Nov 2 2011

Kosovo-Serbia Customs Issue: A Continuation of War by Other Means

By Maja Šoštarić.

Stop - Customs

Since 1999, Serbia inhibited Kosovo’s independence in many ways: it issued Serbian passports for Serbs from the North; it deprived Prishtina from access to local land registers and other documents removed to Belgrade; it limited telecommunication services and electricity to Kosovo. Finally, following Kosovo’s independence in 2008, Serbia banned entrance to goods from Kosovo. All these acts had political consequences, for between daily technical issues and politics there is often only a moot distinction. Yet the import ban issue eventually turned into a political dispute par excellence. Trade, custom stamps and checkpoint control arguments are being (ab)used as alibi to cover for the real geopolitical interest of both sides: the North of Kosovo, a region populated by some 60,000 Serbs constantly rejecting Prishtina’s authority.

Embargoing the embargo
For more than three years, Prishtina tolerated the embargo imposed by Serbia while Kosovo continued to import from Serbia without any restrictions. However, in July 2011, the Kosovo authorities decided to apply reciprocity measures banning import of goods from Serbia. The government in Prishtina is well within its rights to apply custom reciprocity according to the CEFTA rules. In attempt to fortify its decision, Kosovo seized control over the two custom checkpoints in Northern Kosovo: Jarinje and Brnjak. However, the problem is that according to the 2008 Six Point Plan sponsored by the UN, only the EULEX has the mandate to administer these two border points. Not surprisingly, Prishtina’s action triggered a serious reaction of the Serbs. The situation deteriorated once the local Serbian population erected barriers and blocked the main roads in northern Kosovo. The overall crisis escalated once the Serbs first clashed with Kosovo’s special police unit ROSI, and later with the KFOR as well.

Ever since Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, Prishtina’s control over Northern Kosovo is weak at best. The Kosovo authorities often accuse Belgrade of supporting the work of what they call ‘parallel institutions’. As a consequence of such dual sovereignty conflict, the Serb-dominated communities have become a no-man’s land, with flourishing levels of organized crime, non-existent judiciary and cronyism. Furthermore, according to the Serbian Chamber of Commerce, Kosovo’s ban on Serbian imports cost the country 50 million dollars per month. It is a serious blow for the Serbian economy. Kosovo’s ban seems to have been additionally motivated by the annual loss of approximately €30-40 million that may be collected on the check points in Northern Kosovo.

The September agreement

So, why did Serbia impose the embargo on goods coming from Kosovo? Was there a justification to take such action? Serbia insisted it was the custom stamps its government had issues with. For Belgrade, the problem was that the custom stamps read “Republic of Kosovo”, along with Kosovo’s official emblems. On September 2, 2011, fearing escalation of violence on Kosovo, the EU representative Robert Cooper, mediated an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo on new custom stamps. By means of a wording compromise, the agreement specified that Prishtina had to give up its state emblems as well as the contested word ‘Republic’; in turn, the Kosovo stamps were accepted by the Serbian authorities.

However, the issue of who would control the border checkpoints in Northern Kosovo was not resolved. In mid-September 2011, the government in Prishtina decided to send Kosovar custom representatives as observers to the contested custom checkpoints. Such action was perceived as a provocation by Serbia and clear violation of the September agreement. The local Serbian population mobilized to protests, which eventually led to a violent clash with the Kosovo police and the KFOR.

Serbia and Kosovo: in chase of votes, in chase of the EU

At the end, the September customs agreement did not improve relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Ever since Kosovo lifted the ban for Serbian goods, the government in Prishtina has complained that Belgrade does not honor the agreement. The local Serbs saw the presence of Kosovo Albanian custom officers at Jarinje and Brnjak as a casus belli. Furthermore, they perceived EULEX and KFOR as being too lenient toward the Albanian population. To make things even more complex, Kosovo Serbs feel unprotected by Serbia, too. The ties with Belgrade are strained since Serbia’s political elite presently in power is a fierce opponent to the party currently in power in Mitrovica.

For its part, Belgrade is in a rather difficult position. Facing serious economic problems, Belgrade does not seem to be able to focus on controlling the situation in Northern Kosovo. Furthermore, Serbia is entering a new election period. Despite the efforts of the pro-European government led by President Boris Tadić, the country’s EU bid is being questioned yet again. On October 12, 2011, the European Commission recommended granting a candidate status to Serbia, without offering a concrete date for the start of accession talks. The Commission maintained that Serbia’s future accession to the EU was a subject of resolution of the Kosovo issue. Such position of the European Commission caused serious problems for the Serbian policy makers. It left little space for them to negotiate their EU aspiration policies with the direction they took upon vis-à-vis Kosovo.

