27 October 2021

Wednesday, 23:37



How much will the historic visit of Serbian leaders to the US contribute to the resolution of the long-standing conflict in the Balkans?



Perhaps never before in the history of the Kosovo conflict have the prospects for regional peace seemed so promising yet fragile. The agreements reached in September during the historic visit of the Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdulla Hoti to the US can open a new page in relations between Belgrade and Pristina. The agreements became a serious step towards normalizing relations in the Balkans, which, however, does not mean recognition of Kosovo's independence by Serbia.


What lies beneath the Washington agreement

In recent years, Belgrade in parallel with other neighbouring countries has shown a particular interest in integration into the European Union. Brussels earlier announced its intention to admit the countries of the Western Balkans, including Serbia and Kosovo, to the union. Although a number of EU members do not recognize Kosovo's independence, the leading EU countries did so almost immediately after the separatist government in Pristina announced its decision to secede from Serbia. At present, the EU leadership is trying to resolve the differences in the Balkans in order to fulfill its promise by the scheduled date. However, Belgrade is in no hurry to recognize Kosovo and relies more on Washington's mediation in negotiations with the leadership of the rebellious region.

Back in July 2020, negotiations between the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo on the normalization of relations started in Brussels. Previous attempts at reconciliation between the parties did not lead to success, and since 2018, discussions on the peace treaty under the auspices of the EU have been suspended due to the unilateral introduction of a 100% import duty by Kosovo on goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, these negotiations were more formal, since both Belgrade and Pristina hoped on the mediation of the US President Trump.

At the end of 2019, President Trump appointed Richard Grenell, the former US ambassador to Germany, as his representative for Kosovo. With his mediation, an agreement was soon reached to resume direct commercial flights between Kosovo and Serbia. Thanks to the efforts of Washington, it was possible to influence the position of Pristina and lift-off import duties on Belgrade. This positive trend continued later, culminating in the signing of an agreement on economic cooperation. These were difficult negotiations, during which the parties actually returned to the agenda developed two years ago. Nevertheless, Serbia made it clear that it did not intend to recognise the independence of Kosovo.


New reality for Serbia: Brussels sets conditions

After the parliament of the separatist Kosovo announced its independence unilaterally on February 17, 2008, most Western countries supported this decision. As of 2020, Kosovo's independence has been recognized by over 100 states, or more than half of all UN members, and this process continues.

The situation has created a new political reality, which Belgrade cannot influence but agree. Taking a course towards the EU, Serbia have to come to terms with the recognition of the independence of Kosovo by the majority of the EU countries. On March 1, 2012, Serbia received the official status of a candidate country for membership, and a year later, on April 19, 2013, Kosovo and Serbia initiated an agreement on the principles of normalizing relations. This mainly concerns the fate of the Kosovo Serbs, the granting of autonomy to them within the province. Brussels assessed this document as an important step towards the European integration of Belgrade and Pristina.

In February 2018, the EU announced a new document providing for the admission of six Western Balkan states (Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo ) to the EU by 2025. However, the uncertain international legal status of Kosovo prevents Pristina from submitting a full-fledged application for membership in the European Union. Five EU member states (Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia) do not recognize the independence of Kosovo and consider it part of Serbia. Therefore, Brussels is urging Belgrade and Pristina to agree as soon as possible on the future of their relationship. Meanwhile, while the Serbian leadership is willing to engage in a dialogue on Kosovo's independence, most public opinion in Serbia and the influential Serbian Orthodox Church oppose this dialogue.

It is not only about the fate of the former autonomy as such, but about the future of the Kosovo Serbs, who compactly live in northern Kosovo in three communities with a Serb majority and in the northern part of Kosovo - Mitrovica. In 2018, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic came up with a proposal for "delimitation" or territorial exchange. According to Serbia's proposal, the territories of three Serb-inhabited communities were transferred in exchange for the independence of Kosovo and the transfer to it of a number of Serbian municipalities inhabited by Albanians. This option was not accepted not only by the Kosovars and Serbian society, but also by the European Union.

At present, the parties do not have a stable platform that suits both sides to continue the dialogue, which makes a possibility of a compromise on Kosovo nearly impossible in the near future.


Albanian nationalism and Serbian perspectives

With the collapse of Yugoslavia and the emergence of several independent states in the region, the problem of Albanian nationalism has become a serious destabilizing factor for the Western Balkans. Kosovo's aspiration for independence, supported not only by the leading NATO countries, the EU, and the states of the Muslim world, but also, most importantly, neighboring Albania, created the conditions for the growth of Albanian nationalism in North Macedonia. Increasingly, local politicians also talk about the integration of the regions populated by Albanians.

In April 2017, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said that an alliance of Albania and Kosovo is possible if there is no chance of the Western Balkans joining the EU. Kosovo President Hashim Thaci said in response that if the EU doors are closed, all Albanians in the region should live in one state. These statements coincided with a government crisis in North Macedonia, where the Albanian minority also provoked protests.

Experts note that disintegration in the Balkan region continues amid the attempts of Serbs in  Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo to maintain the previously existing ties with Belgrade. The Serbs have an ambiguous view of these processes. Dragan Trifkovic, director of the Belgrade Centre for Geostrategic Studies, believes that “any talks about the unification of Serbs is dangerous when there are no resources, mechanisms and international support to implement this idea. In addition, it is extremely illogical that these talks go in parallel with the support of the separation of Kosovo and Metohija from Serbia. It would be much better if the Serbian leadership worked on the economic and cultural integration of the Serb area, on achieving social consensus and unity of the Serbian people, on strengthening the ties of the Diaspora with the Serbian state. Such an initiative, first of all, should come from Belgrade as from the centre.

Perhaps the accession of all regional states to the European Union, their obligations to comply with all the norms and principles of European community will open new horizons for Serbians and other peoples of the region. However, a political will is a prerequisite for this to transcribe. It will be an important political resource consolidating all participants in the Balkan dialogue. It may be imperfect but at least provide uniform and most optimal principles (perhaps, full of contradictions)to establish a long-standing peace.