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Commentary | 2 June 2017

Kosovo and Serbia: Saving the dialogue in the face of competition among the Great Powers

Image of Gent Salihu

Gent Salihu |Advisor to Kosovo’s First Deputy Prime Minister

Balkans EU NATO Russia-West Relations Euro-Atlantic Security

The EU-facilitated dialogue for normalizing relations between Kosovo and Serbia remains the main platform for Belgrade and Pristina to meet and address the open issues arising out of Kosovo’s independence. Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008. However, rather than addressing the question of recognition, the dialogue, initiated in 2011, focuses on practical issues to improve citizens’ lives in both countries.

Kosovo primarily participates in the dialogue so that it can extend its sovereignty in northern Kosovo, a Serb-majority inhabited area, where Serbia still has significant influence. In return, by giving its de facto powers away, Serbia expects fast-track EU membership. The dialogue is good for both parties and has resulted in several agreements. However, the real struggle has been implementation; while specific deals promise to change the status quo, Serbia is afraid that it will lose its effective control over Serb-majority inhabited areas, while factions of Kosovan society are afraid that Serbia is re-establishing itself in Kosovo. After agreements have been signed, the concessions made during negotiations are quickly politicized and often undermined, even by those who signed them.

 

Small provocations with harmful consequences

Recently there have been several examples to show how improvised provocations can easily escalate the situation. The implementation of the agreement of August 2015 to reopen the bridge of Mitrovica was supposed to facilitate normalization between Kosovar and Serbs in the ethnically divided city. In response, the northern authorities, with funding from Serbia, started building a two-meter high wall in front of the bridge; Kosovar authorities considered this move was a violation of the agreement and a message of secession. Following the EU’s involvement and public pressure from Pristina, the wall was demolished.

In January 2017, Serbia decided to send a train from Belgrade to the Kosovo border, painted in the colors of the Serbian flag, covered in a nationalist slogan, ‘Kosovo is Serbia’, and decorated with Christian-Orthodox icons; when Kosovo authorities blocked its entry into the border, the Serbian authorities ordered the return of the train to Belgrade.

Finally, via Interpol, of which Serbia is a member and Kosovo is not, Serbia released an international arrest warrant for war crimes for former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, who was in France at the time. Haradinaj was detained in France for over three months before being released.

These kinds of provocations have become highly politicized both in Kosovo and in Serbia and have served to undermine the efforts of the dialogue to address bigger domestic challenges. Although all these incidents have resulted in decisions taken in favor of Kosovo, such ‘victories’ only mean a return to the starting point between the two countries and cannot mask the reality of serious problems within Kosovo, including lack of jobs and poor healthcare.

The provocations from Serbia exacerbate already strong national sentiments among some factions in the Kosovo-Albanian population. A few months after Serbia announced its intention to purchase Russian military jets, the President of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci, announced that he would push ahead with the transformation of the Kosovo security force into an army, without obtaining the necessary constitutional changes. He received strong support within the Kosovo Albanian population while Serbia, as expected, was outraged. Kosovo’s international partners, including the United States, were also wary of the President’s move, but for different reasons.

The United States supports Kosovo establishing an army, but wants to make sure that it is established through a participatory process supported by Kosovo Serbs, which is necessary to facilitate the necessary constitutional change. Thaci has adjusted his original plans, agreeing to undertake an inclusive process rather than pursue the immediate institution of an army with defense capabilities.

For most Kosovars, establishing a national army is about completing the missing part of the puzzle to become a sovereign state rather than about starting an arms race in the region. There is no doubt that whether Kosovo succeeds in creating an army or not, Kosovo’s security will rely on KFOR, the deployed NATO troops in Kosovo for the foreseeable future. Kosovo is not equipped yet to defend itself and cannot compete with its neighbors either economically or militarily.

 

Commitment is needed from the EU but also from NATO

NATO’s commitment and presence are, therefore, enablers of a successful dialogue. In the event of an escalation, NATO troops are on the ground, ready to step in. In order to ensure that future dialogue yields positive results, Kosovo and Serbia need clear messages of commitment coming from Brussels, both from the EU and from NATO.

Currently, Kosovars feel isolated and singled out from the rest of the Western Balkans. Following recent visa liberalization for Ukraine, Kosovo remains the only country in Europe whose citizens cannot freely travel without a visa in the European Union. Kosovo is also the only country in the Western Balkans without a clear path to joining the European Union, because five EU countries do not recognize its independence.

The continued engagement of the US and leading European countries is also necessary for the stability of the continent at large. If the roles of NATO and the EU in the Western Balkans are significantly decreased, Kosovo and Serbia would not necessarily be left undisturbed. Germany provides a good example of how to send strong, clear messages to both Kosovo and Serbia, which the EU and other member states should follow. If they don’t, Russia, as a supporter of Serbia, and Turkey, as a sympathizer of Kosovo, would see this opportunity to fill the void and incrementally expand their influence on the ground. This would seriously shake European security.

The ongoing dialogue demonstrates that both countries have committed to live in peace. Episodes of tension with escalation potential, however, demonstrate that Kosovo-Serbia relations require further attention from the EU and the US. Kosovo only feels comfortable to remain engaged in the dialogue because it is mediated by the European Union and supported by the United States.

If the EU is investing time and resources in talks between Belgrade and Pristina, it must push for implementable agreements. Most importantly, it must also respond when the agreements and the trust built on the way are undermined for domestic political gain.

 

The opinions articulated above represent the private views of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the organisation he works for, or of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.