Europe Briefing N°56
15 October 2009
Štrpce, one of Kosovo’s largest Serb enclaves and one of the few with good Serb-Albanian relations and economic prospects, risks falling victim to the status dispute between Belgrade and Pristina. But it also has a chance to demonstrate to Serbs that they can protect their interests within Kosovo’s constitutional order. Since May 2008, the municipality has been governed by competing authorities, both Serb-led: an official government appointed by the UN in the face of local opposition and a parallel regime elected in defiance of Kosovo law. Neither has the capacity to perform its duties. The impasse has deprived this peaceful enclave of effective government and devastated its economy, notably by preventing regulation of its lucrative property market and blocking privatisation of the Brezovica ski resort. Local elections on 15 November 2009 can end the uneasy status quo, give Štrpce a legitimate government and unlock its economic potential. Belgrade, Pristina and the international community should encourage voting and thereafter equip the municipal government with the expanded powers and resources it needs.
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Belgrade has long viewed Kosovo’s Serbs as an instrument with which to undermine Kosovo’s independence, sponsoring parallel elections under Serbian law and providing substantial economic support. But Serbia lacks the ability to provide meaningful government services in southern enclaves such as Štrpce. The parallel municipal government provides few benefits to residents and is increasingly irrelevant to their daily lives. Serbia should place the interests of Štrpce’s residents first and acknowledge that they require a relationship with authorities in Pristina. By supporting a multi-ethnic municipality, Belgrade would continue to play a role in the institutions most important to the local Serbs, such as education and healthcare, while at the same time it would give residents the opportunity to focus on everyday issues that are meaningful to them.
The Kosovo government has been slow to grant Štrpce and other municipalities the enhanced powers and competences envisaged by the Ahtisaari plan, the framework document developed by Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland, when he attempted to mediate the status dispute as the UN Secretary-General’s special representative before the territory declared independence. Pristina insists that such decentralisation develops in both the southern enclaves and hardline Serb north, partly to avoid setting any precedent that could stoke thoughts of partition. Many in the government also view decentralisation as a reward, not a right, and expect Kosovo’s Serbs to accept the central government’s authority explicitly before powers are transferred to their municipalities. Low Serb turnout in the election, in this view, would be justification for more delay in implementing decentralisation.
Some Serb parties will stand, but without the participation of the large, Serbia-based ones, turnout may be too low to produce an electoral result fully in accordance with actual demography and political preferences. In that event, Pristina should act to enable a united, multi-ethnic municipal government:
Establishing a legitimate, effective municipal government would ensure that Štrpce can deal effectively with its main issues – Brezovica (Kosovo’s best known tourist destination) and the Weekend Zone, prime real estate in the heart of the Sharri/Šara National Park. The Brezovica ski resort features some of the best slopes in Europe; suitably developed, it could drive economic growth and job creation throughout the local region. Privatisation and development have been held up for a decade by ownership disputes and allegations of corruption; fresh local leadership is needed.
Once Kosovo’s environment and spatial planning ministry (MESP) prepares a comprehensive land-use plan and the municipality approves it, the resort should be placed on the market. Any property claims by Serbian companies can be resolved by the special privatisation chamber of the Kosovo Supreme Court, which has a majority of international judges.
A new approach is also needed for the Weekend Zone, where hundreds of luxurious villas have been built, many illegally, within the national park. Control over construction there has been one of the most lucrative perks for both current municipal governments. Inability to maintain order in the Weekend Zone saps credibility, harms the environment and deprives the municipality of tax revenue it badly needs. Demolition of illegal buildings is not the answer. Instead:
Progress in Štrpce would likely have a catalytic impact on decentralisation throughout Kosovo. The municipality can serve as a model towards which newly formed Serb-majority municipalities can strive. With Belgrade boycotting decentralisation and Pristina seemingly uninterested in the process, visible, on the ground developments and benefits are the best bet for convincing sceptical Serbs that they have a future in Kosovo.