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Frontières de guerre, frontières de paix : nouvelles explorations des espaces et temporalités des conflits
1. La frontière comme rapport de force

Faire frontière dans la paix : le Kosovo et la décentralisation de la concurrence ethno-politique

Bordering on Peace: Kosovo and the Decentralization of Ethnopolitical Competition
Carl T. Dahlman


La résolution pacifique du conflit Kosovo-Serbie est restée insaisissable depuis deux décennies. De nombreuses propositions ont tenté de régler la question du statut du Kosovo pour créer une politique en paix en interne et avec ses voisins et prête à être intégrée dans une Europe élargie. Depuis la déclaration de l'indépendance du Kosovo en 2008, le principal moyen de résoudre la revendication territorial de la Serbie a été le processus de décentralisation: transférer l'autorité politique aux nouvelles municipalités avec majoritaires des minoritaires-ethniques. Les dialogues entre Belgrade et Pristina, parrainés par l'UE, ont abouti aux Accords d'avril 2013 et d'août 2015, qui permettraient à une communauté de municipalités à majorité serbe de créer une nouvelle entité gouvernementale, séparant le Kosovo des frontières ethnoterritoriales internes. Cet article utilise le concept de territorialité ethnopolitique pour examiner de manière critique (a) les origines historiques des frontières locales pour gouverner l'espace multiethnique du Kosovo et (b) les nouvelles frontières dessinées par la stratégie de décentralisation.

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1Kosovo’s coalition government collapsed in April 2017 over questions of Kosovo’s internal and international borders. In the year leading up to the no-confidence vote, political opposition mounted against an EU-brokered agreement that would create a new political creature in Kosovo comprising a Community of Serb Municipalities (zajednica srpških opština or ZSO), what some viewed as a de facto partition of the country. Political graffiti soon appeared on the streets of the capital in an unusual mix of Albanian and Serbian: “jo zajedinca” (no community) and “zajednica ndarje” (community division). Protests grew and then became violent following the announcement of a border adjustment to grant Montenegro 8,200 ha that would also clear the path for EU visa liberalization. On several occasions, an opposition party released tear gas in the chamber of the Kosovo Assembly to prevent voting on the measures. Relations between Kosovo and Serbia had soured and negotiations stalled as both countries held elections and formed new governments by the first half of 2017, a period during which Kosovo’s status seemed again in play. In the post-Yugoslav space of ethnonational politics, such reactions to border issues are hardly surprising. What is unexpected, perhaps, are the ways that international efforts at conflict resolution rely on inter-ethnic borders to achieve a peace. This article examines how local borders between ethnic communities in Kosovo have been reinvigorated through decentralization agreements that deepen ethnic segregation as a means of managing ethnopolitical conflict. Moreover, the article explains how contemporary practices to create a peaceful multiethnic Kosovo echo historical local bordering practices to manage and contain rivaling nationalist projects.

2This article is based on ten-years of annual fieldwork in Kosovo, during which time the author encountered and interviewed numerous citizens, journalists, politicians, international observers, and government and NGO workers in both Albanian and Serbian majority areas who were engaged in producing sometimes competing ideas of a peaceful Kosovo. This article also draws heavily from archival and documentary sources, as well as the expansive “gray literature” produced by international and local offices during the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and the Comprehensive Status Proposal (Ahtisaari Plan), especially the UN Mission in Kosovo, the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government, the Republic of Kosovo, the International Civilian Officer/European Union Special Representative, the European External Action Service, as well as myriad international and local agencies and NGOs.

3This article follows from the questions raised by this special issue of l’Éspace Politique on borders and peace to ask how internal borders in Kosovo operate as techniques of post-war conflict resolution. It develops a conceptual framework that investigates how internal borders respond to and reify ethnopolitical competition in divided societies, functioning interdependently with international borders and historical territorial claims. It then examines the policy of decentralization that devolves greater authority onto local government as a means of conflict transformation through the proliferation of local borders and the multiplication of government drawn around idealized “local communities.” The subsequent sections of the article recount the historical development in Kosovo of the local “municipal commune” as a means of managing cultural diversity that was viewed by authorities as unruly, followed by its development as the basic unit of Yugoslav socialist self-management, and the emergence of ethnically segregated municipalities in Kosovo today. The paper considers how state strategies of managing ethnopolitical competition have merged with EU-led efforts at decentralization and democratization and whether these efforts have achieved something new or merely translated the legacies of division into a new borderland.

Borders, peace, and ethnopolitics

4Can borders create peace? The research literature on international boundary agreements suggests they can reduce interstate rivalry and promote economic interdependence (Owsiak and Rider, 2013; Simmons, 2005; Zacher, 2001). International boundaries, however, do not typically respond to contemporary ethnonational conflicts, which are more commonly managed internally through agreements that concede the local state to ethno-territorial claims while forming power-sharing or consociational governments at the state level. The peace deal in Bosnia-Herzegovina established an important template for this model of post-war multi-national polity yet it remains unstable two decades later. While analyses have cast doubt on the effectiveness of such institutional arrangements, there remain important questions about how the multiplication of new borders and territorial arrangements that divide ethno-national populations might undermine long-term peace-building (Bojicic-Dzelilovic, 2003; Dahlman and Ó Tuathail, 2005; Jeffrey, 2007).

