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[] Mr. Petrović comes to Washington

Slobodan Petrović, the leader of the largest Serb political bloc in the Kosovo parliament and a deputy prime minister in the Albanian-majority country, has visited us previously in DC, but this is the first time we’ve had him as a solo act at Johns Hopkins. He appeared previously with then Finance Minister Ahmet Shala. Petrović outperformed, as they say on Wall Street (when it isn’t occupied).

He starts from a simple premise:   he can do more to protect his constituency, attract Serbs back to Kosovo (or keep them from leaving) and improve their economic and social conditions by political participation than by isolating the Serbs and refusing to vote or serve in parliament, which is what Belgrade prefers.  This is a marvelously simple, even self-evident, but decidedly non-Balkan notion.

It has worked reasonably well for Serbs south of the Ibar river, where most of them live.  Forty per cent of them voted in the last Kosovo election.  They are less isolated than five years ago, when Petrovic launched his Serb Liberal Party, and their rights are more widely respected.  The Pristina government has funded housing and infrastructure for Serb communities, and the international community has pitched in as well.  Decentralization, in accordance with the Ahtisaari peace plan that Belgrade rejected, has provided Serb-majority municipalities with a wide degree of autonomy.  Freedom of movement has improved. I won’t say all Albanians have learned to embrace the Serbs, but they are certainly far more accepting of them today than in the immediate aftermath of the 1999 NATO/Yugoslavia war, when something like half the Albanian population of Kosovo returned from having been expelled by Serbian forces.

There is lots more to be done for the Serbs south of the Ibar, but the big problem is northern Kosovo, where Belgrade has not permitted Pristina’s institutions to be established, even those that are guaranteed autonomy by the Ahtisaari plan.  As Petrović recounted, Belgrade instead maintains barely functioning municipal governments with large payrolls.  Nationalist Serbs from all over Kosovo have retreated to the north, including some Croatian Serbs relocated to Kosovo  in 1995.  The result is a lawless area where courts don’t function, services are poor and extremists are determined to resist not only Pristina’s authority but also the UN, EULEX, NATO and the EU.

Ultimately, this is a European Union problem.  The EU Commission has recommended candidacy status for Serbia, provided it improves cooperation with Pristina.  The question is how far Belgrade will go.  The smart money is betting not far, since Serbia has elections early next year and the EU is believed to have set a low bar, apparently in the hope that will boost Serbian President Boris Tadić’s reelection prospects.

Some believe things are moving in the right direction and we just need to patiently keep them on track.  Eventually, Serbia will have to accept Kosovo independence as a reality.  Some even believe that Tadić, if reelected, will bring nationalist Tomislav Nikolić into the government as prime minster, reducing Kosovo’s salience as a competitive issue in Serbian politics and enabling both to accept reality sooner rather than later.

I’m not ready to sign up to optimism on Serbia’s acceptance of the Kosovo reality.  I’ve been disappointed too many times.  But I am optimistic about the prospects for the Serb communities south of the Ibar. Petrović is leading them in a good direction, one I hope the Albanians of Kosovo will appreciate and reward.  Pristina’s fate still depends, as it has since 1999, on how fairly it is prepared to treat Kosovo’s Serb population.  That is also the key to the north, where it is not going to be easy to gain the confidence of the population.

One note of appreciation:  to the Kosovo embassy in Washington, which handled its deputy prime minister’s visit well.  As those of us who deal with the Balkans in Washington know only too well, Washington embassies sometimes provide support that depends all too obviously on the ethnic background of the visitor.  Thank you, Ambassador Spahiu, for showing that Kosovo knows better!


19 October 2011 by Daniel Serwer