The prospect of EU accession is a card that EU diplomats use with Kosovo as well, by promising it the long-awaited talks for visa liberalization. This might be good news for the Kosovo Prime Minister Thaçi. Thaçi’s prime minister seat seemed staggered only several months ago, due to a very thin majority in the parliament. The Serbian imports ban added to his popularity among the nationalists. In any case, incumbent Kosovar government achieved a political victory without losing too much economically. Kosovo’s exports are modest anyway, so for the government, the cost of coping with an import ban imposed by Serbia is less significant than the cost of losing political credibility by failing to hinder partition. The problem is that Kosovo cannot deploy a sufficient number of security forces to impose control over the customs checkpoint in Northern Kosovo. Therefore, Kosovar cooperation with the ‘internationals’ is inevitable.

The critical role of the international community

The international factors should bear in mind that technical dialogue on issues like those related to customs procedures can postpone, but not circumvent, a discussion on the future of Northern Kosovo. Given the three different standpoints with a disagreement on almost everything, it is very improbable that the outcome of the present dialogue will be to everyone’s taste. Prishtina’s aim is to obtain international recognition and control over northern Kosovo. Therefore, the Kosovo Albanians are willing to participate in dialogue on technical issues, but not on issues related to the status or partition of Kosovo. The US and the EU, on the other hand, focus on technical dialogue only, avoiding any status- or North-related discussion. Finally, Belgrade stands in the opposing corner. In other words, convincing Serbia to constructively discuss matters that would actually facilitate North’s re-integration with the rest of Kosovo seems very unlikely.

Until political and legal mechanisms vital for reconciliation are in place, little can be achieved by dealing with issues like the custom stamps only. Even if the parties eventually agree on a seemingly trivial matter, like on the design of the customs stamps, the question of who controls the checkpoints will remain open. Therefore, the EU should encourage further Belgrade-Prishtina dialogue in two-axial direction: technical issues and more contextual questions like the one on Northern Kosovo. One possible solution is forming a transparent working group that would take into account both Pristhina and Belgrade’s demands in that context.

Déjà vu?

If the international community fails to engage the two sides in a dialogue the possibility of new conflict is obvious. Forceful mediation is not the right way to go in the case of the Serbian-Kosovo dispute. A powerful lesson of the 1998 Kosovo-Serbia dialogue should not be overlooked. Back then, Richard Holbrooke attempted to forge an agreement between Slobodan Milošević and Ibrahim Rugova. Ironically, Rugova was in a position similar to that of today’s Kosovo Serbs, when he was representing the ‘parallel institutions’ at least in the eyes of Serbs.

Unfortunately, the dialogue ended before it even started with the 1999 NATO intervention. The only achievement of the 1998 dialogue was a first-ever official meeting of the Serbian and Albanian leaders. However, the meeting did not bring a solution to the problem. Similarly, the agreement of the Serb and Albanian leaders upon technicalities such as the customs stamps, electricity and land registers, by no means implies that essential political differences are resolved.

Maja Šoštarić (PhD) is a Bosnia-based research analyst with Impunity Watch

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7 Responses to Kosovo-Serbia Customs Issue: A Continuation of War by Other Means

  1. Nikola says:

    You are clearly showing Albanian bias. You are stating as if Kosovo independence is a fact when the majority of the countries in the world do not recognize such a country. In addition to not having majority support, Kosovo as an independent country could never join the UN which is really the basic criteria for a country and this is because of Russian and Chinese veto’s.

    You are only bitter because your country is Bosnia and Serbs control half of Bosnia and even your Croatian partners want to split from the federation. Pretty soon the Serbs will have the largest entity in Bosnia and will eventually declare independence.

    Stop being so bitter.

  2. Maja Sostaric says:

    I’m not bitter at all, just objective. If you read the article carefully, you will find that I equally criticize the Albanians.

    And for the record, my country is not Bosnia and I’m not Bosnian. I temporarily work in Bosnia. But again, why is that relevant for the article?!
    Your line of argument was merely to read the last line, see the word “Bosnia”, deduce: “Ah! She is Bosnian! Hence the article”. However, let me remind you that such unfounded arguments often result in a series of fallacies. Your argument quickly falls apart, as it is ‘founded’ on my alleged bitterness with the Kosovo situation due to my equally alleged bitterness with the Bosnian situation which, honestly, has really nothing to do with my personal life. See? Two conclusions, both very false.

    My well-intentioned advice to you: forget who is who and focus on why.

