Getoar Mjeku, Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law Class of 2014, is a native of Kosovo and a former broadcaster for Voice of America Albanian Service. He writes that the recent conflict with Serbia in Kosovo’s northern territory highlights Serbia’s role as a persisting roadblock to imposing the rule of law in Kosovo…
For over a decade, Kosovo has been unable to control its northern territory due to fear of arousing inter-ethnic tensions and for the sake of regional peace and stability. Now, as the country nurtures its aspirations for a European future, the Kosovo government must work to impose rule of law and extend its authority within all Kosovar territory.
Kosovo’s government recently came under fire from several actors in the international community, as Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi ordered a police operation to take control of two border checkpoints in the nation’s troubled north in July. While focusing on the violence and the tensions that ensued, many international commentators failed to identify the real initiator of the turmoil or acknowledge the new country’s commitment to the rule of law and its pro-European orientation. The short-term objective of the police operation was the desire to heighten the effectiveness of Kosovo’s customs and border patrol in order to reciprocate Serbia’s ban on Kosovar exports, while its long term objective was to extend constitutional order within its territory.
For the sake of peace and stability, and in order to avoid potential violence that could be prompted by Serbian-sponsored organizations, the Kosovo government invested its hopes for law and order in an international police force. Since its 2008 Declaration of Independence, Kosovo’s government has relied on the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) to help establish order in the Serbian-inhabited north, which, in the absence of formal institutions, has turned into a safe haven for organized crime and contraband.
EULEX’s failure to act, however, left Kosovar authorities with no choice but to take matters into their own hands. The Prime Minister’s decision to establish control over the border checkpoints was in line with the wishes of the Kosovar government and its international partners, which believe that Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity should remain intact. The executive intended to re-station police and customs officers at the two posts—which were burnt down by Serbian mobs in 2008—as part of a peaceful and legitimate action of a sovereign state.
To Kosovo’s disadvantage, the swift activation of the Serbian state apparatus laid obstacles in its way. As the Kosovo police special unit moved to the north, neighboring Serbia, which claims Kosovo as its southern province, sent senior government officials into the area in order to mobilize the local ethnic Serb population against the operation. Roadblocks and paramilitary attacks on the Kosovo police resulted in the death of an officer and the injury of several others, and in the wounding of an ethnic Serb reporter. While the special forces withdrew after the two border checkpoints became operational, the local Serb extremists continued their armed demonstration, razing one of the posts for a second time and firing at NATO peacekeepers.
By manipulating the ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo to rise in rebellion against Kosovo’s sovereignty and the rule of law, the Serbian government has demonstrated that it will continue its policy of hostility towards its southern neighbor. Unable to maintain or retake Kosovo by force, Serbia hopes to make the new country dysfunctional and to perhaps regain control of northern Kosovo.
In the short term, Serbia may wish to export its products to Kosovo, and non-functioning border checkpoints would allow them to bypass the reciprocal trade ban. However, in the long run, Serbia likely hopes to partition Kosovo and to continue to destabilize the young republic, as it has done for years. As long as organized crime flourishes in the Kosovo’s north and the area remains out of government control, Serbia has the ability to play the situation to its advantage, arguing against Kosovo’s independence and state-building capacities.
Nevertheless, Kosovo’s territory and borders are well defined—Serbia has no formal objections to the boundary lines—and it is the duty of the Kosovar government to control them. For years, however, Kosovo’s government has tried to avoid Serb-instigated violence in the north and has tolerated criminal organizations in the area. The very peace and stability that Kosovo yearns to maintain will be unsustainable without order and effective rule of law.
The country should be commended for its commitment to its democratic constitution and it should be assisted in exercising sovereignty over this undisputed territory. Kosovo can maintain the hope for further European integration only as an indivisible, sovereign, multiethnic and democratic state. Whereas Serbia, the main hurdle to Kosovo’s territorial integrity, will not accede to the continental bloc before it has normalized relations with its neighbors.
Getoar Mjeku is a native of Pristina, Kosovo. Before entering law school in the US, he was a broadcaster for the Voice of America Albanian Service in Washington, DC. He has also been a regular contributor for Albanian-language publications, such as Telegrafi.com and Illyria newspaper, as well as German-based GT-Worldwide magazine.
Suggested citation: Getoar Mjeku, Territorial Sovereignty and Establishing the Rule of Law in Kosovo, JURIST – Dateline, August 22, 2011, http://jurist.org/dateline/2011/08/getoar-mjeku-kosovo-serbia.php.
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