March 25, 202209:54

With his obduracy on voting, PM Kurti has handed Serbia’s Vucic a gift at a moment when the pro-Russian autocrat’s margin for maneuver has shrunk.

Almost a decade ago to the day, Kosovo faced its worst-ever security crisis as an independent state.

Wisdom by leaders in Pristina and Belgrade – and last-minute, extraordinary intervention by the OSCE – averted calamity, creating a benign precedent that has lasted until this year.

But today, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti is damaging his country’s interests and advancing those of Serbia, by discarding the hard-won precedent achieved in 2012.

I know. I negotiated the eleventh-hour agreement between Kosovo and Serbia that turned a near-certain confrontation into a demonstration of Kosovo’s maturity – not the spectacle of immaturity on display today in Pristina.

Led by the United States, the so-called Quint countries have expressed “great disappointment” with the Kosovo government’s decision to reject facilitated voting for Kosovo Serbs in Serbia’s upcoming April 3 elections.

The US and its four allies have accused Kosovo of “failing to protect the … rights of all citizens.” The five key EU and NATO members meanwhile went out of their way to praise Serbia for its “availability to find a solution”.

Seemingly inured to and even proud of criticism, the defiant Kurti has failed to grasp what it takes to protect Kosovo’s sovereignty against those, like Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who undermine it.

Perhaps walking the Kosovo Prime Minister through those charged days in the spring of 2012, when his predecessor, Hashim Thaci, agreed to allow Kosovo Serbs to vote, will alter Kurti’s perspective.

In early 2012, Serbian President Boris Tadic and Serbia’s parliament had settled on May 6 as election day.  There was no possibility of changing the date or of holding Serbian elections in Kosovo at a later date.  Indeed, a second round of voting in May loomed.

Elections are complex, sensitive events, requiring extensive preparation to ensure the eligibility of voters, the integrity of the ballot from delivery to tabulation of results, smooth operations, voter information, observation and security. Each day without a Kosovo-Serbia deal reduced the time for preparation, increasing the chances that polling day would see violence.

Like Kurti, then Prime Minister Thaci also asserted Kosovo’s sovereignty over the question of Serbian elections. Leading the government of a state barely four years in existence, Thaci initially demanded that Kosovo Serbs vote in standard, “out of country” fashion, sending ballots through the post – just as Kurti has demanded.  But this position was and remains based on a dangerously misleading analogy.  Kosovo Serbs then and, thankfully, today still form a large community with a tradition and interest in voting in Serbia.

Back in the charged atmosphere of 2012, the threat was high that Serbs would defy the Kosovo government, bring ballots into the north and simply organize voting on their own, triggering a forcible response by Pristina.

KFOR peacekeepers would have been thrust into the melée, forced to deny Serbs the right to vote, or to deny Kosovo the right to set the terms for voting in its country.  Given earlier violent, fatal confrontations in the north, the atmosphere was charged and the scenarios entirely plausible.

As is the case today, Quint diplomats tried to negotiate a solution.  But the thicket of technical election issues and intense political sensitivities – all surrounding the overarching question of sovereignty and symbols – proved formidable.  With time running out, diplomats asked the OSCE, with its election and political expertise, to try to negotiate a last-minute deal.

As the Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, the highest-ranking American to serve in the mission, I led our negotiating team, meeting first with Thaci and gleaning his red lines, before racing to Belgrade for nearly a week of arduous negotiations.

Unlike today, we had no precedent to rely on, forcing us to create our own “Concept of Operations” – the eventual document the sides accepted. The novel design put a premium on absolute clarity and precision about the OSCE’s role: to facilitate the right of Kosovo Serbs (who are also Serbian citizens) to vote in Serbian elections – not to facilitate Serbia’s conduct of elections within Kosovo.

All the terms, practical and symbolic, flowed from that core, agreed, principle. OSCE flags and symbols, not Serbian flags, would predominate. OSCE officials would be in charge of the proceedings. At Kosovo’s insistence, and with Serbian agreement, tabulation of ballots would take place strictly outside of Kosovo, emulating standard out-of-country voting practice. (This also gave Serbia more confidence in the results, as Belgrade entrusted the OSCE to first collect and transfer the ballots securely and efficiently.)

