One-on-one | Dialogue

Visions of the dialogue (II)

By - 29.09.2021

The view from the media.

Dialogue. For anyone in Kosovo, as well as perhaps in Serbia, the word conveys a very specific meaning. For the last decade there has been one never ending dialogue, the dialogue. That is, of course, the Brussels dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, or as it is formally known, the EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Prishtina.

Before high-level discussions resume, K2.0 is bringing you informed conversations from people with unique and varied perspectives on the dialogue. The conversations took place in early to mid-September, prior to the latest reignition of tensions in Kosovo’s north. 

This is the second set of interviews in a series of three. In the first set, we heard the view from Brussels, speaking with the EU rapporteurs to Kosovo and Serbia, Viola von Cramon and Vladimír Bilčík. Now we hear from two local reporters who have been working to keep the public informed about the latest developments in the dialogue.

Gjeraqina Tuhina is a Kosovar journalist covering the European Union and the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. Currently based in Brussels, she works as a correspondent for RTK, Kosovo’s public television station.

Dario Hajrić is a Serbian journalist who writes analyses and commentary for publications such as Deutsche Welle, Remarker and Kosovo 2.0. He is also a frequent commentator for the cable news channel N1.

K2.0: Where would you say the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia stands now? Would you label the process so far as a success?

Gjeraqina Tuhina: The process and its future is very unclear at this moment, especially now that Brussels has different interlocutors from Prishtina. It was always an open-ended process where the outcome was unclear and parties had different views on how the talks might end.

If we take into account how much Serbia has advanced in the EU accession process, thanks to the dialogue, then indeed it can be qualified as a success. Serbia is considered a frontrunner in the accession talks, even though regular reports from the European Commission present a weak rule of law in the country, a lack of independence in the media sphere and a poor record in the prosecution of war crimes.

However, in the case of Kosovo, the dialogue has not borne much fruit. At first, it exhausted all the state’s administrative capacity, which was already weak. The dialogue has also prevented further recognition of independence. 

Serbia has used this process to convince reluctant countries that the dialogue is about the status of  Kosovo, and therefore some new recognitions are now pending the conclusion of the process. The letters of apparent derecognition from some states also indicate that those countries are suspending recognition pending the result, which should settle the status of Kosovo. Instead of helping Kosovo, the dialogue was used to deny and even to withdraw recognition.  

Dario Hajrić: The dialogue stalled as soon as the U.S. stopped applying pressure to the governments of Serbia and Kosovo last year. The process itself is very ambivalent. On one hand, it is obvious that over the years some progress was made in the institutional sense. On the other hand, there is a painful lack of improvement when it comes to reconciliation, which should lay the groundwork for the prospect of lasting peace. 

The biggest mistake the EU has made was reducing the negotiations to a dialogue between political leaderships, allowing them to use doublespeak, acting as peacemakers in Brussels and as bitter opponents in front of their own audiences. That poisoned the process, and now it is extremely difficult to cram some honesty back into it.

Reports indicate that most citizens in both countries feel they have not benefited from the dialogue. Even greater numbers complained that they did not know enough about it. The dialogue has been defined as top-down and elite-driven. Would you agree with that perception? Is there a place for citizens and the civil society in the process?  

Hajrić: The process is completely non-transparent, and citizens are being treated like kids strapped into the back seat of a car — no one is asking them what they want or how to achieve it, so they just sit there throwing tantrums and pouting. Of course they do, they do not feel any responsibility, they are completely cut off from the decision-making process and are being fed fairy tales about Kosovo returning to Serbia’s jurisdiction. 

The guy holding the wheel in Serbia is an authoritarian, hostile to any form of public scrutiny, so the channels for influencing the process were never established. Even calling things by their real names — border, state, independence and so on — puts you on the naughty list of government-controlled tabloids and right-wing extremist groups.

This is not a democratic process where you can analyze what can be done differently. From the government’s perspective you can be “with us,” “against us” or just shut up.

Tuhina: Citizens, especially from Kosovo, are right to claim that they do not see any benefits. Apart from somewhat “free movement” to Serbia — although with many administrative hurdles — some of the visible results include the footnote in the various official European and regional documents, the international telephone code for Kosovo, but on the other side is Srpska Lista. 

With Srpska Lista — the single political representative of Kosovo Serbs, but in practice controlled from Belgrade — Serbia now has direct influence in political decision-making in Kosovo. 

