Examining the Agreement on the Path to Normalization between Kosovo and Serbia, this opinion article delves into the challenges of implementation, potential benefits, and the significance for regional cooperation in the Western Balkans.
During their first high-level meeting of 2023 in Brussels, Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic verbally accepted the Agreement on the Path to Normalization, of relations between Kosovo and Serbia [referred to as APN] on February 27.
Subsequently, another meeting took place between the two leaders in Ohrid, North Macedonia, on March 18 to establish an implementation annex for the APN.
However, despite not officially failing, the reality was a fiasco.
In a late-night press conference, the EU’s foreign and security policy chief, Borrell, announced that the leaders had verbally agreed to an implementation annex that was vaguer than the actual agreement.
An uncertain verbal agreement
While Germany and France successfully brought Prime Minister Kurti and President Vucic to an agreement, the EU failed to secure Serbia’s signature on the agreement.
As a result, what was supposed to be a breakthrough agreement between Kosovo and Serbia has only added to the existing uncertainty and unpredictability. The lack of signatures in the agreement minimizes both domestic and bilateral accountability for implementation.
Following the Ohrid debacle, the central challenge for the APN lies in its implementation. Neither Prishtina nor Belgrade, and Brussels for that matter, hold an optimistic view that the agreement will be actually implemented.
The uncertainty surrounding the APN’s implementation has been amplified by its recent breach. Serbia objected to the approval of Kosovo’s request for membership in the European Council [CoE] on April 24, 2023.
While Serbia could have chosen to abstain from voting in the CoE committee of ministers, it instead voted against Kosovo, violating Article 4 of the APN, which states that “Serbia will not object to Kosovo’s membership in any international organization.”
The EU failed to respond to this situation.
In a recently published paper with the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies, we analyze the pros and cons of this agreement.
What are the pros and cons?
Setting aside the prevailing pessimism, the APN between Kosovo and Serbia has the potential to usher in a new phase of relations between the two countries, if, and this is a significant if, it is implemented.
Through the APN, Serbia practically acknowledges the statehood attributes of Kosovo by accepting national symbols and committing to respect Kosovo’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Moreover, Serbia agrees to treat Kosovo based on the principles of the United Nations [UN] Charter and the Treaty of the European Union [TEU]. The agreement’s “new historic” features are noteworthy, starting with the title itself, which refers to the agreement as one between “Kosovo and Serbia” rather than “Prishtina and Belgrade.”
This symbolic yet significant change signals Serbia’s and the EU’s gradual recognition of Kosovo’s statehood attributes.
However, while the APN between Kosovo and Serbia introduces significant affirmative changes to their relations, it also includes elements that may create legal and political hurdles for the Kosovo government if implemented.
The APN represents the first time that the Kosovo government explicitly accepts Serbia’s position on the status question. Furthermore, the transparency of the process of the dialogue for normalization of relations with Serbia has declined in Kosovo. The Kosovo government has limited its reporting on the normalization dialogue both to the public as well as to the Kosovo Assembly.
The EU’s proposal for the APN between Kosovo and Serbia was endorsed by the European Council, marking the first time that all 27 member states of the EU have endorsed a normalization agreement in the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia.
The European Council’s conclusions highlight that the APN puts “the relationship between both parties on a new and sustainable basis as a historic chance that should be seized by both parties” and urges its implementation.
The European Council’s conclusions on March 23, 2023, call on both parties to promptly and faithfully fulfill their respective obligations.
However, in the conclusions on February 9th, the European Council also urges Kosovo to establish an Association/Community of Serb Majority Municipalities, ASM. Establishment of the ASM is also implied in Article 7 of the APN. But it seems the Kosovo government is cautious to move too quickly with the ASM, without tangible incentives from the EU, such as the candidate status.
On the other hand, the EU and the US expect the Kosovo government to take credible steps towards the establishment of the ASM, an obligation for Kosovo since 2013. All this shows that an implementation plan for the APN based on a sequence of events is crucial, and the EU should insist on delivering such a plan. The prolonged lingering of the ASM issue only benefits President Vucic’s agenda for a continued crisis management mode in relations with Kosovo.
If implemented, the Agreement has the potential to lead to what we call a functional recognition of the statehood of Kosovo and therefore lead to important and affirmative changes in relations between the two countries.
This functional recognition is important for unblocking regional cooperation in the Western Balkans, as the Kosovo-Serbia dispute is the central stumbling block for greater integration of the region, including the implementation of the Common Regional Market and the objectives of the Berlin Process.
Furthermore, the APN also creates an opportunity for Kosovo to initiate a political dialogue with the EU within the framework of Title II of the Stabilization and Association Agreement, SAA. This political dialogue should focus on supporting Kosovo’s path towards integration into the international democratic community, as the APN should constitute “objective circumstances.”
In other words, Kosovo, Serbia, but also the region, stand to benefit significantly from an effective implementation of the APN, and therefore, Germany and France should continue the high-level political support for the European Commission and EUSR Lajcak to ensure implementation, including by maintaining the credibility of the consequences for the parties in absence of implementation.
Ramadan Iljazi is head of research at the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies, KCSS. He holds a PhD in Politics and International Relations from the Dublin City University, DCU, Ireland and a Master of Letters degree in peace and conflict studies from the St. Andrews University, Scotland. Prior to his involvement with KCSS, Dani served as Deputy Minister for European Integration in the Kosovo government from 2015 to 2016.
Adelina Hasani, is a researcher with the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies, KCSS, and is actively involved in Horizon Europe research projects. Adelina holds a PhD degree in International Relations from the University of Ankara, and a Master’s degree in Human Rights and Democracy from the University of Sarajevo and the University of Bologna, ERMA. Adelina’s research interests include gender studies, political economy, and security issues. Adelina is also a co-founder of the initiative Femaktiv in Prizren and editor-in-chief of Prizma Medium.