5The effects of drawing internal borders for peace are hard to assess primarily because their form and function vary considerably among states, and because their local significance is highly contextualized. Barriers and practices that separate ethnic or national communities, as in Belfast, Baghdad, and Palestine, are not simply objects of material fact but exist within a wider set of social practices and interpretations (Falke, 2012; Till et al., 2013; Vallet and David, 2012). Borders are objects of local knowledge, and may be found in subtle or soft demarcation practices, bounded by local administrative jurisdictions or marked by unofficial practices (Huttunen, 2017; Izotov, 2012). The challenge for border studies has been the need to situate local borders within the social relations of local communities, while also relating but not reducing their relationship to conventionally state-centered analysis, especially in terms of sovereignty, jurisdiction, and security (Coleman, 2009; Sassen, 2015). Internal borders are therefore especially important where citizenship rights are defined in terms of ethno-national communities whose spatial distributions define perceptions or practices of exclusion, insecurity, and competition.

6Kosovo’s ethnopolitical competition was inherited from Yugoslavia, whose dissolution was predicated on nationalist competition over how to end the crises of the late socialist era. The popular confrontations and protests against the socialist regime came to a head in competitive elections that raised what Foucault describes as liberalism’s question: is one governing too much? The corruption and economic mismanagement in late Yugoslav socialism suggested that the socialist system was too cumbersome and inefficient. Redistribution policies between federal units fueled resentment in the larger republics and initiated a quest for further autonomy, even independence. These complaints implied a more pressing question, whom is one governing? The Yugoslav republics had come to assume the right of national autonomy since the 1974 constitution. For most republics, the simple fact of their large titular national majority populations and the electorates’ demand in 1990 for economic gains spawned nationalist parties focused on economic liberalization and national unification. In this context, the ethnopolitical framing of competition fueled ethnomajoritarian expectations.

7The implication of increased republican autonomy was that politics was no longer defined by ideological goals of state socialism and instead responded to nationalist imperatives to take hold of living conditions for separate ethnonational communities. This introduced several new problems, the first of which was that ethnonational populations were not always coterminous with the territory of the republics and that republic populations were multi-ethnic. Ethno-territorial claims became the currency of nationalist politicians who saw the seeds of national destruction in declining birth rates, rapid emigration, and multinational cohabitation. Statistical analyses of ethnic populations in the late 1980s and early 1990s were grist for complaints of inter-ethnic injustice and government bias. Differences in employment and income were cited as evidence of ethnopolitical agendas leveraged by a socialist state attempting to manage ethnic community vitality (Jansen, 2005). Even the death rates of World War II were revisited as evidence of each nation’s history of suffering (Macdonald, 2002).

8A point of regular contention in Kosovo was the differential birth rates between the national communities. Rising Albanian birth rates were seen by Serbian nationalists as a conspiracy to genocide that would eliminate the Serbs from Kosovo. Serb birthrates were higher in Kosovo than other parts of Serbia but they fall sharply, especially in comparison to Albanians. In contrast, the Albanian birthrate was the highest for all of Yugoslavia and showed a growing rate of natural increase, what one Serbian analyst called the “ethnic factor.” It was, in fact, Kosovar Serbian community activists concerned over demographic competition who began using the term “ethnically clean” in the 1980s to describe Kosovo emptied of Serbs (Vladisavljević, 2004, p. 786). These claims were popularized by Serbian intellectuals as part of an extensive critique of the economic policies of Yugoslavia, which they argued were harming Serbia for the benefit of other republics qua nations.

9Set against a selective interpretation of Yugoslavia’s republican borders as “artificial” constructs, the Serb nationalist parties adopted an irredentist stance towards Serb populations outside Serbia. Bosnian, Croatian, and Kosovar Serbs were encouraged to stay put, maintaining an expansive claim to ethno-territorial possession. Moreover, the nationalist imagination of Greater Serbia was predicated on the economic necessity and cultural symbolism of retaining land and towns that would sustain the Serbian population: territory was destiny. In 1989, Milošević revoked Kosovo’s autonomous status and purged professional Albanians from public institutions. As the republics began to leave federal Yugoslavia, the Serbian Democratic Party sought to redraw the boundaries of Croatia and Bosnia to unify Serb lands. Kosovar Albanians, for their part, wanted a new border granting them independence from the aggressive Serbian state. Ironically, nationalists in Kosovo today and their international interlocutors agree that drawing new borders to divide the national communities is still the answer, but they disagree on which borders are best. Nationalists want nationally sovereign borders; the international community, however, has embraced decentralized borders.

