Serbia and Kosovo: time to bury the hatchet

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for emerging security challenges at NATO

When I was at school in the UK in the late sixties studying the history of the Western Balkans for my A level exams was a fairly dismal affair. The textbooks invariably referred to this region as the “powder keg of Europe” and often quoted Winston Churchill’s famous remark that “the Balkans produce more history than they can consume”. It was Balkan intrigues and nationalist passions that were blamed for the outbreak of the First World War, although these days historians take a broader view and see the murder of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 as more the pretext for than the underlying cause of the readiness of the great European powers to unleash catastrophic war.

Certainly, the Western Balkan peoples have resisted numerous attempts by foreign powers throughout history to impose some sort of multinational order on them. They threw off the yoke of the Ottoman Empire, resisted the efforts of Austria-Hungary to expand into the region through the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, and finally brought down Woodrow Wilson’s vision of a union of the South Slavs (Yugoslavia) in the 1990s. The conflicts of the breakup of Yugoslavia were not as destructive as what the region suffered in the two world wars in the 20th century; but they were internal, civil wars and ones where the major powers intervened to make peace rather than to seize or annex territory. And, as is often the case with civil conflicts, the fighting in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo* left a legacy of ethnic separation, bitterness and mistrust in its wake. As the first EU High Representative, Javier Solana, was fond of saying, peace in the western Balkans was unfortunately more the absence of war than a true peace in the hearts of its populations.

Yet since the turn of the century, things have been looking up in the Western Balkans. The long efforts of NATO and the EU to rebuild the region through the deployment of peacekeeping troops and the training of local security and police forces have been paying off. Countries that were once consumers of security protection now provide it. Bosnia has sent troops to join the UN peacekeepers in Lebanon and North Macedonia has sent contingents to join the NATO stabilisation and training missions in Afghanistan. The EU has joined efforts with the UN and the OSCE to organise and supervise free and fair elections, form independent judiciaries, build competent public administrations and civil services and transition the old communist command economies to the European social market model.

I remember back in the late 1990s having breakfast in Sarajevo with the UN envoy, Jacques Klein, a giant of an American who did so much to resolve the problems in southern Croatia after the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995. He told me that the most important telltale sign of the lack of economic progress in Bosnia was the absence of a McDonalds. Even the Soviet Union had a McDonalds, an indication that this US hamburger chain could survive in even the most hostile economic environment. Yet apparently not in Bosnia with its multiple layers of government and red tape bureaucracy. Well, today Sarajevo has several McDonalds so the ‘Klein test’ of economic development has at least been met.

The Western Balkans are moving ever closer to the European heartland

The Western Balkans have young educated workforces able to participate in the digital economy, although women are still under-represented by European standards, and many budding entrepreneurs. Natural resources and tourist attractions are not lacking either. Of course, many of the endemic problems, such as corruption, the black economy, organised crime and weak institutions and governance are still there. Jobs will need to be found for the young populations and this will not be any easier given the impact of COVID-19. Otherwise, the brain drain of young talent abroad will continue.

Yet, all this said, the Western Balkans are moving ever closer to the European heartland. Many of its countries have already joined NATO and others are on the way too. Croatia and Slovenia have been members of the EU for over a decade already and Montenegro and Serbia are deep into membership negotiations. Just recently EU leaders gave the green light for Albania and North Macedonia to start soon their membership negotiations too. This is vital in a region where the credible prospect of EU membership is the most powerful driver of political reform and economic transformation.

Also back in the 1990s another high UN (and EU) official, the former Swedish prime minister, Carl Bildt, told me that business and enterprise were the best way to dissolve ethnic antagonisms and to open up closed borders. The prospect of making money has always been a good way to bring people together. This is clearly true but it can only go so far unless political disputes are resolved. Otherwise, the connectivity, legal protections, dispute resolution mechanisms and favourable customs and tax regimes are simply not in place to encourage legitimate business (as opposed to the organised criminal variety) to dare send goods, services and workers across the borders. The EU can pump in money as part of the pre-accession aid and other international organisations, such as the UNDP, can help to improve the quality of human and social life and education as well as the lot of small minorities such as the Roma. Yet unless the political climate improves and the leaders of the Western Balkans establish effective regional cooperation, this part of Europe will continue to lag behind the rest of the continent in key categories of human security and development.

