Signs have been building over the past few months that conditions for finding a compromise solution for north Kosovo might be ripening. Since 2008, the Quint – through KFOR, EULEX and the ICO – had been allowing and supporting unilateral (i.e., not negotiated) efforts to impose Kosovo Albanian returns and institutions across the Ibar River. Successful, largely peaceful, resistance of the northern Kosovo Serbs had prevented all efforts to accomplish this. KFOR seemed to understand the situation ahead of others, perhaps because it was put on the front line of trying to take down citizen barricades and corral the northerners into using “official” boundary crossings manned by Kosovo customs. After last September, KFOR refused to confront demonstrators with armed violence and began treating northern local leaders as credible interlocutors. While still refusing to commit itself to status neutral actions in the north, EULEX eventually worked out a modus operandi with the northern Kosovo Serbs that allowed them limited access in the north while keeping any Kosovo Albanian officials at the crossings in their containers. Even the ICO has come around to understanding that the problem of the north is not caused by “radicals” or “criminals” but arises because the people there just do not want to be ruled by Pristina.
In the last days, the Pristina press has been discussing international “pressures” on the Kosovo government to accept talking with credible northern Serb leaders about what to do next. The Kosovo government – and its international friends – are emitting their usual noises about borders that cannot be changed, about Belgrade having a limited role in any discussions and about simply implementing Ahtisaari. Some officials are also renewing the charge that it is their internationals who have failed in capturing the north by not having done enough to enforce Kosovo “rule of law” there. But such is to be expected before a possible tough negotiation. One sign that the Quint may be serious about Pristina preparing for negotiations is their allowing Ramush Haradinaj to return from the Hague. Like Nixon going to China, he may be the leader to take Kosovo forward to a historical settlement with Serbia.
It is an historical settlement between Belgrade and Pristina that the Quint now seems to most desire. The EU has a full plate with the Euro crisis. The US wants to bring its troops home. They both would rather not be in Kosovo forever. An agreement between Serbia and Kosovo on status – even if it doesn't immediately include full recognition – would allow them to leave gracefully. Having realized that the north cannot simply be conquered, the Quint might finally be ready to recognize that something more than the bare outline of the Ahtisaari Plan may be required to unlock the status dispute.
The next government of Serbia probably will be pretty much the same as the last. DS and the Socialists will form the core and most observers expect Tadic himself to return as president. But whether it is Tadic or Nikolic, it's a good bet that the new leaders will also want to resolve the status issue in a way that allows Serbia to move forward more crisply toward EU membership. This is key to improving Serbia's economic prospects and would reap profound political gains.
Some believe – and in Kosovo may fear – that the new Serbian government will be in such a hurry to gain EU approval that it will end its support for the north and de-legitimatize the current local leaders. But whoever assumes power in Belgrade is unlikely to be able to give away the north outright. Any ruling coalition could split over such action. Belgrade probably will be willing, however, to reach a deal that at least a majority of the northerners could go along with. Some northern Kosovo Serbs have begun thinking about possible compromises. A key will be recognition by the Quint, Pristina and Belgrade of those leaders viewed as credible interlocutors by the northerners themselves. You don't start a true dialogue by trying to pick the other side of the table.