Peace through decentralization: the multiplication of borders

10The creation of new ethnically defined internal borders as part of a conflict management strategy in places like Kosovo is called decentralization. Decentralization has been increasingly deployed as a diplomatic or negotiating tactic to end armed conflicts because it offers “an effective means of sustaining the territorial integrity of the state while permitting minorities greater autonomy over cultural, economic, and social policies of intense concern” (Rothchild and Lake, 2005, p. 120). Decentralization is imagined as part of broader democratization, often appearing in post-socialist transitions, that are intended to bring effective governing capacity to locally elected governments (Jordan, 2003; Yoder, 2003). The ideal local community in democratic theory is modernist, place-less, and pluralist, containing multiple identities and protective of minoritarian voices. It is this vision that informs the contemporary principle of subsidiarity, the assumption that local decision-making more fully responds to citizens’ interests. In the context of European Union, and first envisioned in the 1985 European Charter of Local Self Government, subsidiarity is a guiding principle that conveys legitimacy in its approximation of direct democracy.

11Proponents of post-war decentralization view it as an important dimension in conflict resolution by reducing state-level political competition for resources and representation (Gjoni, Wetterberg, and Dunbar, 2010; Miall, 2004). The effect of decentralization on reducing ethnic conflict is highly dependent on the characteristics of devolved authority, however (Miodownik and Cartrite, 2010; Siegle and O’Mahony, 2006). In those contexts where decentralization schemes have helped to lessen ethnic conflict in the short-term, the process may yet produce regional political parties over the long-term that undermine state-building and mobilize ethnic differences (Brancati, 2006). More immediately, decentralized decision-making undermines the territorial cohesion of the state, converting state-level decisions into fragmented cross-local and multi-scalar competition (Faludi, 2013).

Ethnic decentralization in Kosovo

12More critically, Loew identifies two models of decentralization that inform conflict transformation in Kosovo: “territorial decentralization” that draws borders around ethnically heterogeneous local units, and “ethnic decentralization” that draws borders around ethnically homogenous local units (2013, pp. 11–12). In stark contrast to democratic theory’s cosmopolitan vision of territorial decentralization qua subsidiarity, ethnic decentralization addresses the question of political antagonism by separating difference as much as possible. It is place-specific and employs a proliferation and multiplication of socially-meaningful borders to produce homogeneous, manageable, and local ethnomajoritarian polities (Mezzadra and Neilson, 2013, pp. 151–154).

13Ethnic decentralization schemes also appeared in the peace deals of the former Yugoslavia where they established mechanisms for local ethnomajoritarian authority over competencies typically assumed by central governments, such as the entity and cantonal ethnic quasi-states that persist in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bojicic-Dzelilovic, 2003; Toal and Dahlman, 2011). In Kosovo, ethnic decentralization has granted local municipalities extensive authority over health care, education, schooling, land use planning, and cultural affairs, including the right to take funds from external states (Gjoni et al., 2010). There is a distinct sense in the Kosovar municipalities that local rule should reflect ethnic interests. The creation of new Serb-majority municipalities since 2010, carved out of multi-ethnic ones, has deepened the sense that ethnomajoritarianism grants legitimacy to ethnic decentralization schemes.

14The question of how and where to draw the boundaries that define post-war decentralized communities, therefore, is not simply an issue of efficient public service provision. In places like Kosovo, the drawing of local boundaries to create more homogenous municipalities raises the question of whether the devolution of significant governing authority undermines the legitimacy of the central government. More important, perhaps, is the process whereby local ethnic communities are reified as politically significant entities, institutionalizing ethnic identity as the sine qua non of Kosovo’s politics and limiting the processes of social reconstruction that might bridge ethnic differences.

Decentralization as Europeanization

15Decentralization is not simply a devolved form of governance but one that rearticulates multi-scalar relations in the context of EU oversight of Kosovo’s path to European integration. The EU-led decentralization process resituates Kosovar authority within a complex multilevel governance that might be called the Euro-Kosovar state. European integration, as Neil Smith argued, involves the arbitration of political-economic competition by re-scaling the modes of social, political, and economic organization away from strictly national frameworks (Smith, 2008). While most of the political analyses of European integration focus on the tensions between national versus European community interests or the transition of post-socialist political economies (Vachudova, 2005), integration has also engendered a downward shift in the scale of governance. Cities, municipal districts, and subnational regions have become the site for the reworking of government, the bounded powers of public administration, and the creation of networks and coalitions of local governance, such as privatization, public-private partnerships, and quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations (Geddes, 2005). These neoliberal modes of governance present challenges to the European social model and so actually require a relatively more powerful state apparatus to effectively manage these new institutional forms in a “networked Europe.” Failing that, the state has to be strong enough to weather public opposition to such schemes through cooptation or confrontation (Harvey, 2005, pp. 70–71; Ó Tuathail, Herod, and Roberts, 2002).

16The state, however, must also confront the “particularly reactionary reassertion of local identities” (Smith, 2008, p. 235). Since the financial and Euro crises began, these reactions have included alter- and anti-globalization protestors in the existing EU member states, as well as left and right wing critics lamenting the loss of their particular national sovereignty, welfare state, and national culture. To a large extent, the more stable EU member-states have quelled sometimes violent protests to push through the neoliberal reforms required by their creditors. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, the reactionary local identities in question relate to a more fundamental weakness of the state. In these places, the shift to local governance has faltered due to the instability of national governments and the relative weakness of local government units (Geddes, 2005, p. 371). Local governments often lack the formal capacity and competency to conduct effective local administration. In many places, the very legitimacy of local government is mired in “national political stalemates” (Soós and Zentai, 2005).

