A few days ago the platform of the Serbian government for talks with leaked in the Belgrade press and Daniel Serwer made the non-paper of the Serbian government available on his blog. Serwer called the proposal Fantasyland and Hashim Thaci rejected it as a 19th century plan. Of course in negotations there is no reason for the other side to respond positively to a proposal that presumably outlines the starting position for talks. So what does the platform actually propose?
Press in RS is drawing maps of the “new RS in Kosovo” according to the government plan
Observers have likend the structures that would be set up in it to Republika Srpska in Bosnia (mostly positive in Serbia and negatively outside). The platform itself explictly only refers to Katalonia as a model rather then to the RS, but some feature seem to evoke the RS.
In brief ,the platform proposes establishing an “Autonomous Community of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo and Metohija,” with the nice-sounding abbrevision ZSO KiM This would constitute a territorial autonomy of Serb majority municipalities in the North and in the South (including Štrpce, Gračanica) and would have competences in education, health care, sports, culture, public Information, environmental protection, urban planning, agriculture, as well as their own police and judiciary under formal authority of Kosovo and the ability to maintain direct ties to Serbia including funding and finally the use of own symbols.
In terms of institutions, this autonomous unit would have an assembly and government, liking it to an autonomous region. Although the plan calls this autonomous region “community” the plan does not contain any non-territorial forms of autonomy or feature of cultural autonomy (except for some semi-autonomous status of sub-municipal Serb settlements, but even they are understood territorially).
When looking back at the Ahtisaari plan, the differences between the decentralisation proposed therin and the competences requested by the Serbian government do not differ fundamentally. The plan forsees that municipal competences include “education at the pre-primary, primary and secondary levels; public primary health care; local economic development; urban and rural planning; public housing; naming of roads, streets and other public places; and the provision of public services and utilities, among others.” In addition some Serb municipalities received the right to organise higher education, hospital and secondary health care, cultural and religions affairs and an “enhanced role in the appointment of police station comanders. Furthermore, the plan does forsee the formation of “associations and partnerships with other municipalities in Kosovo to carry out functions of mutual interest” and the possiblity of “to cooperate with municipalities and institutions in Serbia, including the right to receive financial and technical assistance from Serbia, within certain clear parameters set by the Settlement.”
The main differences between the competences outlined in the Serbian government non-paper and the Ahtisaari Plan are the control over the police and judiciary and the establishment of seperate institutions, both of course substantial.
More significant are the differences in terms of the overall proposed structures of Kosovo in the non-paper. It suggests a bi-cameral parliament with an upper house called the “House of Regions and Religious Communities” and a lower house with guaranteed seats for Serbs. The idea of a “House of Regions and Religious Communities” does seem rather odd for a number of reasons: First, religion is a not a relevant category in the politicial divisions of Kosovo, ethnicity is. Thus, such a house, if at all, should represent national communities, not religions. The term might be a way to bring the Serbian Orthodox Church into the institutions, which in itself would be very problematic. Second, it might be a term to avoid the obvious parallels with the House of Peoples in Bosnia.
When it comes to voting the platform suggests that Serbs should not be outvoted “in matters that directly impact the competencies of the autonomous region and the rights of Serbs and other minorities. This is considerably less than voting rights of the RS in Bosnia where MPs from either entity can block any decision by a 2/3 majority, a power the RS has made extensive use of.
It would thus be misleading to equate the autonomy for Serb municipalities with the RS in Bosnia. First, the competences are large but less than those of the RS, secondly and more importantly, the ability of the Serb municipalities to block decision-making in Kosovo would be extremely limited in comparsion to the blockages the RS can and has been causing in Bosnia. This difference is of course not surprising considering that Serbs make up less than 10% of Kosovos population and the municipalities make up not much more of the territory of Kosovo.
The proposal could thus be considered to ask for an autonomy between a full entity-like structure in Bosnia and the propose Ahtisaari plan. This is not to say that there are some problems with the platform. First, the idea of a tw0-chamber parliament and the representation of religious communities seems unreasonble considering the size of minorities and the limited competences such an upper chamber would have. Considering cases like South Tyrol or the Aaland islands, both enjoy territorial autonomy, but no specific parliamentary representation in Italy or Finland respecitvely. Instead there are other mechanisms in the relationship between the autonomous region and the central government to protect the autonomy of the region.
The second problem which Dan Serwer in his comment mostly focused on is the idea in the platform that the entirety of Kosovo would remain part of Serbia and the constant references to the “Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija” seems rather anachronistic and is definetly detached from reality. The platform does not outline what Serbia would be willing to offer Kosovo in exchange for agreeing to establishment of the autonomy arrangement. The platform suggests that the Kosovo authorities could receive the official authorisation by the Serbian government, but within the framework of the Serbian constitution, i.e. without recognition of independence. There are two ways of looking at this. If this reflects the substance of the Serbian position, this platform offers little for Kosovo to agree to any of it: The proposal largely formalised the status-quo and thus Kosovo would have no incentive to accept any part of the propsal without a clear Serbian accepetance of Kosovo’s independence, if not outright recognition. However, if the platform is also made for domestic consumption and about the symbolic assertation of sovereignty over Kosovo, then it has better prospects.
The suggestion that the Serbian government could formally transfer the competences of the autonomous province to the institutions of Kosovo might sound absurd, but they would constitute a way for the Serbian government to argue that the current Kosovo institutions are authorised by the Serbian constitution and thus provide for a manner to official and formally cooperate with Kosovo institutions while maintaining the legal fiction that Kosovo is part of Serbia. Although it would be preferable for the Serbian government to fully acknowledge the reality of Kosovo’s independence, this opening might provide for the tool to live with Kosovo’s independence. A second positive feature of the agreement is the apparant abandonment of partition as a goal. By linking the municipalities in the North and in the South into one unit, partition would be less likely and presumably the more numerous Serbs in the South would dominate such an institution.
The platform of the Serbian government is, as I have argued above, far from ideal and as any negotiating position per definition not a compromise, but the goal of one party. Still, I would take it is a reflection of the more pragmatic line of the Serbian government, rather than as just an effort to create a new Republika Srpska in Kosovo.