This is why it is high time to resolve the most poisonous political dispute in the Western Balkans today; the non-recognition by Serbia of the independence of Kosovo. The conflict between these two parties ended just over 21 years ago. Kosovo declared its independence in 2008 as part of a managed process steered by the US and many EU and NATO member states. Since then over 100 countries have recognised Kosovo although some in the EU, such as Spain or Slovakia, are still holding out. In Spain’s case, this is linked to fears of encouraging Catalan separatism. Yet the real problem has been the implacable refusal of Serbia to recognise its new southern neighbour. This is because Kosovo was not one of the six constituent republics of the former Yugoslavia but a province of Serbia. Admittedly it enjoyed a degree of autonomy before the Serb leader, Slobodan Milošević, revoked this status in 1989.

The Kosovo-Serbia dispute is not only bad for the two countries concerned but has a wider impact on the western Balkans

Yet in Serb eyes Kosovo did not have the same right to secede as the six republics; and before the 1999 conflict, no one challenged Belgrade’s sovereign right over its southern province any more than they challenged its right over the other formerly autonomous province, Vojvodina in the north with its large ethnic Hungarian population. In these same Serb eyes a revolt by the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo has never been sufficient reason to split the territory off from Serbia. Yet a large part of the international community has begged to differ. It considers that the long history of Serb repression of the Kosavars has de-legitimised Belgrade’s right to rule over them, and in any case UN Security Council Resolution 1244 of June 1999 placed the province under a transitional UN administration (UNMIK) pending the resolution of its final status. This said, the supporters of Kosovo’s independence have been at pains to point out that Kosovo is a special case and does not constitute a precedent for separatist movements elsewhere.

Not being recognised by your largest neighbour and potentially largest source of investment and trading partner is obviously a major handicap. It has given Kosovo a sense of being closed off from the outside world with travel to the rest of Europe difficult for Kosovars due to issues with documents and visa restrictions. Disputes over property ownership, particularly over resources like the Trepca mining complex in north Kosovo, muddy the legal waters and discourage foreign investment.

True some progress has been made since the EU first sponsored talks between Belgrade and Pristina in March 2011. There have been agreements on practical things such as customs facilitation, energy, telecommunications and travel. Yet the progress has been fragile. Belgrade has complained that Pristina has dragged its feet over the establishment of a distinct structure for the Serb minority living in Mitrovica and north of the Ibar river (the Association of Serb Municipalities) while the Kosovars have been angered by Belgrade’s attempts (successful thus far) to keep them out of international organisations and to persuade countries that have recognised Kosovo to reverse course and rescind these recognitions. Here Belgrade has been able to count on the loyal backing of its economic and military partner, Russia, which is still smarting from its inability to prevent NATO’s air campaign in Kosovo from May to June 1999 and Kosovo’s separation from Serbia thereafter. For Pristina the failure of its second attempt to join Interpol last year was the last straw. It imposed 100% tariffs on Serb imports in response.  The EU-sponsored talks ran aground and the two sides have not met for the last 19 months.

The Kosovo-Serbia dispute is not only bad for the two countries concerned but has a wider impact on the western Balkans. It complicates Serbia’s relations with Albanian communities elsewhere such as in Albania itself and North Macedonia, not to speak of Serbia’s own ethnic  Albanian minority in the Presevo Valley. It complicates relations between Pristina and its own ethnic Serb minority. It also de-stabilises Bosnia because ethnic tensions can be exploited by the Serb Republika Srpska leadership to resist cooperation with the federal government in Sarajevo. Moreover, it prevents the Western Balkans from developing a north-south and east-west network of human and economic interchange that is necessary for an integrated single market and clusters of education, innovation, technology and ideas. So the time has come for a concerted push to resolve the differences between Belgrade and Pristina and bury this particular hatchet.