17The post-conflict states of the former Yugoslavia differ somewhat from the wider European shift to neoliberal governance. States like Bosnia and Kosovo, both remade under international supervision, reveal their weakness at the national level, where international mediation failed to produce strong central authorities. In these countries, considerably more legitimacy rests at the local level, where deeply entrenched systems of collective ethnonational rights often trump individual citizenship rights. It is here at the municipal commune that liberal state building has been captured by a bewildering mélange of local particularisms, pursued by war veterans, nationalist political parties, black market actors, and neo-patrimonial power brokers; and these actors are not necessarily mutually exclusive (Toal and Dahlman, 2011). The importance of capturing the local state in these places is not an outcome of conflict but was rather the very territorial frame of ethnic conflict, as the next section explains through the historical emergence of Kosovo’s local state, the municipal commune.

The commune in kosovo’s history

18While Euro-Atlantic institutions have used both active and passive leverage to achieve a cessation of violence in Kosovo, the actual basis of that relative peace is not the recognition of Kosovo’s sovereign independence, per se. Instead, the 2013 and 2015 Agreements provide the parties with a spatiotemporal fix to ethnopolitical competition by multiplying the borders between nations at the local level. Specifically, the agreements situate a soft partition between the national communities by ethnically decentralizing governance onto the local state. By the “local state,” we are referring specifically to subnational units, which in the former Yugoslavia were the municipal communes (Alb.: komuna, Srb.:opština) that played a key role in the elaboration of Yugoslavia’s program of local self-management. It is also important to recognize that the use of the local state in Kosovo to manage ethnonational difference is not new. These governing techniques originate in earlier local state forms to manage multiethnic space and, later, ethnopolitical competition with the rise of Balkan nationalisms in the nineteenth century, as the idea of national territory became the primary political expression of sovereignty.

The origins of the commune idea

19As Balkan states replaced empires in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their growth was shaped by the challenges of ruling multinational space in the era of nationalism. The period began under Ottoman rule, which had subdivided the Balkans according to military (bey) and civil legal (kadi) authorities, the latter attempting to assimilate the Sultan’s law (kanun) into local cultural customs. In the region that is today Kosovo and central Serbia, the folk organization beneath the kadi was what Vuk Karadžić later called the zadruga, largely autonomous extended families common in both Serb and Albanian communities (Halpern and Kerewsky-Halpern, 1972). In each locale, the zadrugas’ elders met in a council called opština (commune), which resolved local complaints and allocated land use. Because their conservative patriarchal character served as a bulwark against the reassertive Ottoman bureaucracy in the nineteenth century, both the zadruga and the opština were codified by the Principality of Serbia by the 1840s.

  • 1 Marković is one of the few Serbs honored with a street name in Prishtina after Kosovo’s independenc (...)

20In its similarities to the Russian mir, the zadruga and opština were championed by the socialist thinker Svetozar Marković as an organic democratic-communalist basis for self-government in the Balkans (McClellan, 1964, pp. 239–246). The 1888 Constitution, largely shaped by Marković’s People’s Radical Party, envisioned a self-sufficient opština with authority over local cultural institutions, economy, public health, and finances (Petrovich, 1976, p. 443).1 These provisions were meant to resolve the appeal of ascendant ethnonationalist movements in Serbia’s multi-national space. These local powers were reversed in the 1894 Constitution as Serbia, like other Balkan states, became increasingly authoritarian, centralized, and nationalist (Bechev, 2010, pp. 143–151; see also Stokes, 1986, pp. 62–66).

21Serbia tried several times during the first part of the twentieth century to find a model of the local state that would resolve ethnopolitical competition. In 1929, eight years after the Vidovdan Constitution that ushered in the first Yugoslavia, the state was reorganized into banovina intended to resolve renewed ethnopolitical competition while bolstering state authority. The fascist occupation of Yugoslavia further antagonized nationalist sentiments and, after Tito broke with Stalin, Yugoslav socialism resuscitated the opština as the basis for a distinctly non-Soviet socialist theory. Its value in resolving the tension between a centralizing socialist party authority and competing local nationalisms reached back to Marković’s idealization of the opština as a spatial fix to both ideological and ethnopolitical competition. In this, the opština formed the basic unit of local self-government, the level at which labor, management, and the state directly interfaced with social and economic life (Djordjević, 1953; Djordjević and Pašić, 1961; Fisher, 1964; Minić, 1961; Savić, 1961).

Yugoslavia’s municipal commune

22Socialist Yugoslavia’s rehabilitation of the opština as “municipal commune” contributed importantly to the ethnopolitical territoriality that emerged in the later Yugoslav conflicts. First, the opština as municipal commune was no longer the village common but the local state, centered on a main town that organized the local economic, cultural, social, and political life of the surrounding rural settlements (Sević, 2001, p. 421). It was the center of one’s lifeworld in the program of rapid social development and industrialization that defined Yugoslavia’s best decades. This was especially apparent after a series of reforms that reduced the number of municipal communes and organized the territorial structure of each one around a central town that served as the locus for local urban-industrial investment.

