Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Serb Municipalities can Help Salvage Serbia and Kosovo Relations

Dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo has made little progress for a decade, and the question of how to integrate Serb communities within Kosovo is unresolved. Tensions are flaring once again in northern Kosovo where these communities reside, and where Serbia operates many illegal parallel institutions. The threat of further violence is high. Now is a critical time for the European Union to re-initiate dialogue on implementing an Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM). Now is the time for the EU to take action to create a secure and stable Kosovo.

The war in Ukraine has shown that the EU must play a fundamental role in the region as a conflict mediator, and its role in the Western Balkans must be amplified to protect Europe from further destabilizing. Kosovo and Serbia are in a vicious cycle of crisis and conflict. It will not end until both countries are back at the negotiating table. Letting the dialogue on normalization continue stalled would be a strategic and dangerous error for the region. Neither country will be able to move forward with EU integration or advance their economies until they resolve their differences.

The Serb communities distrust the Kosovo government, as it has failed to provide them with security and justice. Aktiv, a local NGO, recorded three dozen attacks that targeted members of the Kosovo Serb community in the beginning of 2020. Most of these incidents were not prosecuted and were largely ignored by local media, which allows injustice against Kosovo Serbs to continue. Problems like these contribute to the Serbs’ sentiment that they cannot trust the central government, leading to further alienation and problems with other ethnic groups. Further, Serbs suffer from higher rates of poverty, and economic factors are a major cause of ethnic Serbs migrating from Kosovo to Serbia. The situation is untenable and requires action to prevent further injustice and instability.

Re-initiating dialogue on implementing Serbian municipalities is a crucial step to addressing the needs of Kosovo Serbs. Serb communities need to elect their own officials and have local bodies representing them. Creating additional channels of communication between Kosovo Serbs, Kosovo, and Serbia could lead to a greater Kosovo Serb voice in the overall dialogue process – a voice that has largely been missing so far. The dialogue could also generate more economic opportunities for Kosovo Serbs. It could lead to more equitable funding for development, infrastructure, and other types of assistance. Implementing Serbian municipalities would show that the international community and Kosovo care for the Kosovo Serb community, thereby improving trust.

As such, implementing Serbian municipalities – with proper adjustments and negotiations between all parties – could be a major success in the dialogue process and enable it to progress further. Doing so would increase stability in the region. It would normalize relations and decrease the likelihood of flare-ups in violence. Creating Serbian municipalities would also divert attention from more problematic ideas on Kosovo Serb integration, such as a territorial swap. This idea would be much more difficult to navigate and more destructive to the dialogue process. It would also undermine stability.

Serbian officials have also stated that they will stop blocking Kosovo’s EU membership if Serbian municipalities are implemented. Serbian municipalities would set Kosovo on a more concrete path to EU membership, increasing economic prosperity and political stability. It would improve the lives of all its citizens. It would lead to a Kosovo focused on integration into Western institutions, instead of flare-ups of violence. If Serbia stops blocking Kosovo’s EU integration, it will also be enabled to more closely integrate with the EU, which will likely increase its own economic prosperity.

Many worry that Serbian municipalities could lead to a Republika Srpska-like entity in Kosovo. EU and U.S. officials can prevent this scenario by providing expertise and political support. Kosovo, too, can provide a positive vision for the municipalities. There are already 14 different arrangements within the EU like the proposed municipalities in Kosovo, and they have not undermined countries’ sovereignty. An ASM would only seek to create municipalities with shared interests, language, and culture, improving the lives of Kosovo Serbs.

There has been little progress in the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia over the past decade: Now is the time for action. Before, the EU was a complacent actor, letting dialogue stall and tensions worsen. Now, it must take on its proper role as an active mediator, getting both parties to agree and working with the U.S. to help push Kosovo in the right direction. Creating Serbian municipalities will contribute to stability, improve the lives of Kosovo Serbs, and enable Kosovo to assume its rightful place in the EU.