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Quitters Need Not Apply? Warily, Kosovo Starts To Refill Protesting Serbs' Vacated Posts

Kosovo wants minority cops. But it might not want the Serbs who quit en masse two months ago.
Kosovo wants minority cops. But it might not want the Serbs who quit en masse two months ago.

PRISTINA -- Few would argue that Kosovo's public sector, with the largest share of overall employment in the entire Western Balkans at around 30 percent, couldn't do with some trimming.

Instead, though, it's poised for a potential hiring binge, prompted by another crisis in this fractious corner of the region.

Following the mass resignation of thousands of ethnic Serbian police and other officials in November 2022 to protest Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti's latest "reciprocal" measure in a long-running fight for recognition from neighboring Serbia, Kosovo's national police force this month announced a call for applicants from minority communities.

Other institutions, including the judiciary and mayoral offices, could follow suit, although officials acknowledge that red tape, potential disciplinary proceedings, and looming elections all factor into their timelines.

It's the latest twist in a nearly 15-year effort to press Pristina to more fully integrate ethnic Serbs into Kosovo's public sector since the mostly Albanian province declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

And even residents of North Mitrovica, one of the four mostly Serbian municipalities in northern Kosovo where most of the resignations took place, are divided over whether the Serbs who resigned will -- or should -- be allowed back into the system.

Jovan, who along with others interviewed in North Mitrovica did not want to use his full name, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service he thought they shouldn't and suggested the protesters were motivated by "nothing but their own interests."

But, he added, "Whoever returns, it's their business."

Vladan, another North Mitrovica resident, was less forgiving. "Of course not," he said, "because they are secessionist from Kosovo."

A third, Danijela, said that two months into their protest, it's high time for the protesting Serbs to return to the institutions they left. "Because they are already visible, the consequences of the Serbs leaving the institutions are looming," she said. "The most important thing to us is that they should return to the police force and the judiciary...[and] take it easy on everything else."

Minority Gridlock

Serbia, a regional economic powerhouse with 7 million citizens and co-ethnics throughout much of the former Yugoslavia, doesn't recognize the independence of Kosovo and its 2 million or so residents.

Serbia has been an EU candidate state since 2012; Kosovo formally submitted its EU application last month.

Ethnic and national tensions have long complicated EU-mediated efforts to normalize their bilateral relations.

The process has been hindered by Serbian recalcitrance and Belgrade's support for a "parallel system" of political and social benefits for Kosovo's minority Serbs, but also by Pristina's ongoing refusal to codify its 2013 pledge to establish an Association of Serbian Municipalities that can speak on behalf of Serb-majority areas.

The November resignations were a response to growing pressure to enforce a controversial government decision from June to require Kosovar license plates on vehicles whose ethnic Serbian owners have resisted registration as de facto recognition of Kosovar statehood.

Pristina eventually postponed the measure after mediation by EU officials who are trying to help curb theirs and other long-running political and diplomatic feuds in the Balkans.

The international community has repeatedly urged the Serbs who quit in November 2022 to return to their jobs and encouraged Kosovar authorities to facilitate those resumptions.

"Now the question arises as to what the government of Kosovo wants to do and what the Serbs want," Veroljub Petronic of the Human Center Mitrovica NGO said.

Which Minorities Wanted?

Kosovo's police force didn't say how many new officers it planned to hire. But the resignations included some 550 police officers, plus an untold number of judges and judicial staffers, prosecutors, lawmakers, mayors, and local councilors.

Officials said in the weeks after the protest that the police officers who resigned would have to reapply to get their old jobs back. But it's unclear whether they and others will be at a disadvantage versus other candidates if they do apply for police or any other jobs.

Kosovo's police force declined to respond to questions about who was invited to apply or whether any applications had been received and referred RFE/RL's Balkan Service to a public announcement.

The Kosovar government has mostly stressed that its aim is not to "replace Serbs with Albanians."

"We want Serbs to be represented in our multiethnic institutions," government spokesman Perparim Kryeziu said in a written response to RFE/RL's Balkan Service. Kryeziu said Prime Minister Kurti's invitation for police applicants was aimed especially at Serbian applicants who haven't previously worked in the public sector.

The announcement stipulates that it is seeking police applicants under the age of 30.

Serbia's Support

Some of the police officers who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity acknowledged having "lost the will" to return to their jobs within Kosovo's system but said they would go back to their old jobs if advised to do so by Belgrade.

They generally avoided direct questions on the topic but said the employment contracts with Serbian authorities provided financial security and sufficed for now.

A Serbian government office that steers relations with its former province announced in mid-November 2022 that it had signed employment contracts to ensure ongoing salaries for around 3,500 outgoing police officers, judges, and other public servants from four Kosovar municipalities.

Law And Politics

The magnitude of the blow to Kosovo's judiciary and other institutions from the resignations by Serbian judges and other officials is still unclear.

Kosovo's Judicial Council declined to say whether those resignations have been considered, what the next step might be, or whether those individuals will be allowed to take up their jobs once again.

The council referred RFE/RL's Balkan Service to an interview that Judicial Council Chairman Albert Zogaj gave in early January, saying that the resignations were being carefully considered and disciplinary action was being considered "against those employees who participated in political gatherings, which contravene constitutional, legal, and ethical responsibilities."

Kosovar Serb judges and prosecutors have only been fully integrated into Kosovo's judicial system since 2017, following years of considerable informal control by Serbia in predominantly Serbian areas.

Kosovo's constitution and legislation on judicial ethics bars judges from involvement in political activities. In practice, the politics ban has run into occasional problems, including when the Judicial Council suspended the president of the Mitrovica Basic Court, Ljiljana Stevanovic, for meeting in Belgrade with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

More recently, Stevanovic and several other judges are thought to have participated in gatherings with a Belgrade-backed ethnic Serbian political party, Serbian List.

"Everyone will bear responsibility," Zogaj said, adding that "even in a situation where we approve resignations, some will not be approved because, first of all, disciplinary measures should be imposed."

Kosovo's Prosecutorial Council told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that its decisions regarding prosecutors who joined the mass resignation will follow a detailed analysis. "Without such a decision," it said, "we cannot assess how the situation in this case will unfold."

Ehat Miftaraj, from the Kosovo Law Institute, expresses hope that judges, prosecutors, and support staff would be allowed to reapply for their old jobs. But he also speculates that they might find it more difficult to get selected.

He notes that participation in judicial institutions is among the rights enshrined in the Kosovar Constitution that Serbs should not willingly surrender.

Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani has already announced that elections must be held to replace the mayors who resigned in four mostly Serbian municipalities: North Mitrovica, Zubin Potok, Leposavic, and Zvecan.

Serbian List quickly announced its intention to boycott the voting.

With contributions from North Mitrovica by Maja Ficovic

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