23Second, the municipal commune became the most important administrative unit in Yugoslav local self-management, idealized both as the basis of the war’s anti-fascist guerilla resistance and the eventual revolutionary expression of Yugoslav socialism that distinguished it from the centralizing doctrine of the Soviet regime (Djordjević, 1953). Under local self-management, the social classes of the local municipality comprised the political and producers councils, the former deciding on all matters of education, culture, health, and administration while the latter managed production and trade (Gruenwald, 1983, pp. 146–194). In Yugoslav socialist theory, the organic economic democracy of the municipal commune would be the institution that survived the withering away of the state.

24Third, the municipal commune became the surface on which ethnopolitical conditions were measured and acted upon. Because of its role as the basic unit of socialist self-management, the municipal commune was the basic object of calculation, visualization, and regulation. The population, made knowable through census and survey data was compiled on the municipal level, rather than smaller enumeration areas (Fisher, 1964; Jansen, 2005; Macura, 1961). Yugoslavia’s municipal communes were also the locus point for republican and federal efforts to manage local ethnopolitical competition through the use of an “ethnic key” by which key positions in the commune were assigned to represent (or suppress) local ethnic representation (Andjelić, 2003, p. 19; cf. Gagnon, 2006, pp. 73–74). As a result, the municipal commune became an object of ethnopolitical competition in the later days of Yugoslavia.

25The municipal commune in Kosovo highlights its second purpose, in actively managing political competition among ethnic populations. In the 1950s, the Yugoslav and Serbian authorities were already alarmed by the decline in the Serb population relative to Albanians. The Serbian republic’s leaders were pressed to address the depopulation and crushing poverty of Kosovo with significant infrastructural and industrial investment in the province. Serb managers and workers were encouraged to migrate to Kosovo, where new apartments and whole neighborhoods were created for them with toponyms from Serb mythology—Kosovo Polje, Obilić, Lazarevo, Devet Jugovići—or simply Srbica (Vickers, 1998, p. 108). In the north, territory was “donated” by Serbia, boosting the Serb population numbers in Kosovo (Islami, 2005, p. 340). The number of Serbs in Kosovo grew by about 28% during the years between 1946 and 1971, after which they began to decline in the face of a higher Albanian birthrate and persistent Serb emigration (Statistical Office of Kosovo, 2008). It is worth noting that during this period, the head of Yugoslavia’s internal security, Aleksandar Ranković, was a critic of the municipal commune idea, favoring instead the expulsion of Albanians from Kosovo, which he partly achieved before his removal from the communist party in 1966.

26The role of the municipal commune was enhanced under the 1974 Constitution that established Kosovo as an Autonomous Province within Yugoslavia. In Kosovo’s new Provincial Assembly, 50 of 190 delegates represented the municipal communes. As economic and political crises mounted during the 1980s, the municipal communes with large concentrations of Serbs became meeting points for rising nationalist sentiments. When Milošević revoked Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989, the centralizing Serbian state expunged Albanians from all positions in the province and municipal communes. As the Yugoslav federation dissolved, the importance of the municipal communes as the basic unit of political, economic, and social life was firmly established in the minds of those who would draw new national boundaries.

Municipal communes in war

27The Yugoslav municipal commune, at first glance, appeared to be an administrative artifact of little consequence considering the nationalist campaigns for control over the republics that emerged after elections in 1990. The wars in Croatia and Bosnia, however, demonstrated the importance of the local state in the plans to forcibly reorganize population and territory. The Serbian Democratic Party of Milošević declared that collections of Serb-majority municipal communes outside the Republic of Serbia were to become autonomous communities of Serb communes, or zajednice opština, notably the same language used in the 2013 Belgrade-Prishtina Agreements (cf. Toal and Dahlman, 2011, pp. 99–111).

28The second strategy used by the Serb nationalist parties was to seize non-majority municipalities and enforce ethnomajoritarian rule by ethnically cleansing non-Serbs. Militant political parties seized municipal communes and promulgated new laws authorizing the forcible expulsion and murder of others, the orderly transfer of “abandoned property,” and the appointment of new directors of enterprises and public institutions. At once an object of knowledge and a technical object of control and regulation, the municipal commune became the basic territorial unit in the violent separation of nations.

29While Yugoslavia was torn apart at the local level to form separate national republics, Kosovo’s status remained uncertain. The Kosovar Albanian’s declaration of an independent Republic of Kosovo in 1990 and the ensuing repression of the province prompted a search to fix what the Serb nationalists viewed as a problem in Kosovo’s growing Albanian population. Yugoslav academics proposed several plans that used existing municipalities, or would create new ones, as the basis for creating a territorial fix. Serb and Albanian majority areas would be contained within municipal boundaries and some degree of autonomy would be returned to the Albanians to run their own affairs. This practical reasoning was less a concession than a practical recognition of the conditions in Kosovo at the time, in which Albanian community leaders had established a parallel shadow government that organized children’s education in living rooms, private clinics with Albanian doctors, and even foreign representation for eventual independence.

