‘Accepting But Not Recognizing’: A Kosovo Serb Lesson in Pragmatism

By Purnell T. Cropper | February 1, 2011

By Alex N. Grigorev

As a long-time observer of Serbia and its Kosovo-related political debates, I often get the impression that any decision, even on purely technical matters, is perceived by many as directly affecting the outcome of the historic fight for the preservation of Kosovo within Serbia, or at the very least, resolving the historic Serb-Albanian dispute. This observation could be flawed—as I said, I am an outsider. Still, I can’t help but feel that these debates often suffer from a lack of pragmatism. Such pragmatism is needed if one aims at improving the lives of the Serbs living in Kosovo. As we all enter a new year as always with new hopes and new plans, the Serbs in Kosovo continue to hope the improvement in their lot will finally come for them. But they not only hope, they have shown some leadership in this regard.

Everyone inside and outside of Kosovo was surprised a couple of months ago when the political developments in Pristina pushed up the date of the next parliamentary election from the constitutional deadline of the fall of 2011 to Dec. 12, 2010. Many were unhappy with the new calendar and many felt that parties, especially those in the opposition, Kosovo’s electoral commission and even its voters were unprepared for a snap poll.

Those disappointed included Serbs, both in Kosovo and in Belgrade. They felt that the decision did not give them enough time to decide whether to take part in the election or not.

The issue of Serb participation in Kosovo elections and in Kosovo institutions has been at the center of the Serb debate since the March 2004 violence when it was decided that Serb presence in Kosovo institutions did not prevent the tragedy from happening. In the elections of 2004 and 2007, Serbs by and large heeded to Belgrade’s call for a boycott. Less than one thousand Serb voters voted in the 2007 parliamentary election in Kosovo.

Following Pristina’s unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008, the Serbian government responded by organizing an election for Serb municipal bodies in Kosovo in May of the same year and the Serbs took part. The newly elected institutions were supposed to bring Serbia closer to the Serbs and resolve their problems. They succeeded in this task in the ethnically homogeneously Serb north of Kosovo and continue functioning to this day. They failed, however, to bring Serbia closer to those Serbs living south of the Ibar River and in fact contributed to a significant degree to the deepening of the divide between Serbs in the north and in the south. Within the context of enclaves surrounded by an overwhelming ethnic Albanian majority, this policy of parallelism and exclusion failed.

This political failure resulted in many negative outcomes and inability to resolve many key problems. Serbs disappeared from the Kosovo police force patrolling majority Serb areas. Kosovo’s energy corporation turned their lights off. Mining quarries that started operating next to some of their fields and gardens destroyed the crop. Still these municipalities continued to refuse engagement with Albanian neighbors and the Kosovo institutions that were the only ones capable of resolving many of these issues.

This is why, in November 2009, a significant number of Serbs south of the Ibar decided to take advantage of the internationally sponsored decentralization and voted in Kosovo’s local elections establishing Serb majority municipalities in Gracanica, Strpce, Ranilug, Klokot, and later in Partes. Very soon those new Serb-run municipalities started delivering results by launching multiple infrastructure improvements, negotiating and turning on electricity, and returning Serb police patrols to their streets. Continuing to call these people traitors, a favorite label in many places in the Balkans for those with whom one disagrees politically, was increasingly difficult. Would their opposition prefer crumbling infrastructure, lack of electricity, or unsafe streets than any compromise?

Politicians in Belgrade know all of this very well. In a courageous move, the new Serbian Government, formed in 2008, launched a review of the Kosovo policy. In a politically brave move it decided to close a number Serbia’s municipal administrations in Kosovo. This pragmatism signaled recognition of reality, an admittance that the previous policy had been failing. However, going as far as to support the new Serb-majority municipalities was still considered politically impossible. It is perhaps following similar considerations that the Government advised the Serbs in Kosovo not to take part in the December 12 election, however, adding—confirming its democratic philosophy—that those who would take part will not be punished for doing so.

Serbs in Kosovo understood this advice as an invitation to make their own mind about participation in Kosovo’s politics. Those in the north boycotted the Sunday polls. Over 20,000 Serb voters, almost all from south of the Ibar, took part. Few expected such a significant number.

Did the Serbs suddenly recognize an independent Kosovo?—No way! Did they turn against Belgrade?—Not in a million years! Their survival depends on Belgrade and on crucial services supported by the Serbian government such as health, social welfare, and education to name a few. Among those taking part in the election were precisely those who have been directly responsible for keeping such services alive for the past ten years. They simply realize that in order to stay in Kosovo they also have to become part of the decision making process that takes place in Kosovo. A senior Kosovo Serb leader perhaps summarized this way of thinking the best: “We accept while we do not recognize.” These Serb leaders showed their pragmatism by realizing that under new circumstances politics of inclusion and cooperation carry far greater benefits than politics of isolation.

