New Agreement, Old Wounds: Kosovo and Serbia Agreed to Take Steps Towards Normalising Relations
The dispute between Kosovo and Serbia, lasting over two decades, is one of the most severe issues in the Western Balkan region to be resolved.
However, all attempts to revive the normalisation process have failed so far. The new Franco-German proposal, today also known as the European plan, has sparked hope that the mutual relations will finally move in a good direction and the new agreement might help pave the way for reconciliation. While the international community, foreign stakeholders, and media are speaking about the momentum, which any involved party should not miss. The rest remain rather skeptical while trying to identify the actual difference between the new deal and those reached in 2013 and 2015, though never implemented.
Despite the gradually deteriorating relations between Kosovo and Serbia within the past two years, which further escalated during the summer of 2022, the central impulse for recovering constructive dialogue between Priština and Belgrade has not been induced by involved parties as expected but the international community. The more significant involvement of the international community, particularly the US and the EU and their supervision in negotiations and implementation of the agreement certainly brings more credibility and reliability into the process. Yet, the actual effect of an externally driven solution might also raise concerns, notably due to local leaders’ lack of political will and absence of public demand to compromise. Hence, the following discusses the role and the engagement of the international community in the dispute and resolution, as well as its capacity to make Kosovo and Serbia deliver results and implement the provisions under the current agreement.
From Mediators to Guarantors
While Serbia and Kosovo’s leaders, Aleksandar Vučić and Albin Kurti, respectively, formally agreed on the EU-facilitated agreement already in February this year, not even a month later, they reached the agreement on the implementation annex as the most vital part for any further progress within the process. One could claim that a high-level meeting in Ohrid exceeded initial expectations with its promising outcomes since anything similar would have been unthinkable just a year ago. However, local experts argue the deal itself does not offer any unique solution as the most sensitive points remain the same, as in the previous failed agreements. In a similar way, local leaders face the same challenges. In other words, they need to compromise on their long-term positions while promoting the current deal as an utterly exceptional opportunity demanding crucial compromises. Moreover, the deeply rooted narratives and the lack of reconciliation between the two nations make the potential reconciliation even more challenging. At the same time, the absence of internally driven motivation and a bottom-up approach to resolving the dispute has been confirmed by the situation on the ground while tensions in North Kosovo flared again.
On the contrary, the perceptible difference lies within the international community’s involvement in the normalisation process. An entirely new element of the agreement is also forming a monitoring committee chaired by the EU representative. The decision to take total control of the process as a guarantor of the deal implementation might be explained by factors such as the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the current geopolitical situation and the consequent need to stabilise the neighbouring region. The Western Balkans have always been an imaginary battlefield for foreign powers to gain influence in the region. In fact, it is clear that neither the EU nor the US is willing to stay aside, especially under the current circumstances. Regardless of the credibility and guarantees they bring into the process, the substantial engagement might also raise concerns considering the considerably low trust towards these actors, particularly within Serbian society. If the implementation fails, the EU risks further damage to its reputation and a decrease in pro-EU sentiment. Given this, the EU can not refrain from seizing its efforts to achieve at least partial implementation of the agreed obligations with tangible impact.
As an interpreter of the agreement, the EU unequivocally chose the carrot-and-stick approach. The approach’s ‘reward and punishment’ parts are mostly interlinked with Kosovo’s and Serbia’s ambitions to join the EU. Hence, fulfilling the agreed obligations will become an integral and binding part of the accession process and will determine the overall pace of the negotiations. If Serbia and Kosovo do not prove sufficient progress under the EU’s approach, they may lose their current benefits, such as a visa-free regime or financial resources. However, there are better strategies than threats, mainly when the process is driven by external actors and the willingness for change does not come from the public. Local leaders tend to use the latter as a strategic weapon to neglect their responsibility.
Yet the EU plans to reward ‘good behavior’ – in this case, the agreement’s implementation. However, there is little left to offer since the promise of a clear membership perspective is losing its credibility over time. While the perspective of EU membership, even candidacy for Kosovo, is too distant for now, Serbia displays the lowest support for EU integration among all Western Balkan countries. According to the latest Balkan Barometer, only 38 % of respondents claimed that EU membership would be good for Serbia’s economy. Experts do not expect any concessions or shortcuts for Serbia to induce the acceleration of the integration process without reaching progress in other negotiation chapters, especially those embodied in the ‘Fundamentals’ cluster or under Chapters 30 and 31. Considering that the EU backed the talks between Kosovo and Serbia for almost a decade without achieving any noteworthy advancement, experts remain unconvinced that the situation might change without introducing a clear strategy and precisely defined consequences in case of non-fulfilment or violation of stipulated obligations.
The EU’s strategy of keeping both sides equally unhappy had turned out to work quite well, considering what has been promised and agreed on. However, both parties are now standing ahead of the most challenging part of the normalisation process, namely implementation. Despite the numerous roadmaps and fixed terms set over the past decade, they have never reached that stage. Unquestionably, any progress depends primarily on the political will of the local leaders to retreat on the most sensitive issues, thereby risking the loss of their political power. Furthermore, Kosovo and Serbia are expected to convince their distrustful respective nations of the necessity to embrace this momentum and subsequently step in the direction of long-term peace.
Nevertheless, while both political leaders express their readiness to implement the agreement’s provisions, none of their actions demonstrates their genuine commitment to delivering on the promises to the EU. Contrariwise, they tend to shift responsibility from one to another as to who makes the first step. Therefore, the EU should first focus on overcoming a foreseen gridlock at the beginning of the normalisation process by being strict towards the leaders while positively motivating the respective public instead of sanctioning them.
Romana Burianová is a Research Fellow at the Strategic Analysis Think Tank.
Disclaimer: Views presented here are those of the author solely and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Strategic Analysis.
Besides the sources listed below, the paper is founded on interviews with Miloš Pavković, a researcher at European Policy Centre – CEP, and Adelina Hasani, a researcher at Kosovar Centre for Security Studies.
- Euractiv. 2023. EU History Offers a Model for Kosovo-Serbia Reconciliation.https://www.euractiv.com/section/enlargement/opinion/eu-history-offers-a-model-for-kosovo-serbia-reconciliation/.
- European Western Balkans. 2023. ‘Constructive ambiguity’ in the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo is present even after the Ohrid Agreement. https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2023/03/31/constructive-ambiguity-in-the-dialogue-between-serbia-and-kosovo-present-even-after-the-ohrid-agreement/.
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