Perspectives | Dialogue

Is the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue really reaching an historic moment?

By - 12.03.2020

With increased urgency coming from some quarters, five analysts give their take.

After years of false starts, new impetus has once again recently been injected into finding some sort of a “final agreement” between Kosovo and Serbia on their future relationship as the U.S. has taken an increasingly hands-on role. 

Recent developments have highlighted a divergence between U.S. and EU policy toward the region, as well as domestic political differences within Kosovo in particular, including within the new coalition government.

But as the war of words amongst key players intensifies, what does it all mean?

K2.0 asked five analysts, from Kosovo, Serbia and beyond the region, to give their take on what’s been going on, and where we’re heading:

  • Jeta Krasniqi, Kosovo Democratic Institute
  • Isidora Stakić, Belgrade Centre for Security Policy
  • Toby Vogel, Democratization Policy Council
  • Nevena Radosavljevic, freelance journalist and trainer in peacebuilding
  • Donika Emini, CiviKos Platform


For those who aren’t avid followers of the latest daily news, first a quick recap of where we stand.

At the beginning of March, Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaçi and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić travelled to the U.S. for a “good will” meeting in the White House. The meeting between the two presidents came at the invitation of controversial U.S. Special Presidential Envoy to the Prishtina-Belgrade Dialogue Richard Grenell, who has been using Trump-style “Twitter diplomacy” in an attempt to get a deal signed.

In January, Trump himself had tweeted about the “win” secured by Grenell after vaguely worded “letters of intent” (as revealed by BIRN) were signed between Kosovar and Serbian officials that hinted at enhanced transport links between the two neighbors.

Since his U.S. visit, Thaçi has been increasingly vocal on the importance of using the momentum to secure a “historic deal” with Serbia and has claimed that an agreement would pave the way for “billion dollar” U.S. investment in Kosovo. He has also used recent press appearances to criticize the EU, who he has described as “unjust, deceitful and punitive.”

However, his involvement in the dialogue process has long been a divisive one. His motives and lack of transparency have been questioned and heavily criticized by many within Kosovo, including new Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, who has been particularly outspoken against Thaçi’s apparent support for some kind of “territory exchange” with Serbia. Kurti has suggested that it is important to get the dialogue process right, not just to rush to conclude it quickly at any expense, and has advocated for more direct conversation with local Serbs within Kosovo.

Following Thaçi’s trip to the U.S., Vetëvendosje leader Kurti declined an invitation extended by the president to meet with the leader of each political party, and has been met with a barrage of personal abuse from the president, who has described Kurti as “cowardly,” “a saboteur” and an “enemy” of America. The president of the Assembly, Vjosa Osmani, also declined Thaçi’s request to address deputies in a special session, citing a lack of notice.

Until recently, international facilitation of Kosovo-Serbia relations has largely been in the domain of the EU, following a UN General Assembly Resolution in 2010. Leaders from Prishtina and Belgrade have been involved in an on-off EU-facilitated dialogue process in Brussels since 2011, with various agreements signed between the two parties along the way. 

In recent years, the dialogue was led by former EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, but following the end of her mandate last year, the appointment of her successor has raised a few eyebrows. Josep Borrell is from Spain, a country that does not recognize Kosovo, and he has nominated Miroslav Lajčák, an official from non-recognizing Slovakia to a newly proposed position of Special Representative for the Dialogue and the Western Balkans.

There has also been widespread criticism at the lack of implementation of many of the deals signed to date, and there have been frequent impasses, most recently after Kosovo’s previous government decided to impose a 100% tariff on all Serbian goods. That decision was announced as a reaction to Serbia’s hostility towards Kosovo in the international arena, most notably its campaign aimed at encouraging states to “de-recognize” Kosovo’s independence. 

Kurti announced in a press conference on February 27 that he intended to incrementally withdraw the 100% tariff, so long as Serbia demonstrated that it was ending its measures targeting Kosovo. His announcement elicited mixed reactions, with the EU cautiously backing Kurti’s move as a productive “first step.” 

But the U.S. decried it as a “half measure” since the lifting of the tariff wasn’t immediate and unconditional. Various U.S. officials, including Grenell, have also tweeted threats that the U.S. could withdraw its troops from Kosovo if the tariff isn’t lifted. Vetëvendosje’s coalition government partner LDK is also in favor of removing the tariff completely.

With so much going on, there is a lot to digest… 

Jeta Krasniqi

Project manager (covering Kosovo-Serbia dialogue), Kosovo Democratic Institute

 

On Thaçi’s move toward the U.S. and attempts to sideline the EU: 

Since the EU has facilitated the dialogue, a number of agreements have been reached, some of which were never implemented while others only partially implemented. The U.S. was always a supporter of this process yet the taking over of the dialogue process by the EU, and the U.S. decision to take a step back, clearly sent a message that it was for the EU to solve the remaining issues between these two countries, meaning Kosovo-Serbia relations were a European issue, which the EU, through its instrument of enlargement, could push parties toward the normalization of relations. 

Nevertheless, nine years now after the start of the dialogue process, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have not improved, the results of the agreements have been questioned constantly while the EU has remained fragmented in its position towards Kosovo. 

The lack of unity among EU member states on the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue process and the state of Kosovo specifically, the lack of an EU response towards Serbia’s diplomatic campaign against the state of Kosovo and the lack of readiness to offer even visa liberalization to Kosovo citizens’ damaged the credibility of the EU. A perception that the EU was unable to push parties towards an agreement resonated after years of unsuccessful discussions under the facilitation of Mogherini which was further magnified by the growing skepticism among EU member states on enlargement. 

The U.S. on the other hand seems determined to push parties towards an agreement by offering them the highest support directly from the president himself through his envoy Ambassador Grenell promising investments and economic growth in exchange. 

Nevertheless, the future of the western Balkans should be as part of the EU, thus the EU should not decide to remain as a bystander in this process. Meanwhile, Kosovo’s leaders should understand that there is no other path than the European path, thus in this process they should aim to build alliances, friends and supporters for the country rather than damage these relations. 

On Thaçi’s authority and the credibility of any deal: 

It seems that Thaçi is trying to build support and rally political parties around him as the leader of the dialogue process. 

We have seen that he invited the leaders of political parties for an official meeting, he even invited the prime minister in his capacity as the leader of the Vetëvendosje, party rather than in his official position as the head of the government. This of course was intentional since he wants to consolidate his position as the leader of the dialogue yet he recognizes the need to have the support of political parties.  

"Three agreements, in the form of letters of intent, were signed under the leadership of the U.S. with the tariff in place."

Jeta Krasniqi

An agreement could be signed but it needs to be ratified in the parliament. In order to push it forward, President Thaçi aims to build the required support by having political parties on board and have them later push the agreement in the parliament. 

Yet, we will see how the situation will evolve since Prime Minister Kurti is determined to lead with this process calling upon his constitutional rights, while it is clear that discussions on the agreement have continued during the whole time at the level of presidents of both countries.  

On the lack of alignment between the U.S. and EU: 

The lack of unity among the EU and U.S. is also influencing the internal lack of unity. Even during the previous government we saw that internal leaders in Kosovo would establish “alliances” with different partners within the dialogue process; the same thing seems to be continuing even now. 

It seems that Prime Minister Kurti is not interested in reaching an agreement under the current conditions, where he is sidelined and led by President Thaçi under the pressure of time. He wants a different course — how viable that is remains to be seen.

I believe that the U.S. will continue to press the government to remove the tariff while working with both parties towards reaching an agreement. Three agreements, in the form of letters of intent, were signed under the leadership of the U.S. with the tariff in place. LDK is ready to remove the tariff and has welcomed the role of the U.S. in the dialogue process, thus we are to expect future meetings between both sides which could lead to a potential agreement. 

On anticipated developments: 

We see that there is a lack of unity even among the governing coalition who have different positions regarding the tariff. This will surely influence the decision of the government over the tariff or even the viability of the government itself. On the other hand, President Thaçi will continue to press and aim to continue to lead the dialogue process by attempting to sideline the prime minister through different means.

We have remained at the same point for more than two years now. The institutions and political leaders need to find a political consensus over the dialogue process, a common position articulated by institutions, a common strategy supported by them is crucial. This is not one man’s game, the dialogue process is a national issue. The prime minister, the president and other parties should exercise their roles as prescribed by the Constitution. 

Isidora Stakić

Researcher, Belgrade Centre for Security Policy

 

On reaction in Serbia to the U.S.’s intensified involvement: 

The U.S. is seeking to move quickly towards a Serbia-Kosovo final deal in order to secure some kind of foreign policy “victory” before the U.S. presidential election. For that to be achieved, the U.S. administration needs partners who are also in a hurry, namely Thaçi and Vučić. Thaçi because of possible prosecution [in the Kosovo Specialist Chambers], and Vučić because with the current level of media and social control by the Serbian government, he will be able to present any agreement with Kosovo as his victory. 

