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Association of Serb Municipalities remains the main obstacle in Serbia-Kosovo dialogue

Church in northern part of Kosovska Mitrovica, Kosovo. Photo: Tiia Monto / Wikimedia Commons.

The Association of Serb Majority Municipalities in Kosovo (ASM) has been one of the main stumbling blocks in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina for many years. Both sides are still firmly in their positions: Serbia wants Association to be implemented as signed in 2015, and Kosovo does not want to form ASM with executive powers. Developments around ASM, however, recently became even more complicated with the “Franco-German” proposal for the Serbia-Kosovo agreement on the table. While President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić underlines that Serbia expects the formation of ASM before any political agreement, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti offered six demands. Once again, Serbia and Kosovo are entering a vicious circle with the ASM issue in the centre.

The key issue regarding establishing the Association of Serbian Municipalities is the dispute over its competences. While Serbia insists that it must have executive powers, which is supported by the text of the 2015 agreement, Kosovo insists that the ASM must be established based on the model of the existing Association of Municipalities in Kosovo, thereby making it barely more than a non-governmental organization.

As an important element of the EU-supervised process of normalisation between Kosovo and Serbia, both countries agreed to establish the ASM. This proposed institution, as described in the landmark April 2013 First Agreement on the Normalisation of Relations, and an August 2015 follow-up agreement on general principles / main elements, has potentially transformative implications for the future of Serb communities in Kosovo, and Kosovo’s governance more broadly. As foreseen in the relevant agreements, the Association is intended to represent the collective interests of those municipalities in Kosovo with an ethnic Serb majority, especially in the domains of education, healthcare, urban and rural planning, and economy.

Kosovo and Serbia signed an agreement in August 2015 in Brussels that envisaged the establishment of the Association of Serb Municipalities. The Kosovo government formed a team to draft the Association’s statute in July 2016. It, however, failed to complete its mission due to political crises in the Kosovo parliament.

The Association has also become a major obstacle in the Brussels-mediated Belgrade-Pristina talks, as Serbian representatives insisted on its implementation before moving forward with other issues.

In 2018, after the Kosovo authorities arrested and deported the head of the Serbian government office for Kosovo, Marko Đurić, Serb representatives in the Kosovo parliament, threatened to establish the Association unilaterally. But after EU pressure, Serb members of Parliament dropped the plan, and the team started work on the statute in early May of the same year.

In April of that year, authorities in Pristina reactivated the management team for drafting the statute and August’s deadline was set for the draft of the ASM statute to be sent to Brussels. They also talked about possible changes to the legal framework of Kosovo to create the conditions for the creation of the Community.

The situation was further complicated by the crisis in November 2018, when after Kosovo failed to gain membership in Interpol, Ramus Haradinaj introduced customs duties in the amount of 100% on goods imported from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which led to a halt in the dialogue. The issue of creating the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities is thus again postponed indefinitely, and it is unclear if and when Kosovo will implement this key aspect of the Brussels dialogue.

Different proposals without any political progress

These weeks, when there are debates about whether the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities is an obligation for Pristina or not, as well as whether such a community should even exist, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Foundation Office in Pristina, released a document presenting a proposal for a statute for the ASM.

The mere announcement that a German foundation is “making the statute” caused great attention from Serbian and Kosovo media, although this is just one of several proposals from non-governmental organizations and experts on how the statute of the ASM should look like.

FES document said that “ASM is a legal entity established by the Constitution and legal system of Kosovo”. It is stated that the Statute is the highest legal act of ASM, which should be adopted by the Founding Assembly of the community, composed of representatives of the assemblies of participating municipalities.

“The Statue will be adopted by a legal act of the Government of Kosovo and will take effect as a regulation of the Government by the legal system of Kosovo, after the consideration by the Constitutional Court”, the FES proposal stated.

According to this document, ASM has the right to have its own budget bank accounts and has the right to own property and engage in financial transactions.

Regardless of the fact that this proposal caused a lot of attention in both the Kosovo and Serbian media, this is not the first time that experts have proposed how the ASM statute should look like. One of the proposals for the statute was launched in June 2016 by the European Center for Minority Issues (ECMI). 

