Serb Integration in Kosovo after the Brussels Agreement

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Kosovo and Serbia have started an immense task, the integration of the Kosovo Serbs and Belgrade’s administrative and financial infrastructure on Kosovo’s territory into the latter’s system – in short, “Serb integration”. This builds on a hard-won agreement mediated by the EU and hailed as among Brussels’s best achievements. Yet its implementation on the ground has been and continues to be much more challenging. Integration raises deep, emotional issues among Albanians and Serbs, and small misunderstandings can easily produce a violent response. The array of institutions involved – municipal governments, schools, health care, courts, security services and others, with budgets of several hundred million euros – is daunting. There is no precedent, set of best practices or established road map. Pristina and Belgrade started this process for different reasons, the former to establish its sovereignty and territorial integrity, the latter to please the EU. Neither shows an appreciation of the scale of the task, or an inclination to commit the financial – and political – resources it calls for. With the support of international partners, Kosovo and Serbia should set a goal of full integration of Serb institutions into the Kosovo system by the end of 2015 and move quickly to make their agreement a reality.

Previous rounds of dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, from UN-sponsored “future status” talks in 2005 to a EU-mediated “technical dialogue” in 2011, began promisingly but ran into trouble. Pristina claims that Serb rights were negotiated several times, with Belgrade asking for more each time and delivering little or nothing in return, and without a successful conclusion. Belgrade says all the concessions have come from its side, while Kosovo injects status issues – recognition of its independence – into every topic. Both sides try hard to get the EU mediators’ sympathies. There are many issues in play: Serb participation in Kosovo institutions, ending Serbia’s interference on Kosovo territory, Kosovo’s access to the international community, and the legacy of war. The overriding goal is for Kosovo and Serbia to cooperate normally, like good neighbours, and for each to treat its minority population with respect. The bilateral relationship is key and will determine the success of integration.

The stakes and risks are high for all concerned, and the process is poorly understood on the ground. A minor confrontation between Albanians and Serb refugees in Gjakovë on 6 January, and a carelessly provocative comment by a Serb minister the same day, led a month later to riots in Pristina, the sacking of the minister and a boycott by Serb parliamentarians that, as this report goes to press, was ongoing. Albanians resent Belgrade’s role in their state and their disputed status; on the street many also chafe at years of mismanagement by an entrenched political elite. Serbs are being transferred against their will from one state to another and fear the consequences. The success or failure of Serb integration can resonate in the neighbouring multi-ethnic states.

Kosovo’s Serb community can be divided into three distinct groups. Northern Kosovo is a homogenous Serb area that resisted Pristina’s authority since 1999; many of its residents have little or no experience with Albanians or the Kosovo government and view both with fear and mistrust. Serbian institutions were, until recently, the only governing bodies in this area. The second group comprises six Serb-majority municipalities scattered throughout the rest of the country; most Serbs here comply with Kosovo law but are on the Serbian payroll in one way or another. The third group are Serbs living in scattered villages and neighbourhoods elsewhere in Kosovo. Lacking control of a municipal government and the targeted services it can provide, they also lean heavily on Serbian institutions.

All Kosovo Serbs have several overriding concerns. Jobs rank high – the security of the Serbian jobs many now have, and the availability of alternatives once they dry up. The labour market is not open to them. Older employees are anxious to remain within Serbia’s pension scheme. Access to Serbia’s health care system – its clinics, hospitals in Kosovo, referrals for specialist care in Serbia and its insurance scheme – is very important. Families rely on Serbian schools, and students need to receive diplomas that will be honoured whether they remain in Kosovo or move to Serbia. Without Serbian education they will leave. Lastly, physical security is a concern. Enclave Serbs especially are vulnerable to intimidation and occasional assault.

Kosovo offices and been appointed to other positions in Serbia’s network of parallel municipalities. This cohabitation varies in detail but exists in all Serb-majority areas. The parallel, Serbian system has little effective governing power, but commands a much larger purse; it covers much of Kosovo and employs tens of thousands. The payroll ballooned for political reasons – Belgrade kept the Kosovo Serbs both solvent and loyal – and after 15 years the population is dependent on these jobs. Some work directly for the parallel municipalities; many more for public companies and institutions they administer; and still others in schools and hospitals run from Belgrade. Belgrade should soon close its institutions and transferring employees from the Serbian to the Kosovo payroll will be a daunting and costly task.

Belgrade and Pristina chose to frame their agreement in terms of a hybrid entity, an Association/Community of Serb municipalities. Almost two years have brought little clarity on its role and scope, but it is vital to the project of integration. It is likely to remain a work in progress for many years as Serbs work out their place in independent Kosovo, and Pristina and Belgrade develop and deepen their relationship. But the contours of integration and of the Community/Association should be settled soon. The starting point will be the provisions of the Ahtisaari Plan, the Brussels Agreement and Kosovo law. In essence this allows the Serbs to exercise many of their municipal powers together, through a common community – if they so choose. In some fields, notably education and health care, it offers Serbs the ability to exercise powers they already have more effectively; it is not about giving them more powers. Belgrade should not try to make this slender institution bear more weight than it can. The Community is not a substitute for integration, or for a healthy bilateral relationship with Pristina.

Implementation needs to be organised along several lines and to overcome numerous obstacles, some of them political. Kosovo wants to implement item by item starting with the removal of Serbia’s security structures and parallel municipalities, with the creation of the Association/Community to follow. Serbia’s agenda is the reverse of this, and starts with the Community/Association, with removal of Serbian institutions taking place later. Conflict over the sequence of events has added to the delay. Yet some can be done simultaneously, and early steps will help increase confidence. Serbia should immediately dissolve its Civil Defence units, courts and remaining security institutions and encourage their personnel to take up posts in the Kosovo system. Full Serb participation in Kosovo rule of law institutions is a vital benchmark. At the same time Belgrade should begin an audit of its payroll, starting with its parallel municipalities. Talks on finalising the Association/Community statute should run in parallel, and should include representatives of the ten member municipalities. Integration of the education and health system will probably take longer, and may involve a role for the Community/Association.

Both parts of the Kosovo Serb leadership –ministers and parliamentarians in Pristina and mayors and assemblymen in the municipalities – need to be working well for integration to succeed. Kosovo made a strategic choice backed by its international friends to rely on Belgrade to deliver the local Serbs to the Kosovo legal order; this worked and ended years of unrest, but it also produced a new Serb political elite that is somewhat inexperienced and tightly bound to Belgrade. The elected Serbs will have to carve out a role for themselves, an identity that goes beyond faithful servants of Serbia and focuses on the people that elected them. They will have to learn to operate in parliamentary system that offers them significant levers of power, including a veto over constitutional amendments and an important role in legislation. In government, Serbs have gravitated to the ministries that most directly affect their community, but should not ignore other important portfolios. Their task is also to unite Serbs north and south and craft joint policies about their future inside Kosovo.

For most Serbs, the institutions of local self-government and the jobs they provide are vital. Integrating them means merging Serbia’s local payroll into the Kosovo budget – a complicated task, as Belgrade’s spending is opaque. A thorough audit is needed to get a grip on who is there and how much it all costs. This will likely reveal some fraud and plainly unnecessary spending, for example on notionally Kosovo-based workers living elsewhere in Serbia; these should be removed immediately. The Serb-majority municipalities should employ the rest. The goal should be to complete this process and dissolve the Serbian parallel system by the end of 2015. The result will be bloated local governments with much duplication, but this is a necessary first step. Pristina should increase its budget allocations for these municipalities but cannot shoulder the whole burden; Belgrade should pay the rest through direct, transparent transfers to the municipalities. Starting in 2016, the integrated local payrolls should be slimmed down and rationalised, with ample funds allocated for retraining and measures to create jobs in the private sector. There is a need for coordination and investment of political capital. The Kosovo government has tended to farm Serb issues out to its ministry for local self-government, which has achieved much given its modest resources. But the next phase of integration must be an allgovernment affair supported by ample financial means. Belgrade has micromanaged the Kosovo Serbs and should start letting them find their own way. It should respect Pristina as an equal partner. The local Serb leadership knows its community better than anyone in Belgrade, Pristina or Brussels, and its wellbeing is their responsibility. To ensure it, they should accept Serbia’s fraternal support but cooperate with Albanian leaders in building their common future in Kosovo.