30The Kosovo Liberation Army, formed in frustration with the narrow peace treaty initialed at Dayton, soon engaged Serb security forces in an escalating armed conflict that led to the war of 1998-1999. The Serbian strategy, which indiscriminately targeted civilians to discredit the rebellion, sought its own form of ethnopolitical fix that began with the deconcentration of rural Albanian-majority municipalities and led to the eventual ethnic cleansing of the entire province. Belgrade’s war plan intended to empty the rebellious central highlands of Albanians and remove entire communes from the map. The Serbian forces’ ethnic cleansing campaign and the chaos of the NATO airstrikes forced nearly one million Kosovars from their homes.

Municipal communes in the peace plans

  • 2 Rambouillet Agreement, Article I.8 in Chapter 1, “Constitution.”
  • 3 Rambouillet Agreement, Article VIII.2.

31As in war, the municipal commune remained the key territorial unit in the diplomatic efforts to end the conflict. The Rambouillet negotiations in 1999 intended to keep the municipal commune as the basic territorial unit of local self-government, the primary means of producing parallel ethnonational structures.2 The Rambouillet plan also proposed extensive rights for the national communities to organize their own democratic institutions and administer their own affairs in the areas of language, religion, cultural traditions and associations, education, and health. The plan did not necessarily establish an equivalence between municipal commune structures and national communities but it would have allowed Serb-majority communes to “develop relationships among themselves for their mutual benefit,” a provision that reappears in subsequent peace plans.3

  • 4 Rambouillet Agreement, Article VIII.3 (a) and (b).

32At the time of the negotiations, just prior to the mass displacements, Kosovo’s population remained relatively heterogeneous and so municipal commune assemblies would proportionally reflect their national communities based on voter registration.4 Municipal governments would be responsible, inter alia, for providing law enforcement, education, land-use regulation and infrastructure. Each of these powers touched on sensitive subjects in Kosovo given the repressive nature of the Milošević era and memories of the Ranković era in the 1960s. Local police, for example, were to “fairly represent” the national communities in the municipality. Ultimately, the Rambouillet plan was rejected by Serbia and Russia, prompting NATO to begin an air war to stop Serbia’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.

33Though unsuccessful, the Rambouillet negotiations set in motion three important mechanisms for future peace negotiations. First, they reestablished the municipal commune as a spatial fix to the nationalist competition for Kosovo. Basic public services, including education and land-use, would be the purview of separate national communities manifest in municipal communes through a decentralization process. Second, the municipalities would be captured by ethnomajorititarian interests. They were not viewed as adjudicative of rights or impartial to ethnic difference but were the basic expression of ethnonational self-government on the local level. Third, the negotiations envisioned an “association of municipal communes” to form an unspecified territorial entity, but that became the Association of Serb-majority municipalities (zajednica srpških opština or ZSO) envisioned in the 2013 and 2015 Agreements, described below.

34The collectivist rights enshrined in the Rambouillet negotiations placed a premium on ethnopolitical control over the municipal communes. Before the NATO airstrikes had concluded, KLA commander (later prime minister and president) Hashim Thaçi deployed loyalists to take over the municipal communes (King and Mason, 2006, pp. 74–75; Zaalberg, 2005). In doing so, he marginalized Kosovo’s wartime leader, Ibrahim Rugova, and set in place a political machine that would deliver Kosovo to the Albanian “war parties” in subsequent elections. Thaçi also outmaneuvered the administration of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, created under UN Security Council Resolution 1244. By its terms, UNMIK was to be the only public authority in Kosovo, but it never built the staff or capacity to manage local affairs and so municipal communes largely remained the prerogative of the Albanian nationalists (ICG Balkans, 1999). The capture of most municipal communes by Albanian militants and patronage politics led to extensive problems with the return of displaced Serbs and the reconstruction process, as well as the corruption of local administration. In the meantime, UNMIK and its partner organizations imagined that they provided a strong central government, which would devolve powers to the provisional Kosovar government and the municipal communes as an expression of the European principle of subsidiarity (OSCE, 2008). As the riots of 2004 made clear, the international community was not in control of Kosovo.

35The Ahtisaari Plan, initiated in 2007, represented the last good faith effort by Serbian and Kosovar negotiators to settle the issue of Kosovo’s final status as called for in UNSCR 1244. The negotiations produced a comprehensive settlement but Serbia’s leaders ultimately refused to adopt it. In Martti Ahtisaari’s opinion, the only sustainable final status would be independence for Kosovo. The western powers shepherded Kosovo towards independence in 2008 on the basis of the Ahtisaari Plan. Once again, the municipal commune figured as the basic unit for negotiating ethnic territory and protecting community interests. During negotiations, discussion about decentralization and the powers of local municipalities occupied about half the sessions. Serbia wanted 15 new municipalities, cleared of Albanians, to which Serb returnees would be directed (Weller, 2008). This was tantamount to a new round of ethnic cleansing and violated international norms on the rights of returnees.