Instead of a bitter confrontation, pitting KFOR in the middle, the last-minute, facilitated voting process drew immediate praise from both sides, along with international officials including former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The Kosovo government immediately issued a statement praising the fact “that Serbian parliamentary and presidential elections in the territory of the Republic of Kosovo have for the first time been organized outside the purview of the institutions of Serbia. This process was conducted according to international standards on the rights of citizens with dual citizenship.”

Serbia’s State Minister for Kosovo, the late Oliver Ivanovic, had been skeptical about OSCE’s role but changed his mind in the end: “It is a good thing that the OSCE organizes elections here. Serbia will have other elections and I believe this cooperation will continue.”

Tragically, the moderate Ivanovic was murdered in Mitrovica, Kosovo, in January 2018.  Two leading suspects in the murder have been allowed to roam freely in Belgrade. Oddly for an elected official with strong influence over the judiciary, President Vucic in July 2019 proclaimed the innocence of one of the leading suspects, Milan Radoicic.

Organized crime continues to have a strong presence in Kosovo’s north and, reportedly, in Serbia.  According to the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, “Serbia is indeed a mafia state where the demarcation line between the state and organized crime is not at all clear.”

With his obduracy on voting, Kurti simply hands Vucic and his regime a multifaceted gift at the moment when the pro-Russian autocrat’s margin for maneuver has shrunk. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has brought the most serious scrutiny yet of Vucic’s refusal to align with EU policy on Russia.  While prominent EU figures have called for Vucic to stop “sitting on two chairs”, Kurti is burnishing the Serbian President’s reputation as a ‘reasonable partner.’

Instead of a violent reaction to Pristina as was the fear in 2012, today Belgrade is already exploiting the stance on Kosovo Serb voting for its own ends – to the detriment of Kosovo’s sovereignty.  According to the opposition figure Rada Trajkovic, President of the Serb European Movement from Kosovo, Vucic doesn’t oppose Kurti over voting “and is organizing infrastructure outside of Kosovo for the Serbs to do so [exercise their right to vote.]” This syncs with Vucic’s aim of erecting an ‘Association/Community of Serb Majority Municipalities’ wholly under Belgrade’s authority – and outside of Pristina’s.

While boosting Serbia, Kurti’s rejection of the Quint proposal to facilitate Serbian elections, based on the successful OSCE model, damages Kosovo in another significant way. At the moment that the argument by a cross-section of experts to advance Kosovo’s relationship with NATO garners attention, Kurti has given the four Alliance members that do not recognize Kosovo – Greece, Spain, Slovakia and Romania – an excuse to continue their policy.

In sum, by stubbornly, mistakenly asserting Kosovo’s sovereignty, Kurti is undermining it. The current Kosovo Prime Minister is turning his back on the arrangement that his predecessor, Hashim Thaci accepted, not under duress, but with an eye to protecting his country’s interests. It was OSCE, not Pristina or Belgrade, that was under pressure as Serbian elections rapidly approached in the spring of 2012.  Subsequent Serbian elections facilitated by OSCE in Kosovo have proven the viability of this model.

In the end, Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is inextricably linked to the welfare of all of Kosovo’s citizens, including the Kosovo Serb Community, both north and south of the Ibar River.  Kosovo is already failing Kosovo Serbs by ignoring the country’s own Constitutional Court in its ruling over property belonging to Decani Monastery.  With his position on voting in Serbian elections, Prime Minister Kurti is ‘successfully’ advancing Serbia’s aims and hindering those of Kosovo.  Rarely has a leader in the Balkans, or elsewhere, so intentionally kicked the ball into his own net.

Edward P. Joseph teaches conflict management at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.  He served for a dozen years in the Balkans, including in all conflict areas, and including on active duty with the US Army.  From 2010 to 2012, he was the US-nominated Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo.

The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.