Think Before We Act: New Questions about Decentralization in Kosovo
October 6, 2004
Staff-prepared summary of the EES informal discussion with Isa Blumi, Visiting Assistant Professor, Departments of History and International Studies, Trinity College and recent EES Short-Term Scholar

Isa Blumi noted that 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 decentralization of Kosovo has been heralded as a solution. Blumi's presentation focused on the recent proposal of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica called the "Plan for the Political Solution to the Situation of Kosovo and Methohija," which essentially calls for the establishment of autonomous regions in Kosovo where Serbs are a majority. The Plan, Blumi asserted offers little hope of finding a solution, and if implemented, would lead to a period of chaos and destruction unseen in Kosovo since 1999.

Blumi argued that the Plan has many parallels with the failed Mürzsteg Agreement of 100 years ago. At the time, 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. 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.

The parallels between what Belgrade is proposing today and the Mürzsteg Agreement, Blumi argues, are remarkable. 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.

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 the violence by ethnic Albanians against Serbs in March proves, the local population has only a limited amount of patience. Second, 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. 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.