Perspectives | Dialogue

Has there ever been a ‘positive moment’ for normalizing relations?

Serbia, Kosovo and the distant EU membership carrot.

By - 14.05.1919

Over the past few weeks, it has seemed increasingly certain that the deadlines that Western diplomats — and above all the U.S. and EU officials — have set for reaching a comprehensive agreement on the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Prishtina, are too ambitious.

We have had many occasions to hear from Johannes Hahn, Federica Mogherini, Matthew Palmer and even David Hale that the two sides should use the “positive moment” and reach an agreement in 2019. This “positive moment” seemed to have existed somewhat in July and August last year, when Aleksandar Vučić and Hashim Thaçi indicated an agreement that would imply “delineation” or “border corrections.”

The internal political situation in Kosovo was not suitable for accepting any agreement that would imply “delineation.”

Now however, almost six months since the last unsuccessful meeting within the framework of the Brussels negotiations, almost five months after Kosovo imposed a 100 percent tariff on products from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, interrupting negotiations for an indefinite period, it seems that the dialogue is in a deep crisis and that we are far from any agreement.

It seems that due to the almost inevitable failure to come to an agreement this year, it is necessary to analyze the internal contexts in Serbia and Kosovo, as well as the geopolitical moment that the region is in. The only way is to explain why the “stopping” of the dialogue came about and which options would make it possible for the dialogue to continue.

The internal political situation in Kosovo was not suitable for accepting any agreement that would imply “delineation.” Despite attempts by Thaçi to convince Kosovar society to support him through the euphemism of “border correction,” which he presented as an opportunity to join the Preševo/Presheva Valley, most political parties, including part of his own PDK, opposed such an idea (anticipating the possibility that this meant ceding the four northern municipalities or parts of the north to Serbia).

The loudest in the resistance is Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, who tied his political survival to opposing Thaçi and the idea of “border correction.” Playing as the “defender of national interest,” Haradinaj firmly stands behind the decision not to abolish the 100 percent tax, thereby preventing the continuation of the dialogue and, in his words, preventing talks on the premise of an exchange-based solution.

Moreover, the adoption of the “Dialogue Platform,” which in their postulates imply the preservation of the “territorial sovereignty and integrity of Kosovo,” as well as the establishment of the negotiation team (without representatives of Vetëvendosje and LDK), somehow impedes the Kosovar president from independently negotiating these issues.

Also, it seems that the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities (ZSO) is a greater concession for Prishtina than delineation would be. A similar perception is shared by the Kosovar public as shown through research by the RIDEA institute, according to which 30 percent of Kosovar Albanians would accept delineation in exchange for recognition while only 20 percent would accept the establishment of the ZSO as part of a comprehensive agreement on the normalization of relations.

The leaders in Prishtina have been advised by American representatives on several occasions that they have to decide what they want to give up in exchange for some sort of recognition by Serbia and a place in the UN. In the event that they would fail to do so, they are faced with the possibility that a similar opportunity to resolve the Kosovo issue would not come in the upcoming period. In spite of all, a good part of Kosovo’s leaders remained decisive in their view that this cannot be negotiated for now.

It is a sore victory however, as Vučić seems to find himself between a hammer and an anvil.

On the other hand, things are getting somewhat complicated in Belgrade. While President Vučić was at the height of his political power in July last year, when the narrative of territorial exchange officially took off, and seemed to be able to push (through some difficulties) for some sort of agreement, the situation has now somewhat changed.

Since the opposition protests started in December, and despite the fact that their strength cannot yet be assessed, it is clear that they will not sit still and support Vučić in resolving the Kosovo issue. For this reason, it will be somewhat more difficult for the Serbian authorities to accept any agreement with regard to Kosovo that implies an explicit recognition, while not receiving anything in return.

