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 discussions resume at the highest level, 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 third set of interviews in a series of three. In the first two interviews, we spoke with the EU rapporteurs for Kosovo and Serbia and two local journalists who have been covering the dialogue. Now we turn to the opinion of experts from the capitals, political analysts whose careers have placed them at the center of regional debates.
Sonja Licht is the President of the Foundation BFPE for a Responsible Society. She served in the Foreign Policy Council of the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and has led a number of civil society initiatives and organizations in Serbia.
Agon Maliqi is a policy analyst and civil society activist based out of Prishtina. He is the co-founder of Sbunker, an Albanian-language portal covering politics and policy. He is a frequent commentator for local and international media.
K2.0: Where would you say the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia stands now? Would you label the process so far as a success?
Sonja Licht: Right now, the dialogue between Prishtina and Belgrade is, unfortunately, at a standstill. This is even more regrettable since everything that supports people-to-people contacts and opportunities for business cooperation — the things that help citizens have a better life on both sides of the divide — can be understood as a success.
There were a number of such developments in the few years after the dialogue started, and it is not an exaggeration to say that during those couple years we were on a path toward normalization.
Although this path had its hiccups, even some serious stops, after the Brussels Agreement was signed in 2011 the level of communication improved for a while to levels we had not seen before, or since.
I would not label the process a success, but neither a failure. A lot of things have already been agreed upon, though there is an obvious lack of political will to implement some things that were only partially agreed to.
Belgrade is facing the problem that the process of dialogue is coming to an end, and people in Serbia feel that they are not getting anything, so support for explicit or implicit recognition is at a very low level. Prishtina is not ready for any further steps, seen in their vehement rejection of the Association of Serbian Municipalities, which constitutes an important part of the Brussels Agreement.
In my opinion, the EU should be more engaged in mediation and not only facilitation of the dialogue, but for this approach it should develop, together with individual Member States, a whole range of incentives.
Agon Maliqi: The dialogue is at a stalemate from which I cannot see it recovering, at least for the next few years. That is because of the political momentum in both countries as well as the lack of clear external incentives.
The process did achieve some success until around 2017 or 2018. Despite public opinion, many of the agreements have been implemented, the most important of which is the formal dismantling of parallel structures such as those in the judiciary.
The process has however failed since at least 2018 as it came closer to the final political settlement. And in many ways ethnic relations have deteriorated since then.
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?
Maliqi: I partially agree with the sentiment that the dialogue should have been associated with a social process of engagement for reconciliation. Yet, I am aware that political negotiations are very complex and require considerable discretion and secrecy.
I think that in democracies, political elites have the right, the responsibility and the political mandate to negotiate on behalf of the people who elected them. Such was the process between Greece and North Macedonia, for example. After all, they cannot disregard public preferences in the deal-making as the agreements will have to pass in parliament and be validated by the public in some kind of referendum.
What I do find problematic with our political elites, especially the current government in Kosovo, is that they have not been honest to the public in terms of explaining realistically what are the options and what are their implications and costs, namely to prepare the public for tough choices. Instead, they have preferred to resort to moralizing and posturing and using the dialogue as a tool for political power at home.
Licht: In my opinion it is impossible to make the negotiations that happen behind closed doors totally transparent. I do not think it has ever happened in history. However, both parties should be much more considerate in communicating the results of the dialogue.
Some experts believe that there should be joint press statements after the negotiation rounds in Brussels. That would prevent the participants from communicating totally opposite messages after leaving the same meeting, as they often do.
This behavior is contributing to the fact that citizens either do not know what is really happening with the dialogue, or do not trust that anything tangible can be achieved. Thus, even the results achieved are minimized.
I agree that the dialogue has been top-down and driven by the political elite, which is necessary since decision makers are those who hold the power to implement the agreements, but it should not stop at that level. If the bottom-up process is missing, citizens will be left out from the whole process and can be easily manipulated. We also risk losing the trust and hope of people that the dialogue can yield results, results important for their own lives and futures.
But there have been civil society organizations trying to fill that gap, such as the Kosovo and Serbia Policy and Advocacy Group, a consortium of NGOs that has been trying to inform citizens about the dialogue and generate new ideas for normalization between Kosovo and Serbia.
I’d also add that the Belgrade Security Forum for the last ten years organized excellently attended panel discussions on Kosovo-Serbia relations, putting a strong emphasis on how to strengthen the process of normalization and increase confidence among the main actors.
Unfortunately, it seems that both political and financial support for people-to-people communication and substantial cooperation among civil society organizations and think tanks is decreasing more and more. This is, in my opinion, hurting the dialogue and the prospects of normalization.
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?
Maliqi: I think that for the moment the EU perspective is questionable for all the Western Balkans countries, including Serbia, for at least the next 10-15 years. This mostly has to do with enlargement fatigue within the EU and the fact that Serbia has backtracked in terms of democratic standards.
There is no appetite for adding another Hungary with pro-Russian inclinations to the table. EU decision-making is already too paralyzed with the current 27 members and this is visible in the case of Albania and North Macedonia. Serbia is aware of this and is acting accordingly.
Having that context in mind, accession is an even longer shot for Kosovo due to the five non-recognizers, but also deep prejudices. Only about 15 percent of people in France would support Kosovo’s membership, for example.
