Deconstructing the Barricades or Rethinking the Implementation of the Ahtisaari Plan in North Kosovo

By Ivan Flos | 2 January 2012

To quote this document: Ivan Flos, “Deconstructing the Barricades or Rethinking the Implementation of the Ahtisaari Plan in North Kosovo ”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 2 January 2012,, displayed on 27 September 2022

North Kosovo's status remains one of the main challenges to be addressed in the Balkans. Tensions have risen again recently. It is a dangerous turn of events, since violence could lead to the destabilisation of the entire region. Based on interviews with local actors, this article will discuss how bridges can be built and how divides can be overcome.

Mounting tensions north of the Ibar river

Rejection of the sovereignty of Kosovo by the majority Serb population and continuing financial and organisational support from Serbia have created a situation of « dual sovereignty » in North Kosovo (ICG, 2011). This has indeed severely affected the rule of law in the north. Mistrust of the Kosovo Police is omnipresent, and there is no functioning judiciary. So-called parallel Serbian governmental structures, which control among others public administration, health care, education and security services, operate in an autonomous way and alongside Kosovar institutions, thereby undermining the authority of the latter. Although crime rates in the north of Kosovo are fairly similar to those in the rest of the country, the smuggling of contraband and political violence have undermined central government revenues and silenced moderate voices. A feeling of lawlessness in the local population has further weakened trust in Pristina’s capacities and intentions. Crucially, unilateral attempts by the government of Kosovo to impose its authority have triggered violent reactions from the local Serb population, contributing to rising tensions.

Although the conflict had remained frozen over the course of the past few years, tensions have risen ever since the government of Kosovo attempted to regain control of the Jarinje and Brnjak border posts in July this summer. Kosovo's decision to send in its special police unit (ROSU), aimed at enforcing a reciprocal trade embargo, led to a violent reaction from the local Serbs, forcing NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) to step in to ease tensions and to dismantle roadblocks Serbs had put up (Perrot, 2011). Since then, hundreds have been injured during clashes, some fatally. Serbia and Kosovo, under EU aegis, were able to reach an agreement on joint border management in early December, leading to the dismantling of some of the barricades and roadblocks. Meanwhile, tensions north of the river Ibar remain palpable and most barricades remain intact. EULEX, the EU mission to assist Kosovar institutions in implementing the rule of law, is still under movement restrictions and the implementation of the agreement on border management remains unclear. Were tensions to rise again, violence might not be confined to North Kosovo alone, but could cause uprisings in other Serb majority municipalities. After twelve years of peace-building, Kosovo remains unstable and prone to an outburst of violence.

A partition of the northern municipalities of Mitrovica North, Leposavic, Zubin Potok and Zvecan, to Serbia, preferably in the form of a land swap, is still regarded by some observers as the only viable option for regional peace. As this was clearly rejected by Pristina, the EU and the US, this is an unlikely scenario. The status of the north will thus need to be addressed in a different manner, an issue which no one has been able to tackle so far.

The failure to implement the Ahtisaari Plan

The Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement, developed by former Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General Martti Ahtisaari in 2007, has long been the basis of discussions on North Kosovo and has framed the efforts of a large part of the international community. The proposal, also known as the Ahtisaari Plan, includes a multi-ethnic democratic state, foresees a great deal of decentralisation, and notably calls for the creation of the Mitrovica North municipality. It grants a significant level of municipal autonomy in domains such as economic development, public services, education, health care, cultural affairs and the appointment of Local Station Commanders. The proposal also acknowledges the right of municipalities to cooperate with the Republic of Serbia. Although never endorsed by the UN Security Council, Kosovo has accepted the obligations of the Ahtisaari Plan, as expressed in its declaration of independence, and enshrined them in its constitution.

Today, many parts of the Ahtisaari Plan have been implemented, which has led to the creation of five new municipalities throughout Kosovo. No substantial progress has however been achieved in the north. It has not been possible to create the municipality of Mitrovica North and local Serbs still massively reject the independence of Kosovo and as a consequence the authority of the central government. To overcome this, the International Civilian Office (ICO), comprised of the group of countries overseeing the implementation of the Ahtisaari Plan, drafted a Strategy for the north in 2009. Although never officially approved by the government of Kosovo, it has followed its recommendations. As explained by the International Crisis Group (2011), the strategy aims at promoting the institutions of Kosovo, while at the same time weakening the existing parallel Serbian structures. Moreover, it aims at improving the rule of law in the north. In regard to this, a Civil Registry Office and a Municipal Preparatory Team have been established to issue official documents and prepare for decentralisation. Both institutions, however, have not been able to function properly. Rejected by local Serbs, they have been met with a violent resistance and have failed to prepare for new elections. The strengthening of the rule of law has failed too. There is little control over the Kosovo Police, since EULEX officials believe that possibly up to 90% of the officers currently operate under Serbian command. EULEX has also not been able to change the situation in the north. Lacking clear guidelines from Brussels and from the EU Special Representative, it has not been able to substantially improve the rule of law. Its neutral status has further diminished its room for manoeuvre in the north (Hoogenboom, 2011). It has for example not been able to persuade the government of Kosovo to accept both Serb and Albanian judges to the Mitrovica court. Crucially, EULEX was not even able to enter the north during the past months' crisis. To improve the situation, the EU and the US have now urged the government of Kosovo to come up with a new strategy.



Growing impatience in Pristina

Failure to improve the rule of law has led to increasing impatience in Pristina, resulting in an ever more unilateral stance towards the north. A prime example of the government's top down approach is its latest attempt to restore border controls. Other examples include attempts to confiscate Serbian license plates, to shut down the Serbian mobile network or to suspend presumably corrupt Kosovo Serb police officers (ICG, 2011). Frustration is growing with regard to the non-recognition of Kosovo's authority, ongoing illicit and trafficking activities, as well as an unhampered freedom of persons facing international arrest warrants. The government is especially disappointed with EULEX and believes that both EULEX and KFOR should step up their efforts. International observers are wary that Pristina might not shy away from using force again to impose its authority in the north, especially since it might lead to an increase in popular support for political leaders. The use of force has indeed proved beneficial to the government of Kosovo on several occasions. It sees its recent attempt to restore border controls this summer as a significant success. By changing the status quo everyone now realises that a solution needs to be found, one way or the other.

Going beyond Ahtisaari?

The failure to implement the Ahtisaari Plan in North Kosovo has led some to believe that the proposal is not sufficient to win over the hearts and minds of the Serb community. Therefore, some features would need to be furthered. Such an elaborated plan has been called “Ahtisaari Plus”. Gerrard Gallluci, former US diplomat and former UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, advocated such a plan, as did former British Minister for Europe, Denis Macshane. The idea is that more influence and leverage than envisaged in the original Ahtisaari Plan should be given to the northern municipalities.

It remains questionable what extent of autonomy would actually be acceptable to Kosovo and the international community. The central government indicates that it is not willing to grant more autonomy than envisaged by Ahtisaari, and it is sceptical about any ‘plus’ attached to the Plan. It notably perceives the unified chain of command of the Kosovo Police as a prerequisite for its authority in the north and will therefore not accept more autonomy in this regard. International observers also fear that further autonomy might lead to further disintegration and create a vacuum for future unrest. The example of Bosnia Herzegovina is often cited in this regard. Although the Dayton Peace Agreement laid foundations for security, stability and economic growth, the division of power between the two entities of the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was at the root of the political crises that hit the country today. Authorities should refrain from creating the same stalemate in Kosovo. Crucially, the idea behind an Ahtisaari Plus is that the original plan offers insufficient autonomy for the Serbs in the north. Most Serbs reject the Ahtisaari Plan simply because it calls for Kosovo’s independence, often without knowing or considering its content.

Bridging the divide

Overcoming a fear of the unknown might be just as crucial as having autonomous decision-making institutions. Many Serbs fear that should they accept the authority of Kosovo, they would lose their rights and privileges, come under discrimination and oppression, and integrate an ailing social services system (ICG, 2011). It must be noted that over the years, the government of Kosovo has done little to accommodate those feelings. This should change. Little effort has been made to reaffirm the cultural and educational rights of Serbs in North Kosovo. Serbian politicians, on the other hand, have continuously fuelled resentment by keeping the prospect for partition open (Hoogenboom, 2011). A clear explanation of the benefits of integrating in Kosovo is paramount to altering perceptions.

Furthermore, to make integration more acceptable, funds from Kosovo and the international community for the north need to rise. As indicated by the ICG (2011), Serbia has been the largest investor in the region. It spends around €200 million a year, notably on pensions, education and health care. Some Kosovar and international officials argue that these investments benefit criminals and constitute an important impediment for local Serbs to integrate into Kosovo. It must be noted, however, that the Ahtisaari Plan allows for investments by Serbia in these areas if declared to the government of Kosovo. This does not concern the small amount of funds allocated to the police and courts, which clearly violates international agreements. It is important that Serbia starts coordinating its aid with Kosovo. Grants from the international community and the government of Kosovo are only a small percentage of the total amount of money invested by Serbia, even though there is great opportunity to invest. Also, money that has flown to the north has mostly been allocated to unknown representatives. These do not have the leverage to make the funds acceptable to the Kosovo Serbs. It is therefore that funds coming from the international community or the government of Kosovo can easily cause resentment in the Serb population. This latter point is critical. All too often have northerners not been involved in defining projects or allocating money.

Ownership and cooperation

To build trust and to ensure the acceptance of the international community, let alone Kosovo, the Serbs need to have a sense of ownership. Consequently, this creates the need to cooperate with local Serbs. The dilemma is that the parallel local leaders and institutions are not recognised by Kosovo or the international community. One needs to acknowledge, however, that elections called under pressure from the outside, as proposed by the government of Kosovo, will not be acceptable to the Serbs. Although some might benefit from the lack of rule of law, there are political and civil society representatives ready and waiting for a constructive dialogue. These people should be identified and engaged. This should in any case precede any attempt to restore the rule of law and arrest alleged criminals for example by EULEX, as the current situation remains highly inflammable. Only when trust is built and connections established can one start thinking of implementing the Ahtisaari Plan, be it with a plus or a minus. The international community should push for further cooperation between Serbia and Kosovo in the aforementioned areas. The EU in particular could have substantial leverage due to the prospects for integration, as was shown during the EU Summit of 9 December 2011 on the Serbian EU candidacy.

Kofi Annan once said that the aim of post-conflict peacebuilding must be to create a synergy with bridge-builders and agents of social protection and economic revitalization. In doing so, there can be reconciliation, a voice can be given to the concerns of the marginalised and the appeal of those who might try to reignite conflict can be lessened. Only this way can a national consensus on the design of post-conflict structures and programmes be created. What better place to start than in Kosovo.


Further reading



  • Interview with EULEX official, Vienna, 3 November 2011.

  • Interview with former official of the Office of the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Pristina, 5 December 2011.

  • Interview with local NGO, Pristina, 5 December 2011.

  • Interview OSCE official, Pristina, 6 December 2011.

  • Interview EULEX official, Pristina, 6 December 2011.

  • Interview with EULEX official, Pristina, 7 December 2011.

  • Interview with Kosovo Police officer, Štrpce, 7 December 2011.

  • Interview with official of the Kosovo Ministry of Internal Affairs, Pristina, 8 December 2011.

  • Interview Community Building Mitrovica, Mitrovica, 8 December 2011.


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