Demonstrators in Kosovo’s ten Serb-dominated municipalities staged a rally Friday, urging all Serbian MPs to walk out of parliament in protest of amendments to national election laws. Serbian activists warn that the announced changes will limit electoral rights of Serbs living in Kosovo, giving ethnic Albanians a heavy advantage. Furthermore, Serbian political parties could see their presence in parliament slashed, thanks a new electoral threshold of 5% needed in order to gain seats.
The demonstration comes days before Serbia and Kosovo are set to resume E.U.-brokered talks to normalize relations – a precondition of both countries’ advancement towards E.U. membership. The biggest stumbling block remains Kosovo’s integration of recalcitrant Serbian municipalities in the north, which, since an April accord between the two countries, have been released from Belgrade’s de facto control. Notably lagging are the integration of local structures previously funded and backed by Serbia into Kosovo’s administrative framework and the creation of a regional governing association.
The blame has so far landed on Pristina, with both the European Union and Serbia noting its obstructions to integration of the Serbian provinces. The delay threatens to dampen initial enthusiasm in Brussels, where observers were quick to congratulate both countries for their fair play. Here, Kosovo may have the advantage of the long game. Unlike Serbia, integration is still a distant prospect, with Brussels promising Kosovo little more than an association agreement – the first of many steps preceding initial accession talks — in exchange for normalizing relations with Serbia. The stakes for Pristina if its historic rival joins the European bloc are steep; Serbia, which has refused to recognize its independence, could very well work to slow or block Kosovo’s own accession bid.
Little wonder, then, that Pristina is stalling, aided, if unconsciously, by resistance in the Serb provinces in question. Those municipalities also have little reason to facilitate their integration into Kosovo. After years of benefiting from Serbian financing, they now risk being submerged into ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo, losing their regional sway and perhaps – according to local Serb leaders – their electoral influence.
At play too may be a ripple effect as Eastern Europe cautiously watches events unfold in Crimea and old turf wars resurface. Serbs in Bosnia-Herzogovina are lashing out as well, with renewed calls for secession from leader Milorad Dodik in the wake of the Crimean parliament’s March 16 referendum on annexation. British Foreign Secretary William Hague responded Friday, “”Let me be clear, there can be no more re-drawing of borders in the Balkans.” Hague’s pronouncement is prescient. Despite the momentum of Crimea’s annexation, the Serbian entity in Bosnia won’t move to secede – not with Serbia, which lacks the regional clout (and muscle) of a country like Russia, unlikely to back the move.
The situation of Serb provinces in Kosovo, too, is unlikely to change and integration into their host country looks inevitable. Especially with the full weight of the E.U. juggernaut pushing Serbia and Kosovo to reconcile in the objective of steering the former towards a painless accession. Pristina may have to re-evaluate its long game.