Disagreements persist about whether the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities in Kosovo should be a non-governmental organization aiming to facilitate cooperation between Serb-majority municipalities in specific areas, or whether it should be a political body with decision-making powers.
Pristina and Belgrade agreed in 2013 in Brussels on the formation of an association of Serb-majority municipalities, but not on its mandate. Two years later, the bargaining process over the Association’s authority is about to begin. In a roundtable organized in Budva, Montenegro, in December 2014 by the Council on Inclusive Governance and funded by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, political party representatives and government officials from Kosovo and Serbia discussed the challenges the negotiators responsible for drafting the Association’s statute would confront.
Kosovo officials maintain that the Association should be a non-governmental organization aiming to facilitate cooperation between Serb-majority municipalities in areas of education, healthcare, and urban planning, but it should not take these powers from municipalities, and it should be formed in compliance with Kosovo’s laws on local governance, just like the existing Association of Kosovo Municipalities. Serbian officials and Kosovo Serb representatives, on the other hand, argue that the Association should become a political body with decision-making powers on education, healthcare, urban planning, and to manage privatization of public assets in all ten Serb-majority municipalities.
They also demand that the Association have a separate budget and a substantial number of employees, mostly those that would lose their jobs when the parallel institutions are closed. But Kosovo’s Parliament rejected a proposal of the ten Serb members to include a separate budget for the Association in Kosovo’s 2015 budget. Belgrade’s earlier demands that the Association has a legislative body elected directly by the people and that it has authority over police and courts were dropped in the Brussels dialogue. Subsequently, the police officers have been integrated into Kosovo police and an agreement for the integration of the courts into Kosovo’s system has been reached, though not yet implemented.
Given these conflicting expectations – a non-governmental organization versus an autonomous political body – the bargaining process over the mandate of the Association will be tense.
Serbian representatives say that in addition to powers over local issues, the Association should serve as a bridge between Pristina and Belgrade and become some type of “government body” running the Serb-majority municipalities. The Albanians argue that this is precisely Belgrade’s unstated goal, to build a small “Republika Srpska” in Kosovo to undermine Kosovo’s constitutional order from within.
The Association would also include adoption of new laws in Kosovo’s parliament since the existing legislation does not provide for formation of such bodies. This could become a challenge in itself. The opposition parties and a number of members of governing parties have said that they would vote against such proposals. Even if the votes are secured, reconciling new laws on the Association with existing laws on local governance is challenging. The Albanians say that the Association should be adapted to the existing laws, not the other way around. But according to existing laws the municipal authorities are responsible for education, healthcare, and urban planning. The government simply transfers funds to municipalities, which then are in charge of paying salaries to employees, maintaining the premises, and electing school directors.
Albanians say that they would oppose giving such responsibilities to the Association because it not only violates Kosovo’s laws but it also creates a dependent relationship between the Association and the service institutions, and would give the Association full control over thousands of employees.
A similar resistance could also come from some of the mayors of the Serb-majority municipalities themselves, especially those south of the Ibar River. The six municipalities in the south have been exercising these powers for many years, and the mayors would not be happy to hand their most important responsibilities and perhaps a portion of their funds to an appointed body. At least, they would not do it voluntarily.
The formation of the Association would also require changing or adoption of new laws in Serbia’s parliament. Serbian existing laws do not recognize Kosovo’s institutions – which the Association would become – thus Belgrade would not be able to transfer funds to the Association. Serbian officials say that a solution to allow such transfers would be found but so far have offered no indications that their parliament plans to adopt such laws soon.
Another dispute over the Association is whether it should be formed before or after the closing of the remaining parallel institutions in the north. Kosovo officials argue that the parallel structures should be closed before the Association is established while Serb representatives suggest the opposite. Most likely, the process will be parallel. And how the Association will look like, we will see in the spring.