Land swaps rarely resolve disputes as there is invariably a winner and a loser

The first thing is to reject the quick fix solution of a land swap between Belgrade and Pristina. This idea has been put forward by the two Presidents, Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia and Hashim Thaçi of Kosovo. It proposes to exchange Serb populated areas in northern Kosovo for Albanian populated parts of southern Serbia. The Trump administration in the US has shown some interest in this proposal but it has been rejected by many EU member governments and a broad spectrum of Kosovo politicians. And for good reason. We saw with the division of Bosnia into two entities at Dayton in 1995 just how difficult it is to divide up ethnically mixed areas in a way that satisfies the neighbours In every village side street and the owners of every property deed. The Zone of Separation in Bosnia became so convoluted that it ended up extending 1,200 kilometres, or the distance from Brussels to Kyiv.

Land swaps rarely resolve disputes as there is invariably a winner and a loser and the dispute goes on. At the same time, the message of land swaps is that peace is only possible between mono-ethnic states. This is a disastrous signal to the rest of the region and hardly likely to create friendly relations between Serbia and Kosovo in the long run. Multi-ethnic states have to devolve power-sharing and to show tolerance and a habit of balancing interests. So they are more likely to get on well with their neighbours and to be at home in the Euro-Atlantic and EU structures.

So what is the best way forward?

First and foremost, the EU should use leverage and conditionality to maximum effect. Belgrade has received indications from Chancellor Merkel of Germany that it cannot become an EU member state before it resolves its differences with Kosovo and grants recognition too. Also, Serbia should commit to not blocking Kosovo’s membership of the EU when and if it meets all the conditions and requirements. This should now become formal EU policy as well. There may be some initial push back from nationalist circles in Serbia who will claim that the country’s future lies with its pan-Slavic brother, Russia, but these circles were never pro-European in the first place and ultimately Serbs, like any other EU state, have to make clear which way they lean and which values they espouse. So the nationalist anti-liberal forces in Serbia, as elsewhere in the Western Balkans, cannot be appeased; they have to be countered with a more attractive and convincing European narrative. A clear EU conditionality will focus Serbs over time on the need to make choices and live by them. There is no other way for the EU to survive as a viable political project.

The US suggestion to start with the economic issues is a wise one

The second way forward is to get the US back in the political game. The Kosovars have long trusted the US more than anyone else given the primary role the US played in ending the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia (North Macedonia being the one exception). Streets named after American diplomats and generals and a massive photo of Bill Clinton in downtown Pristina attest to that. In this connection it is encouraging that the Trump administration has appointed two special envoys for the Western Balkans. One of them, Richard Grenell, the former US ambassador to Germany, is focusing specifically on Serbia-Kosovo. Already he has persuaded Pristina to lift the 100% tariff on Serb imports and this has opened the way for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue to be resumed.

This shows that European security requires US diplomats as much as its troops and tanks.  The US is not replacing the EU mediation effort and has suggested that Washington focus on the economic issues while Brussels tries to resolve the political disputes. This division of labour may well make sense but Washington and Brussels need to work ‘en bonne intelligence’ and send a single message. The last thing we need now is a form of ‘forum shopping’ whereby the parties try to play one side against the other. Given the parlous state of the transatlantic relationship this will not be easy but a success achieved equally and cooperatively by both Washington and Brussels could help to mend some fences.

