The Belgrade-Pristina-Dialogue – Will the EU let them join the club?

30 June 2023 /

7 min

The city of Belgrade sits at the meeting point of the Sava and Danube rivers. Above the surrounding landscape of brutalist buildings that evoke memories of the past, the Church of Saint Sava stands tall on the Vracar plateau. Unlike many other buildings in the capital, the church does not appear to be very old with its clean white facade reflecting the sun and remains of the construction work still visible around it. And indeed, while the construction started in 1935, the sanctuary was only inaugurated in 2004. A panel in front of the church gives details on the building and a special thanks to the Russian company Gazprom Neft, which supported the construction through its generous donations. 

This is not the only building, or rather symbol, showcasing the strong bond between Serbia and Russia. Another Gazprom billboard sees the Russian and Serbian flags amicably merged into each other, with the inscription “Together!” in Cyrillic writing, looming in the forefront. Chinese billboards are a less common sight, however Beijing’s influence in the region is undisputed, as the newly built Chinese cultural centre in Belgrade showcases.

One common ground that China and Russia share in relation to Serbia is visualised en route from Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport to the city centre. Arrivals get greeted by the message “Kosovo is Serbia” sprayed on a steel construction that spans the motorway. On the other side of the construction, when driving back to the airport, the graffiti recalls “Remember, Kosovo is Serbia”. 

Undermining Kosovo’s state-building efforts and ambitions for greater global recognition is just one of many reasons why China and Russia get to secure the best venues for their billboards in the capital. Yet,  while both countries continue to stir the conflict and veto Kosovo independence in the UN Security Council, the EU is mediating talks for a normalisation of the relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

On a related topic : Un vent de changement souffle sur le Kosovo

What is it all about?

From the Yuguslav Wars at the end of the 90s until its declaration of independence in 2008, tensions between Pristina and Belgrade did not simply dissolve into thin air. The recent rapprochements between both countries brokered by the EU raised hopes for a normalisation of the relations. Yet, retreats and setbacks hint at a protraction of the disagreements. 

In 2021, tensions were flaring up again in northern Kosovo, a region mostly inhabited by ethnic Serbs.

Resident Serbs were unwilling to give up the Serbian-issued documents, especially IDs and licence plates. Nevertheless, tensions grew, with roadblocks being set up by ethnic Serbs and Serbia’s army deployed to the Kosovo border. The Serbian defence minister, accompanied by the Russian ambassador to Serbia, visited the border to emphasise Serbian presence in the region as well as to demonstrate Russian support. Pressure rose again in 2022 for similar reasons, when Kosovo announced the issuance of fines for residents refusing to give up their Serbian-issued licence plates. 

At the same time, the issue of the Serbian Municipalities Association, which Belgrade seeks to establish in northern Kosovo, reemerged. The Association would allow Serbian communities in northern Kosovo a certain degree of self-management and local governance. Agreed upon in 2013 under the Brussels Agreement, their establishment was rejected by Pristina’s constitutional court over the extent of power that would have been attributed to them. Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti, fearing a satellite prefix, said that he does not want an entity that would resemble the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Thereafter, the recent local elections held in Kosovo as a response to ethnic Serbs resigning from their mandates in protest over the new licence plate rules were, following calls from Belgrade, boycotted by the local population. This resulted in a historically low voter turnout of merely 3.47%.

The EU, concerned about the rising tensions and the security concerns in northern Kosovo as well as the Russian interference in the matter, attempts to bring about a normalisation of the relations between both countries through a mediator role.

An agreement foreseeing a normalisation of the relations, under the auspices of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, Miroslav Lajčák, was tentatively agreed upon. Yet Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic seemed to be retreating when he announced that, until his mandate comes to an end, “Kosovo will remain in Serbia”.

On a related topic : The backpacker’s guide to the Balkans

What does the normalisation plan foresee?

Against the background of the tensions, Russia’s ongoing aggression of Ukraine and the threatened security situation in Europe, an 11-point-plan has been drawn up in order to facilitate a normalisation of the relations between Kosovo and Serbia. The plan is based on a Franco-German proposal, backed by the US and now mediated through the EU and the EEAS.