Territorial delineation (with all four northern Serb-majority municipalities being ceded to Serbia) could at some point be a compromise that the Serbian public could swallow, but only with a lot of effort. The only mitigating circumstance for Belgrade is that in this instance, it cannot be accused of being uncooperative on the issue of Kosovo, because the current cessation of negotiations can be attributed to the Kosovar side.

This is why Vučić, in some circles in the West and above all in the EU and the U.S., retains the halo of the Serbian leader with the highest chance of resolving the issue of Kosovo, since no one from the opposition offers a solution.

Given the internal situation in the EU, the EU membership carrot is now even more distant, both for Serbia and especially for Kosovo.

It is a sore victory however, as Vučić seems to find himself between a hammer and an anvil. By resolving the issue of Kosovo, he would no longer be indispensable to the international community, while the failure to resolve this issue would make his position more difficult, as his illiberal rule with elements of violation of the rule of law cannot be sustainable in the long run, due to both internal and external pressures.

On the international level the situation is equally complicated. While the United States and their syntagma “there are no red lines but no blank checks” have opened the door for negotiations on border delineation and territorial exchange, it seems that Kosovo is not a priority to the extent that they would use the “heavy artillery” in order to persuade Kosovar leaders to comply. At the same time, EU leaders, most notably Federica Mogherini, are facing a crisis of legitimacy and their power does not bear the same importance they had in previous years.

Given the internal situation in the EU, the EU membership carrot is now even more distant, both for Serbia and especially for Kosovo. Meanwhile, the main opponents of the idea of territorial exchange, Germany and the United Kingdom, remain set in their positions and call for prudence.

It seems that Germany specifically insists that the process be rescheduled with the arrival of the new EU leadership after EU elections this month, which would, according to sources familiar with the ongoing discussions, open the way for dialogue between Belgrade and Prishtina to be led by a newly created EU special envoy — together with Mogherini, the high representative for foreign and security policy — instead of the issue being led by the European External Action Service (EEAS).

However, even if the Kosovo solution fails to be reached by the end of this year, even if the process is set up on new bases and with a new high representative, the question arises as to what remains to be negotiated and how this road map toward an agreement would look.

Is it possible, after speculation about territorial exchange or border delineation, to return to the starting position? Does anyone expect that Belgrade will recognize Kosovo in exchange for a vague prospect of EU membership without getting anything in return from Kosovo? Is it possible at all to return to the negotiations about the ZSO and the collective protection of the rights of the Serb non-majority community in Kosovo, when Prishtina refuses any discussion about it?

In the end, is it possible to normalize relations with the same elites that are welcomed with open arms because of the nationalistic legitimacy to resolve the issue of Kosovo, who in the meantime are allowed to consolidate their rule based on authoritarian principles? The same elites who first create crises, then magically solve them by presenting themselves to the international community as irreplaceable? It is doubtful whether such elites can progress, since the past six years have failed and the latest attempt to divide the territory may be a bust.

Perhaps, therefore, if the negotiations were to be restarted and possibly to last for years to come, it is time that those who are making decisions (and above all the international community) begin to think of a “less common path” and that, instead of giving “carte blanche” to the kleptocratic elites, they begin to question the way in which these leaders manage their societies.

If negotiations are resumed, then should we consider the resetting of the “elites” that led us to this situation by running secret negotiations on the final agreement and by feeding society narratives of hatred and staged crises?

Prior to reaching an agreement, whether it would lead to an implicit recognition of Kosovo by Serbia and UN membership or explicit recognition (with or without delineation), the full-scale of relations needs to be normalized — we should not have to think about freedom of movement, free trade, minority rights, cultural and religious heritage, documents, financing the Serbian community, telecommunications, the Trepča/Trepça mines and the Gazivoda/Ujmani Lake, but we should only have to discuss the models of resolving relations.

If this is achieved through negotiations and relations are normalized in a technical and discursive manner (in the absence of nationalist rhetoric), it may be that formal recognition is irrelevant when the prospect of joining the EU by Belgrade and Prishtina is so far from being achieved.

Feature: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.