on keeping the protectorate within Serbia. “It is true, but no one has the courage to admit it publicly, since Kosovo is a sensitive issue and this kind of admission would mean political suicide for anyone who admits it,” the diplomat said.

This view is confirmed by Vukadinovic, who told IWPR, “there have been signs that the Serbian government was ready to accept realities on Kosovo to a much greater extent than the declaration would suggest. But because of the numerous scandals, it has lost much of the domestic public support that it would have needed to address the Kosovo issue seriously.”

Kosovo has traditionally been used as a electioneering platform in Serbia. In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic began his rise to power on the issue. His successors Vojislav Kostunica and Zoran Djindjic turned their backs on his methods, but both used Serbia’s historical claim to Kosovo to drum up support.

Tanja Matic is IWPR Project Coordinator in Kosovo. Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor in Belgrade.