international analysis and commentary

Do Kosovo and Serbia have a deal? The question baffling the Balkans

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The news came after 12 hours of talks, between Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and EU officials, on implementing the normalization plan, which both sides had previously agreed upon in Brussels.

“We have a deal,” tweeted EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell after the meeting on Saturday, March 18th, which took place in the North Macedonian town of Ohrid. He said that Kosovo and Serbia had agreed on the implementation annex of the agreement on the path to normalization of relations, adding that the next steps will involve practical considerations, such as who will be responsible for what tasks and how they will be carried out.

Borrell emphasized that the EU would strongly urge both sides to fulfill their obligations if they wished to join the bloc, and cautioned that there would be consequences if they failed to do so. This underscores the EU’s commitment to ensuring that the normalization process moves forward as planned, and that both Kosovo and Serbia make tangible progress towards joining the European Union – despite serious remaining hurdles.

The Franco-German document was also signed by five states – Spain, Greece, Romania, the Slovak Republic and Cyprus – which have not yet recognized the independence of Kosovo, due to their own secessionist pressures, and recognition of the new state could set a precedent for them as well.

The German Ambassador to Kosovo, Jorn Rode, said in an interview with Radio Slobodna Evropa that he is confident that those European Union states that have not yet recognized Kosovo will do so if there is progress in the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

Rode emphasized that mutual recognition is a prerequisite for Kosovo and Serbia’s EU membership, stating that he does not see either country joining the EU without it. He also warned that if the parties fail to engage in constructive dialogue, the EU may impose sanctions. Furthermore, Rode revealed that two countries have been promised additional investments as a reward for their constructive engagement in the dialogue.

Following what can still be described as a historic meeting, the two leaders returned to their respective countries with the same agreement, but with differing interpretations. At a news conference, Vučić stated that the parties had not agreed on all points. Meanwhile, at a separate news conference, Kurti claimed that the new agreement, proposed by France and Germany, represented de facto recognition between Kosovo and Serbia.

The current war in Ukraine and the fear of Russian penetration into the Balkans has certainly accelerated the process of resolving the Kosovo issue, but thorny problems remain.

 

The red lines on both sides

While international mediators are urging Kosovo and Serbia’s leaders to fulfill the commitments they agreed upon, officials in Priština and Belgrade appear to be interpreting the normalization plan differently. The fact is that at the meeting in Ohrid, the two leaders only reached a verbal agreement: they did not sign the text.

During a recent appearance on Serbian national television, Vučić made it clear that he had not signed any agreement and that he will not implement anything related to Kosovo’s membership to the UN or any kind of actual or de jure recognition of Kosovo. This statement was echoed by Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić, who said that Serbia only agreed to implement what does not cross its red lines. In Article 4 of the new agreement, however, it is written that Serbia does not oppose Kosovo’s accession to international institutions.

The agreement does not explicitly state that Serbia recognizes Kosovo’s independence, but Article 2 says that the two states will respect the charter of the United Nations, which concerns the sovereignty of independent states and their territorial integrity.

In a previous address to the nation, the Serbian President said that this is Serbia’s last chance. He also alleged that he was threatened by EU officials with a return to the Schengen visa regime and a withdrawal of European investments from the country if Serbia did not agree to the proposal. He further stated that he does not want to lead a country that loses its European future and warned that Serbia may be compelled to impose sanctions against Russia, if necessary, which has not yet occurred.

 

Read also: Why Serbia matters

 

In view of these statements, the leaders of the extreme right-wing nationalist parties in Serbia have accused him of betrayal and surrender, also demanding his resignation. In response, Vučić announced the creation of a new, broad political movement that – according to him – will put state interests ahead of any geopolitical positioning.

Protests in Belgrade against the Vucic-Kurti deal

 

Critics argue that Serbia’s president is just attempting to address the decline in popularity of the ruling party, and to shift the responsibility for the difficult decisions he made, trying to create a new political movement.

The new “movement” is aimed at revitalizing the Progressive Party, which lost 17% of its vote share in the April 2022 election due to various corruption and organized crime scandals. By forming this bloc, the president could keep his promise to step down from the role of Progressive Party president, which he should have done upon assuming the presidency in 2017 as required by the constitution.

