An important meeting between Kosovo and Serbian leaders is expected to take place in Brussels on Monday, and parties are expected to sign a normalization of relations agreement. We bring the opinion of Daniel Serwer on the issue, including the way in which the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities should be accepted and the outcomes that may result from Monday’s meeting.
My Balkanite friends are clamoring to know what is going to happen on Monday when Serbian President Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Kurti meet once again. The Europeans and Americans are pressing hard for a “normalization” agreement. No one knows quite what that means.
But I have some ideas about how to evaluate whatever happens on Monday. These come from my personal perspective, which supports the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of Kosovo. Those who imagine Serbia ever again governing Kosovo, or annexing part of its territory, need read no further.
My assessment criteria include these:
Improved state-to-state relations
Normalization should mean making the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo more like a “normal” state-to-state relationship between respectful neighbors. This requires agreement, at least in principle, on the line of control between them. A commitment to agree and demarcate that line would be a clear positive signal. Normalization should also mean forswearing the threat or use of force to settle disputes. Serbia has recently mobilized its army and threatened the use of force in response to imagined abuses against Serbs in Kosovo.
Good neighbors need however to do more than respect a line and not use force or threats of it. They need also to respect their neighbor’s state institutions. This applies in particular to Belgrade. Serbian state security and other personnel remain in the Serb communities inside Kosovo. The situation is especially egregious in the four northern municipalities contiguous with Serbia. But Serbian security agents intimidate Serbs throughout Kosovo who seek to join the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) and other Kosovo institutions.
Belgrade should welcome, not resist, the recruitment of Serbs into the KSF and other Kosovo institutions, especially the police and judiciary. Return of the Serbs to those institutions in northern Kosovo should be a touchstone in assessing whatever is agreed. So too, should be elections in the northern municipalities, held under the authority of Prishtina.
Reciprocity is a critical dimension of any state-to-state relations. It has been lacking in the loud international community insistence on the formation inside Kosovo of an Association of Serb-majority Municipalities, ASM. Prishtina has asked for a reciprocal Association of Albanian-majority Municipalities inside Serbia with comparable powers, but Belgrade has not welcomed that idea. Prishtina is also insisting that the ASM be formed consistent with the Kosovo constitution. That would mean without executive powers and without a sectarian name. It would be a purely consultative body not limited to Serb participation.
Serbia however wants the ASM as a means of permanent control over the Serbs in Kosovo and leverage over the Kosovo state. It has no intention of conceding anything comparable to the Albanian population in southern Serbia. If a unilateral ASM with executive powers is permitted, you can expect trouble not only in Kosovo but also in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There the main Serb leader has said bluntly it would be a prelude to independence for the 49% of the territory known as Republika Srpska.
If the ASM were to be formed before Belgrade recognition of Kosovo in an agreement generated by the US and the EU, that would give the ASM even more implicit EU approval than the Kosovo state itself. No government in Prishtina should want that to happen. The ASM should be formed only after Serbian (and presumably then all-EU) recognition.
If implementation is left up to Belgrade and Prishtina, the results will be predictably minimal. They have already spent more than 10 years discussing the Brussels agreement that introduced the ASM and called for application of the Kosovo police and judicial systems in the northern municipalities. Unless the international community seriously engages, we can expect no better in the next 10 years.
That engagement can come in several forms. One would be formation of an implementation task force in which the EU and US act as guarantors, prepared to intervene actively and effectively in pointing out implementation failures of that sort. A body of this sort could deliver on promises American officials have already made ensuring the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of Kosovo. The International Civilian Office that supervised Kosovo’s implementation of the Ahtisaari Plan after independence might be a model.
Another form of international engagement would be recognition by the five EU states that have not already done so. That could soften the blow of unilateral formation of the ASM, without a comparable association inside Serbia. All five might be more than one can hope for, but several would be good. Even one would be desirable. None will lead to serious disappointment in Kosovo.
NATO could make its position on future Kosovo membership, after its army is fully accredited in 2027, clear and unequivocal.
Financing is another possibility. Serbia has already received a major grant for railway reconstruction. Kosovo has received nothing comparable. It should.
Serbian President Vucic has for years fed Serbia’s tabloids a diet of anti-Albanian racism that has fired up his nationalist opposition. That includes expressing his personal regret that Serbia released Prime Minister Kurti from prison. Russian bots and agents pitch in frequently. Kurti indulges in less overt hate speech. He also has more support at home for an agreement, but only if it does not infringe on Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He is implacable on that subject.
One or the other leader, or both, may walk away from Monday’s meeting unwilling to sign. Either would likely increase in domestic popularity if he did so. Democracy, in this case, is the enemy of conflict resolution, because the leaders have not prepared their constituents for compromise. Only international pressures and inducements can compensate for domestic unhappiness. The US and EU, if they get an agreement, will need to continue to engage.
PS: As I have left out mention of Ukraine, let this letter from Prime Minister Kurti to President Zelensky fill the gap:
Daniel Serwer is an expert in Balkan affairs and a professor at John Hopkins University.
This article was initially published at Peacefare.net: https://www.peacefare.net/2023/02/26/how-to-assess-a-pristina-belgrade-agreement/
The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.