Vučić’s opponents are against a quick Vučić-Thaçi deal. Among the right-wing opponents the possible deal is regarded as a major national treason, while others point to the critical lack of transparency in the process, as well as to human rights implications of the potential final agreement. 

What is most worrisome is that public opinion in Serbia is predominantly nationalistic, especially when it comes to Kosovo. The majority of people see the negotiations with Kosovo as a zero-sum game in which Serbs would gain something only if Kosovo Albanians lose. Some of them even cheer the fact that Grenell is ignoring the government of Kosovo and arrogantly dismissing Kurti’s attempts to make certain concessions. 

On how far Serbs feel their interests are being represented in the processes:

According to the public opinion research that the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy conducted on the topic of Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, citizens of Serbia are generally not satisfied with the dialogue and its achievements so far. They feel very few tangible benefits of the Brussels agreements — for example, they are happy that they don’t have to pay car insurance when traveling to Kosovo anymore. But, in general, citizens believe that the dialogue benefits political and other elites rather than “the common man.” 

"Such a deal would be a creation of three men in a hurry — power-hungry and with questionable legitimacy to make the final decision."

Isidora Stakić

The level of trust in politicians and the media is very low and, consequently, people lose interest in seeking concrete information about the negotiation process and its outcomes. However, the majority of Serbia’s citizens are in favor of the continuation of the dialogue, as they don’t see any acceptable alternative.

On the likelihood — and implementability — of a Thaçi-Vučić deal:

The idea of Vučić and Thaçi securing a deal that would benefit citizens is not realistic at all. Their goal is to remain in power, not to protect and advance public good — they have demonstrated this over the years again and again. 

If they do reach a deal, it would not be implementable, primarily because it would not have the support of Kosovo’s government and society. It would be an externally imposed solution and the lack of local ownership would render it useless at best, and a source of new crisis at worst. So, such a deal would be a creation of three men in a hurry — Vučić, Thaçi and Grenell — power-hungry and with questionable legitimacy to make the final decision on such an important matter. 

On the significance of upcoming elections in Serbia:

It is certain that the upcoming elections in Serbia will not change anything, at least not for the better. As the elections will be far from fair and free, Vučić and his party will remain in power and will continue to abuse it. Hence, the potential change of the dynamics in Serbia-Kosovo dialogue should not be expected to come from the Serbian government. 

On what a sustainable path forward looks like:

The sustainable path forward would be the development of good neighborly relations — with special emphasis on full protection of human rights of Kosovo Serbs and Albanians in Serbia. 

Shifting the focus from territory and territorial aspirations to people and their civil, political, but also social and economic rights is a necessary precondition for progress. The change of government in Kosovo gives hope, but it is still a long way to political change in Serbia.

Toby Vogel

International affairs commentator and co-founder, Democratization Policy Council

 

On the significance of recent EU / U.S. appointments:

It is welcome that EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has broken with the precedent set by his predecessors and appointed a special envoy to manage the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. While the dialogue does require attention from the top political leadership of the EU, the day-to-day handling of the dialogue needs a senior, full-time negotiator.

However, given that Borrell is from Spain — one of only five EU member states that doesn’t recognize Kosovo — the expected appointment of Miroslav Lajcak, who also comes from a non-recognizing member state is a big mistake. I hope Lajcak will go out of his way to be even-handed in running the dialogue, if and when it resumes.

The second big mistake was to expand his portfolio and add “Western Balkans” to it. While we don’t know what this means in practice, the situation between Serbia and Kosovo is unique and should not be linked to the various other problems in the region.

All this happened at a time when Trump’s envoy, Richard Grenell, struck deals on a number of specific issues (air and rail travel, for example) that suggested that the U.S. now has the clout to unblock the situation, thereby grabbing leadership from the Europeans. The White House meeting between Presidents Thaçi and Vučić was the clearest expression of this new situation yet.

On divergent EU / U.S. reactions to Kurti’s statements on the 100% tax:

The EU is in general inclined to accept incrementalism and process, so it welcomed the partial lifting of tariffs. But I think there are good reasons on substance to welcome Prime Minister Kurti’s position: He has to be mindful of why the tariffs were introduced in the first place, and even a partial lifting is a step in the right direction. 

"Not applying public pressure on Serbia suggests the Trump administration has identified the weaker side and is seeking to exploit that weakness by applying targeted pressure to get a solution — any solution."

Toby Vogel

The tariffs are not the real problem. Whether one agrees with them or not, they were a reaction to Serbian stalling on a number of issues. I don’t think it was a very smart move but the new government can’t just drop them without getting something tangible in return. 

So the U.S. pressuring Kosovo — and only Kosovo — over the tariffs is unfair. Not applying public pressure at the same time over Serbia’s derecognition campaign or its non-tariff barriers to trade with Kosovo suggests that the Trump administration has identified the weaker side and is seeking to exploit that weakness by applying targeted pressure to get a solution — any solution.  

I do not believe for a second that a land swap is off the table even if President Thaçi may no longer be in charge of the dialogue. The U.S. will be prepared to do almost anything to get a diplomatic success, never mind how short-lived and impossible to implement it might be.

On the geo-political balance of power in the region:

At the moment, it looks like the U.S. has managed to unblock relations between Serbia and Kosovo by sidestepping the EU-led dialogue format that has been on hold for almost two years. But the aggressive American push has also made it clear to many Kosovars that the Trump administration is not really on their side. If they’re prepared to pressure Kosovo over tariffs while refusing to pressure Serbia over its derecognition campaign (or indeed its non-tariff trade barriers), imagine the pressure they will apply should the land swap be put back on the table. 

So this should be a wake-up call for those who have been championing greater U.S. involvement out of frustration with the EU’s approach (a frustration I share). The U.S. is not interested in sustainable or fair solutions — this administration only cares about headlines. However, the EU has manoeuvred itself into a position of near-irrelevance and now also has to deal with a far more involved and aggressive American administration. This imbalance will not be easy to readjust.

On the potential of a deal signalling reduced regional reliance on international involvement: 

The U.S. involvement has in recent months been more intense but also more erratic than under previous administrations, and without the coordination with the Europeans that was previously the rule. The EU, meanwhile, has in effect been missing in action for some time now: The Brussels dialogue has been suspended, and much of last year was taken up by the process of putting a new EU leadership in place. 

"I believe that the region will see less EU involvement in the immediate future."

Toby Vogel

At the same time, the EU’s enlargement policy is in deep crisis after repeated French vetoes against opening membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania. Even if the French drop their veto later this month, as seems to be a general expectation in Brussels, the episode has demonstrated decisively that the process can easily be held hostage by a single member state for purely political reasons. 

Add to this the political weakness of Angela Merkel, whose interventions in the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue in the past had been decisive, and you get an image of a greatly diminished European role in the Balkans. So for all these reasons I believe that the region will see less EU involvement in the immediate future.

Whether a final agreement between Serbia and Kosovo would lead to a certain disengagement by the U.S. and the EU depends on the terms of that agreement. I certainly expect the Trump administration to lose interest the moment a deal has been signed; the EU does not quite have the luxury of completely disengaging from the region. 

Nevena Radosavljevic

Freelance journalist and trainer in peacebuilding, from Leposavić

 

On various Serb perceptions toward the dialogue and a potential deal:

Talking about the exact reaction on more U.S. involvement in the final agreement, I think there hasn’t been anything specific, or at least from what I know. Usually, Serbs don’t have a good opinion of the U.S. and it has always been popular to think that “America is against us (Serbs).” In this case, the reaction might be related to the expectation of a final deal and therefore, the U.S. wants to make it or at least take part in it.

I think Kosovo Serbs’ interests haven’t been represented at all. Many times, we get an answer that Serbian politicians in Kosovo represent the opinion and interest of Serbs. But my impression is that those interests are the ones of the Serbian Government, not Serbs living in Kosovo.

On the likelihood — and implementability — of a Thaçi-Vučić deal:

This is a million-dollar question, isn’t it. The overall impression is that Vučić and Thaçi might come to an agreement, but will it be meaningful — it’s something to be seen. 

I am pessimistic in terms of this, as somehow it seems that both presidents are aiming to gain some political points with this agreement rather than solve the problems that are bothering people or that can bring sustainable peace between Serbia and Kosovo. Therefore, even if they manage to come to a final agreement, it wouldn’t be supported by people and it will not bring much in resolving the situation in practice.

On what a sustainable path forward looks like:

It definitely includes ordinary people living in Kosovo. It focuses more on the grassroots level of society and considers the needs of Albanians and Serbs living in Kosovo. I strongly believe that it doesn’t matter what kind of agreement the final one will be, but it must include all levels of society. Otherwise, it will be hardly or completely not sustainable, meaningful or peaceful.

Donika Emini

Executive director, CiviKos Platform

 

On Thaçi’s move toward the U.S. and attempts to sideline the EU: 

Thaçi is a “stabilocrat” that is being highly supported by the current Trump administration. Perceiving him as the only political actor who is willing and capable to deliver in the dialogue and provide stability, the U.S. has provided him high support and has gradually strengthened his position in the process. 

President Thaçi is trying to remain relevant in the dialogue and in Kosovo’s foreign policy — partly fueled by the wide support that Kurti has been receiving from the public since the elections. Using the U.S. support, Thaçi is effectively sidelining the role of Kurti and the EU in the dialogue. 

The negative narrative toward the “ineffective” EU that is incapable of delivering for Kosovo and the debate over appointing Miroslav Lajčák as a special envoy for Kosovo are being used by Thaçi to discredit the role of the EU. In this regard, the feet-dragging approach by the EU is further contributing to this situation, whereas its credibility in Kosovo has drastically decreased after failing to deliver on visa liberalization for Kosovo. 

"Any agreement that is a quick fix rather than a very solid and implementable agreement is also very likely to be rejected by the citizens."

Donika Emini

Lately, Thaçi has managed to successfully start a debate, which is internally dividing the political elite and public opinion in Kosovo, over which western external actor Kosovo should follow in the dialogue.

Choosing to approach the heads of political parties [in separate meetings], in his efforts to find allies in the process, Thaçi found a way of directly threatening the governing coalition by having LDK on his side. In this regard, the unilateral decision/proposal by Kurti on tariffs sidelining the coalition party has already had an impact on a very fragile partnership. 

On Thaçi’s authority and the credibility of any deal:

Thaçi’s credibility and legitimacy in the process highly depends on the U.S. — more particularly on the support he is receiving from ambassador Grenell. That is the only element that keeps Thaçi in the process. The credibility of the president in the dialogue has been highly compromised during the [2018] Alpbach Forum — when he firstly introduced and endorsed the idea of land swap alongside President Vučić.

Furthermore, Thaçi’s credibility and political power in Kosovo have decreased dramatically after the elections in Kosovo. Having a new political establishment in Kosovo which enjoys full support from public opinion and legitimacy, it will be very difficult for Thaçi to further continue leading the process. 

Any deal signed without prior political consensus in Kosovo and in complete lack of transparency is very likely to be rejected by the political elite in Kosovo, given the fact that it has to be ratified by the parliament; given some examples from the past, this might not be an easy task. 

Any agreement that is a quick fix rather than a very solid and implementable agreement is also very likely to be rejected by the citizens. As such, the agreement might fail to solve the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia, but also have serious security implications for Kosovo and the region.

On the lack of alignment between the U.S. and EU:

The lack of coordination and alignment between the EU and U.S., not only in relation to how the tariffs shall be removed but also in general to what a final agreement will look like, puts the entire process and the Kosovo project into jeopardy. This transatlantic crack is also creating serious divisions in Kosovo as clearly the PM is siding with the EU and the president continues to be widely supported by the US. 

Kosovo stands in a very complex situation in which the EU has been very slow in taking over the dialogue and has lost its leverage, particularly in Kosovo due to its inability to provide visa liberalization. Moreover, the EU appointed two representatives from non-recognizers, making the EU a less favorable external actor to cooperate with in the process of dialogue. 

On the other hand, this is a very contradictory U.S. administration which is unpredictable and with a special envoy seeking a success story from the region, hence the urgency to solve the issue. The U.S. intervention in the process, however, is something that had been constantly demanded by the political elite, as an alternative to the inability of the EU to deliver.

Nevertheless, this process cannot be unblocked without the full inclusion of the new PM, who has been completely sidelined by the U.S. and Thaçi.

On anticipated developments: 

This is the right momentum for the EU to take over its role in the dialogue, its role and mandate that was given to it by the UN.

Both the president and the prime minister must understand that the only way to move forward is by being unified in foreign policy, and being ready to take responsibility to go back to the negotiation table and proactively contribute to the final agreement, but also to serve as a coordinated body for the international partners by successfully conveying local needs. 

Ownership is very important. Dismissing or sidelining the prime minister — who enjoys the full support of public opinion — will not produce positive results. The bigger the ownership, the easier and better implementation and acceptance of an agreement. K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

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