Perspectives | Government

Is it time for unity representation in Brussels?

By - 01.02.2017

K2.0 explores the increasing calls to redesign the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue process.

Today, a delegation from Kosovo, headed by Prime Minister Isa Mustafa and President Hashim Thaci, are again meeting in Brussels with their counterparts from Serbia. The talks are part of a new wave of dialogue for normalization of relations between Belgrade and Prishtina, a process that has been ongoing under the EU’s mediation since 2011.

The continuation of the talks come at a time of increased political tensions between Kosovo and Serbia in recent weeks, which have intensified discussions in Prishtina over the direction and shape of the dialogue. Part of the debate has focussed on what form the dialogue should take, and whether a meaningful external dialogue can be had while public and political opinion within Kosovo is so polarized.

With a civil society report released last week suggesting that the majority of Kosovars would favor some form of unity representation in Brussels, K2.0 looks at why calls for unity are increasing, what unity representation might look like and how likely it is to happen.

Why the call for more internal consensus?

Since the dialogue process began, there have always been calls for a unified representation in the dialogue from some quarters in Kosovo, but these have intensified in the past two years as any notion of an internal political consensus has collapsed.

When the dialogue was launched in 2011, the only party that spoke out against it was opposition party Vetevendosje, who demanded that certain pre-conditions be met by Serbia before the process commenced.

In recent weeks the nature of the dialogue has once again become a topic of hot political discussion in Kosovo.

By the 2014 general elections in Kosovo, such a broadly unified political consensus was shaken by the unified opposition LDK-Vetevendosje-AAK-NISMA bloc, which announced its intentions to review the agreements reached in Brussels and promised to “reshape” the dialogue. However, internal circumstances changed after the bloc collapsed and PDK-LDK formed a grand coalition at the end of 2014. Since then, the three opposition parties — Vetevendosje, AAK and NISMA — have continued to demand change to the format and substance of the dialogue.

Further frustration at the direction that the dialogue was taking was caused by an agreement reached in August 2015, which most prominently included paving the way for the creation of an Association/Community of Serb Majority Municipalities in Kosovo. This intensified internal divisions within Kosovar politics, with the Assembly paralyzed for months as the opposition disrupted sessions and mass opposition-led protests on the streets of Prishtina.

In recent weeks the nature of the dialogue has once again become a topic of hot political discussion in Kosovo following a series of events that have escalated tensions with Serbia. In January a Russian made train emblazoned with the words “Kosovo is Serbia” in 21 languages was sent from Belgrade towards the north of Kosovo, without the prior permission of Kosovar authorities to enter Kosovar territory — it eventually returned to Belgrade without reaching Kosovo, but it triggered a war of words in which Serbia’s president, Tomislav Nikolic, talked of sending troops into Kosovo.

Just days earlier, AAK leader Ramush Haradinaj had been detained in France on a Belgrade-issued Interpol arrest warrant accusing him of war crimes; opposition voices demanded that the dialogue with Serbia be halted until Belgrade changed its approach towards Kosovars and that the government listen to their voices.

Is a more unified approach to the dialogue necessary?

Many critics of the current state of the dialogue claim that while there is a need to normalize relations with Serbia, the way in which the process has been conducted in Brussels has in fact brought instability back home.

According to editor-in-chief of the Kosovar daily Koha Ditore, Agron Bajrami, much of this is down to the lack of consensus in Kosovar politics regarding the dialogue, which is undermining the whole process. “The vast majority of tensions in the last six years in Kosovo are in one form or another a consequence of the dialogue,” says Bajrami, mentioning barricades erected in the north of Kosovo by Kosovar Serbs, the 2 meter wall that has recently appeared at the end of the bridge over the River Ibar in Mitrovica and the recent incident with the train.

Jeta Krasniqi, a program manager at Kosova Democratic Institute (KDI), believes the lack of consensus is hurting Kosovo’s “national interest,” as its whole European perspective is jeopardized if Kosovo fails to meet its international obligations such as the process of dialogue with Serbia. “It has been made clear that our path towards the EU is linked to the dialogue and even in the Stabilisation Association Agreement, the issue of dialogue was mentioned,” she says, referring to the agreement that Kosovo signed with the EU in 2015 that formally opens its accession pathway. “This places us in the position that if we want a future in the European Union, we need to find a way to normalize relations with Serbia.”

Since Kosovo signed the Association agreement with Serbia back in August 2015, and a controversial border demarcation agreement with Montenegro the same month, Kosovo’s political life has been dominated with clashes that have transcended the normal functioning of a democracy. The opposition’s rejection of the agreements led to unconventional means to disrupt the functioning of the Assembly, such as through the use of tear gas in the chamber, while a number of protests against the agreements resulted in violent scenes on the capital’s streets.

Krasniqi believes that in order to increase trust in the dialogue, more needs to be done to include those who have not been directly involved to date. “The government should find mechanisms to make this whole process more acceptable and credible — more credible for the citizens, deputies and all other parties,” she says.

Who is calling for increased unity?

Calls for increased unity have intensified in recent months, most notably from members of civil society and other citizens.

A poll of more than 1,000 citizens published last week by KDI shows that more than half of citizens interviewed across Kosovo’s communities support a more inclusive approach to the dialogue. When asked who should lead the future dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, 53 percent selected “an inclusive coalition of political parties,” 25 percent said the government, 8 percent suggested the president, while 13 percent said they did not know.

Krasniqi believes that as the dialogue enters the next stages, more needs to be done to include different voices within Kosovo. “There should be a commitment from the prime minister or president to invite the parties to the table and to discuss how they want to take the process forward, to agree on the issues and what Kosovo wants to achieve with the dialogue process,” she says. “There should be a consensus and a concrete attempt to create a comprehensive coalition in the dialogue.”

“We should sit down and find a solution, in order to have a better supported process and certainly a more successful one.”

Isa Mustafa

The head of the EU office in Kosovo, Nataliya Apostolova, has also added to calls for the opposition to be included in the process of dialogue and to increase awareness amongst citizens of the benefits of the dialogue.

Some vague declarations to that extent have been made by Kosovo’s leadership. Just last week Mustafa repeated previously made statements calling for the opposition and members of civil society to join the dialogue team in Brussels, stating the need for a more inclusive process.

“We are ready to sit and discuss with everyone, in order to understand the best way in which to even represent the opposition and civil society, because the dialogue does not belong to only one party, but all of those who have received votes from the people,” he said following last Friday’s meeting with his Serbian counterparts in Brussels. “We should sit down and find a solution, in order to have a better supported process and certainly a more successful one.”

There have also been repeated calls from the government and from Thaci for general “unity,” particularly in response to the opposition’s disruption of the Assembly last year.

What would unity look like?

Calls from the prime minister to include the opposition in the dialogue remain only as expressions through the media, with no concrete blueprint laid out as to what this would look like.

For Bajrami the calls of the government and the president for “unity” are deliberately misleading and have been made largely to confuse the public into thinking that Kosovo’s leadership wants unity in the dialogue.

“In a democratic society when someone wants to change something substantially, they sit and talk to find consensus; you cannot demand consensus after you have reached decisions,” he says, referring to the agreements already made in Brussels to date. “I think that they [the government] are inviting the opposition to the dialogue without any intention at all of unifying. But they are doing it so that [later] when elections are called, they can justify themselves [by saying]: ‘We invited [the opposition] to the dialogue but they did not want to participate.’”

“The involvement of Thaci is a consequence of his need to remain an important factor in front of the international community.”

Agron Bajrami

However, while there has been no concrete plan set out to incorporate the opposition in the dialogue, someone who has joined the delegation in Brussels following the latest tensions with Serbia is President Thaci. The involvement of Thaci — who as former prime minister previously led the dialogue with Serbia, including when the first “landmark” agreement was signed in April 2013 — is widely viewed with scepticism by critics, rather than as a genuine attempt by the president to fulfil his constitutional role as representing the “unity of the people.”

“The involvement of Thaci is a consequence of his need to remain an important factor in front of the international community,” Bajrami says. “But for us as a state and society, the president taking over the dialogue will not bring anything positive.”

How likely is it that Kosovo will have unity representation in Brussels?

Kosovo’s recent political history has shown that when there is the will, unity can exist. At the 2006 Vienna talks, in which a final settlement for Kosovo’s status was sought, Kosovo’s delegation was widely supported by political parties and representatives included members of civil society. However the context of that time was very different and there was a very tangible common outcome on the line.

In the current circumstances, a unity representation in the dialogue with Serbia can hardly be anticipated, with political positions polarized and little consensus about what should even be included in topics for discussion.

The KDI poll indicates that there is broad disagreement with the issues that have been on the table for discussion to date, with 84 percent of respondents stating that missing people should be discussed, 75 percent mentioning war crimes and 65 percent raising the issue of war reparations. None of these topics have been a part of the dialogue, although Kosovo’s government has repeatedly promised to deal with the issues of missing people and war reparations.

The opposition has insisted that it will not join the dialogue in its current form, until certain pre-conditions are met by Serbia — mainly pertaining to the past and the “equal” position of Kosovo and Serbia in Brussels. While this has long been the stance of Vetevendosje, with developments in recent weeks they have been joined in their calls by fellow opposition parties AAK — who until 2014 had a representative as part of the dialogue — and NISMA.

The government insists that the opposition is using such means to score political goals and that it is against Kosovo’s path to European integration, calling on the opposition to be more “constructive” when it comes to maintaining Kosovo’s international support.

However any likelihood of the opposition joining the dialogue has further decreased with Thaci’s renewed role in the process, with many in the opposition holding him personally responsible for the outcomes of the whole dialogue process to date.

For Bajrami there is little prospect of seeing a unitary representation of Kosovo in Brussels any time soon, or indeed for a positive outcome to the whole process: “Not only due to the lack of unity, but also because of the wrong content and the way in which the dialogue has been designed, this dialogue was bound to fail.”K

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.