36Kosovo ultimately agreed to create four new Serb majority municipal communes in addition to the six already existing ones (Figure 1). The government of Kosovo carved out the new “Serb municipalities” between 2010 and 2013 but the four northern Serb-majority municipal communes remain largely beyond Kosovar authority. Instead, they have been administered by “parallel structures” of the Serbian state. Several other new municipal communes have been formed, including one for Turks in southern Kosovo, and several more are proposed, including two for the Bosnijak and Gorani people. In these minority communes, the Serbian state has maintained a presence primarily by providing education, property documentation, identity papers, secret police, and cultural activities alongside the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Figure 1 - Association of Serbian Municipalities

Figure 1 - Association of Serbian Municipalities

Sources : OSCE; EuroGeographic Open Data

Municipal communes in independent Kosovo

37Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence and the growing number of governments that recognize Kosovar sovereignty have challenged Serbian leaders with the conundrum of accommodating the new reality without conceding Kosovo’s independence. The European Union’s European External Action Service under Lady Ashton initiated dialogue between the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia in a bid to reconcile the latter to the reality of Kosovo’s independence. The talks were intended to clear one of the last major obstacles to European integration for the Western Balkans by using the promise of EU accession to solve not only Kosovo’s final status but to normalize relations around issues like border management, migration, and trade. In April 2013, the governments of Serbia and Kosovo reached a “First Agreement,” heralded by many observers as a sign of improving relations between Belgrade and its former province. In general terms, the First Agreement provides for the creation of a Community of Serb majority municipalities, the integration of the four northern Serb municipalities into Kosovo’s police, judiciary, and elections system, and the restoration of energy and telecom linkages.

  • 5 In a poll before Kosovo’s independence, 71% of Serbians said Kosovo “had to remain part of Serbia” (...)

38The dialogue presented a thorny dilemma for Serbian leaders whose electorate generally supports EU membership yet also considers Kosovo an integral part of the Serbian national homeland.5 For their part, Kosovar leaders have been encouraged by the US and European governments that supported their independence to adopt a conciliatory approach to the Serb minority, especially following anti-Serb riots in 2004. The formation of distinct Serb enclaves, especially in the northern municipalities, and the operation of Serbian parallel structures on Kosovo territory have limited Prishtina’s ability to effectively rule minority areas (Dahlman and Williams, 2010). A proposed partition of Kosovo along ethnonational lines, however, threatened to exacerbate pan-Albanian separatism in southern Serbia and northern Macedonia (Spahiu, 1999). The stalemate was a familiar one in the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia: land for peace or land for land.

39The 2013 First Agreement was therefore seen as a diplomatic breakthrough, as well as a victory for the European Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Some observers went so far as to describe it as a “recognition deal,” implying that Serbia was willing to release its claim to the breakaway province that had declared its independence in 2008. Evidence of real progress was not forthcoming. Serbia did recognize the border with Kosovo, though only as an “administrative dividing line” (Szpala, 2016). And when the Kosovo Assembly ratified the First Agreement as an international agreement in June 2013, the Serbian parliament responded by approving it as a “report on international discussions” (Parliament of Kosovo, 2013; Parliament of Serbia, 2013). Since then, the Serbian President has announced an “internal dialogue” on Kosovo but there have been no public announcements on how the government will reconcile to the de facto independence of its former province.

40In 2015, a major Second Agreement with Serbia established general principles for the establishment of the Association of Serb-majority municipalities (zajednica srpških opština or ZSO) provided for by the First Agreement and originally envisioned at Rambouillet. Kosovo’s Constitutional Court ruled that the agreement raised constitutional issues that a subsequent law on the ZSO must address before implementation (Constitutional Court of Kosovo, 2015). The actual contents of the agreements with Serbia are rather technocratic issues provided for by the Kosovo Constitution in keeping with the 1985 European Charter on Local Self Government (Council of Europe, 1985). The agreements broadly outline the ZSO’s organizational structure, legal capacity, budget and financing, and relations with the Kosovar government in the areas of local municipal authority economic development, urban and rural planning, education, health and welfare, including for returnees.

41The political substance of the agreement far outweighs its technical aspects, however, as evident in the outburst of violent opposition to its creation. The 2017 change in Kosovo’s government, largely over decentralization and border issues with Montenegro, does not substantively change the expectations of the European Union or the major international powers that Prishtina should fulfill the ZSO plan as part of its progress toward Euro-Atlantic integration. Yet the main Albanian Kosovar opposition parties view anything less than “normal sovereignty” to be an unsustainable political outcome. Some fear that the ZSO will become a separatist region, akin to the Republika Srpska in Bosnia, or a frozen conflict that Serbia can use against Kosovo.

42Serbia’s new government, meanwhile, has recently engaged in a process of “internal dialogue” about Kosovo that has been largely kept out of the public sphere (Zivanovic, 2017). Meanwhile, Serbia has deepened relations with the Serb municipalities of northern Kosovo and gained the backing of Kosovar Serbs for Serbia’s new government. For most Serbian political parties, Kosovo remains a basis for political mobilization, reflecting public resentment over the 1999 NATO campaign against Serbia and the European Union’s involvement in establishing an independent Kosovo as prerequisite to Serbian membership. Regardless the political disagreements, however, drawing new boundaries around ethnic majorities and decentralizing state authority onto Kosovo’s municipal communes certainly deepens the historical trend of seeking a spatial fix for nationalist competition. How decentralization can actually serve as the basis for constructive peace-building, including the return of displaced persons two decades later, remains a question at some remove from today’s reality.