  3. Marko says:

    “Since 1999, Serbia inhibited Kosovo’s independence (Instead of being objective, you chose your side, your “line of thinking” from the very beginning..I haven’t seen in the part where you criticize the Albanian side that you use – that Kosovo is not really a country..Not yet for the ones that think that it will become a country. You are analyzing this as it was “Kosovo state-building..” I am very much aware of the its independence from the Serbian institutions but that doesn’t mean that it’s a independent, sovereign country..)
    “it issued Serbian passports for Serbs from the North (of course it did. They are Serbian citizens! Ask Europeans what do they think about Albanian’s from Kosovo that get Serbian passports and travel to EU asking for a asylum! And further more – what does your claim even mean when Hungary gives it’s passport to ethnic Hungarians in (clearly independent states) Slovakia, Romania, Serbia..Romania is doing the same thing in Moldova.. But Serbia is the evil one..) ; it deprived Prishtina from access to local land registers and other documents removed to Belgrade (of course that they were moved. They are property of Serbia and if there is someone that it could give it to it would be the international institutions on KIM not some self-proclaimed Kosovo Republic institutions. But if Serbia gives them that they will give it to the “Kosovo Republic institutions” Again – zero for your objectivity); it limited telecommunication services and electricity to Kosovo” (I you know something about those poor souls that live in their homes terrified for their safety and years without electricity in cold periods you would be careful about writing something like this..) .

    “Finally, following Kosovo’s independence in 2008″ (you don’t mark this as the self proclamation of independence. You use it as a done deal. The American’s, Germans and French said that it is a independent country and ergo it is.. Although I understand that there is hardly a way back for Kosovo into the institutions of Serbia, that’s not my point but your way of presenting this is..Be careful in what terms you write something because you offended the Serbian side with this. If you are a Serb and think that that gives you the right to be self-critical of your own nation I would like to ask you to be an Albanian and do the same thing as long as possible.. Criticize them in term that other side is using. If you believe that when you clean in your backyard the other side will do the same in theirs or that the second thing is not important..think again.. Balkan realpolitik and global realpolitik denies that every day. Don’t be a conceptual, perceptional and educational slave of one side even if it is much stronger in implementing its views.. You are right when saying that which nationality we are is not important but I mean that Nikola meant that there is something internal that drives your over-criticism of the Serbian line of thinking. But that doesn’t interest me). Going further..

    When you analyze the import ban from Serbia/the rest of the Serbia/ on the administrative line with KIM.. your language clearly states that this is like the relationship between two equal sides (and KiM is the mandate country of the UN, in the UN Resolution a part of FR Yugoslavia (which Serbia is a legal successor) and although I don’t think that it’s really a part of the Serbian system – you can’t, as a objective analyst of what ever, use the context of a equal independent state.. because it isn’t.. Maybe it will be when something is solved differently, or when they find a compromise that brings us to a more cooperative situations and make two sides work as equal.. But that isn’t certainly the case now.. and Serbia has every right to protect its interests. As Albanians do.)

    I agree with you that the situation about two custom checkpoints in Northern Kosovo: Jarinje and Brnjak is highly controversial. There is some political bargaining there.. and there is more than meets the eye..

    I must criticize you a lot for saying that there is a lot of criminal and smuggling activity on the Serb side, in North KiM. And there isn’t on the whole territory of KIM, from Albanians living in it, also and much more?? This entity is leaving partly from the criminal money from the Albanian criminal underground in Europe countries and USA. Ramus Haradinay (one of the KIM lords) is a clear example of a honest and honorable man.. and there is a long list..)

    You try to be objective in the part when you explain the political context in Belgrade and Pristina and there only you use the different standing points of sides as equal. In this part when you say that Serbia wont do this, accept that.. you acknowledge the legitimate and its real influence and role in this UN mandate territory, political entity called Kosovo.

    But.. your recommendations
    “the EU should encourage further Belgrade-Prishtina dialogue in two-axial direction: technical issues (which technical issues that weren’t discussed in the current obviously unfruitful talks?) and more contextual questions like the one on Northern Kosovo (in which way contextual? You mean like an ideal of a federalization of KiM or delimitation between then Serbia and then Kosovo.) One possible solution is forming a transparent working group (when you have diplomats that come from countries which already told them what to do.. international organizations which already told them what to do.. or from the two conflicting sides that are by direct link controlled by their elites..what transparent working group..) that would take into account both Prishtina and Belgrade’s demands in that context. (they both sides must be first pressured in the same extent that they wont get everything and that the Serbian side doesn’t have any interest (except the blackmail of giving some money as help or candidate talks with the EU..which in the long run is nothing if she loses as it did after the Second World War.. its identity. This must stop now (or it will never stop) and how will it stop… by a consensus from the two sides or differently, we shall see..

