By Engjellushe Morina, European Council on Foreign Relations, 16 December 2022
The EU-facilitated Kosovo-Serbia dialogue process has entered a dynamic new phase to the backdrop of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. One ripple effect of the war has been to strengthen Kosovo in the process, as a pro-EU country supportive of Ukraine. In contrast, as a country close to Russia, Serbia appears in a less favourable light. It has resisted imposing sanctions on Russia and otherwise aligning its foreign policy with that of the European Union – which it is supposed to do as an EU candidate state.
Close observers of the dialogue process assumed the war would see the EU and the United States make new efforts to persuade the parties towards a lasting solution. The leaders of both countries have strong mandates from recent election victories, which should mean conditions are ripe for a solution.
There is also a solid coalition government in Germany which, rhetorically at least, favours bringing the Western Balkans closer to the EU sooner rather than later. Emmanuel Macron’s election to a second term in office further adds to the favorable conditions, so does the presence of Joe Biden in the White House, who has long interested himself in the Western Balkans.
Nonetheless, the situation on the ground remains a stalemate that is, ultimately, detrimental to both parties. In September 2021, some Kosovo Serbs began to refuse to abide by new rules brought in by the Kosovo government concerning ID cards and car number plates. This year, Kosovo Serb officials decided to withdraw their participation in Kosovo institutions, including the parliament.
Last month, a long drawn-out meeting presided over by the EU’s high representative, Josep Borrell, with Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, and Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vucic, resulted in no resolution to these issues. On the contrary, the meeting revealed serious disagreements over the approach of the facilitators and the parties to the agenda: Kurti maintained Kosovo’s insistence on only discussing a final agreement to address all outstanding issues between the two sides, including recognition of Kosovo. In contrast, Vucic wanted to stick to smaller issues only. Borrell, according to Kosovo’s president, Vjosa Osman, sided with the latter by insisting on an agreement on car plates before moving on to other issues.
Kurti’s position is that strengthening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo is paramount, as is respect for the rule of law by all. He wants to focus discussions on a framework for a final agreement that the EU recently proposed (also known as a Franco-German proposal) with American backing. He prefers to avoid – as he sees it – wasting time talking about number plates. Kurti continues to believe that the creation of an Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM), a condition set by Vucic and supported by the Serb community in Kosovo, is dangerous for the sustainable statehood of Kosovo. He fears such a mono-ethnic organisation could hasten the disintegration of the country.
ECFR’s recent mini-series of short essays provide insights into the issues currently surrounding the dialogue process by pointing out not only the pitfalls but also the opportunities it contains. Politicians from Kosovo and Serbia contributed to the series.
Bernard Nikaj is an opposition politician in Kosovo and spies an opportunity to reach a final agreement. He writes that the EU and US are very much in synch, but identifies the EU’s weakening leverage in the region. He analyses the ways in which the EU has failed not only Kosovo with regard to visa liberalisation but the whole region by succumbing to enlargement fatigue. Nikaj suggests the EU should take its own peace project more seriously by moving from the role of facilitator to that of actor. It should acknowledge that this important peace process in Europe cannot be left in the hands of Balkan leaders alone.
Natan Albahari, an opposition MP from Serbia, suggests that Vucic often uses the Kosovo problem for internal politicking, depending on the need as he sees it. One moment he will claim that diplomacy for a hundred years is better than conflict for one day; the next moment he says that Serbia will never either directly or implicitly recognise the independence of Kosovo.
It is, incidentally, worth adding that it has become increasingly hard to understand Vucic’s neighbourhood policy – sometime he alludes to the importance of being constructive, and then he goes on supporting, if not inciting, Serbs’ withdrawal from Kosovo institutions. Such acts are in complete breach of the Brussels Agreement reached in 2013 and all efforts made to date to normalise relations between the two.
Albahari emphasises the importance of the Serbian parliament in reshaping Belgrade’s negotiating position and strategy towards Kosovo. He reminds the reader that any agreement reached with Kosovo will require its support through ratification. Albahari further adds that the key to unblocking the process lies with Kurti, in whose gift it is to establish the ASM and implement the 2013 Brussels Agreement in full. Doing so will convince the Serbian public and politicians alike that the rights of Serbs in Kosovo will be respected and the community will be protected. He states that Kurti will also have to consider dropping his demand for formal recognition given how difficult it would be to obtain sufficient support from across the full political spectrum in Serbia.
Demands on either side remain high in the search for some sort of normalisation of relations. This leaves little room for cooperation between Kosovo and Serbia outside the dialogue process. But Shqipe Mjekiqi, the vice-president of Kosovo Democratic League, identifies avenues where political cooperation is not only possible but could be especially beneficial for the Kosovo Serb community, beyond issues surrounding the ASM. In particular, she argues that Serbia should support Kosovo’s bid to join the Council of Europe as it would promote the rights of Serbs in Kosovo.
Kurti is eager to strengthen the sovereignty of the country he leads and secure its territorial integrity, especially concerning the north of Kosovo. This also explains why he is reluctant to implement the ASM. However, Vucic and the Serb community in Kosovo are adamant that without the implementation of ASM they will not move an inch towards any final agreement; nor will they take steps such as removing roadblocks Kosovo Serbs have recently erected in the north. Indeed, insisting on and agreeing the ASM now could render the EU proposal obsolete.
The parties should therefore take up the EU proposal and use it to move the process of the dialogue forward to an eventual final agreement. This agreement should include pathways for the long-term integration of minority communities in Kosovo. This would in turn enable both Kosovo and Serbia to move along a path to membership of the EU and eventually NATO and other international organisations for the former.
The EU-facilitated dialogue is virtually the only major foreign policy question in which the EU is the sole lead, although it receives strong support in this from the US. A successful conclusion to the process will not only bring the EU back into the game in the Western Balkans, a region the bloc has paid too little attention to for too long; it will also provide a boost to its security and stability and restore its credibility as a foreign policy actor. The EU as a strong global player would be able to persuade Serbian public opinion that there is no alternative to the European future.
The European Council on Foreign Relations and CEMAS do not take collective positions. ECFR and CEMAS publications only represent the views of their individual authors.