On 2 April 2013, the Prime Ministers of Serbia and Kosovo will announce the latest and most challenging deal reached between the two nations within the EU-mediated dialogue. Over the past two years, major agreements have been reached in an effort to normalise relations between Serbia and its former province, currently recognised as an independent state by 98 countries. While history is being written, it is important to revisit what has been agreed upon and implemented to date while also reflecting on the way forward to reach a lasting solution for the Kosovo conflict.
The politics of pragmatism
The coming to power of former Serbian nationalists in 2012 created much fear in Brussels and Washington. Many worried that the minimal progress made in the past would soon be undone, but nationalists on both sides have proven to be better equipped to make difficult compromises when compared to their predecessors. As the list of countries that have formally recognised Kosovo as an independent state continues to grow, Belgrade has faced increased pressure to come to terms with the realities on the ground.
The process of EU mediation, mandated by the UNSC and launched in March 2011, has gradually moved from technical issues and low political representation to more contentious and political matters. The dialogue was elevated to the highest political level in February 2013 when Serbia and Kosovo’s respective Presidents met in Brussels for the first time.
Several agreements were reached in view of improving the lives of everyday citizens while others are still being negotiated (energy and telecoms). The agreements that were reached between the two Presidents deal with the free movement of goods, previously impeded by Belgrade’s non-recognition of Kosovo customs stamps, but also of people (thus solving issues of non-recognition of ID cards, license plates, car insurances). EULEX, the EU rule of law mission in Kosovo, is in charge of handling cadastral records and copies of civil registry books for the Kosovo authorities. Another agreement foresees the mutual recognition of university diplomas. Kosovo also established a multiethnic special police unit within the Kosovo Police Force that will be tasked with the protection of religious and cultural Heritage sights.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned agreements have triggered strong domestic pressure to impede their implementation. In early 2012, Serbia and Kosovo agreed on a formula with an asterisk that allowed Kosovo to participate in regional organisations’ meetings. Despite the progress, Serbia initiated a diplomatic boycott in meetings where the nameplate did not mention the agreed asterisk properly. Within Kosovo itself, the compromise did not come without criticisms.
Ready to compromise?
One of the most controversial agreements reached between the two nations was the Integrated Border Management (IBM) agreement from December 2011. Its implementation began a year after due to the dynamism spurred by EU enlargement conditionality. The deal on customs (governing the collection of custom revenues going to the North of Kosovo) and IBM (joint management of the border/boundary between Serbia and Kosovo) provoked demonstrations in the North of Kosovo where the creation of an international border with Serbia is strongly opposed. The question regarding the potential for collected funds to go directly to North Kosovo municipalities is still to be defined. Serbia will also have to close alternative border/boundary crossing points. In the same round of negotiations, the Prime Ministers agreed to appoint “liaison officers” (or “ambassadors” to Pristina’s understanding) in their respective capitals. All these steps point to Serbia progressively moving towards de facto state-to-state relations with Kosovo.
The main issue surrounding past compromises is that they have been reached at the political level following the calendar of EU Ministerial Councils rather than the aspirations of Serbs living in North Kosovo who continue to refuse Pristina’s authority. The demands of Serbs living in Kosovo remains a critical matter and building lasting peace will eventually depend on accommodating their grievances. More generally, the gap between a top-down and bottom-up approach translated into tensions in the Summer of 2011 when Northern Serbs blocked roads to prevent Kosovo authorities, supported by EULEX, from taking control of the border with Serbia. The dialogue has turned a blind eye to the concerns of Serbs in North Kosovo and as the 2013 ICG report puts it, “the dialogue functions as a top down political process with limited effects on reconciliation on the ground” (2013:13).
The unresolved status of North Kosovo, including institutions financed by Belgrade, have created lawlessness and boosted criminality. Dismantling these structures was set as a condition by Germany for allowing Serbia to move forward on its EU integration path. This meant that Serbia had to release its control over the North. The upcoming deal scheduled for 2 April 2013 will possibly create an association of 4+6 Serbian municipalities in Kosovo (North of Kosovo and South respectively). Kosovo has been vocal against granting such autonomy to Serb municipalities and domestic pressure could put serious strains on preserving this future agreement. Additionally, a future agreement will also have to settle the issue of local elections in the North still being held under Serbian law (Bajrami,2013:13). Belgrade will thus de facto give up on Kosovo. Depending on the modalities and effective implementation, this will have to be closely monitored. These developments will be watched by Albanian municipalities in Macedonia as well as in Southern Serbia (Presevo Valley) where inter-ethnic tensions arose in early 2013.
Recognition is the red line
The end-point of the EU-mediated dialogue is still unclear. A peace treaty is viewed by many as an ideal goal, but will be a time-intensive process. Institutionalising a regular dialogue between both sides will be fundamental for solving daily issues related to implementation of agreements. The EU conditionality has undeniably generated a strong momentum and the relationship between both nations' Prime Ministers has been harnessed. Both travelled to the UN headquarters in New York on the same plane. This would have been unimaginable two years ago. Whether the issue of Kosovo's status can be solved is still to be seen. It is important to keep in mind that nothing is definitive in politics although formal recognition by Serbia is the red line at the moment. As an International Crisis Group report (2013:10) suggests, Belgrade’s current compromises make its position on recognition even less favourable.
It is true that the dialogue has taken place despite internal divisions and risks for governing coalitions on both sides. President Nikolic’s platform on Kosovo might not meet Prime Ministers Dacic's expectations. Cross-party support for the most difficult deals on Kosovo will be much needed. Dacic himself acknowledged the mere reality that Serbia has lost sovereignty over Kosovo. Preparing the public for acknowledging this reality is of course an important step and a reconciliation process should follow.
Kosovo’s supporters need to lower their expectations and avoid pushing too hard for recognition in the short term. Insisting that Belgrade’s openings towards Pristina are nothing less than recognition is the wrong approach. Much has been achieved and Serbia will most likely open accession negotiations with the EU this summer. The EU-mediated dialogue will lose momentum as conditionality becomes diluted within a decade-long process of negotiations of EU acquis. The most difficult part will be to define the way forward. If Serbia and Kosovo can now co-exist as neighbours, Kosovo’s unresolved status will nurture frustration, as this will continue to impede its progress towards EU membership.
To go further
On Nouvelle Europe's website
- ARK, “Kosovo’s contested EU membership perspective”.
- Bajrami, A., 2013. “Kosovo-Serbia dialogue: window of opportunity or a house of cards?”, March.
- Galluci, G. 2013. “Serbia, Kosovo and EU enlargement”, 12 March, Transconflict.
- International Crisis Group. 2013. “Serbia and Kosovo: the path to normalisation”, February.
- Malazogu, L., Bieber, F. 2012. “The future of interaction between Prishtina and Belgrade”, September.
Source picture: flickr