Kosovo, Serbia and the international community should set a goal of full Serb integration — meaning a single set of Kosovo municipal institutions, a functioning Association/Community of Serb Municipalities and full Serbian compliance with the terms of the Ahtisaari Plan, Kosovo law and the Brussels Agreement — by 1 January 2016. To accomplish this;

Guiding principles for the governments of Kosovo and Serbia and for the international community:

Integration at the local level should proceed in step with increased participation of Serbs in central institutions; local self-government and the Association/Community should not draw Serbs away from Pristina.

Work on establishing the Association/Community should not delay integration of the Serbmajority municipalities and other institutions. The time scale of integration is likely to be measured in years; the Kosovo government and Serb representatives should develop and periodically review a detailed timetable. The Serb deputy prime minister of Kosovo should have a role in this process. The position of Serbs within Kosovo will benefit from the growth of bilateral ties between Belgrade and Pristina, initially through the EU-sponsored dialogue on normalisation of relations. Kosovo and Serbia should increase their direct contacts and resolve pressing matters without delay. Pristina, the international community and Belgrade should cooperate in fostering the growth of locally rooted Serb leaders representing their constituency’s interests.

The governments of Kosovo and Serbia:

The Kosovo ministry of local self government (MLGA) and the Serbia’s office for Kosovo and Metohija (KiM) should, in a coordinated manner, supervise a field-based audit of employment in Serbia-funded institutions and Kosovo Serb-majority municipalities, carried out by local officials with EU and U.S. support. Respective local institutions should cooperate. Workers on the Kosovo payroll but residing in Serbia should be removed immediately, and those near retirement age offered early pensions. Serbian municipal staff should be transferred to the corresponding Kosovo municipal institutions and removed from the Serbian payroll as soon as possible in the course of 2015. A skeleton crew should remain in the Serbian system through 1 January 2016 to administer payments for workers who have not yet been transitioned. Once municipal institutions are fully integrated, starting in 2016 the Pristina government should develop optimal staffing profiles for the Serb-majority municipalities, and put in place a strategy to lay-off excess workers. This should be done gradually, to minimise disruption to the community. As much as possible should be done through attrition and early retirement, with additional job losses matched with job training, placement assistance, openings elsewhere in the Kosovo system, and encouraging job growth in the private sector. Invite Serb representatives, including local officials and civil society, to participate in the process of establishing the Community/Association. The education ministries should resolve problems with University diplomas. Pristina and Belgrade should agree to allow liaison offices in selected locations to facilitate issuance of Serbian documents.

The Government of Kosovo:

The Kosovo government should deploy the financial and political capital needed to make integration work, and should name a committee including the ministers of local government, finance, economy, education, agriculture, education and all Serb ministers, to coordinate government programs for integration of Serbs. Immediately authorise the Agency of Statistics of Kosovo (ASK) to revise its population count for the ten Serb-majority municipalities based on all available data. Kosovo should repeat the census in the ten Serb-majority municipalities as soon as possible and, together with donors, use the results to craft effective policies aimed at job creation, social assistance and other aspects of Serb integration.

The structure and budget of Serb-majority municipal governments should eventually match the community’s requirements as shown by the new census, but the government should plan a higher budget for a three to five year transition period with higher staffing levels. The Office for Community Affairs should resume a programme of regular, detailed tracking of the number and level of minority staff on the public payroll and should publish this information. Central government institutions should launch a new recruitment programme to boost Serb and other minority representation at all levels; to be effective, a recruitment program will need input from community leaders at all central and local levels and civil society, as well as strong diplomatic and donor support. Revitalise the MLGA and give firm political support to its minister. Invite Serb representatives to play an active role in state policies. Increase funding for the judiciary and recruit more judges, prosecutors and legal support staff at all levels of the judicial system. Enhance communication and cooperation with northern Serb officials and their communities, by inviting them to visit Pristina, organising roundtables and other outreach activities. Senior government officials should regularly visit northern Kosovo. Provide language-training opportunities for Serbs in government and civil servants to learn Albanian and for Albanians to learn Serbian.

The Kosovo Assembly:

Amend the laws on courts and on the Kosovo Judicial Council (KJC) to empower Serb members of the KJC in naming of Serb judges in line with the constitution. Amend other laws to implement the Brussels Agreement, including the laws on local-self-government and inter-municipal cooperation.

The Kosovo Police:

In municipalities outside the Association/Community with a substantial Serb population, open substations or increase patrols in Serb settlements, and recruit additional Serb officers to serve in these areas.

The Government of Serbia:

Close parallel courts and other security institutions immediately; order judges and prosecutors to move to Kosovo courts, and instruct members of civil defence to integrate immediately into the Kosovo system, taking advantage of the positions opened by Pristina. Instruct Serb municipal staff to transfer to the Kosovo municipalities; announce plans to close those offices as of January 2016. Make all funding transparent to the Kosovo treasury, and start transferring funds to the Kosovo municipalities, which can set part of it aside for projects run through the Community/Association. Offer workers transitioning to the Kosovo system the right to continue accruing years of service for their Serbian pension, while they participate in the Kosovo scheme. Encourage Serbs to integrate in the Kosovo system, and refrain from micromanaging their affairs.

The Assembly of Serbia:

The Assembly should ratify the Brussels Agreement; pass legislation allowing government institutions to interact with Pristina government, as well as with municipalities in Kosovo and the Association/Community.

Serb leaders in Kosovo:

Enhance cooperation with Pristina; mayors should fully cooperate with line ministries and respect laws. Play an active role in wider government policies: Serbs should seek out senior posts in other important ministries rather than limiting themselves to ministries directly dealing with their community. Reach out to Albanian opinion, including community representatives and civil society. Serb parliamentarians should make full use of the Committee on the Rights and Interests of Communities and should nurture good relations with other minority representatives. Donors should support the Committee with experts, training and logistical assistance. Serb delegates in the Kosovo Assembly should reach out to parties representing the majority and take an active role in all aspects of the legislative process. Serb representatives should seek to influence the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue and take a leading role in the establishment of the Community/Association. Delegates, and all Serbs named to senior posts in central institutions, should learn Albanian.

The International Community and Donors:

The EU should keep the dialogue for normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia a priority. EU member states, U.S. and other actors should support the implementation and integration of the Serbs in Kosovo, and should encourage further dialogue between the two countries. Brussels should encourage both governments to communicate agreements reached in the dialogue to their respective communities in a transparent fashion. Assist the integration of the Serb community by promoting employment opportunities for Serbs leaving Serbia’s public payroll. Aid communication through programmes for dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia institutions, such as police and justice, and support projects for cross-border cooperation. Promote the accountability and inclusiveness of the new Serb-majority municipal authorities; providing training for the MLGA and new local officials and administrators, who must transition from one set of laws to another. Improve Serbs’ access to the labour market, by sponsoring research aimed at illuminating the obstacles in the way of ordinary Serbs’ economic, social and cultural integration into Kosovo society and by supporting investments that attract minority employees.

The Community of Serb municipalities:

The Statute of the Association/Community should be based on Kosovo legislation (including the laws on local self-government and inter-municipal partnership), the Brussels Agreement and other ratified agreements between the parties, the Ahtisaari Plan and European norms of local self-government.

The members of the Community/Association should continue to play an active role in the Kosovo Association of Municipalities (AKM); the four northern municipalities should join the AKM. The Association/Community should be designed to add value to, or compensate for gaps in, existing institutions. It should carry out responsibilities delegated to it by municipalities and central authorities. The Community/Association should play a leading role in administration of the Serbian education and health for the Serb community in Kosovo, notably with respect to institutions of community-wide interest, such as the North Mitrovica University and medical centres. The Association/Community should create departments for each area of its responsibility; department heads should comprise its council under overall direction of its assembly and president. The Community/Association should coordinate development projects; offer job re-training and placement services, social welfare, and assist with interactions with Serbian institutions (ministries, pension scheme etc.) It should sponsor economic development projects, including an annual contest, matched with donor support, for a project proposed by local authorities and communities. The Association/Community should offer pro bono legal aid and other assistance in dealing with central institutions, especially for isolated Serbs. The Community/Association should establish Kosovo-wide Serbian cultural institutions. Member municipalities should fund the Association/Community, with their own and government funds and funds from Serbia.