Ardit Orana, July 2022
Ownership of the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM): Can we address the needs of Kosovo Serbs without it?
Author: Ardit Orana
A central point of contention related to the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM) has been whether it effectively addresses the needs of Kosovo Serbs. Although much of the EU-facilitated dialogue has centered on the level of Kosovo Serb integration into Kosovo institutions, Kosovo Serbs have not been sufficiently included in the process. Both the process of negotiation and establishment of ASM has seen little to no participation by them. As such, the general perception has been that the ASM is a structure actively promoted by Serbia and not Kosovo. Kosovar Albanians in particular, tend to believe that Kosovo Serbs have been instrumentalized by Belgrade. In this sense, the general view holds that the agreement caters to Belgrade’s needs more than the practical needs of citizens in the north of Kosovo. This argument has been consistently picked up by Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti to highlight the discrepancy between Belgrade’s intentions in relation to the ASM and the actual needs of Kosovo Serbs. During a recent press conference, for example, Kurti stated:
“This has never been a request by Kosovo Serbs, they want justice and employment. We need to distinguish between requests that come from below and have a democratic character and requests that come from above and are of an undemocratic hegemonic character.”
Kurti further elaborated on the disparity between Kosovo Serbs needs and the political intentions of Serbia, when explaining:
“I believe that even Serbs in Kosovo, [as all other communities in Kosovo] are in need of justice and employment, and not for Associations that raise tensions, undermine our relationships, and make someone in Belgrade happy.”
The detriments of the Status-Quo
For Kosovo especially, the inability to openly engage in dialogue on the scope of ASM, has been viewed as unreliable and inconsistent with the obligations it assumed through the 2013 agreement titled the ‘First Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalization of Relations’ (commonly referred to as the First Brussels Agreement). Perceptions of Kosovo’s inconsistency have been exacerbated by ratification of the 2013 agreement and the subsequent constitutional court judgment of 2015 delineating the ASM a part of the ‘internal legal system’, hence, a ‘part of the constitutional order’ of Kosovo. While to the detriment of Kosovo, the status-quo on the non-implementation of ASM has been seen as beneficial to Serbia. According to experts, Serbia’s insistence on Kosovo’s unreliability has allowed it to bypass the need for a final agreement as it further prolongs inevitable discussions on Kosovo’s recognition. On the other hand, the lack of engagement by the Kosovo government on the ASM, not only stalls its progress in the dialogue, but it similarly risks the maintenance of remaining illegal parallel structures that challenge the jurisdiction of the country’s legitimate public institutions. As such, the most prominent challenge Kosovo’s ruling elite faces is not the perceived ill-judged implementation of ASM, but a willingness to address and regulate its threats in line with the country’s legal and constitutional framework.
Discussions with Kosovo Serb experts, however, highlight that addressing the problem of ownership in the negotiation of the ASM would be a major challenge given the complex context of Kosovo Serb representation. Srpska Lista’s monopolization of the political representation of the Kosovo Serb electorate ensures that citizen perspectives are effectively filtered prior to their official communication with public institutions in Kosovo. As one Kosovo Serb Expert explained: “The only way to ensure that Kosovo Serbs are heard is that Belgrade sings off and supports Srpska Lista to discuss with the Kosovo government.”
The practical challenges of dismantling parallel structures
Although Kurti has rightfully stated that the ASM is not a direct request or desire of Kosovo Serbs, the reasons for their animosity towards any forms of the association have been somehow mis-interpreted by him. According to a Kosovo Serb activist from the north: “When it comes to ASM, the Kosovo Serbs would be much more radical than Belgrade. They simply do not want any integration [into Kosovo]”. For Kosovo Serbs, the ASM entails their inherent integration within Kosovo institutions, effectively severing the existing ties and support they receive from Serb parallel institutions operating in the north. Any attempt to reframe the integration of Kosovo Serbs must address those factors that strengthen their socio-economic dependence on existing parallel structures. As stated by a Kosovo Albanian CSO representative, “Public institutions in Kosovo must garner trust among Kosovo Serbs that they will be able to fill the gap in addressing their practical needs once parallel structures are abolished”.
Irrespective of the scope of competencies and ownership, further integration of Kosovo Serbs will have fundamental consequences for the form and administration of the Kosovo state. Integration of parallel structures, especially in education and healthcare, entails a complete overhaul of how these systems have functioned and how they offered services to Kosovo Serbs in the north of the country for more than two decades. An estimated 12,000 individuals are employed by these structures and will require integration within the Kosovo system. In 2019, Serbia’s draft law on the budget expected an estimated 89-million-euro investment in Kosovo. Exact figures on the extent of Serb financing of parallel structures in Kosovo remain unclear, but they are substantial. Should education and healthcare systems be integrated within the Kosovo system, Kosovo budgetary sources and quotas will most likely lead to significant job loss for the Kosovo Serb population. In the context of the high-level dialogue, neither Serbia, nor Kosovo, have initiated any substantial debate on how the issue of “redundant” employees resulting from the abolishment of parallel structures will be addressed. Kosovo’s state budget on the other hand, clearly cannot allocate the necessary financial support to cover the job loss from the integration of these structures.
Emphasis on substance, not branding
As Kosovo Serbs continue to rely on the parallel structures for their basic welfare, the chances that they will voice their needs and requests to the Kosovo government are highly unlikely. Therefore, any discussion on ASM, must focus on the substance of the issue, not the obscurity its branding. Even if the ASM is ultimately discarded by the government, the extent of Kosovo Serb integration will still be a critical challenge that must be addressed accordingly. Ensuring rule of law and exercise of sovereignty – phrases heard far too often in Kosovo’s political discourse- in the north of Kosovo entails addressing this bitter reality. While there is indeed a disparity in the ownership of ASM, minimizing existing fears among Kosovo Serbs on the effects of integration for their basic livelihoods is central. As has been the case with the integration of police and judiciary structures, any shift of ownership necessitates a change of narrative and building trust that Kosovo public institutions can effectively regulate sectors and deliver services that were originally offered by parallel institutions.
The article is part of a research project produced within the framework of Kosovo Research and Analysis Fellowship (KRAF), supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society.
Expert opinions quoted throughout this text are part of in-depth semi-structured interviews conducted as part of a chapter on the topic of ASM which will be published as part of the KRAF joint publication.