302. Think before We Act: New Questions about Decentralization in Kosovo

By
Isa Blumi

Isa Blumi is Visiting Assistant Professor, History and International Studies Departments at Trinity College, and a recent EES Short-Term Scholar. He spoke at an EES noon discussion on October 6, 2004. The following is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report 302.

Nuk ndërtohet shtëpia prej kulmit

— You cannot build a house by starting with the roof

For generations in Kosovo, the idiom above has served to reflect a collective mistrust of the many hasty and ill-conceived attempts to contain Kosovo's dynamic society. Unfortunately, much of its introspective irony has slipped the attention of foreign rulers. As one occupying regime left in 1999 and was replaced by an equally hostile community of foreign administrators, the intractable realities of Kosovo's house have once again faded into the background.

Recent events in Kosovo may have rekindled the interest in the region of diplomatic circles in Brussels and Washington, which for the most part has been diverted to wars on terrorism and trans-Atlantic squabbling. The March 2004 riots hammered home the fact that EU and US officials neglect Kosovo at their own peril. In an attempt to address the March riots, the outside world has identified a scapegoat—Albanians—inviting a new round of diplomatic maneuvering by Belgrade, UN administrators in Prishtina and Brussels to try and accommodate the contradictory ambitions of Western Europe, Serbs and last (and least) Kosovar Albanians.

Immediately following the March riots, Belgrade dusted off and submitted a recycled plan to ‘decentralize' Kosovo. The "Plan for the Political Solution to the Situation of Kosovo and Methohija," which outlines the territorial fragmentation of Kosovo, not only offers little hope of finding a solution, but if implemented, would lead to a period of chaos and destruction unseen in Kosovo since 1999. The plan that the UN chief administrator (SRSG) has adopted in Kosovo mirrors in many ways the spirit of Belgrade's plan. The whole idea of decentralization from the international side, initiated and drawn up by a Finnish aide to SRSG Michael Steiner in 2002, demonstrates a dangerous propensity to forget history.

A historical precedent

It is forgotten today that by 1897, the growing influence of Imperial Russia and its rivals the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, to a lesser extent, Italy, had created conditions in many parts of Kosovo that were akin to the inter-communal wars in the region today. In the 1897 context, the Great Powers identified opportunities to influence events in Kosovo and used their formal claims as ‘protectors' of their respective Christian communities—the Russians were patrons of Orthodox Slavs and the Austrians patrons of Catholic Albanians and Slavs—to drive a wedge between peasant communities and the Ottoman state. In an attempt to harness the violence between what were seen as distinct Bulgarian (and Macedonian), Greek, Albanian (Catholic, Orthodox Christian and various Muslim sects) and Serb communities, Russia and Austria drew up a plan for reform named the Mürzsteg Agreement, to which all the major powers of the time eventually became a party and helped implement.

There is plenty of evidence that the Serbs, Albanians and Bulgars living in the region often shared a common cause, be it the mutual protection from outsiders (namely refugees from newly independent Serbia/Montenegro) threatening common forests to joint efforts to rebuild a place of worship or water well. Unfortunately, this cohabitation did not fit well with the drafters of the Mürzsteg Agreement, which was created in an effort to supplant Ottoman formal sovereignty over Kosovo by creating autonomous enclaves governed by ethnically distinct political bodies. The central organizing principle of the Agreement was the need to separate "ethnically antagonistic" communities. Interestingly, by insisting that all interaction with the outside community be filtered through this world view of mutually-exclusive ethnic communities, many communal leaders in the area quickly figured out that obtaining highly sought after patronage required that they frame their daily experiences in terms of inter-ethnic conflict.

Thus, in response to the "animosity" between ethnic groups in Kosovo, the great powers imposed a decentralized administrative regime in the region, which would permit communities to be administered by their own ethnic community leaders within recognized boundaries that would not be crossed by outsiders. The Russian delegation, in particular, insisted that the "rights" of separation be granted to Serbian and Bulgarian/Macedonian residents. In order to enact this, clearly-defined administrative boundaries were necessary, within which communities were to operate free of Ottoman state taxation, were to be allowed to administer their own militias with the assistance of outside "experts" and were to direct their educational and cultural lives free of Ottoman Islamic cultural influence. In the third article of the Agreement, the Ottoman government was "required to re-arrange the boundaries of the vilayet with a view to securing regular groupings of different nationalities." That meant self-contained enclaves for Serbs, Bulgars and Greeks would be created, separating them from their old neighbors who happened to be Muslim or Catholic (and inevitably Albanian). The Mürzsteg Agreement hoped to solidify the autonomy of its "ethnically-distinct" districts by assuring that Christians would have access to their own judicial and administrative institutions.

The actual implementation of the Mürzsteg reforms created dozens of incongruent autonomous enclaves throughout the Kosovo vilayet by March of 1904. The map of the region looked much like the West Bank today, where settlements filled with non-Palestinians make it impossible for Palestine's political and economic apparatus to function. Within a short period of time, Albanian resentment took on violent form throughout the Kosovo vilayet as they demanded that the state resist the discriminatory "reform efforts" that disfavored them so clearly. Consequently, a growing movement to resist these efforts emerged, which changed how Albanians viewed their Slav neighbors as well as the Sultan's government.

