Julie Mertus
Julie Mertus

Considering Elections in Kosovo: Lessons Learned from Bosnia

Oct 16, 2001

An edited transcript of remarks delivered by Julie Mertus, an expert on international law and the Balkans, at a 10/16/01 Council-sponsored Balkans Forum at Georgetown University.

When the fighting stops, what then? How much responsibility should be given to "internationals," state and non-state actors outside the country in conflict, in determining whatever comes next? What should be the pace of transition from international to local rule? And what role do elections play in the transition process?

I believe that the treatment of these questions in Kosovo represents considerable learning from experiences in Bosnia. The course of international involvement in Bosnia was extremely different from Kosovo in many crucial respects. As I have been asked to focus on elections and the role of the international community, I will shape my remarks accordingly.

The Main Difference between Bosnia and Kosovo

In Bosnia, immediately after Dayton, internationals sought to give locals more decision-making authority and autonomy. But then, as things began to go wrong, internationals exercised more and more oversight, rejecting local decisions and even ejecting elected leaders from their posts. The experience in Kosovo is quite different. The post-agreement stage began with tight international control and, over time, internationals have gradually ceded control to locals. To date, internationals in Kosovo still maintain significant administrative control and authority over security matters.

It is my thesis that the Kosovo process demonstrates significant learning in many respects.

The Lessons of Bosnia, As Applied to Kosovo

First, the sequencing of international and local control was better in Kosovo, if the ultimate goal is to encourage democracy. It is counter-democratic to hold elections and encourage people to take responsibility for their lives, and then take away that responsibility after they exercise it. The only problem with the sequencing in Kosovo is that internationals did not always act with transparency. They pretended that locals had decision-making authority when, in fact, they did not. However, this is a problem of execution, not of design.

Second, the strong international control in Kosovo makes sense given the nature of the political bargain struck in the peace process. The peace deal was driven by international intervention and not by a mutual acceptance by the parties of the difficulties that they would encounter from continued conflict. Wherever this is the case, any emerging resolution can only be sustained through sustained international pressure. Michael Doyle has suggested that the more challenging the factional conflict, the more transitional authority is required. I think this is correct. In the case of Kosovo, this required adoption of a Security Council Resolution that would give the UN broad license to oversee Kosovo's political future. The drawback to this solution was that to the extent that the UN worked with local political leaders, it could do so only by guessing who really represented the concerns of the people. Elections would have been a way to identify the central leaders with political legitimacy. But given the security issues in Kosovo, elections—especially Kosovo-wide elections—were impossible at an early date. The decision to run municipal elections first and to delay Kosovo-wide elections was a wise one, and it represented significant learning from Bosnia. These elections addressed the strong desire of Kosovars to democratize, to legitimize municipal-level elected leaders, and to provide locals with decision-making power over an array of local issues.

Third, elections are only a small part of democracy, the beginning of democracy and not the end. Internationals have become increasing better at the mechanics of running elections, and, despite some snags, this improvement has continued from Bosnia to Kosovo. But this is not enough. Elections must be part of a broader plan of reconstruction that is viewed as legitimate by locals who participate in its design and execution. The approach to democracy building in Kosovo shows considerable learning, that elections cannot be rushed and that they are only part of a larger "democracy package." This pre-election "package" may include guarantees of protection for all residents, but especially minorities; respect for human rights for all; a responsible, independent media; an informed electorate; reduction of corruption; improvement in public welfare. Many of the internationals working in Kosovo have tackled these issues. There is still, however, much to learn.

Room for Improvement

Internationals have not devoted enough attention to improvement in sanitation and health care and other quality of life issues. There has been a commitment to training for political parties and talk about democracy, but not enough funding of material conditions that would support a functioning democracy. Improvement in quality of life issues would go a long way toward enabling citizen participation in democratic life. This is true in both Bosnia and Kosovo, but given that the starting point in Kosovo is far behind Bosnia, even more attention should be addressed to these issues there.

Internationals also failed to make Kosovars genuine partners in decision making to address these problems. Despite the best efforts to include locals in consultative bodies, many feel that they were only used to dress up a preconceived plan of internationals. Kosovars justly feel that the international administration has overlooked their skills and experience.

Many democratization programs are ill conceived. Some democratization workers conduct their operations in a messianic fashion, believing that they are coming in and delivering democracy to the local people. I would suggest, however, that Kosovars already know about democracy. After all, they operated a parallel government for over ten years. Kosovar journalists, physicians, human rights activists and other elites have been traveling around the world, going to UN conferences, participating in academic exchanges for years. They do not need dumbed-down democracy training. But they do need the resources and opportunity with which to explore options and make decisions—and learn from their own mistakes.

Internationals have devoted great resources to encourage Kosovar political parties to distinguish themselves. For the moment, parties in Kosovo are all still part of the broader social movement that seeks independence. It makes sense now for the agendas of political parties to be dominated by ethnic issues and to remain short on concrete and creative ideas for the future of Kosovo.

One of the main goals of democracy training should be to teach future elected leaders that they will be elected to govern, not to rule. If the conveyance of this message is a benchmark of success, the international democracy trainers in Kosovo have failed. Most politicians in Kosovo—as throughout the Balkans—still see their position in terms of ruling, not governing. The slate of politicians elected in November will not have power-sharing on their minds, rather, they will regard the vote as a mandate to rule.

In sum, although internationals continue to improve their democratization programs, they still have a long way to go in their execution.

Principle Finding: Need for Gradual Reform

The Kosovo experience shows a recognition that transition to self-government should be a gradual process. Fair and inclusive self-government does not come over night after years of conflict. In deeply divided societies like Kosovo, internationals are needed to provide stability and oversight. Even after the November elections, the internationals will still enjoy a great degree of control. Many of the measures of control are accepted and viewed as legitimate by Kosovars. In particular, measures designed to guarantee physical security or to safeguard the rights of minorities are supported by Serbians and Albanians. At the same time, Kosovars, eager to assume responsibility for their own future, reject the international administration's continued oversight over other important decision-making functions. Their concerns should be heard and addressed.

The United Nations claims that Kosovars will gain control over 80% of governing functions after the November elections. I think this figure inaccurately reflects the amount of control internationals will still maintain. The Special Representative of the Security General (SSRG) will still have extensive reserved powers, including:

  • Authority to ensure that the rights and interests of [minority] Communities are fully protected. This gives the SSRG broad authority to do almost anything to protect and promote the rights of Serbians in Kosovo.
  • The right to dissolve the assembly and call for new elections in circumstances where the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government are deemed to act in a manner which is not in conformity with UN Security Council Resolution 1244, or in the exercise of the SRSG's responsibilities under that Resolution.
  • Final authority to set the financial and policy parameters for, and to approve, the Kosovo Consolidated Budget. This provision grants the SSRG the power of the purse.
  • Final authority over the appointment, disciplining and removal from office, and the assignment of international judges and prosecutors. These are crucial issues of great concern to locals. (Many locals are more willing to grant the SSRG greater oversight over these security-related issues).
  • Authority over law enforcement institutions, the correctional service, and the Kosovo Protection Corps. (Again, many locals welcom greater SSRG oversight because of security concerns). "Exercising powers and responsibilities of an international nature in the legal field" and "[c]oncluding agreements with states and international organizations in all matters within the scope of UNSCR 1244." This language could be interpreted in an extremely broad fashion. Control over cross-border/boundary transit of goods (including animals); authority to administer public, state and socially-owned property, and; control and authority over railways and civil aviation. These issues are wholly removed from local control.
  • Great control over media: Appointing international experts to the managing boards or commissions of the public broadcaster, the independent media regulatory body, and other institutions involved in regulating the mass media.

In addition to the powers maintained by the SSRG, the International Security Presence (KFOR) shall engage in such matters as: (a) Controlling borders and monitoring duties; (b) Regulating possession of firearms; (c) Enforcing public safety and order; and, (d) Exercising functions that may be attributed to the domain of defense, civil emergency, and security- preparedness.

Finally, a catch-all provision in the Constitutional Framework for Provisional Self Government states that "nothing shall diminish the authority of the SSRG to ensure full implementation of 1244" and that he can "take appropriate measures" where the provisional government's actions are "inconsistent." This kind of language sweeps too broadly. The UN administration should be transparent and acknowledge that Kosovars will not assume control over 80% of the administration of Kosovo. To the extent that strong international oversight is still needed in Kosovo, locals should have greater input as to the nature and scope of continued international involvement.

Critical Issue of Status

Kosovars know that the SSRG will maintain broad powers (albeit not to the full extent described above). Thus, to some degree, elections under these conditions serve to legitimize the continued UN presence. However, most Albanians see the elections as a major step toward independence.

Why are elections being held in Kosovo? I suggest that the internationals and locals have very different answers to this question. It is the failure to acknowledge these divergent goals for the elections that will lead to great trouble in the future. Internationals view the elections as an important benchmark on the long road to Kosovars' full acceptance of democratic norms and to stability in the Balkans. Kosovar Albanians regard the elections as potential relief from the drag of international control and movement toward independence. Kosovar Serbs view the elections in similar terms and for this reason do not want to participate absent impossible guarantees for their security.

