The international community’s engineering of democratic institutions in Kosovo has in many ways been “groundbreaking. But it has nonetheless laid the foundations for some of the most critical obstacles to the country’s de-facto exercise of authority over its citizens.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this undertaking has been the safeguarding of ethnic minorities in Kosovo and their inalienable and constitutionally guaranteed right to participate and shape the trajectories of the country’s institutions.
Rightful credit must be given both to the general framework of the Ahtisaari Plan — which formed the basis of Kosovo’s Constitution and is enshrined within it — and to a large extent OSCE-led endeavors on the ground to set up the practical legal framework that ensures these rights. This task of course, could hardly have been more ambitious and complex.
However, for all the inherent caveats this system is engulfed in, this undertaking set a unique precedent for how multi-ethnic societies must function. Safeguarding the representation of ethnic minorities across governance levels and ensuring their needs are addressed throughout the formulation of policies are of course standards that speak to Kosovo’s distant yet deeply committed vigor for the institutionalization of “European standards.”
This “power-sharing” constellation, which had been carefully devised through the Ahtisaari Plan, and then nurtured through the commitment of the international community in Kosovo, was ultimately handed over to Kosovo institutions to maintain and administer. Not long after post-independence domestically administered elections were concluded, the cracks in this fragile, engineered system started to show, and as such, both Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs must assume greater responsibility.
The result is that everyday Kosovo Serbs have had to deal with the consequences of this deep-rooted polarization.
For a number of years now, the Serb minority’s constitutionally guaranteed representation across institutions has been a major point of contention in public debates. Instead of exploring the possibilities of how this power-sharing constellation can be advanced in order to genuinely address the needs of Kosovo Serbs in the north and other parts of Kosovo, it has become a political tool. This tool, of course, has been aggressively utilized by Kosovo Serbs, Kosovo Albanians and Belgrade.
This conundrum can be best explained through political bargaining in the Kosovo Assembly.
For Kosovo Albanians, Srpska Lista has become synonymous with a trojan horse in coalition government formation. This discourse, largely exacerbated by Vetëvendosje, has sought the demonization of Srpska Lista and any potential cooperation with them, be it constitutionally-required or for the sake of government formation. For Kosovo Serbs and Belgrade on the other hand, the reserved seats in the Assembly have threatened to be a useful veto tool to block anything but cosmetic changes to the constitutional and legal order in Kosovo.
To what extent Srpska Lista is indeed just an instrument of Belgrade to undermine democratic processes in Kosovo or to what extent they are being used by the Albanian majority political forces actively seeking to marginalize Serb participation is to some extent beside the point. In both cases, the result is that everyday Kosovo Serbs have had to deal with the consequences of this deep-rooted polarization.
Through the demonization of Srpska Lista, Kosovo Serbs are seen as active participants in a quest to break down the social fabric in Kosovo. As such, Kosovo Serbs are seen as the legitimizers of Belgrade’s instrumentalization of their rights in Kosovo.
This discourse has sustained throughout recent years, and most probably it will remain path dependent. The most recent elections held on February 14 and the various events following them, however, have confronted Prime Minister Albin Kurti with a critical juncture.
As with any critical juncture, non-change is always an option, and as such, Kurti can continue undermining Srpska Lista, thereby effectively further alienating Kosovo Serbs. Given Kurti’s public demands for “internal dialogue” with Kosovo Serbs however, change seems to be on the horizon. Yet, as with any political stance, the hopes of sustainable change are often undermined by nationalist tendencies.
Kurti’s people-centered approach to Kosovo’s governance problems may prove to be a light at the end of the tunnel.
Although Kurti signaled internal dialogue as a necessary precondition to pave the way toward the resolution of some of the major political developments in Kosovo (be it exercising sovereignty in the north of Kosovo, the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities or the dialogue with Serbia), he did so in complete disregard for the political power of Srpska Lista in the Assembly, but also on the ground vis-à-vis Kosovo Serbs.
This is problematic for a number of reasons. First, Srpska Lista, legally, is a legitimate representative of the Kosovo Serb electorate in Kosovo. Any attempt to bypass them constitutes a major threat to the rule of law in Kosovo and the basic principle of a representative democracy.
Second, Kurti will not realistically be able to find legitimate Serb representatives who act and have political weight independently of the parallel institutions/administration, especially in the north of Kosovo. Given that Srpska Lista has a monopoly on these institutions that secure the basic welfare of Kosovo Serbs in the north, citizens will be reluctant to engage with Kurti at the expense of being alienated from their community and sources of basic income.
While a Kosovo Serb electorate that functions independently of political pressures from Belgrade and Srpska Lista is necessary for Kosovo’s functioning, Kurti must recognize that this quandary requires more than simply opting to pick and choose who is the rightful representative of Kosovo Serb voices.
Yet with all that said, Kurti’s people-centered approach to Kosovo’s governance problems may prove to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Contrary to most of Kosovo’s governments up until now, who have one way or another focused on external issues of “high-politics,” Kurti has promised that employment and rule of law are the building blocks of this new political revolution in Kosovo.
The government must ensure that all the legal obligations and constitutional rights of Kosovo Serbs are being respected on the ground.
Both of these issues are central to the everyday welfare of citizens in Kosovo, irrespective of ethnicity. If the new government manages to implement a program that features inclusive employment and justice to all its citizens, only then can Kurti start to mend the decades-long institutional and social polarization between Kosovo Serbs and Albanians.
Internal dialogue cannot be seen as a top-down call for representatives who deem themselves important or intellectually sound enough to represent their citizens. First and foremost, the government must ensure that all the legal obligations and constitutional rights of Kosovo Serbs are being respected on the ground. This calls for proactive implementation of even the sometimes more disregarded aspects of our inclusive governance system, such as ensuring the usage of officially recognized languages across public institutions (which remains problematic).
Kurti’s internal dialogue is therefore at a critical juncture.
I do not see any other sustainable alternative than that of promoting our internationally engineered, and now domestically maintained, power-sharing system both institutionally and socially. Nor do I see the sidelining of constitutionally and legally legitimate actors (Srpska Lista) as a feasible alternative.
What I do see, however, is the potential of Kurti’s people-centered governance program to be a remedy to the monopolization of political representation. The opening up of civil dialogue, coupled with equal access to employment and justice for all Kosovo citizens, can be the foundation of sustainable inter-ethnic cooperation in Kosovo.
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
This Perspective was written for the New Social Initiative within their Kosovo Collective Op-Ed series and published on K2.0 by agreement.
The Op-Ed series is part of a project supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. and USAID. The opinions expressed in this oped series do not necessarily represent those of the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. (BTD), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), or the U.S. Government.