Despite some positive steps forward, there is a long way to go in the Prishtina-Belgrade negotiations.
Historically, reconciliation has always been a tough process, no matter who is involved. The wounds of wars usually take time to heal, especially in regions that have been continuously under fire, and where neighbors have historically struggled in maintaining their relations. The conflict between Kosovo and Serbia, which came to an end in 1999, left many unresolved issues. Many years later, a process — technical and highly political — intended to resolve many of these issues officially began in Brussels under the European Union’s facilitation.
The EU facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Prishtina, popularly known as the Brussels negotiations, undoubtedly represents one of the most important contemporary political processes in the Western Balkans. First, it represents an attempt to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo and find a solution to a long-standing dispute over the status of Kosovo, which in itself represents probably one of the major territorial disputes in Europe today.
Second, it aims to advance the European integration process of the Western Balkans by resolving disputes that have blocked this process for a significant amount of time and to allow Serbia and Kosovo to move forward with their European integration agendas.
Third, agreements reached through the Brussels negotiation process initially aimed to create better living conditions for citizens of both Kosovo and Serbia and contribute to the reconciliation process in the long term.
The foundation of the dialogue lies in the United Nations General Assembly resolution A/RES/64/298 of September 9, 2010. After the UN General Assembly requested an advisory opinion on the Accordance with International Law of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Respect of Kosovo — which was provided by the International Court of Justice on July 22, 2010 — resolution A/RES/64/298 acknowledged the content of the advisory opinion and welcomed the role of the EU in the facilitation of dialogue between the parties. According to the resolution, “the process of dialogue in itself would be a factor for peace, security and stability in the region, and that dialogue would be to promote cooperation, achieve progress on the path to the European Union and improve the lives of the people.”
Dialogue officially began in March 2011, following a UN General Assembly resolution passed the previous year. The first phase took the form of a so-called technical dialogue that lasted from March 2011 to February 2012. After parliamentary and presidential elections in Serbia in 2012, the dialogue entered a new phase, widely known as political dialogue. During this time, the most notable agreement reached was the 2013 First Agreement on Principles Governing the Normalization of Relations.
Another new phase of the dialogue started in March 2015, with the three main actors in the negotiations all replaced after 2014 elections in both states — Isa Mustafa became prime minister of Kosovo and Aleksandar Vucic was elected prime minister in Serbia, while Federica Mogherini took up the mantle for the EU.
One of the milestones of the whole process was the fourth round of Vucic–Mustafa negotiations, held on August 25, 2015 when an agreement was reached on all four major issues that had blocked the negotiations for a significant amount of time: the Association/Community of Serb Majority Municipalities in Kosovo, telecommunications, energy, and freedom of movement over the Mitrovica Bridge. These agreements, especially the one aiming to establish the Association, not only polarized the two parties involved in the Brussels dialogue but also led to a massive political crisis in Kosovo, which has dominated the whole political scene of the country since they were signed.
The dialogue is still continuing, and the last negotiating round ended on September 26, where parties failed to find a solution on how to implement the agreement reached last year on telecommunications. According to this agreement, Kosovo would get its own prefix code, while one Serbian mobile carrier would start operating in Kosovo. More than a year after the agreement was signed, both negotiating parties have failed to find a common language on modalities of how to implement this agreement.
Moving through the phases
In the first phase of technical dialogue between Prishtina and Belgrade, there were a total of nine rounds. During the first four rounds that took place between March and May 2011, different issues were discussed including freedom of movement, cadastral books, customs, recognition of university diplomas and the issue of missing persons, however they yielded no definite agreements.
From the fifth round, various agreements were finally reached, including the agreement on freedom of movement and civil registry, agreements on custom stamps and cadastral books, agreement on the recognition of university diplomas, agreement on integrated border/boundary management (IBM) and agreement on regional representation and cooperation.
After 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections in Serbia, the dialogue entered a new phase, widely known as political dialogue. This phase of the dialogue consisted of 23 rounds of negotiations between the two prime ministers.
According to the EU’s former dialogue facilitator, Catherine Ashton, even before the two most recent rounds of negotiations, the two negotiators had spent more than 220 hours in direct talks with one another.
In fact, the implementation of agreements reached in Brussels is the most problematic issue so far, which has characterized the whole process. Results have yet to be delivered for most of the areas agreed upon to date; according to different analyses of the implementation of the agreements signed during those five and a half years, there are very few arrangements that could be considered fully implemented.
Various reports highlight the areas that are not fully implemented as being: customs stamps, population registers, local elections in Kosovo and the formation of the implementation board. Significant progress has been reached in some other areas, such as freedom of movement and recognition of diplomas, but as yet both are far from being properly implemented, despite the fact that these two issues have significant importance in people’s everyday lives.
There are two key questions in this regard: Is the dialogue helping Kosovo and Serbia in the normalization of relations? And is this process improving the lives of citizens in both countries, especially those living in Kosovo? The answer to both of the questions would be: not really! Despite being engaged in the dialogue for over five years, both Prishtina and Belgrade have many unresolved issues between them. The latest case, that of the head of Kosovo Police in Mitrovica being arrested in Serbia, is only one of the cases which makes one skeptical about the final results of the dialogue.
When cases like these occur, many eyebrows are raised, asking about the real purpose of the dialogue, and wondering what is really being discussed there since issues like these are being left out of negotiations. What would happen if Hashim Thaci, the current president of Kosovo, visited Serbia? One of the key negotiators in this process would probably be arrested, because of a well-known arrest warrant issued by Serbian authorities.
So far, there have been three negotiating teams and three different EU facilitators involved in the process: It all began with Edita Tahiri and Borko Stefanovic during the initial technical negotiations. When negotiations moved to a political phase after Serbian elections in 2012, new prime minister, Ivica Dacic, continued the dialogue with his Kosovar counterpart Hashim Thaci.
After 2014 elections in both states, new Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic took over as main negotiator for Belgrade, while counterpart Isa Mustafa replaced Thaci for Kosovo. Both Dacic and Thaci remained in their negotiating teams as both served as ministers of foreign affairs for their respective sides. Technical negotiations continue to be led by Edita Tahiri with Marko Djuric leading the Belgrade team.
For the EU, the process was initially facilitated by British diplomat Robert Cooper, who was succeeded by compatriot Catherine Ashton in 2012. Since 2014, Italian Federica Mogherini has led the EU’s dialogue facilitations efforts in the role of High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
The same problems have occurred for the technical agreements reached as well. Every time parties meet in Brussels, there are additional requirements imposed by both, complicating the implementation of these agreements and the lives of citizens in general.
Before normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia there should first be a normalization of the dialogue. There are several open issues that are complicating the whole process.
First, it is still unclear if the parties are sitting as equals at the negotiating table. Depending on who is speaking (or writing), the dialogue is sometimes said to be between Kosovo and Serbia, and at other times between Prishtina and Belgrade.
Second, there is no enforcing mechanism for the agreements reached, meaning that Kosovar and Serbian officials will continue telling us different stories and keep pointing fingers at the other side for not doing enough to implement the agreements reached. In this aspect, the EU has played a passive role, since it hasn’t really interfered in the implementation process.
Third, the agreements reached should better define the issues and implementation. If one sees the original texts of most of the Brussels agreements, they look more like the notes of a student in a hurry, writing down some bullet points from a powerpoint presentation, rather than agreements that are intended to normalize the relations of two countries aiming to join the EU.
Finally, the whole process should be much more transparent for the citizens, civil society and everyone else willing to get involved. The latest reports published by Kosovo Democratic Institute (KDI) show that despite the fact that certain topics of dialogue have dominated the political scene in the country, especially in the last year, Kosovo citizens on a large scale (43 percent) are virtually uninformed about agreements reached during the process of dialogue.
Moreover, because of lack of transparency in the negotiations, Kosovo has witnessed one of the biggest political crises since its declaration of independence, namely because of the agreement reached on the establishment of the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities. Bearing in mind the sensitivity of the issues discussed in the dialogue, this process should be as transparent as possible.
As a final conclusion, the dialogue must continue and it is the only way forward for normalization of relations between two countries. However, the modalities of this process should be modified and the aim should be to make the dialogue effective. Agreements reached should have a direct impact on easing the everyday lives of citizens, not create more confusion and political tension within one of the countries and within the negotiating parties. As it is now, we are still very far from the conclusion of the dialogue despite there having been positive steps forward.