Are the elections a step toward independence? This question needs to be addressed. In Bosnia, internationals attempted to circumvent difficult issues pertaining to status and territory without success. Delay does not solve the underlying cause of tension and conflict. In Kosovo, delaying the final status question is even more difficult and even more likely to exacerbate conflict.

Participation of Minorities in Elections

On the question of minorities and elections, many people ask to what extent should the participation of minorities in elections be a priority? I believe this question is misplaced. The goal should not be to convince members of minority populations to vote at all costs, but to create the environment for a fair election and government structure. In a place like Kosovo, where one group constitutes 90% of the population, proportionate systems may not be enough to ensure representation of minorities. A more complicated scheme is needed and, indeed, a complex scheme beyond proportionate representation was created for Kosovo. The plan for the government of Kosovo would give ethnic Serbs a greater number of seats than their numerical percentage:

  • Assembly: 120 members—One hundred will be amongst parties based on proportion of votes cast for them; ten are reserved for candidates "having declared themselves representing the Kosovo Serb Community"; (note that one need not be Kosovar Serb, just a representative of this community); ten are declared to represent other communities.
  • Presidency: seven members—All are proportionately chosen, except for one reserved for a party having declared itself to represent the Kosovo Serb community, and a second reserved for another community.
  • Government: Prime Minister and Ministers—At least one is from the Kosovo Serb community, and one from another non-Albanian community.

To the objective observer, this is a good deal for non-Albanians. But to many Serbs, it is unfair. Many of the Kosovo Serbs still living in Kosovo do not want to acknowledge their minority status. They want life to go on as before. No amount of reasonable inducements will convince them to vote. So, instead, the international community should focus on ensuring safe and fair elections and adequate representation in government, without embarking on futile efforts to encourage minority participation in elections. The lessons from Bosnia on this issue should be heard.

Relationship of New Government to Interim Structures

To what extent should a new Kosovo government build upon the parallel government of Kosovar Albanians, and to what extent should the structure represent a change? This question was not faced in Bosnia where there was no parallel government.

On the one hand, good arguments exist for ignoring the parallel government and starting anew. The refusal by the international community to use pre-existing structures of civil society seems understandable if one considers that these actually were strongly divisive and contributed to an entrenchment of the communal divide. It might seem that replacing rather than transforming the earlier structure might lead to quicker and more desirable results.

On the other hand, the parallel government is a rich resource that democracy builders cannot afford to ignore. In the summer of 2001, the civil administrator for Kosovo told me in an interview that the success of the international administration in choosing and training future leaders and in planting the seeds for democracy will be evaluated when locals begin to govern themselves. To some extent he is correct. If a future government in Kosovo promotes stability and respect for human rights, this will partially vindicate the military and civil interventions in Kosovo. But such a positive result may also reflect the re-emergence of local political skills that existed before the international intervention and that survived despite international meddling.

The international community is frustrated that creative, forward-thinking political voices have not emerged in Kosovo. This is not surprising. The voices have been stifled and, in some cases, shamed into silence. "I was treated like a child," one Kosovar intellectual told me, "so how could I participate in the joint interim administration?" As the international community allows local Kosovars to have more decision-making authority over their lives, I suggest that the real creative voices will begin to emerge and re-emerge.

What is the verdict on gradual democratic self-government?

The final verdict on gradual democratic self-government is that it can be a workable solution and, in some situations, it may represent the only feasible idea. In Kosovo, the problem was the execution of this good idea and, in particular, the lack of transparency in decision-making, respect of local skills, and openness about the degree of international control. Short-term experts have been dominating the democratization scene and most of these so-called experts have little understanding of Kosovar society. They have overlooked the extraordinary resourcefulness of Kosovars and their intense dedication to independence. They have little awareness that many urban Kosovars are well-educated and that the elites are well-traveled, well-connected, sophisticated professionals. Kosovar society is not starting democratization from scratch. Kosovars can and should have a voice in decisions over their future.

Any long-term plan for democracy in Kosovo must have public legitimacy. I want to emphasize that I am not talking about locals "buying into" an international plan. A "buy in" is not enough. I am taking about locals creating the plan themselves, with international input and in line with international human rights standards. Local participation in and acceptance of a long-term plan for Kosovo is absolutely essential for lasting peace and justice. This is the lesson that remains be learned.

The Balkans Forum was a series of monthly dialogues co-sponsored by Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, Search for Common Ground, and the Center for Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. This brief was prepared by staff at the Council's Conflict and Prevention Program and at the Search for Common Ground. The opinions expressed at the forum do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsoring organizations.

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