Above all, the dialogue has somehow betrayed those Serbs in Kosovo that started to integrate. This particularly concerns the Serbs living south of the Ibar River. When the dialogue was upgraded from a technical into a political process, Kosovo Serbs that participated in all domains of life were left on their own. Currently, there is hardly any Kosovo Serb living south of the Ibar with a real possibility to participate in political life.

Furthermore, it is one of the most non-transparent processes that journalists have covered in Brussels. Basically journalists are victims of diametrically different statements coming from the stakeholders, as well as the colorless official lines from the EU side. This gives the impression that the EU does not have an idea of what it wants from the dialogue. 

The blame falls more on the EU side, since it has a very complicated position in the process. This is the result of not having a unified position concerning Kosovo. Therefore the EU, which is the champion of finding deliberately unclear definitions for certain situations, came up with the role of “facilitator.” 

The EU is not a mediator in the process, as this would imply that two countries are involved in the talks as equal partners, and they are not. For the EU, Kosovo is not a state while Serbia is. So when it comes to Kosovo’s status, the EU in practice went from “status neutral” to “status negative.”

The EU is using so-called “constructive ambiguity” as a way to allow parties to interpret the same things differently while the EU refrains from clarifying who is right and who is wrong. The EU is not “facilitating” at all the work of journalists covering the dialogue, and as a result citizens are being denied the right to be fully informed.

At the end of the day, the EU is a partner to politicians and not to citizens and media. That is why transparency is the last thing that the EU cares about in this dialogue.   

While we often hear that Serbia has a high chance of becoming an EU Member State, European leaders are exceptionally careful when talking about Kosovo’s “European perspective.” What are we to understand from that? Is there a future for Kosovo in the European Union? 

Tuhina: After signing the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) in 2014, Brussels basically has nothing to offer Kosovo. Even this agreement was different compared to similar agreements other Western Balkans countries signed with the EU. 

Other countries in the region signed their agreements jointly with representatives of all Member States, at the level of foreign ministers. Kosovo signed the agreement only with representatives of EU institutions and according to the legal opinion that EU can sign trade agreements with entities that are not sovereign states, for example Macau and Hong Kong.

The key element that distinguishes Kosovo’s SAA from other countries’ is the preamble. In Kosovo’s case, it lacks the prospect of membership in the EU. In the EU wording, Kosovo has an “European perspective,” but not the perspective of European integration.

Because of the non-recognizers, even the phrasings towards other countries have become more vague; the EU has again found an acceptable phrasing of constructive-ambiguity. Since Spain does not recognize Kosovo, all non-EU countries in the Balkans are now treated as “partners” rather than countries, or states. 

For perhaps the first time since the Brussels dialogue started, there are stable political majorities in both countries. Do you think of this situation as an opportunity or an obstacle? How can the EU use this to move the process forward?

Hajrić: In the case of Serbia, a lack of democracy can speed things up if the ruling clique has a personal interest in securing an agreement. But should an agreement be made between nations, or between rulers? 

Signing treaties is one thing, but making people accept them is something else. The ongoing Serbian political crisis runs so deep now that two thirds of citizens currently do not have any representation in governing bodies whatsoever. That position is unsustainable in the long term. 

What will happen with any type of agreement in the future once Vučić gets deposed, be it in a year, five years or 10? Will the successors dispute what was signed? They could claim that the government was so deeply illegitimate that all their decisions are considered void, and that the nation never actually agreed to anything as the process happened entirely behind closed doors. 

Tuhina: In recent years, because of the way the dialogue was handled from the three sides (Kosovo, Serbia and the EU), Kosovo has become somewhat of an “object” of the dialogue and only internal issues of the country were discussed. 

Apparently, Prime Minister Kurti aims to reverse this and return Kosovo to the status of party rather than subject.

However, in the past the dominant narrative in Brussels is that Serbia should gain something for recognizing Kosovo. This seems to be unacceptable for new stakeholders in Prishtina, but also for the majority of citizens. 

There are some voices in Kosovo arguing that, after the EU “failed to deliver” in the visa liberalization process, there is no reason to prioritize a dialogue that is seen more as an European priority. Do you think this issue has had an actual effect on the EU’s standing as a facilitator? If so, should the EU worry about regaining any lost trust?

Tuhina: Visa liberalization has nothing to do with the process of EU integration. Many countries that do not belong politically or geographically in the EU enjoy visa-free travel to the EU. But because the EU lacks convictions, visa liberalization is the only real carrot Brussels has.

So visa liberalization for Kosovo could become tied to a constructive approach to the dialogue, but it would be neither just nor fair.