The US suggestion to start with the economic issues is a wise one. They are less sensitive than the political ones and the two sides have built up a track record in dealing with them during the EU-sponsored talks. Progress in this area can also bring immediate and tangible benefits to citizens on both sides of the border. Civil society can be engaged as well as mayors and local government to seek solutions that are tailored to local concerns and needs. The areas of the environment, investment, promoting the digital and circular economy as well as developing youth and educational programmes and the empowerment of women can be added usefully to the traditional topics of customs and transport links. This cooperation can generate grassroots support for political reconciliation by making communities feel more secure. It can also help to re-establish the badly fractured trust between the governments in Serbia and Kosovo.

Yet the economic side is no panacea when it comes to long-term solutions. As previously stated, economic progress will sooner or later come up against the political buffers; and those political differences can explode at any moment to halt the economic talks as we saw with Kosovo’s unilateral tariff decision last year. So the crucial moment in the resumed talks will come when a transition has to be made from the economic to the political. Here the US and the EU will need to be totally synchronised to put maximum pressure simultaneously on both Belgrade and Pristina with a suitable package of carrots and sticks.

The EU and the transatlantic community badly need a diplomatic win, and this is the place to get it

Finally, tough decisions require tough leaders. There are always powerful factions that see any compromise as surrender and find it more convenient to stick with an easy intransigence rather than take the responsibility for unpopular decisions. Progress needs forward-looking leaders in both capitals who are able to lead and cut through the Gordian knot. Recently Prime Ministers Tsipiras and Zaev of Greece and North Macedonia have shown just what this leadership looks like in settling the 30-year-old name dispute between the two countries. Certainly, compromise brings protest and opposition and both political leaders are no longer in office. Yet the protests subside quickly as populations understand the benefits of normalised relations and move on; and the history books will be kind to Tsipiras and Zaev long after their opponents have been forgotten.

We could hope that the Serb and Kosovar leaderships will emulate this example (which brought North Macedonia into NATO and EU membership negotiations). President Vučić has just won a strong majority in the Serb elections, which were far from perfect and will be rerun in some areas. He is now in a position to demonstrate some statesmanship and just like it took Nixon to go to China it will undoubtedly need a Serb nationalist to bring his country behind him on the recognition of Kosovo. Yet he needs to aim at real solutions and not phoney land swaps; and agree to a complete normalisation of relations with Kosovo, not partial formulas still holding back on recognition.

It takes two to tango and things, unfortunately, look more complicated on the Kosovo side. President Thaçi was on his way to Washington last week for a long-anticipated summit with President Vučić hosted by the White House when news came through that the Prosecutor of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague was intending to submit an indictment for war crimes against Thaçi and nine other Kosovars, including the former Speaker of the Parliament, Kadri Veseli.  This is in relation to their role in the Kosovo Liberation Army during the conflict with Serbia. The indictments still need to be confirmed by a pre-trial judge but it was enough for Thaci to turn back to Pristina and cancel his Washington visit. Subsequently, the Kosovo Prime Minister, Avdullah Hoti, cancelled his participation as well.

Justice must take its course and it was the Kosovo Parliament itself which established the Specialist Chambers in 2015. So an indicted President Thaci would not be a credible or authoritative negotiating partner for the upcoming talks. It is no disrespect to Prime Minister Hoti to say that he does not have the experience or stature of Aleksander Vucic; so the Kosovars need to unite behind a competent negotiating team that can hold their own against the well-drilled Serbs.

Although the Washington relaunch of the talks could not take place we must not lose the momentum. President Macron of France has offered to host the talks in Paris in coming days together with Chancellor Merkel. France and Germany may be finding it tough going to resolve the conflict in the Donbas in the Normandy Group and to bend the will of the hard-nosed President Putin of Russia. Yet Kosovo is within the range of the possible. The EU and the transatlantic community badly need a diplomatic win, and this is the place to get it.



* Footnote from Friends of Europe – For the United Nations Development Programme, references to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council resolution 1244 (1999). For the European Union, this designation used is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with the UN Security Council resolution 1244/1999 and the International Court of Justice Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.

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