Belgrade's ‘new' plan

The parallels between what Belgrade is proposing today and the Mürzsteg Agreement are remarkable. Indeed, looking at articles 3 and 4 of the Mürzsteg Agreement makes one wonder if anything has changed over the last century. Like the Mürzsteg agreement, Belgrade's 2004 Plan calls for the creation of five zones—Central Kosovo District, North Kosovo District, Kosovo-Morava River Basin District, Sarplanina Mountain District and Metohija District. These enclaves would in practice be out of bounds for Albanians. Belgrade today is asking for much the same powers to be vested in internal administrative bodies that would operate outside the reach of Prishtina, which is clearly reminiscent of the "ethnically-distinct" districts created by the Mürzsteg Agreement.

It is important to remember that the Mürzsteg reforms never really aspired to divert the influence of Belgrade, Moscow or Vienna from the process. Rather, the disentanglement of one set of strings (the Ottomans) merely meant more formidable and tightly wound ones were replacing them. This, in fact, is the secret behind decentralization in Kosovo today: Belgrade has no intention of seeing its respective spheres of influence slip away. On the contrary, "decentralization" is meant to assure that any meaningful attempts to disengage Belgrade from the affairs of Kosovo are, once and for all, thwarted. To even begin to claim that the process would exclusively serve the purposes of local Serbs—whomever they may be at this point—is to be blind to how deeply manipulative Belgrade has been in assuring Serb enclaves are governed and policed by operatives loyal to it. As a result of the refusal of the international community to impose its authority in Serbian enclaves, especially in Northern Mitrovica, we have today a de facto Republika Srpska embedded in Kosovar territory. Just how much more territory Belgrade will have direct influence over is the central issue at hand today.

The problems with the Belgrade plan fall into three main categories. First, there is no viable partner to actually assure that the plan would accomplish what it proclaims to do: provide a stopgap measure to "protect" people from each other. Neither Belgrade nor UN/EU agencies have proven to be reliable advocates for their respective constituents and both have often demonstrated dictatorial tendencies for which, as events in March prove, the local population has only a limited amount of patience. It is all the more problematic when the "Kosovar Serb" community has demonstrated that it is far more an extension of Belgrade than is acknowledged in the plan. Kosovar Serbs would not be operating in "autonomy" by any means; Belgrade would still be calling the shots.

Second, the problem is that there is no state to decentralize. The provisional government that UNMIK has permitted to emerge in Prishtina is neither a representative nor a particularly comprehensive entity. Very few of the activities of the "government" today have any impact on the lives of Kosovar rural communities. Moreover, far too little has been established in terms of local branches of government to suggest there is an institutional infrastructure that could be handed to a municipal government. With the limited material and human resources available today, it is hard to imagine that 30 municipalities could ever be expected to find, hire and retain the necessary human and financial resources required to first build and then run an effective and responsive local government. In this regard, the proposals that have gained so much attention from international circles today reveal an utter lack of appreciation for the serious deficit of leadership in Kosovo. The international community has spent little of the billions of euros allocated to its project to actually develop a responsible and non-partisan cadre to take over the educational, health, security and developmental needs of Kosovo's citizens. As a result, I suspect the two major political parties—Democratic Party of Kosova (DPK) and Democratic League of Kosova (DLK)—will again monopolize the bureaucracies of municipal governments, just as they are largely filling in positions today in the provisional "central" government based in Prishtina. Much as the situation with Serb enclaves, which are working largely under the watchful eye of Belgrade, any "decentralization" of Kosovar government practices would strengthen even more the clique of party loyalists who have failed Kosovar Albanians the most.

Finally, by dealing consistently with the old generation of local leaders, the international community has maintained the power of those responsible for the 50-year legacy of abusive communist party politics. Much as Serbia today is held hostage by a generation of "leaders" who operate in archaic party hierarchies. Likewise, Kosovo has been suffocated by party loyalists from the DPK and DLK who know little about running a modern society and care even less for the well-being of the masses. Any bureaucracy that emerges seeking to "empower" locals will inevitably expand the reach of this kind of politics, leading to the consolidation of highly exclusionary networks that are beholden to men "behind the scenes" such as Xhavit Haliti of the DPK and Sabri Hamiti of the DLK.

In any reconfiguration of the Kosovar government it will be impossible, therefore, to separate the interests of the individual from the position they hold. Either that connection will be harnessed to serve the larger party interests (which are in themselves extensions of complicated inter-clan networks) or new configurations of local alliances will develop. Either way, the losers will be the poor, the jobless and the hungry—the vast majority of Kosovars today. These masses will continue to flee the poor municipalities, creating new communities of frustration that will only be exasperated if the last bastion of hope—the international community—turns its back on them and lets Belgrade con its way into the torn lives of Kosvar Albanians again. Ultimately, rushing to "decentralize" Kosovo may deny Kosovars the benefits of a strong, central state at a moment when its society, for so many years facing neglect and oppression, needs it the most.

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