In terms of the procedure, the visa issue cannot be conditioned by the non-recognizers. The decision about this is taken by a qualified majority in the EU Council. Currently, the visas are on hold pending internal political situations in some Member States. Ironically, those are states that recognized Kosovo immediately after the declaration of independence in 2008.

In terms of the relationship between Albanians and Serbs within Kosovo, the reality on the ground has stabilized since 2011. Though there are periodic flare-ups of political crisis, tensions are on the whole lower and a number of Serbian structures in Kosovo have been integrated into the national framework. Do you think the current approach reflects the situation nowadays? Is it adequate for the objectives of the dialogue?

Hajrić: I would hesitate to state that the tensions are lower. The animosity is still quite alive, it is simply on a shorter leash. Serbian media is still routinely using derogatory terms for Kosovars. In Kosovo, refugee Dragica Gašić is facing death threats for trying to come back to her pre-war home in Gjakova. 

This is no accident. Belgrade and Prishtina did not do a lot when it came to de-escalating the conflict. They can play their decades-long administrative game of chess, score their petty “points,” but their citizens are still mentally on the brink of another open clash.

It would seem that political elites are extremely comfortable with that position. There is not much honesty in that kind of dialogue, and it does not seem likely that it is going to change any time soon.

In September 2020, Kosovo and Serbia signed an ‘Economic Deal’ in the White House. Where do you see the U.S. role in these talks?

Tuhina: During the Trump administration, there was obvious competition between the EU and the U.S. The EU was practically excluded and relations were polarized. Brussels was informed through media outlets about the first agreement reached between Kosovo and Serbia under U.S. mediation. 

Furthermore, despite being informed, the EU had no sufficient information about the content of the agreement. As an illustration, one of the elements of the agreement, the opening of embassies in Jerusalem, was condemned by the EU as it goes against its common position. 

Now with the new administration in Washington, the relations have improved and the EU has had support for its efforts toward reaching a comprehensive agreement between Kosovo and Serbia.   

Hajrić: The so-called Economic Deal was an odd bag of mutually unrelated topics, many of which had nothing to do with the economy, and some of them focusing entirely on scoring pre-election points for the Trump administration. 

Despite the deal being touted as historic, both countries were essentially used for short-term gain for the former American president. The Biden administration currently has its focus placed elsewhere, so it is hard to tell if and when they are going to decide to make another move in this matter. 

The fact is, the U.S. proved to be a more resolute actor than the EU, and they seem to be more likely to nudge Belgrade and Prishtina towards some kind of mutual formalization of the status of Kosovo.

In the past, there has been a certain contradiction between the [Serbian] government’s actions and its releases for domestic consumption. We often see high officials discussing compromise with their European counterparts and then presenting the dialogue as a zero-sum game at home, where the aim becomes “scoring against Kosovo.” Do you think this phenomenon is going to have an effect on the feasibility of any potential new agreement?

Hajrić: Yes, we are faced with a disturbing discrepancy between what the Serbian government does and how the media portrays the process. While the president is de facto negotiating the terms and form of Kosovo’s independence, the media, which he controls, is barking chauvinist propaganda, depicting him as a national hero triumphing against sly neighboring barbarians. 

This is possible due to the near-absolute governmental control of the Serbian media, allowing him to stifle any attempt to pressure him into explaining that discrepancy. That does not necessarily have to affect a potential new agreement. 

However, any kind of formal act is ultimately self-defeating if there is no reconciliation, reparation and coming to terms with the past. From the war, 1,639 people are still classified as missing, war crimes are widely denied or, even worse, celebrated. Formal acts are important, but they cannot exist in a reality separate from the actual people living their ordinary lives.

There is a general expectation in Kosovo that the dialogue can only end with recognition from Serbia, but that is not what the discussions are about by design. Can this contradiction affect or limit the final agreement’s legitimacy among people in the future?

Tuhina: I don’t see any possibility that the final agreement could include Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo. The EU as a champion of semantics will find a definition that will include some kind of formulation that for Kosovars would imply recognition but will allow Serbs to claim that they have not recognized the state of Kosovo. 

What the final agreement could make possible is open the way for Kosovo to pursue membership in various international organizations, starting with the U.N. and moving forward in the processes related to the EU. Although it is not in sight and is highly unlikely to happen in the near future, the final agreement could make it such that Serbia wouldn’t be able to keep Kosovo out of those processes. 

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The conversations were conducted in English.

Feature image: K2.0.