Britain’s very own EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Cathy Ashton, has not had a terribly good press after a report from the European Parliament said her department had too many decision-making layers, is top heavy and is indecisive in response to crises. It didn’t help that she was looking for a four per cent increase in her department’s budget, amounting to £18 million for next year.
Which is why she will be doing everything possible to make the most of her one diplomatic triumph last weekend, a deal between Kosovo and Serbia. Implementation talks started yesterday.
Indeed the one undoubted gainer from the Kosovo-Serbia deal initialled by Hashim Thaci, Kosovo prime minister, and Serbia’s Ivica Dacic and brokered by Baroness Ashton is the EU. Or as the FT puts it, ‘the accord makes clear that the Eurozone crisis has not diminished the EU’s allure. Without the promise of getting on the road to membership, Serbia would never have engaged’. Actually that last bit is true, though I find, myself, that it’s a useful rule that if the FT is in favour of something, it’s probably right to take the opposite view.
The deal gives substantial autonomy to an association of Serb-majority areas in return for Serbia recognising that Kosovo has supreme legal authority over the whole of the country, without recognising Kosovo itself.
The Serb association will have control over education, economic development, health and planning, but without tax-raising powers. And it will have its own judges, administering Kosovo law.
But by now, things have moved on from the triumphalism following the deal. Both Thaci and others concerned have had death threats from their own side, with the additional frisson on the Serbian side of angry demonstrations in northern Kosovo, in which leaders of the municipalities concerned called for their own assembly. (Shades of the Serb Republic in Bosnia there, which is meant to be part of a unitary state but actually runs its own show.) For what it’s worth, Serbs in the north are enraged at the prospect of having to carry official documents like drivers licences issued by the Kosovo government, not by Belgrade. Which tells you everything about the status quo.
I think myself there’s quite a lot not to like about Baroness Ashton’s deal. The problem is, as Ilir Deda of the KIPRED think-tank (and a friend of my Kosovo Albanian husband) put it, this could put the end to prospects for a multi-ethnic Kosovo. There are perhaps 90,000 Serbs in Kosovo – actually that figure is disputed; there were more but many have left since the conflict in 1999 – and just over half of them live in the north, in the area including Mitrovica right next to Serbia. That northern bit is to most intents and purposes run by Serbia – public sector workers get their pay from Belgrade, not Prishtina. That leaves tens of thousands of Serbs outside in scattered enclaves around Kosovo.
And the risk is that the autonomy given to Serb areas will be concentrated in the northern enclave, which will have control over its own police force, leaving the Serbian communities elsewhere marginalised – and they’re vulnerable enough already. The synod of the Serbian Orthodox church says that it looks like the abandonment of Serbs in Metohija, the area to the south and west of the country.
Then there’s the question of Albanians who were ethnically cleansed from the north, thousands of them. The chances of them returning home were always pretty slim; now they’re nil. This isn’t an agreement that makes for integration of ethnic groups; it makes for increased separatism and God knows, it was happening already.
Kosovo itself – or rather, Hashim Thaci – has ended up trading quite a lot in return for something a good deal short of what Kosovars actually want, a seat for Kosovo at the UN and membership of organisations like Interpol. Serbia is now on the fast track to EU accession, and, more importantly, substantial EU funds. It still has a veto over recognition of Kosovo at the UN – as the Serbian PM said on Monday, ‘We are not able to by ourselves block Kosovo’s path to the UN, but we can with the help of our friends Russia and China’. The Serbian north, which can work closely with Belgrade, has conceded that it will not oppose being showered with cash by the central government in Prishtina but it’s not at all clear that it won’t also continue to have funding from Serbia.
The grimmest scenario is that the Serbian north will become something like the Serb Republic in Bosnia, which I mentioned above, notionally part of Bosnia but actually running its own show. The sunniest scenario is that Serbia will do its bit to promote Serb participation in the Kosovo state, rather than use the agreement to promote partition on the ground. Either way, Kosovo will be billed as a triumph of EU diplomacy and useful ammunition for Lady Ashton’s bid for more EU funding.
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