Kosovo as borderland

43Today the Serb municipalities in Kosovo are largely ethnic enclaves where linguistic, religious, and national symbols mark community boundaries guarded by NATO or local police (Dahlman and Williams, 2010). The northern Serb municipalities operate as de facto parts of Serbia where “parallel institutions” from Belgrade maintain influence over key local services, especially in education. For some Serbs, Ibar River remains an imaginary boundary between Serbia and Kosovo even if the bridge in Mitrovica has become more a symbolic focus rather than the security problem it had been. In the center and south of Kosovo, Serb municipalities have a somewhat more cooperative relationship with Kosovo’s state structures, though Serbian parallel institutions remain present there as well. Despite the replacement of international peacekeepers with local police, the politics of language, religion, and schooling remain decisive in the segregation of the communities.

44The genealogy of the municipal commune in Kosovo points to the persistence of decentralization as a means for accommodating ethnonational rivalries. It is not surprising that Kosovo’s post-socialist and post-conflict transitions have built on and with the ruins of Yugoslav ethnopolitical territoriality, which was always attenuated to the intense localisms of its diverse and heterogeneous population. What is perhaps more surprising is the apparent willingness of European diplomats to invest so fully in the appropriateness of local self-government in the name of nationalist subsidiarity. The Belgrade-Prishtina Agreements are, on the one hand, a confirmation of the long-standing practice to manage national competition through local segregation. On the other hand, the formation of an association of Serb-majority municipal communes echoes the Serb autonomous communities proposed for partitioning Croatia and Bosnia in 1991, a parallel that worries Kosovar authorities.

45Presuming that Prishtina will maintain laws palatable to its minorities, there is probably little chance that any association of Serb municipal communes will attempt to form a de facto state or sub-state entity as feared by some opposition parties, especially if the European Union remains diplomatically committed to regional enlargement. The Association may instead be viewed as a means of developing local state capacity for communities that are too small to manage their own oversight of economic development, education, health care, or planning. But this raises a more fundamental issue, which is the demographic sustainability of the Serb community in Kosovo. Most of the Serb municipal communes have small populations with declining rates of natural growth and extensive emigration. In effect, the demographics of Serb-majority municipal communes suggests they will decline in population as returns falter and young people continue to emigrate for work in Europe. The return of displaced Serbs has been slow and those that do return have trouble remaining. Employment in the Serb areas is weak and a majority cannot find regular work. Many Serbs feel insecure outside their communities where they face real and perceived intimidation from the Albanian majority. Recent polls suggest ethnic tension is running high, brought on, in part by the ongoing negotiations with Serbia, as well as provocative media events like the “Kosovo is Serbia” train sent from Belgrade and stopped at the border (Zaba and Morina, 2017).

46What is being built in Kosovo is a state that is both familiar and novel—a renovation and a novation at the same time. The familiar locus of Yugoslav self-management is a legacy of the socialist period that still conveys much of the legitimating force the better years of Yugoslavia. That these were once the basis for a formal distinction between Yugoslav and Soviet socialism is not unimportant. The commune served as the basis for a functional political economy that sought modernization as the salvation from nationalist particularism. Their legacy is that of ethnopolitical units whose very legibility in the socialist project also informed the era of nationalist competition during Yugoslavia’s demise.

47The new political economy built in the European style once again grounds the effort to overcome nationalist politics through a wider integrating frame, this time the European Union and its modes of multilevel governance. Both the Yugoslav and the European experiment use the municipal commune to minimize ethnic competition, but the European model allows for ethnomajoritarianism as the founding principle of decentralization whereas Yugoslav governance institutionalized ethnic representation to make way for a modernizing project of forging a common social identity. Most important, Yugoslav municipal communes began with the ideal of increasing citizen participation in local self-rule towards a future stateless society whereas the European model builds local self-government as the expression of a stable Euro-Kosovar state. Whether European integration can bring gains to the communities of Kosovo fast enough to offset the demographic pessimism of its minorities will determine whether its decentralized architecture will encourage a more peaceful polity. Alas, that, too, was the Yugoslav ideal for local self-government in the midst of competing projects of nation and territory.

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1 Marković is one of the few Serbs honored with a street name in Prishtina after Kosovo’s independence.

2 Rambouillet Agreement, Article I.8 in Chapter 1, “Constitution.”

3 Rambouillet Agreement, Article VIII.2.

4 Rambouillet Agreement, Article VIII.3 (a) and (b).

5 In a poll before Kosovo’s independence, 71% of Serbians said Kosovo “had to remain part of Serbia” though 43% thought Kosovo would become independent anyway. (Gallup, 2010) At the same time, about 61% support Serbia’s accession to the European Union. (Serbian European Integration Office, 2008) Support for accession had deteriorated to 49% by 2015 (IRI).

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Titre Figure 1 - Association of Serbian Municipalities
Crédits Sources : OSCE; EuroGeographic Open Data
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Carl T. Dahlman, « Faire frontière dans la paix : le Kosovo et la décentralisation de la concurrence ethno-politique », L’Espace Politique [En ligne], 33 | 2017-3, mis en ligne le 31 janvier 2018, consulté le 20 octobre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Carl T. Dahlman

Professor of Geography and International Studies
Miami University

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