Some conflicts just never seem to go away. Kosovo is one of them. Most could be forgiven for thinking that the issue had been settled by widespread international recognition of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia in 2008. But things are not so simple. Serbia has never recognised Kosovo’s independence – and nor, for that matter, have many other countries. Today, matters have just become even more complicated. The majority Serbs of northern Kosovo have voted in a referendum not to recognise rule by the predominantly ethnic Albanian government of Kosovo.
Let’s be clear about this: Who was voting in this referendum? And does it have any legal standing?
Well, about 90 per cent of Kosovo’s population is ethnic Albanian but most of the remaining 10 per cent are Serbs who are concentrated into a small area in the north, running along the border with Serbia. They have never recognised the authority of the Kosovo government. Today, they voted by an astonishing 99.7% against it.
The Kosovo parliament in Pristina has denounced the referendum and said it has no legal standing – but as a statement of intent by the Kosovo Serbs, the referendum could not be clearer.
How about Serbia, though, how has it reacted to the referendum?
Well, this is interesting because Belgrade has never recognised Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence. But the Serbian government has shown signs of becoming weary of the whole affair. Belgrade’s priority today is to become a part of the European Union and it has begun to seek a dialogue with Pristina. Brussels’s decision to delay granting Serbia candidate status in December was in large part due to its concern at Belgrade’s continuing refusal to recognise Kosovo’s independence.
But Belgrade is now making progress with the EU and is due to attend another session of EU-mediated talks with Kosovo in Brussels next week. It fears the referendum could torpedo its EU hopes and has condemned it. Serbia’s state secretary for Kosovo, Oliver Ivanovic, said the Serbs of northern Kosovo had voted not against Pristina but against Belgrade.
Is there any possibility of compromise in northern Kosovo?
It doesn’t look like it at the moment. Attitudes and prejudices are deeply entrenched – no more so than in the main town, Mitrovica, which is home to both Serbs and Albanians – a contested town in a contested territory in a contested state!
But wouldn’t the Serbs both in Serbia proper and in northern Kosovo stand to gain if a compromise were reached?
For sure. Belgrade’s path to EU membership would be greatly facilitated and something could at last be done to reinvigorate the economy of northern Kosovo. It was once considered relatively prosperous. Today, it is dying – 80% unemployment, terrible health problems, shattered infrastructure and big problems with crime.
So where to from here?
The hope in Brussels will be that Belgrade will now be less supportive of the aspirations of the Kosovo Serbs to break away from Pristina and join Belgrade. Last year there were several violent clashes in the region between local Serbs and NATO peacekeepers, in which two soldiers were killed. This has not helped Belgrade’s cause in Brussels. This could be the moment when the Serbian government finally bites the bullet on northern Kosovo and decides that it is no longer in its interest to support it.