On Saturday, March 18, Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić met in Ohrid, North Macedonia. It was announced that at this meeting, which lasted more than seven hours, the parties reached an agreement on the implementation of the European Plan for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.
The parties had already agreed on the plan on February 27 at a meeting in Brussels. The March meeting in Ohrid was about how to implement it. Like the February 27 meeting, this was mediated by the European Union and was supported by the United States and the Quint states (France, Germany, Italy and the U.K.).
After the meeting, EU High Representative Josep Borrell said in a press statement that both the European Plan and the Implementation Plan are considered approved, despite the fact that the parties did not sign anything.
The European Plan consists of 11 points. These include: the mutual recognition of documents between Kosovo and Serbia, including passports, diplomas, license plates and customs stamps; recognition of each other’s territorial integrity; and ensuring “an appropriate level” of self-management for the Serbian community in Kosovo.
The Implementation Plan states that the European Plan and the Implementation Plan will become key parts of the EU membership processes for the two countries. Moreover, any non-compliance with obligations relating to the plans, annex or previous agreements may result in sanctions in their respective EU membership processes and in financial aid from the EU.
The Implementation Plan calls for the creation within 30 days of a Joint Monitoring Committee headed by the EU which will supervise the implementation of all provisions. If all provisions are fully implemented within 150 days, the EU promises to direct financial investments to Kosovo and Serbia.
The most discussed issue has been Article 7 of the European Plan, which requires Kosovo to immediately start negotiations within the EU-mediated dialogue “to ensure an appropriate level of self-management for the Serbian community in Kosovo” and in accordance with previous agreements.
The primary previous agreement relating to Serb self-management is the 2013 Brussels Agreement on the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities. Following that, in 2015 Prime Ministers Isa Mustafa and Aleksandar Vučić signed a document laying out the general principles of the establishment of the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities.
At the end of 2015 Kosovar President Atifete Jahjaga requested that the Constitutional Court of Kosovo review these principles. The court concluded that with the ratification of the 2013 Agreement in the Assembly, the establishment of the Association had become a legal obligation.
The court also found that aspects of the guiding principles for establishing the Association did not comply with the Constitution, especially regarding the budget, relations with the central authorities and the organizational structure. Therefore, the principles for establishing the Association would have to be reworked in harmony with the Constitution.
In a statement to the press after the recent Ohrid meeting, Prime Minister Kurti said that through the implementation plan, Kosovo had gained “de-facto recognition” from Serbia. In terms of the Association, Kurti commented that Article 7 is about “self-management” and not “self-government.” Nevertheless, they’ve committed to establishing this “self-management” in accordance with previous agreements, implying an agreement to the establishment of the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities in one form or another.
Why was article 7 put at the center of discussions?
As a political party, Vetëvendosje (VV) has long opposed the formation of the Association. When the Brussels Agreement reached the Kosovo Assembly for ratification in 2013, VV Assembly members, then in the opposition, protested by blocking the work of the Assembly.
In August 2015, as the follow-up implementation agreement on the Association was going through the Assembly, VV released tear gas in the chambers. Protests against the Association continued in 2016, when two other parties, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) and NISMA joined. At one such protest in January 2016, protesters threw stones, molotov cocktails and pyrotechnic devices at the government building and the police.
In 2018, the Court of Prishtina found Kurti and others guilty of releasing tear gas and obstructing an official during the protests of 2015. This conviction prevented Kurti from being on the electoral list in the 2021 general elections, when his party VV received 50.2% of the vote in coalition with Lista Guxo.
At that time, VV argued that the Brussels Agreement was in conflict with the Constitution of Kosovo, which according to them already had “specific provisions” for Kosovo Serbs and other minority communities.
As VV put it: “The agreement of April 19, 2013 violates the multi-ethnic character of the constitution in its entirety, but also the principle of local self-government, the organization and powers of the municipalities, thus creating a new mono-ethnic institution, which is placed above the municipalities and between the central government and to the local one with a representative role and as a decision-making and organizational body only for municipalities with a Serbian majority.”
According to VV, by signing the agreement the government at that time had facilitated the “division of Kosovo,” the “Bosnia-fication of Kosovo” and creation of a Republika Srpska-like entity within Kosovo.