For the first time since the creation of the Belgrade-backed 22-seat strong coalition Povratak, Serbs in Kosovo managed to gain more than the ten guaranteed seats in the Kosovo parliament. If these electoral results are to stay it is projected that the Serbs will have 13 seats, an achievement that puts to rest the perpetual questioning of the legitimacy of Serb members in the Kosovo parliament.

Perhaps the next good step could be a meeting of the new Serb members of the Kosovo Assembly and the deputies in the Serbian Parliament who are elected from Kosovo. I know many people from both groups. These are serious politicians, genuinely keen on resolving the tough problems that the Serbs in Kosovo face. Their coordination and cooperation can only help produce sustainable improvements. On the other hand, if continued the old labeling of patriots vs. traitors will result in persistent failure. It will only deepen the gap among the Serbs at such a critical time. Dialogue between parliament members will not be recognition of Kosovo’s independence but recognition of the will of a significant number of the Kosovo Serb voters. It will also be difficult to continue to refuse to communicate with the Serbs in the Kosovo parliament while one is preparing to talk with heads of Kosovo institutions later this year.

While these newly elected Serbs have already positioned themselves as an important presence vis-à-vis Belgrade, more remains to be done. Serbs are still to become a factor of significance and influence in Pristina. This will happen only if the Serbs are able to influence the policies of the new government whoever leads it. Gaining such influence would be impossible without unity. As an outside observer, I am not naïve enough to think that a unity among Serbs is a task easily achieved. The electoral campaign suffered from many hurtful words and harmful actions. But, electoral campaigns are often nasty. This is nothing new, and certainly not particular to the Balkans. But it is also true that many former rivals establish coalitions after elections to make sure that they are in the best position to fulfill promises given to their voters. It is time to take a deep breath, maybe a week or two of rest, bury the hatchet, and start thinking just as pragmatically as before the campaign.

Serbs came out to vote because they want to see their representatives in Pristina influencing decisions that will improve their lot. In Kosovo it is difficult to make such decisions from an opposition bench. This is why neither of the Serb parties that will enter the new Kosovo parliament can afford to stay in opposition. They need each other. If just one group remains in opposition, the others can and will always be labeled as serving Albanian interests only, and all of them as a result can be manipulated.

With the multiple complaints to the Kosovo election commission, the new report issued at the Council of Europe, it seems that it will take some time before the new government in Pristina is formed, and from the Kosovo Serb point of view, this might be a good thing. It gives Serb politicians time to build a new strategy, a strategy that takes into consideration the results of the elections and the needs of their community.

Lack of the Serbian unity has already proven detrimental, as demonstrated in the Serb inability to run in the election together as a grand coalition and instead running on eight separate lists (while the Albanians had only seven) which resulted in fewer seats that might have been possible. Belgrade’s support for such unity and its success is crucial. Lack of Belgrade’s support before elections resulted in many good and capable Serbs not running in the elections and therefore not being able to contribute again to resolution of the difficult problems.

Such mistakes should not be repeated. The cost of failure is too high. Serbs cannot afford to be outside of the decision making process when important decisions about their future are being made in Pristina on daily basis, regardless of who forms the new Kosovo government; when Pristina and Belgrade are preparing for perhaps the most crucial conversation in their recent history; when a sizeable group of deputies prepared to vote against the Serb-related parts of the Ahtisaari plan are entering the parliament; and while the international influence in Kosovo is still strong. At the very least, the Serb deputies in the Kosovo parliament should coordinate their policies and act together.

Kosovo Serbs should look at the experiences of the Serbs in Croatia, of the Hungarians in Serbia, Slovakia and Romania, of the Albanians in Macedonia and Montenegro. Much can be learned from these cases and from the detrimental consequences caused by the lack of unity within smaller ethnic groups in those democratic systems.

A strong Serb presence will be helpful to the Kosovo Serbs, to Belgrade, and incidentally to Pristina. This unity should not be viewed as a coalition against any other group. It is established for the Serbs in Kosovo and only for them.

This is a very important moment for the Serbs. Serbs do not need new divisions, especially not in Kosovo. What they need are tangible improvements in their daily lives, resolution of their multiple problems, and a vision for a sustainable future. They need a policy based on the same pragmatism that the Serb voters in Kosovo showed last week.

Alex N. Grigorev is the President of the New York-based Council for Inclusive Governance (CIG) in New York and an Adjunct Professor in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania.