Whose citizens? Kosovan Serbs between Kosovo, Serbia and Russia

by EUDO Citizenship country expert Gëzim Krasniqi

Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 was vehemently opposed by Serbia. In consequence, the new country’s attempts to exercise sovereignty throughout its territory, as well as to take its place in the international community of states, have been seriously undermined. Internally, Kosovo’s Serbs, backed by the Serbian state, have opposed the new state and its attempts to put in place an autonomous citizenship regime. Consequently, Kosovo’s sovereignty is limited in some areas of the country, especially in northern Kosovo, which is under the de facto control of Serbia. The end result is a situation of (informal) overlapping sovereignties and jurisdictions. In what is considered a clear attempt to undermine Kosovo’s sovereignty, Serbia has maintained parallel structures in many parts of Kosovo and most notably in the northern part of the country since 1999. Although most of the Serb parallel structures in other parts of Kosovo have been shut down or replaced by Kosovan ones, northern Kosovo remains largely out of Pristina’s control.

Northern Kosovo comprises the northern part of the city of Mitrovica, as well as three other small municipalities, and contains 3 per cent of the overall population (some 65,000 Serbs and 10,000 Albanians and Bosniaks), and embodies the core of the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo. Consequently, whereas northern Kosovo remains outside Pristina’s sovereignty, its Serb population resists integration within Kosovo’s citizenry, thus rendering Kosovo one of those cases where the boundaries of citizenship are smaller than the state’s territorial borders. Things deteriorated further after July 25 2011, as a result of the intervention of the Kosovar Police in the north to enforce a decision by the Kosovan government to impose a ban on goods imported from Serbia. In response, roads were blocked by local Serbs, who demolished and burned infrastructure at one of the border points, and KFOR had to deploy. One Kosovan policeman was killed and several remained injured in these clashes.

Despite calls from KFOR to remove the barricades, local Serbs continued to put up new ones to prevent the transportation of the Kosovo Police and Custom officers into the border points with Serbia. Several violent incidents between KFOR soldiers and local Serbs on the barricades were recorded in the meantime. After months of stalemate, and as part of the strategy to resist any change that would pave the way for the integration of northern Kosovo into the Kosovar political and legal system, in early November 2011 a group of local Serbs came up with an unusual initiative; they collected some 21,000 signatures on a petition asking the Russian Federation to grant them Russian citizenship. This seems to have come as an act of desperation and suggests they believed that Serbia (for whom the roadblocks had become a serious obstacle on its road to European Union accession) was not giving them adequate support.

The initial reaction in the Kremlin was quite promising for the petitioners. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said that Kremlin “fully understands” a mass application by ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo for Russian national passports and would consider their requests seriously. However, a negative response was to follow soon. On 1 December 2011, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said that the demand of a group of Kosovo Serbs to be granted Russian citizenship cannot be met under Russian law. Russia does not recognise dual citizenship and, based on the current law, Russian citizenship can be granted to people provided that they fulfil such criteria as living in Russia for a certain period of time, have a permanent legal income, speak Russian etc. Instead of outright citizenship status, Russia announced that it would offer political support to Kosovo’s Serbs and that humanitarian aid would be sent to them soon.

On the other hand, having been under intense pressure to reach a compromise to defuse the border dispute, Kosovo and Serbia managed to reach an agreement to jointly manage their disputed border crossings in early December. This agreement, brokered by the EU, Serbia and Kosovo is seen as a vital step in reducing tension on the north Kosovo border. Although leaders of Serbs in northern Kosovo declared against this agreement, after appeals from Belgrade and the international community they started dismantling some of the barricades that have been there for months.

Notwithstanding these developments, Serbs in the northern part of Kosovo remain trapped in a political dispute between Pristina and Belgrade. Although very few Serbs from the north of Kosovo have so far received documents issued by the Kosovar authorities, the majority of them continue to use services provided by their local ‘parallel’ institutions supported by the state of Serbia. However, although both Pristina and Belgrade treat them as their respective citizens, they were included in neither the Kosovo organised census in spring 2011, nor the one organised by Serbia in autumn 2011 (read more). While they boycotted the first one (unlike Serbs living south of Mitrovica and other minorities), Serbs from the northern part of Kosovo were left out of the Serb census. This certainly has strengthened the feeling of isolation and abandonment among this community. Therefore, the demand for Russian citizenship should be seen in this context.