International Community: ASM should be implemented

In the past two weeks, with intensified visits by international envoys to Belgrade and Pristina for negotiations on the French-German proposal, Kosovo’s top officials have been saying that forming such an association in Kosovo is impossible.

Kosovo’s Foreign Minister Donika Gervala stated that the proposal to establish ASM is “dead and cannot be revived” because the Kosovo Constitutional Court has decided that the formation of such a community would be unconstitutional. The same as Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, Gervala compared the ASM with Republika Srpska, stating that it is a mechanism of executive power of one nation and an example of how one state does not function, and will not allow such implementation in Kosovo. Furthermore, Kosovo officials assert that the insistence on the ASM comes from Belgrade, not from the international community.

However, representatives of both the EU and the USA have repeatedly reminded, especially in the past two weeks, that all signed obligations must be respected, including the implementation of the ASM.

Senior Advisor at the State Department Derek Chollet and US Special Envoy for the Western Balkans Gabriel Escobar emphasized in the joint article published by Koha Ditore the necessity of forming the Community of Serbian Municipalities, as well as what it can and can not be.

As they emphasized, Kosovo’s commitment to creating an Association of Serb-majority Municipalities does not violate Kosovo’s Constitution, nor does it threaten its sovereignty, independence, or democratic institutions.

“We strongly oppose the creation of any ethnic group similar to the Republika Srpska in BiH. The international community is not attempting to impose a solution. Instead, we are asking Kosovo to provide its vision for this association and we are ready to provide expertise and political support to ensure that it functions in the best interest of Kosovo’s citizens”, wrote Chollet and Escobar. 

Future of “Franco-German” plan depends on resolving the ASM issue?

Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said at the beginning of February that he accepts the EU proposal to normalize relations with Serbia, following the meeting with the EU’s Special Representative Miroslav Lajčak. Even though the international community, as well as official Belgrade, insist on the formation of ASM, which is Kosovo’s obligation according to past agreements, Kurti put forward six conditions.

He stated that any association must be in line with the constitution and laws in force and that it cannot be “mono-ethnic”, which means that ASM must change its name.

According to him, ASM should serve as “horizontal cooperation of municipalities”. Kurti further believes that before establishing ASM,  “the illegal structures of Serbia in the north” must be shut down and all illegal weapons handed over.

One of Kurti’s conditions is that the President of Serbia withdraws the letters sent to the highest officials of the five EU member states that do not recognize the independence of Kosovo, in which he requests that those states do not accept Pristina’s application for EU membership.

The fifth condition is the most problematic from Belgrade’s perspective. Kosovo PM proposed that ASM become a part of the final agreement and should be implemented after, as he said, “mutual recognition”.

During the extraordinary session in the Serbian Parliament on Kosovo, President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić mentioned the ASM as an agreed obligation within the Brussels dialogue, which Pristina still refuses to establish.

“The Association of Serb-majority Municipalities must be what was signed in Brussels – the First agreement was signed, whose first 6 points focus on the formation and functioning, then we have the implementation agreement, then the Principles based on which the ASM is formed – 22 principles with very important competencies, essential in the south and we have an agreement on the management team”, Vučić said.

In his words, there is nothing more to negotiate and discuss regarding the issue because these obligations have already been accepted. On the other hand, he expressed concern that Pristina would try to negotiate again “to cut down the competencies of the ASM “.

Vučić called Kurti’s demands a “fairytale”, adding that Kurti does not want to implement the ASM.

Serbia still has yet to accept the Franco-German plan officially. However, assessing statements of the highest state officials in Belgrade without a strong guarantee that ASM will be implemented, a political agreement with Pristina is not possible. On the other hand, even though Albin Kurti accepted the Europan plan, the redefinition of the ASM contradicts the calls of the EU and the USA to Kosovo’s authorities.

While the EU announces that the Kurti-Vučić meeting in Brussels could happen soon, Serbia and Kosovo are again entering a vicious circle with the ASM issue in the centre.

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