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The Association of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo: it’s neither a Republika Srpska nor an NGO, but rather a classic Brussels compromise

01 September 2015

The Association of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo: it’s neither a Republika Srpska nor an NGO, but rather a classic Brussels compromise

On August 25, at a meeting of the so-called high-level political dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the European Union's High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, "facilitated" a set of four agreements that frees up the way towards full implementation of the April 2013 agreement on normalization of relations between the two countries and unblocks the opening of the first chapters in Serbia's negotiation process to enter the EU.

 The most important of these agreements by far forges a compromise on the "general principles/main elements" to establish an Association/Community of Serb (-majority) Municipalities in Kosovo (http://eeas.europa.eu/statements-eeas/docs/150825_02_association-community-of-serb-majority-municipalities-in-kosovo-general-principles-main-elements_en.pdf). The formation of this Association/Community is the main unimplemented part of the 2013 agreement.

 It is too early to assess the August 25 agreement on the Association/Community in full detail. As is the case with previous EU "facilitated" Kosovo-Serbia dialogue compromises, we got the usual regional spin on it. As if no joint agreement had been signed, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić insisted his government had succeeded in its demand that the Association/Community get executive powers, while Kosovo’s Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Isa Mustafa and Hashim Thaçi respectively, insisted the deal confers on the Association/Community the status of an NGO. On domestic political terrain, the Kosovo government declared it had successfully defended the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity, while the opposition accused the government of treason for having agreed to the creation of a Republika Srpska-like autonomous entity in violation of Kosovo's constitution. The civic movement turned opposition party, Vetëvendosje, announced it would resist implementation of the Brussels agreement. Noticeably absent from its statement, however, was a commitment not to engage in violence.

 In my view, the character and impact of the agreement is best judged by the internal logic of the key actor – the EU – as well as by the likely future development of the Association/Community in the context of EU-US policy. Had I sat in Mogherini's office and worked on hammering out the deal, I would have looked into European best practices on pooling municipal functions without creating a third or middle-layer of governance as well as been cognizant of the Balkan tradition of ethno-politics, and combined that with a Western masterplan for solving the Kosovo-Serbia conflict and bringing both countries into the EU as sovereign, democratic states. But that's not how the EU and Western politics functions. First, while there is a relatively clear Western policy direction on Kosovo-Serbia, there is nothing like unity or a masterplan. Second, this is not how the culture of "facilitating" in Brussels functions. For the EU, the rationale of this agreement was to accept whatever compromise (within certain red lines defined by key actors like Germany and the US) is achievable, because – a compromise is a compromise, and facilitates "momentum.” This implies that the question of the mid- and long-term impact on democracy and the rule of law in Kosovo was secondary, if not a downright afterthought.

 Analyzing the text of the agreement on general principles/main elements of the Association/Community one can identify the contours of a unique, but indeterminate, institutional setting. The Association/Community is neither a new Republika Srpska nor an NGO – but rather something somewhere between a third entity without territorial continuity as is demanded by Bosnian Croat nationalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a pure form of pooling municipal functions without creating a third, middle layer of governance. It constitutes far less than a Serb ethnic state within a state as presently devised. This is not to say, however, that it couldn't deteriorate in that direction without consistent Western vigilance; there are certainly advocates of just such an outcome in Belgrade.

 Most worrying is the question of the impact of the establishment of such a defined Association/ Community on Kosovo’s democracy and the rule of law – both in ethnic Albanian majority territory and in the 10 majority Serb municipalities. As a typical Brussels compromise construct, the whole text is full of formulations that blur any clear lines in an institutional, legal and constitutional sense. I can already envision the Kosovo Constitutional Court approving the future Kosovo government decree on the Association/Community, based on political pressure from the ruling parties with the silent support of Western diplomats, as was the case with the Court's decision last year which enabled the PDK to remain in power after the June parliamentary elections. In the end, the August 25 agreement on the Association/Community was signed by representatives of Kosovo Albanian political elites which control most majority Albanian municipalities in Kosovo through (informal) mechanisms. This practice deviates widely from European principles of democratic local self-governance, as well as those prescribed by Kosovo's constitutional system. And implementation of the April 2013 agreement thus far in the Serb majority municipalities south of the Ibar has critically undermined the West’s efforts to bolster local self-governance and local democracy after Kosovo's independence.

 The agreement that sets out the main principles and elements of the future Association/Community may be a step forward, albeit a contradictory one, in the EU-US policy towards full normalization of Kosovo-Serbia relations and on the EU-membership of both countries. But that will only be assured if the West finally starts to confront the collateral damage on democracy and the rule of law it has so far generated through its conflict-resolution policy – instead of further adding to it.

 This blogpost is an augmented version of an OpEd entitled "Association is neither a new Republika Srpska, nor an NGO" published by Koha Ditore on August 28, 2015.