The EU perspective is therefore only theoretical, it might be reopened in the future and some form of engagement with the EU, like market integration, could be proposed as an intermediate alternative.
Yet, what is clear is that Kosovo should not base its current decision-making on the existence of an EU perspective. It should prioritize other goals that would consolidate its statehood and economy, such as NATO membership and a common regional market.
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?
Licht: These days we hear both President Vučić and Prime Minister Kurti repeating that they want to continue the dialogue between Prishtina and Belgrade. Both of them have their particular conditions.
My opinion is that it would be smarter to put at the negotiating table the very people whose security and existence are at stake and resume dialogue in that manner.
They should also actively stimulate bilateral and regional cooperation, because it is necessary for our economies and the way to convince, among others, the EU, that we remain on our European path.
Positive peace is the end both political elites should strive for if they really care for the future of our societies.
Maliqi: It will depend on whether Kurti will want to use the high degree of public trust and legitimacy to reach some kind of settlement.
Having built his career as an opponent of the dialogue, I doubt Kurti will want to approach any deal that would even remotely look like a compromise, especially in the first mandate. I think he will want to stall and preserve the status-quo and continue the practice of abusing the dialogue for domestic power.
The dialogue keeps being presented as some kind of threat to Kosovo’s existence and not as a tool provided by allies for Kosovo to unlock its international limbo.
You have previously argued that Kosovo is in a difficult negotiating position. Do you see any changes in this regard in the new phase of the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia?
Maliqi: The only momentary change is that the Kurti government might be given some time and breathing space by some Western partners, because for some the dialogue and security concerns are not the only priority.
Some also value the importance of domestic reforms. But I believe that grace period will soon pass and the pressure on the dialogue will continue because the Balkans are a European security concern.
Structurally not much has changed in Kosovo’s position while the key problem is that, unlike what many who prefer the status-quo think, time is not on our side. Kosovo continues to be full of illusions about the outside world.
The balance of power in the world, or its center of gravity, is shifting to the East. The West will continue to support our aspirations, but it no longer has the power, focus nor interest to invest political capital on us. Especially if we continue to behave so erratically and adopt a hardcore sovereigntist approach in our relations to allies.
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?
Licht: This is one of the most difficult questions, not only how much are the Serbs integrated into Kosovo structures but into the society. One without the other is impossible.
Integration needs time, lots of good will as well as deeds from all sides. And the largest responsibility is always on the majority, and those who are in power.
There is a general expectation in Kosovo that the dialogue can only end with recognition from Serbia, but that’s not what the discussions are about by design. Can this contradiction affect or limit the final agreement’s legitimacy among people in the future?
Maliqi: Recognition is and should be the final goal as it is the only sustainable way to resolve the dispute. The problem is that Serbia has set a high price on that — much higher than it is feasible for Kosovo to accept.
I do see some space to move the ball forward through an interim agreement with symbolic concessions and only an implicit recognition, which would allow Kosovo to get recognized at least by the five EU non-recognizers and join NATO within a few years.
But I don’t see an interest in our government to use that space — mostly I see an interest in preserving the status-quo for domestic reasons.
In the past, there has been contradictions between the Serbian government’s actions and its releases for domestic consumption. High officials often discuss compromise with EU counterparts and then present 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?
Licht: Very often this zero-sum game is played by both sides when they want to “score points” at home. In the long run, if there is a real concern about the future of both societies — and particularly keeping in mind how to prevent the further exodus of young people — politicians should use elections to develop comprehensive programs.
These should focus on how to contribute to the development of the rule of law and strong democratic institutions instead of deepening the mistrust and tensions in our Balkans.
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?
Licht: The U.S. will continue to have a very important role in the future. When working side by side with the EU, they reinforce each other.
This does not mean that the U.S. will not have an interest in maintaining considerable influence of their own. Gabriele Escobar, the new envoy for the Western Balkans, stressed that the Washington Agreement is still valid as far as the U.S. government is concerned.
There are a few experts from our region who claimed from the very beginning that this document is important for the U.S. in the long term as well, beyond Trump and his administration.
Maliqi: The new U.S administration is still too disengaged. They are too focused on China and will likely cede ground to European powers for them to take the lead on the Balkans.
Yet I can’t see anything moving forward without a strong U.S. role. So far there is no clear sign that the U.S. is willing to engage as much as we’d want. Not just because it has other priorities but also because people in the State Department don’t see our new government as committed or seriously interested in the dialogue.
What changes are needed in the EU’s approach to make a turning point in the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia? Does Kosovo have an alternative to the dialogue?
Maliqi: Kosovo has very little space to get out of the current gridlock outside of the dialogue. In the current climate, it cannot rely on allied support to gain recognition in multilateral institutions and it cannot do this on its own.
What the EU needs to change is to provide incentives to Serbia in order to lower the burden for Kosovo in any potential compromises. The lack of clarity on what is the EU perspective for the region, that is really the key obstacle to an agreement.
In this context, the Open Balkan initiative raises many concerns but it could also provide some opportunities for Kosovo that the stalemate in the EU accession process had foreclosed.
Serbia is the party that is most interested in the regional market and Kosovo could use that as leverage to get what it wants. I think Kosovo is making a mistake by rejecting Open Balkan outright. It has reasons to be concerned but it can turn it to its advantage.
This article has been edited for length and clarity. The conversations were conducted in English.
Feature image: K2.0.