 

What remains of Serbia’s sovereignty in Kosovo?

The most sensitive issue is the establishment of an Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities, a body within Kosovo with powers to represent the Serbian minority there. While citizens of Kosovo protested the new agreement on the streets of Priština on March 25th, Albin Kurti stated that the formation of the association is a legally binding obligation for Kosovo that must be fulfilled.

The Serb-Majority Municipalities in Kosovo (light blue)

 

The proposal for the association came as a result of the Brussels agreement negotiated in 2013, but never implemented. In accordance with the competences given by the European Charter of Local Self-Government and Kosovo law, the participating municipalities would be entitled to cooperate in exercising their powers collectively through the association. This association would have a full overview of the areas of economic development, education, health, urban and rural planning.

Olivier Guerot, French Ambassador to Priština, whose country co-authored the normalization plan with Germany, said that the EU has presented Kosovo with 15 models from EU countries on how the plan could work in Kosovo. “The idea is not to copy any of them, but perhaps to take one as an example. There are models that have functioned well and it’s good to concentrate on one that Kosovo would benefit from,” he said to Radio TV Kosovo.

Kosovo has so far avoided accepting the formation of the Association of Serbian Municipalities because it does not want to allow Serbs an association that would have executive powers and look like the entity of Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is seen as a frequent source of instability, or even as a state within the state.

Being a minority in the Balkans is very dangerous if you do not have guarantees. Shkelzen Maliqi, political analyst from Priština, thinks that Kosovo has benefited from the fact that the international community realized that it had been late to intervene in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In other words, the international community learned from its mistake from the early 1990s and therefore acted more promptly and effectively in the case of Kosovo in 1999.

“For this reason, the autonomy of the Serbian community in Kosovo, whatever form it may take, will not become a new Republika Srpska,” said Maliqi to Al Jazeera Balkans. He added that once Kosovo forms the community of Serbian municipalities, only then will it meet the requirements of a democratic state and be able to appeal to countries that have not recognized its independence.

 

The Americans are in a hurry

In November 1995, the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, a year before Bill Clinton’s re-election as US President. The agreement established the entity of Republika Srpska within Bosnia and Herzegovina, granting it substantial powers, including the ability to veto decisions made by the central government in Sarajevo. Today, the metaphor of “avoiding the Bosnianization of Kosovo” is used not only by politicians from Kosovo, but also by many influential figures in the West.

The question now is whether Washington will impose unpopular solutions on Serbia and Kosovo due to time constraints, which could have long-term consequences, as was the case with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Dušan Janjić, Director of the Forum for Ethnic Relations in Serbia, said to Aspenia online that some new form of agreement between Serbia and Kosovo could be reached very quickly, as early as April or May of this year. This is partly due to the upcoming US presidential elections in the fall of 2024, as the Biden administration is eager to have this issue resolved before the campaign begins in full.

 

Read also: Western flexibility to prevent the simmering Balkans from flaring again

 

The Brussels and Ohrid agreements have redirected efforts to resolve the Kosovo issue towards a path of normalization that ultimately leads towards accession to the European Union and NATO. It is now clear that meeting the EU membership criteria is the standard, and those who do not abide by the agreements will not remain on track for EU membership. It is imperative that political games that waste time and hinder progress be avoided.

Meanwhile, the Russians will continue, as long as they can, to slow down this historically significant process for the two countries to move forward on the European path.

Even though Russian interests are not the same as Serbian interests, Russian officials have always repeated that they find acceptable whatever suits Serbia. For Serbia, having accepted an agreement that commits it to not obstructing Pristina’s access to the UN, means that the Russian veto in the Security Council is no longer so crucial in creating diplomatic blocs against the international affirmation process of Kosovo. For Russia, by resolving the Kosovo issue, they would lose one of the most important levers of influence in the Balkans, where its economic and commercial interests are mainly limited to energy exports.

The known fact is that Russia’s interest is not reconciliation of the people in the Balkans, but rather the maintenance of conflicts. According to Dusan Janjic, if an agreement is signed, Russia may attempt to destabilize Serbia by supporting far-right movements and financing criminal groups in order to undermine Vučić’s leadership.