Much of the coverage of this week’s decision by the International Steering Group to grant Kosovo full sovereignty from September has touched on the implications for local Serbs. Will Kosovo’s Serb population, especially above the Ibar river in the contested north, face harassment or threats?
Many reports have been quick to point out that NATO peacekeepers and the European Union’s rule of law mission will continue to monitor conditions on the ground. This sustained presence is vital, especially with the majority-Serb north looking more combustible by the day. But let’s be careful not to exaggerate the security risks in Kosovo while missing the progress on integration and inter-ethnic relations in recent years.
South of the Ibar river, four majority-Serb municipalities have been created since 2009. These municipalities participate in local elections, have functioning governments, and are by many accounts integrating into Kosovo’s state-building process and increasingly accepting of Kosovo institutions. At the same time, the so-called “parallel” governing structures funded by Belgrade – everything from schools to hospitals – are weakening in these areas.
“In 2011, this bolstered social development throughout Kosovo while relieving inter-ethnic tensions in most of the country,” according to the Freedom House think tank’s Nations in Transit report 2012.
Moreover, last October the European Commission granted Pristina the coveted “visa dialogue” due to progress on conditions for refugee returnees.
Certainly, many challenges remain. Northern Kosovo, especially the divided city of Mitrovica, is a political no man’s land and interethnic flashpoint where violence is all too common, the population rejects Kosovo institutions, and parallel structures are entrenched. There are also many obstacles to refugee returns throughout the young country, as TOL correspondent Uffe Andersen points out in a recent and comprehensive report.
But when the Steering Group’s International Civilian Office closes up shop in Pristina next September, interethnic tensions won’t suddenly erupt. The transition is largely political, an international nod to Kosovo’s state-building efforts after over a decade of supervision.
It won’t change the power dynamics in the north, where no one is really in control now. And, in larger Kosovo, the security landscape just isn’t that unstable or acrimonious. When a border dispute broke out in northern Kosovo last year, top officials in Pristina got on the phone to reach out to leaders in the new Serb municipalities south of the Ibar. Truth is, Belgrade, the northern Kosovo Serbs, and even some of the so-called “internationals” on bloated pay packages exaggerate the risks in Kosovo because they’re invested in the perception of its instability.
Photo of the Newborn monument in Pristina from Flickr