While Kurti and Vucic had tentatively agreed to the plan, it is the more important implementation roadmap annexed to the document which will require more late night negotiations, patience as well as concessions from both sides. This was part of the agenda of  a meeting that took place mid-March in the North Macedonian town of Ohrid, where Vucic and Kurti met together with EU High Representative Josep Borrell and Lajcak. Nevertheless, it was not possible to come up with a satisfactory agreement for both parties to sign, and negotiations at the beginning of May in Brussels also seem to have hit a wall.

Much of the debates which took place beginning of this year centred around the 11-point-plan. It stipulates, besides a de facto recognition between Kosovo and Serbia by exchanging permanent missions, that no country can act on behalf of, nor represent the other in the international sphere. Neither side should block, nor encourage others to block the other party from joining an international organisation (e.g. EU, UN, NATO) and both should not resort to violence in order to resolve disputes.

However, while the agreement features numerous measures to be implemented, and with the annexe still needing negotiation, how can the EU reinvigorate the dialogue, despite numerous setbacks hampering the negotiations, in order to bring about compromise and fruitful diplomacy?

On a related topic : Relations between Kosovo and Serbia under the Kurti’s government

 We need to get specific about the future 

Within the global melting pot of interests that is the Western Balkan, the EU has an opportunity to facilitate a normalisation between Serbia and Kosovo. In order to do so, it needs to provide a clearer, more tangible picture of what could lie ahead for both countries and subsequently, the rest of the region, after the agreement on normalisation has been implemented. While accession promises have been made as early as 2003 on the Thessaloniki Summit, Brussels’ necessary commitment and interest seemed to have faded away following the Eastern enlargement in 2004.

Yet, while the Eastern Enlargement was disputed and subject to controversy, the war in Ukraine underlies how crucial the step was. One can only imagine where the conflict would be raging today if this bold decision would not have been taken. The war in Ukraine demonstrates another aspect; how fast things can go and can be mobilised, if there is a broad political consensus to be found among the Member States. Unfortunately for now, far from all Member States (Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania, Greece) recognise Kosovo independence.

With all these complexities in mind, the EU could guarantee that Kosovo and Serbia would have a clear road to EU-membership if they adhere to the terms of the normalisation plan. This, together with financial compensation (the EU is already the largest donor to Serbia) as a way to incentivise compromises and the continuation of reconciliation, could ultimately rekindle the dialogue process and bring about normalisation. Nevertheless the carrot should not come without the stick. A persuasive dialogue (for instance, with appealing billboards in the capital city) with the public and civil society of both countries should be conducted in order to exert pressure. This pressure should accentuate that the future prospects of both countries within the European Union are in the hands of the respective leaders, and only in theirs.

Many organisations that push for a rapprochement between both countries and their paths towards Europe exist already. Examples would be the yearly festival “Mirëdita, dobar dan”, (A greeting in both Serbian and Albanian) in which cultural exchanges and public debates between the people of Serbia, Kosovo and Albania takes place. The social-democratic SSP opposition party further adopted the “Serbia in the EU until 2030” declaration in March 2023, and later announced its Pravda Europa (Towards Europe) program which roots for EU-accession and aims at bringing Serbia closer to the EU. According to its leader, Dragan Đilas, it is counterproductive to continue to oppose the European project and finally take a stand. Concerning Kosovo, Serbia needs to recognize its independence in order to advance in its negotiations with the EU.

While Member States still need to adopt a unitary stance towards Kosovo, the EU’s step to get more tangible about the accession-promises to the former Yugoslav republics is completely under the control of EU policymakers. Certainly, it is not a straightforward path, with EU Member States sceptical over democratic backsliding in Serbia and its close ties to Russia and China. Yet, the EU should not miss the opportunity and let Serbia turn its back to the Union in order to embrace deeper relations with Russia and China, who are more interested in their own role as a global power than in the prosperity and improved quality of life of the peoples of Kosovo and Serbia, and the Western Balkan as a whole.

On a related topic : La relance des négociations pour l’adhésion des Balkans : des enjeux géopolitiques majeurs pour l’UE

@Photo by Jana Katanic

[This article was first published in the issue 38 of the magazine]

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