The Time for Establishing the ASM is Now
By: Derek Chollet, Counselor of the U.S. Department of State and Gabriel Escobar, U.S. Special Envoy for the Western Balkans
The United States and the European Union have placed a renewed emphasis on the integration of the Western Balkans into the Trans-Atlantic family. As President Biden and Chancellor Scholz stated on February 2022, they are committed to “completing the work of integrating the Western Balkans…to finally realize a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace.”
Among our most important aims in the Western Balkans is helping to create the conditions for a healthy, peaceful, and sustainable relationship between Serbia and Kosovo. During the past few weeks, and alongside France, Germany, Italy, and the EU, we have traveled to Belgrade and Pristina to encourage both parties to accept the EU proposal for the two countries to normalize relations, break the cycle of crisis and confrontation, and decisively advance their European integration. This is an historic opportunity we believe both sides should seize.
One of the most critical tasks remains the implementation of the agreement on the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities (ASM). There has been a lot of discussion about the ASM, and it is time to set the record straight about what it is and what it is not. In general terms, the ASM would be a structure for municipalities with a majority ethnic Serb population to coordinate on issues and services such as education, health care, urban and rural planning, and local economic development—in other words, functions for which all municipalities in Kosovo are responsible. It is a means to improve the everyday lives of people, create confidence between ethnic Serbs and the central government, provide greater connectivity between the north and the rest of the country, and create mechanisms for Serbs to participate more fully in the civic life of Kosovo. Equally important, the implementation of the ASM agreement is an outstanding, legally-binding, international obligation that requires action from Kosovo, Serbia, and the EU and an existing commitment from the United States in support of the EU-facilitated Dialogue.
Kosovo’s commitment to create the ASM does not undermine its constitution or threaten its sovereignty, independence, or democratic institutions. We strictly oppose the creation of any entity resembling Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH); the international community is not seeking to impose a solution. Instead, we are asking Kosovo to provide its own vision for this association and are willing to provide expertise and political support to ensure it works in the best interest of all Kosovans. The EU Special Representative has noted that there are 14 similar arrangements inside of the European Union – none of which violate European systems of effective government. Within the framework of the EU-facilitated Dialogue, Kosovo can reject options that threaten its legal structure, but it cannot reject its commitments. As the most pro-Kosovo country in the world, the United States is committed to supporting the people of Kosovo to ensure that its constitutional and legal structure is not undermined.
What would the ASM look like? Municipalities with shared interests, language, and culture could work more effectively together to address common challenges in delivering public services, through economies of scale and sharing of best practices. For example, municipalities could develop a Serbian-language curriculum for local schools across several municipalities, rather than laboring in a vacuum and duplicating efforts. Such cooperation is in line with the 2015 Constitutional Court ruling on the ASM commitment and good governance principles already practiced elsewhere in Europe.
What would the ASM not be? It would not add a new layer of executive and legislative power to Kosovo’s government. This important principle goes all the way back to the Ahtisaari proposal. Municipalities cooperate on co-managing jurisdictions within legitimate Kosovan institutions and structures. By allowing certain municipalities to more efficiently exercise authorities they already have, it would eliminate the need for Kosovan citizens to seek services from illegal parallel structures – as many now do – and enshrine the transparency and legality of the new structure under and within Kosovan law. And any support and assistance Serbia would provide to the Kosovo Serb community would have to be transparent and go through these legitimate, sanctioned channels.
It’s also important to note that an Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities would not be monoethnic. These would be Serb-majority municipalities where not only ethnic Serbs live, but also other groups —Albanians, Bosniaks, and others— whose rights must also be ensured and protected. ASM members would be local officials already elected as representatives of all residents in their municipalities. Ensuring that the ASM remains open to all ethnicities and well within the structure of Kosovo’s legal framework were the main concerns of Kosovo’s Constitutional Court, which called for the initial proposal to be adapted, not discarded, and reiterated the obligation to form such an association under the Brussels agreement.
As Kosovo’s closest friend and ally, we believe that by working to establish the ASM, Kosovo will realize a critical element needed to build its rightful future as a sovereign, multiethnic, and independent country, integrated into Euro-Atlantic structures. We stand ready to support Kosovo in meeting this commitment and will remain by the country’s side at every step. The future for both Kosovo and Serbia – and for its young people now looking abroad for opportunity – can be bright, in a Europe truly “whole, free, and at peace.” We have only to seize this moment together.