The most recent plan has not come together easily. The agreements over this plan and its implementation was preceded by a saga of events that started around the beginning of 2022 and escalated towards the end of the year.
In June 2022, the government of Kosovo decided on reciprocity measures with Serbia in terms of license plates and IDs. As a result, anyone entering Kosovo with documents issued by Serbia was to be issued a form temporarily “replacing” their Serbian documents — a procedure that has been in place since 2011 for Kosovars entering Serbia.
According to the decision on license plates, vehicles with Serbian-issued license plates for cities within Kosovo would have to be registered with Kosovar license plates between September 1 and October 31. After October 31, the old license Serbian plates would not be allowed.
On July 31, shortly before the decision came into force, Serbs erected barricades at two border crossings between Kosovo and Serbia.
After pressure from the EU and the U.S. on the Kosovo government to postpone the implementation of the decision, the government decided to postpone it for one month. Then on August 27 an agreement was reached to repeal the issuing of temporary identification documents for citizens of both countries.
The U.S. and the EU called for Kosovo’s government to postpone the decision on license plates for 10 months, but the government initially did not accept this request. On October 28 the government presented a three-phase plan for the implementation of the license plate decision.
The situation became tense again after the suspension of a regional director of the Kosovo Police in the north of the country, Nenad Đurić, who had refused to implement the Kosovo Government’s decision on license plates. As a result, in early November, Srpska Lista led a mass resignation of Kosovo Serbs from Kosovo’s public institutions.
On November 21, 2022, after an eight-hour meeting in Brussels between Kurti and Vučić, Kurti refused to accept an EU proposal to resolve the issue of license plates, saying that he would hold out for a commitment to the full normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. He accused EU Special Representative Josep Borell of giving up on the normalization of relations between the two countries.
The U.S. requested the postponement of the implementation of the license plate decision for 48 hours and Prime Minister Kurti agreed.
On November 23, Kosovo and Serbia, represented by Deputy Prime Minister Besnik Bislimi and Director of the Serbian Office for Kosovo and Metohija Petar Petković, agreed on the proposal from November 21. According to this agreement Kosovo will put an end to further actions related to re-registration of cars and Serbia will no longer issue car plates with the names of Kosovo cities.
Soon after, President Vjosa Osmani announced December 18 as the date for elections in Kosovo’s four northern municipalities. On December 6, an office of the Central Election Commission (CEC) was attacked. Kosovar authorities arrested Dejan Pantić, a former member of the Kosovo Police and stated that there was evidence that he organized the attack on the CEC offices.
Barricades went up again after the arrest. Several roads in the north of Kosovo were blockaded and several border crossings were closed. The barricades came down in late December and early January and Pantić was moved from detention to house arrest. Kosovo’s leadership, according to the EU and the U.S., pledged that there will be no arrests or prosecutions against Serbs related to the barricades.
There was heated rhetoric in both Kosovo and Serbia during these months. Prime Minister Kurti mentioned the possibility of war in several interviews to the international media, while Serbia asked NATO to allow it to deploy 1,000 members of the Serbian military in Kosovo.
During December, the situation in the north of Kosovo was extremely tense and there were a number of incidents where Kosovo and EULEX police patrols were attacked and stun grenades were thrown at journalists who were reporting from the field.
That same month, the rhetoric of the U.S. special envoy for the dialogue with Serbia, Gabriel Escobar, hardened around the topic of the Association. He stated that “one person and one party cannot avoid an international legal obligation,” referring to Kurti and VV. He then said, in reference to establishing the Association, that the U.S. “will do this and I will do this by finding partners,” in an implicit threat to the VV-led government.
In an interview, Kurti said that the government of Kosovo has received warnings about the possibility of a reduction of Western support if Kosovo “is not considered constructive” regarding the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.
International pressure to reach a breakthrough increased, with the diplomatic corps unifying behind a proposal people were calling the Franco-German Plan, which was supposed to unlock the dialogue and bring Kosovo and Serbia closer to a final agreement.
At the beginning of February, amidst pressure from the EU and the U.S. to begin implementing the Association, Kurti presented six conditions for allowing its creation. He then announced that he accepts the most recent European proposal. This prompted a public discussion about the changes in Kurti’s attitudes, since the European Plan, as was clear in Ohrid, calls for the implementation of all agreements reached earlier in the dialogue — one of these being the creation of the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities.