The Time that never was for establishing the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities

03 shkurt 2023 10:55

The government of Kosovo has come under sustained pressure to establish the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities (ASM). On January 30, the US Embassy in Kosovo published “The Time for establishing the ASM is Now” by Derek Chollet, Counselor of the US Department of State, and Gabriel Escobar, US Special Envoy for the Western Balkans.

There are many aspects of the statement – and the broader pressure applied to the government of Kosovo – that can be criticised; the focus here is on their claims that the ASM will not undermine Kosovo’s internal cohesion, judicial order and the functionality of the state.

This article will attempt to deconstruct the most important aspects of the statement published by the US embassy focusing on five key arguments. 

1. Downplaying the concerns of a new Republika Srpska in Kosovo:

“the ASM would be a structure for municipalities with a majority ethnic Serb population to coordinate on issues and services such as education, health care, urban and rural planning, and local economic development—in other words, functions for which all municipalities in Kosovo are responsible.”

Chollet and Escobar are correct to note that “all municipalities in Kosovo are responsible” for the functions they cite. This means, however, that the ASM does not provide municipalities with responsibilities they currently don’t have.

Additionally, there is nothing to stop municipalities from coordinating on “education, health care, urban and rural planning, and local economic development.” The ASM cannot, therefore, be justified on the basis that it provides municipalities with responsibilities or coordination rights which they currently lack.

2. Claiming that Kosovo Serbs need the ASM to develop a Serbian-language curriculum:

“For example, municipalities could develop a Serbian-language curriculum for local schools across several municipalities, rather than laboring in a vacuum and duplicating efforts.”

Under Kosovo’s constitution – Articles 59.3 and 59.4 – Serbs are already empowered to do this. Local Serb schools have never been instructed to adopt a curriculum drafted by the central government; in practice, the curriculum for local schools is set in Belgrade.

There is nothing stopping representatives from the Serb-majority municipalities from coordinating revisions to the current curriculum; they do not need the ASM to do this. Defending the creation of the ASM by stating that it will enable Serbs to do things they are already constitutionally empowered to do doesn’t make sense.

3. Arguing that the ASM will foster cooperation between Kosovo Serbs and the Kosovo Government:

“It is a means to improve the everyday lives of people, create confidence between ethnic Serbs and the central government, provide greater connectivity between the north and the rest of the country, and create mechanisms for Serbs to participate more fully in the civic life of Kosovo.”

According to the original draft, the ASM will have all key institutions of a state. including an Assembly, a President, a Council, a Board, and Administration, and a Complaints Office. In addition, it will have its budget, flag and coat of arms.

As such, the institutional composition of the ASM is a legally constituted parallel structure inside Kosovo that will diminish the power of the central government.

The ASM will promote further division by diverting Kosovo Serbs away from the institutions of Kosovo towards the new institutions of the ASM. The progress made to date in convincing Serbs south of the River Ibar to integrate with the central government would be immediately imperilled.

Additionally, it is inevitable that the ASM will be heavily influenced by the Serbain government which has repeatedly demonstrated a determination to undermine the capacity of the Kosovo government to function by encouraging Serbs not to cooperate with the central government. The ASM will, therefore, enhance the Belgrade’s capacity to undermine the central government.

4. Addressing ASM’s transparency and funding concerns:

“And any support and assistance Serbia would provide to the Kosovo Serb community would have to be transparent and go through these legitimate, sanctioned channels.”

The ASM agreement explicitly notes that funding will come “from the Republic of Serbia”. Chollet and Escobar’s stipulation that any support provided by Serbia would “have to be transparent” seems remarkably naïve.

Serbia’s government is recognised as authoritarian and it has promoted instability and covertly supported criminal gangs in Kosovo (and elsewhere) for years. The largest Serbian party in Kosovo – the Serbian List – is controlled by Belgrade and the ASM would provide them with more scope to carry out Belgrade’s agenda inside Kosovo.

The US cannot credibly promise that Serbia will only support the ASM in a “transparent” way.

5. Claiming that the ASM will function well because there are 14 similar arrangements in the EU.

“there are 14 similar arrangements inside of the European Union.”

This may be the case, but it tells us nothing. Do these “similar arrangements” exist in countries which are “similar” to Kosovo? Specifically, is the existence of these countries a function of the fact that they (like Kosovo) had to separate from a state that engaged in systematic violence against the majority population and continues to deny that crimes against humanity were committed?

Do the elected political representatives of the communities afforded these “similar arrangements” in these other states reject the very existence of the host state, like the Serbian List? In addition, does the neighbouring state supporting these provisions deny the host state’s right to exist, as Serbia does?

In short, because a constitutional/legislative arrangement works in one country does not mean it will work in every country. However, Chollet and Escobar fail to address such serious concerns.

The impetus behind the ASM has never been to delegate new responsibilities to the municipalities or enable Serbs to participate more fully with Kosovo’s political and judicial bodies; rather, it has been to enable Serb-majority municipalities to function as a new legislative structure which will in effect operate as an alternative to the central government. 

The only honest case that can be made for the US and the EU supporting the ASM is that Serbia has demanded it; Chollet and Escobar, and all those engaged with this issue, should, however, think carefully before promoting Serbia’s interests in Kosovo.

03 shkurt 2023

Aidan Hehir