Prime Minister Kurti and President Vucic have a chance to lead their countries towards a future they seek rather than the one they fear. If they find the courage to lead their people where they have not yet been, history will judge them kindly.
If you are confused about what happened during the last round of Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, you should find comfort in the fact that you are not alone. The last meeting between the parties was straight out of the EU institution negotiations’ playbook: parties with opposing views, all-nighter meetings, drama, but in the end success. Well, kind of.
EU High Representative Borrell basically proclaimed success by saying that the leaders have “agreed that no further discussions are needed on the European Union proposal” and therefore the proposal “will be published on the European External Action Service website”.
And then there was radio silence. Everyone was wondering what just happened? What does “no further discussions” mean? Is the proposal adopted or not? Vertiginous Borrell’s press point was a harbinger of confusion to come. Shortly afterwards, Kosovo’s Albin Kurti agreed with Borrell’s positive assessment, whereas Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic basically denied everything Borrell and Kurti had said. Amidst all of this, the American kept quiet and only said: “There is still a lot of work to be done”. Memoirs of Kosovo–Serbia dialogue will remember this chapter as the Night of Great Confusion.
As the night closed in, there was at least one clarity. The EU proposal for normalization of relations after much rumors is now official and public. The proposal offers both Kosovo and Serbia important benefits and by the same token requires gallant compromises.
First of all, the proposal brings much-needed stability and predictability to the key flashpoint in the Western Balkans, in particular against the backdrop of Russian aggression of Ukraine.
Just two months ago, Kosovo special police units were dispatched to mainly Serbian-populated North Mitrovica to enforce the rule of law. Serbia responded by scrambling fighter jets and putting its military on full combat readiness. All of this was shadowed by great powers as NATO’s KFOR was hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, whilst on the other side of the border Russia’s ambassador in Serbia joined Serbian top military brass in an inspection of Serbian troops.
Against this backdrop, there was a rising concern that by intention, or chance, things could get out of hand and a new front on European soil could be opened. In this light, progress in the dialogue and an agreement on the EU proposal brings much needed calm, helps parties overcome their differences, brings them closer to the euro-Atlantic structures and denies Russia maneuvering space for wreaking chaos.
Secondly, the proposal radically changes the dialogue by shifting the nature and focus of the dialogue from parties talking about each other to parties accepting each other. As such, the proposal elevates the dialogue from compartmentalized technical piecemeal discussions to more political principle-based normalization of relations. After years of technical negotiations, the parties have decided to go back to the basics and agree on necessary political fundamentals as a precondition for normalization of relations.
Thirdly, for Kosovo, the proposal brings important benefits. Built on the basis of the Basic Treaty between the two Germanies, the proposal introduces equality among the two “contracting parties” who will be “guided by the aims and principles laid down in the United Nations Charter, especially those of the sovereign equality of all States, respect for their independence, autonomy and territorial integrity”.
The proposal obliges Serbia to build good neighborly relations with Kosovo “on the basis of equal rights” and to recognise Kosovo “respective documents and national symbols, including passports, diplomas, license plates, and customs stamps”.
It stipulates that Serbia cannot represent Kosovo “in the international sphere or act on its behalf” and that it will not “object to Kosovo’s membership in any international organization”. The proposal also refers to the respect of “values referred to in Articles 2 and 21 of the Treaty of the European Union”, which is fundamentally important for Kosovo’s path to the EU and for overcoming the blockade of the five EU non-recognizers. And finally, the proposal commits Serbia for an eventual “legally binding agreement”, i.e. formal recognition of Kosovo.
Fourthly, for Serbia the proposal safeguards its EU ties whilst removing the pressure for formal recognition of Kosovo at this point. Furthermore, the proposal guarantees a “level of self-management for the Serbian community” and advances protection and the rights of the Serbian Orthodox Church, as well as Serbian cultural and religious heritage sites.
Like in any high-stake negotiation process, the proposal carries a number of risks for the parties as well.
First, President Vucic is notoriously apocryphal, hence it is unclear whether he will be truly committed to the implementation of the proposal. He has continuously been going back and forth sending mixed signals about his commitment to the normalization process in general, and the EU proposal in particular.
Secondly, Prime Minister Kurti is notoriously quixotic, hence it is unclear how far he is ready to go in resisting what he considers an unjust and anti-European Association of Serbian Municipalities (ASM). Too little pressure on Kurti and Serbia might collapse the negotiation process, too much pressure on Kurti and Kosovo might also collapse the negotiation process. It will be on Miroslav Lajcak and Escobar to jointly walk a fine line in the coming weeks in order to bring the deal to a finish line. And to this end they must always remember that they aren’t only facilitators who administer parties’ differences, but representatives of the “nation among nations” whose edifying values should be the moral compass of the dialogue.
Thirdly, it is important that both Kurti and Vucic are convinced of the EU’s and US’s seriousness in delivering upon the guarantees that are part of the proposal. If they see any vacillation or crack in the Western ranks –
The five non-recognizers and beyond – they will walk away and turbocharge the entire enterprise into a frantic populist race to the bottom.
“Serbia shall not pass” is what Prime Minister Kurti wrote on his Facebook when Switzerland knocked Serbia out of the World Cup last year. With 115,000 likes the post went down in history as the most liked post ever on social networks in Kosovo.
“No surrender” is a phrase that President Vucic uses ubiquitously: political rallies, interviews and famously his je ne sais quoi Instagram posts. “No surrender” has become his rallying cry for defiance in the dialogue with Kosovo. During the same World Cup the Serbian national team dressing room was decorated with the flag that showed Kosovo as being part of Serbia and the slogan “No surrender.” Outside the dressing room, Serbian fans chanted “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia”.
Kosovo–Serbia differences run deep and wide. The thread of hate, destruction and intolerance has been woven for decades. Today’s political, social and cultural differences flow from history of ethnic and political animosity. Those strong feelings though buried under the surface are still alive and kicking. According to Prishtina Institute for Political Studies most recent survey, 93 per cent of Kosovo Albanians see Serbia as the main security threat to the region. By the same token, 86 per cent of Kosovo Serbs see Kosovo as their main security threat. But this must come to an end. Countries must let go of the past and look towards the future. In particular Serbia must let go of history and embrace the future. To do that it must let go of Kosovo and embrace the EU.
Reflecting upon his successful experience, Matthew Nimetz, the former UN Special Representative for the naming dispute between Greece and North Macedonia, said: “The success that was achieved in both countries, it should be acknowledged, was only possible because of effective political leadership and mobilization of support. In the opinion of many, these two young Balkan leaders [Tsipras and Zaev] set an example of long-term vision, difficult decision making under pressure, and courageous political leadership that not many global leaders seem able to achieve in our times.”
This is the crux of any successful negotiation process. For a deal to be reached, parties must want a deal. Prime Minister Kurti and President Vucic have a chance to lead their countries towards the future they seek, rather than the one they fear. If they find the courage to lead their people where they have not yet been, history will judge them kindly.
Demush Shasha is the head of the European Policy Institute of Kosovo, EPIK Institute, in Prishtina. He has 15 years of public service experience in the area of European integration. Previous to that, he joined the Government as a junior officer for European integration, later becoming the General Secretary of the Ministry of European Integration.
The opinions expressed are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.