  4. Maja Sostaric says:

    a) I’ve never said the North is full of criminals because it is Serb-populated. Where did you read that sentence? Crime is everywhere, from Pristina to Belgrade to New York to Sierra Leone. My point was just that because there is a problem of dual governance, an efficient provision of justice and police services is rendered impossible for the people actually living in the North. They are in a limbo, or as I put it, a no man’s land.

    b) Germany or the US don’t have to tell me what to think. I can come to some conclusions entirely by myself. There are three basic facts on which I base my analysis of Kosovo’s status: 1) Kosovo wanted to proclaim independence long before 2008, and Serbia was not at all happy about it and thus it inhibited the possibility wherever it could on the pretext of protecting its own territory- we agree there, I think; 2) Kosovo finally proclaimed independence, and the ICJ contented that the declaration was not illegal (again, this is easy to verify); 3) Kosovo now seeks international recognition, and it has not fully received it, but 85 recognitions out of 196 countries is not something you can or should ignore. Neither are 22 out of 27 EU member states.
    Hence the first conclusion: Kosovo is something more than a simple province within a country. Is it a state?
    Now, what elements do you need in international law in order to have a state? You need territory, people, a sovereign government and a capacity to enter into relations with other states. Kosovo does have a territory, a people, a government. Pristina is right there when saying Kosovo fulfills the essential criteria. But, Kosovo, as it stands now, has only LIMITED relations to other countries. There, Serbia has a point, and in this light it is trying to prevent Kosovo’s international recognition. Also, Serbia has a point when it says that Pristina does not have a full control over its territory given the situation in the North. Besides, as you point out, Kosovo is internationally mandated. You’re right, but this also holds for some internationally fully recognized states, such as Bosnia, where you have a sort of a protectorate (OHR, EUSR, etc.) but still a sovereign (at least in theory) country. Hence an international mandate does not deny sovereignty of a state. Whether it obstructs it, is another story.
    Based on all these facts, I declare myself fully emancipated of, as you dub it, conceptual slavery, and I believe that Kosovo at this point is more a sovereign state than it is not. Going further.

    c) Equality that you are reproaching me: I’m an observer, and as such, I consider parties to the conflict to be equal. There are two of them, and not, say, one and a half. If you want to contribute to the discussion on how a conflict can be resolved, you need to respect both parties. Equally. Otherwise, you’re biased, which, if I may notice, is your case. However, you contradict yourself at two points: one is when you allow that the Albanians have the right to protect their interests, too. The second is when, in the paragraph where you agree with me, (“You are trying to be objective….”) you actually appreciate my taking into consideration of the Serbian side as ‘equal’ (the word you use) and valid.

    d) I partly agree with you in the final paragraph, where you comment on the recommendations. You say it’s going to be difficult to steer this process, and that was exactly the point I was trying to make. While I did mention a working group, I also allow for other options that would help to address the unresolved situation in the North. The status quo seems unsustainable to me and therefore the possibilities you are mentioning related to what I call ‘contextual dialogue’ should all be considered, I think, yes, along with continuing this present technical dialogue.

    In conclusion, I was only wondering why there always have to be dozens of dead people before someone realizes that something is actually not working. Why not prevent it? By actually dealing with it…?

  5. Sava says:

    Serbian province Kosovo & Metohija is not an independent country. Less than 80 countries would like it to be independent. Those countries that would like Serbian province of Kosovo and Metohija to be independent represent less than 15% of the world population and at the moment around 80% of whole world’s debt.

    Saying this, it becomes obvious why some countries would like Serbian province Kosovo & Metohija to be independent – in order to get hands on Serbian property or simply steal it.

    If they were interested only in political independence, they would have kept ownership in Serbian hands – ownership of both infrastructure and natural resources. As that is not a case, as Serbian property has been unlawfully transferred to new owners and as by every day passing there are more and more information about foreign companies trying to exploit natural resources of Serbian province Kosovo and Metohija, the only natural conclusion is that gaining Serbian property in unlawful way was the real goal.

    Such a theft would impoverish all families in Serbia and prevent future economic and democratic development of Serbia. I believe it should be noted that all participants in this criminal deed will be accomplices.

    I offer a simple solution – if Albanians want to separate, they can on some territories, but they can not have ownership of infrastructure and natural resources. They were less than 20% of the population of Serbia, they should get less than 20% of ownership of all infrastructure and natural resources. As they want to separate from Serbia, they have given up all right to anything in the rest of Serbia.

  6. Peter says:

    The article has many factual mistakes concerning the dispute. Just to mention the most obvious one: none of the parties acted within the rules, neither the blocking of goods due to the new stamp nor the subsequent retaliation were legal.
    The stamp was never the Republic of Kosovo, it was always just Custums of Kosovo, but also always without 1244 which is very significant for both parties and for many interational observes, also divided into two camps.
    Finally, the correct spelling in English is Pristina.
    It´s a bitter fight, but no one said it would be easy, neither to the Serbs not to the Kosovars. Facts will be imporant if a good compromse is t be found one day.

  7. Luke says:

    Excellent article!
    Regarding the name Republic of Kosovo, there are indeed certain sources stating that the name as such was never on the stamp in the first place, but it is rather a controversial debate…

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