Illustration: Jete Dobranja/Prishtina Insight.

Can Albin Kurti reshape the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue?

Kosovo’s new administration has recently sent signals that it is more uncompromising than its predecessors in its interactions with Serbia, but will this assertive approach work in Brussels?

On Tuesday June 15, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti will meet Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Brussels, their first ever meeting as part of the EU-facilitated dialogue. However, going into the meeting, all three parties, Kosovo, Serbia and the EU, appear to be on different pages regarding its nature.

Kurti has stated that the meeting “will not be a continuation of the old dialogue” and will instead be a discussion on how to reformat the talks. Meanwhile, other senior figures in his party Vetevendosje have played down any expectations for what may result from this new phase of the dialogue.

The Kosovo prime minister’s statement on reformatting the talks only adds further intrigue to the big unanswered question over this latest iteration of the dialogue: Is Kurti continuing where former Kosovo prime minister Avdullah Hoti left off in 2020?

While it was sometimes overshadowed by the onslaught of news that broke throughout last year, the resumption of the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue quietly moved the process considerably further on. 

Under the mediation of the EU’s Special Representative for the Dialogue Miroslav Lajcak, Hoti met with Vucic in July 2020, agreeing to a resumption of the dialogue. Meetings that followed last summer led to what Lajcak described as “full progress” on discussions over missing and displaced persons and economic cooperation. 

Hoti also confirmed that talks on the issue of missing persons had been “positively concluded”, although missing persons groups told Prishtina Insight that they had not been consulted in the process.

Despite this seeming success, with Lajcak’s approach to the dialogue being that ‘nothing is concluded until everything is concluded’, currently there are seemingly agreements that are simultaneously both reached and not reached – Schrodinger’s Deal, if you will.

In recent days, Kurti has been encouraged by Skender Hyseni, Hoti’s State Coordinator for the Dialogue, to build on the achievements of last year. However, the prime minister’s insistence that he is going to Brussels to discuss the format of the talks, as well as the strategic manoeuvre of publishing Hyseni’s report on the dialogue, suggests that this is not necessarily amongst the Kosovo prime minister’s priorities. 

For their part, the EU has stated that while “governments on both sides have changed, commitments remain,” and that “everything that has been agreed has to be implemented.” While the mediators’ communications on the subject remain typically delphic, it can perhaps be inferred that any attempt by Kurti to ‘reformat’ the dialogue may fall on unimpressed ears in Brussels.

In Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic has made it clear that the issue he wants to discuss is the formation of the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities. 

Talks on the subject are reported to have broken down in 2020 and Vucic is clearly keen to make up for lost time. On June 2, he warned Kurti that if the Kosovo prime minister believes that the Association will not be discussed in Brussels then he does not need to attend the meeting.

The deadlock over the formation of the Association has been caused by a judgement by Kosovo’s Constitutional Court, which found numerous elements of the outlined format of the Association agreed at the dialogue table in 2015 as contrary to the spirit of the Kosovo Constitution.

The decision has left Kosovo politicians loath to answer the question of how to implement the agreements reached while respecting the Constitutional Court’s judgement. The report on the dialogue in 2020 authored by Hyseni revealed that Hoti “begged” ambassadors from the Quint group to discuss the formation of the Association at a later stage of the dialogue.

Accepting the creation of an Association, especially one in line with the 2015 agreement, is a compromise that Kurti in particular may struggle to sell to the public after years of openly referring to it as the “Bosnification of Kosovo.”

Nonetheless, even if it is not in regard to the Association, received wisdom has always dictated that Kosovo will have to make compromises somewhere in the dialogue. However, there have been recent signs that Kosovo’s new administration is perhaps more uncompromising than its predecessors.

Last week, an interview was published on Al-Jazeera Balkans with Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani, whose rhetoric on Serbia was positively bullish. Discussing the notion of compromise in the dialogue, Osmani stated that Kosovo had already made a compromise simply by engaging in the dialogue despite Serbia never repenting for the crimes it committed in Kosovo. 

“Without the perpetrators of those horrendous crimes standing in front of justice and getting the punishment they deserve, we are still sitting at that table,” she said. “The compromise is there.”

That Osmani and Kurti, president and prime minister, seemingly speak with one voice on the dialogue is also a demonstration of a renewed strength to Kosovo’s bargaining position in the dialogue. 

For years Kosovo has been plagued by weak coalition governments that have regularly collapsed over issues pertaining to Serbia. Kurti may not have created the much sought after consensus in Kosovo over the dialogue – opposition parties are still lining up to accuse him of hypocrisy and non-transparence in regard to the talks – but what he does have is power and a strong electoral legitimacy. 

Vetevendosje’s landslide victory in February and the successful election of Osmani has given them the luxury of negotiating without fears of immediate domestic repercussions. 

The day after Osmani’s interview, at a summit of Western Balkan leaders in Tirana, the signing of a joint declaration was removed from the agenda due to a dispute over how Kosovo was referred to. The Kosovo side insisted on being listed as the Republic of Kosovo, a demand Serbia refused to accede to. 

In his address to the summit, Kurti described Serbia’s refusal to recognise Kosovo as an ongoing obstacle to regional cooperation, adding that Kosovo cannot engage in initiatives tailored to deny Kosovo’s status as a sovereign and independent state.

However, Kurti did not only attack Serbia’s role in increasing regional cooperation, he also criticised the process itself. “We cannot pretend that future initiatives will resolve the current obstacles unless we change our current framework of cooperation,” he said, adding that the framework fails to address anti-corruption issues, facing the past, judicial independence and media freedoms.

The Kosovo Prime Minister went on to outline a new ‘South East European Free Trade Agreement’ to replace CEFTA, one which would cover all Western Balkan states, including Kosovo, as equal members with equal rights. 

The Tirana summit demonstrated that Kurti was not prepared to continue with international processes that he saw as detrimental to Kosovo’s statehood – and that he was willing to provide bold new suggestions to reinvigorate them. If he adopts the same approach in Brussels this week, it may lead to explosive results.

Kurti has the domestic strength to attempt to reshape the dialogue, to try and return the conversation to the Ahtisaari Plan, and insist any further compromises are unnecessary. However, whether this is possible considering the other parties at the table is another question. The EU’s patience for another new approach is likely to be thin, while away from the negotiating table relations between Kosovo and Serbia seem particularly strained.

The Kurti administration has repeatedly claimed that it is ready to sue Serbia for genocide in the International Court of Justice, something which has raised ire in Belgrade. Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic is reported to have advised Kurti to continue with his suit instead of impeding the dialogue. 

Kurti has always given the impression of a stubborn politician that is ready to leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of his goals, and an attempt to reformat the dialogue in adherence to the principles he has outlined would represent a welcome step towards a more genuine attempt to deal with the past. 

However, endeavouring to do so with an impatient EU and a still hostile and recently riled Serbia may not yield the desired results. Whatever happens in Brussels on Tuesday, for now the notion of ‘normalised’ relations between Kosovo and Serbia seems as distant as ever.

Illustration: Jete Dobranja/Prishtina Insight.

14 June 2021 - 14:03

Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.