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Snags in Kosovo-Serbia dialogue take toll on civil registry

The deadlock in negotiations for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue impacts the implementation of Brussels technical agreements, says the European Center for Minority Rights, who launched a project facilitating the rights of civil registration for minorities in Kosovo last week.

A project helping Kosovo Serbs and other non-majority communities gain access to civil registration, documentation and citizenship documents from the Kosovo Government was launched last week by the European Center for Minority Issues, ECMI, despite significant setbacks in its implementation as a result of the halt in EU-mediated talks between Kosovo and Serbia.

A decision from the Kosovo Ministry of Internal Affairs released in July allows all citizens currently registering birth, marriage and death certificates and other identity documents in Serb parallel structures between 1999 and 2016 to be able to register in Kosovo local municipalities in the next year.

According to Executive Director of ECMI, Adrian Zeqiri, who launched the project “Support for Kosovo in the Implementation of the Agreements reached in the Brussels Dialogue: Freedom of Movement and Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities,this temporary measure has been a huge step forward.

“There is no legal possibility to recognize documents issued by the Republic of Serbia in Kosovo, and the only option is to recognize documents on a one year basis to alleviate a certain situation that has come about, and promote the rights of minority communities and their members,” he said.

In its decision, the Ministry of Internal Affairs explained that its purpose is to create a “Central Registry of Civil Status of the Republic of Kosovo, unique and credible in the whole territory of Kosovo, and the approval of adequate measures to enable all citizens of Kosovo to register at the Central Registry for Civil Status of the Republic of Kosovo.”

According to Zeqiri, the project aims to improve the capacities of Kosovo municipal administrative bodies to implement this decision and others in line with the technical agreements concluded in Brussels between Kosovo and Serbia.

“It’s one thing to have a decision it’s another to actually implement it, so now we’re going to focus on technical assistance to the Agency for Civil Registry, the Ministry of Interior, and the Municipal Civil Status Offices,” he said.

ECMI released a report in February this year titled “The People in Between,” which estimated that around 90,000 people currently benefit from services in the four northern majority Serb municipalities, which require Serbian-issued identity documents.

In 2017, Prishtina Insight published an investigation reporting that bureaucratic barriers, inconsistent implementation and poor communication between the authorities and the public have consistently hindered access to Kosovo-administered documents for Kosovo Serbs and other non-majority communities.

“The support will be in different shapes and forms,” continued Zeqiri. “Including trainings, exchange of experience and field reports, we are trying to develop further policies that would help to implement this decision as best as possible.”

Adrian Zeqiri (center right) at ECMI’s launch of the project “Support for Kosovo in the Implementation of the Agreements reached in the Brussels Dialogue: Freedom of Movement and Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities.” Photo: ECMI.

Minority communities in Kosovo have consistently struggled to attain documents from Kosovo institutions, leaving their freedom of movement restricted and the process of citizenship taking years.

A similar temporary measure was taken by the Kosovo Government last year allowing citizens with driving licenses issued by Serb parallel structures to attain Kosovo registered licenses until June 2018.

Arben Sejdaj from ECMI explained that misinterpretation of official documents has led in the past to serious difficulties for all minorities in Kosovo, but particularly Kosovo Serbs, and lack of implementation concerning the criteria for applying to Kosovo citizenship.

“We want to guarantee that all the officers working within this municipality and this government in the civil registry offices and civil status office will be in the same clear line and won’t have the same problems as before with interpreting the decision correctly, and having the proper capacities to do so,” he said.

In November, the four mayors of the Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo resigned in protest of the 100 per cent increase in customs tax for products entering Kosovo from Serbia.

Despite the absence of key officials from the four northern municipalities at the launching event of the project, civil society and Serb citizens voiced their support for the project moving forward.

“We have hope that the situation will ease,” said Sejdaj. “No matter what, a lot of Serbs from different municipalities who were interested to vouch for their rights came to the launch, and we are glad that the institutions of Kosovo are currently continuing the work, filling in the gap that has been created for any citizen of Kosovo to have the right to civil registry and citizenship.”

While this temporary decision eases the application process for Kosovo documents, Zeqiri cannot foresee a situation where this can be achieved in the long term.

“You cannot push past this temporary clause, because if you make it permanent then its unconstitutional,” said Zeqiri. “It cannot be permanent, but it is a very good first step.”

“In the long run, we’re going to try to devise a system where the Serb citizens would be able to get these documents directly without this temporary measure, so that’s what we’re gonna do over the next two years,” he continued.

The ECMI report confirmed that unsolved political issues between Kosovo and Serbia have been a consistent barrier to Kosovo Serbs’ access to Kosovo documents.

According to Zeqiri, the current deadlock in negotiation processes means there is no chance for ECMI to continue their work facilitating the implementation of technical agreements related to the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities.

“When the political situation is better, when the relationship with the local Serb parties has no problems, then pushing these policies through government structures is easier and there is more acceptance,” he said. “When the situation is worse, and then work pushing these policies through becomes harder.”

In the absence of any EU-mediated negotiations on the dialogue since July, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci has undertaken talks with his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic hoping to reach a final agreement on the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, and the future of the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities remains unclear.

“It’s very hard to influence that level of decision making, because the negotiations that are being held are not transparent, are not organized under the EU umbrella, it’s more like private talks and private advisors,” Zeqiri explained. “Unless the process becomes structured, with a mediating body that you know, then there is no door open basically.”

06/12/2018 - 14:59

06 December 2018 - 14:59

Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.