Thaci, Mogherini and Vucic. | Illustration by Trembelat for Prishtina Insight.

No room for maneuver

After a year of strategic limbo, the EU, Serbia and Kosovo should all get their act together - the negotiations for a comprehensive agreement have only two potential outcomes, and neither is the status quo.

It has been almost a year since the participants of the EU-led political dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, which originally began in 2012, announced the start of a “new phase” of the dialogue in Brussels in July 2017. The previous phase has been, and still remains, characterized by the parties’ struggle to fully implement the 2013 April Agreement. However, negotiations on a legally-binding comprehensive agreement on full normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia have yet to start.

It has been a year of strategic limbo. The EU has not – through its High Commissioner for Foreign and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, nor any of the representatives of its lead member states – yet publicly set the stage by providing a framework for negotiations or defining the desired final outcome. This  has led to political uncertainty, tensions and even a near-violent escalation in March when the Kosovo Police arrested the head of Serbia’s government office for Kosovo, Marko Djuric, in Northern Mitrovica and subsequently deported him back to Serbia.

Apart from the fact that the new phase will be about a comprehensive agreement, there is general confusion in the region among policymakers, analysts, civil society as well as the wider public about almost everything: a) on whether the EU (and the US) is serious about putting an end to the status dispute between Serbia and Kosovo; b) about the aims of such a  comprehensive agreement; c) on whether the EU (and the West in general) has provided clearly-defined red lines; and d) on what the elements and options of the conclusive agreement will be. On top of this, various policymakers, think tanks, policy analysts, academics from Kosovo, Serbia and from the West have come up with dozens of ideas, proposals and models, adding additional confusion rather than bringing further clarity.

But unlike these various proposals, which portray a variety of outcomes and scenarios for the upcoming negotiations, in reality, the new phase in the dialogue leaves no room for maneuver. There’s no time left for contemplating potential scenarios. It’s time for the endgame.

There are only two main options for the outcome of the comprehensive agreement negotiations left open: either a grand breakthrough, or a complete collapse of the long term EU-US efforts to find a path toward a sustainable solution for the Kosovo-Serbia dispute.

Announcing the start of a new phase in the political dialogue, without the previous phase having been completed, was an implicit recognition of failure by Mogherini and her European External Action Service team. This was an unusual move for the EU, clearly indicating a recognition that external dynamics had driven the dialogue’s long-simmering crisis to a point beyond Brussels’ control.

The approach to the political dialogue, initiated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2011, has failed. This linkage between Serbia’s accession to the EU and substantial progress in “normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo” gained momentum  after the current ruling coalition in Serbia took office in 2012, and the 2013 Agreement was signed.

What characterized the failed political dialogue in its first phase was its incrementalism in two respects.

First, the gradual process of normalization of relations between the two neighboring states, Serbia and Kosovo, prioritized an incremental “dismantling of parallel structures in Kosovo.” This was to be rewarded with Serbia’s progress towards EU membership.

Second, the very incrementalism amounted to a Western concession to Belgrade. The dialogue outcomes had been more or less clearly defined at the start by Merkel’s 2011 conditions to Serbia and the implicit de facto recognition of Kosovo by Serbia in the April Agreement: full territorial integrity and sovereignty, and full exercise of international subjectivity by the Republic of Kosovo, including the full integration of Kosovo Serbs.

The incremental approach of the political dialogue was supposed to enable the political elites in Serbia to gradually adjust their policy, and prepare their citizens to the well-known but long denied reality of Kosovo not being part of Serbia any more.

That gradual approach has failed, as the EU allowed for both Belgrade and Prishtina to endlessly delay implementation of the April Agreement, enabling the ruling elites in Serbia to escape from consistently altering the Serbian narrative on Kosovo, and even reverse the initial change in narrative that occured in 2013.

If the dialogue continues at its current snail’s pace, the EU could make use of the mechanisms in related to Serbia’s accession Chapter 35 on Kosovo, as established in the EU Accession Negotiating Framework, and freeze the country’s membership negotiations entirely. This scenario would most probably lead to the complete breakdown of EU-Serbia relations, as well as seriously threaten the current foundations of the Vucic regime.

As a result, there is no alternative to jumping to the endpoint of negotiations. Either the parties will agree on a final comprehensive agreement under the original terms, that is Serbia ultimately accepting the loss of Kosovo and recognizing the neighboring country as a state (in one form or another), opening the path to EU membership for Serbia, and even more so for Kosovo. The alternative is failure of the negotiations. This would bring the dialogue to an end, end Serbia’s EU integration process and Vucic’s pro-European policy, throwing the country into deep political chaos.

While the rhetoric might inspire despair, the realities point in the direction of a breakthrough, if a less diplomatic strategy were adopted. Despite the flirtation with Russia (and its popular resonance), Europe looms far larger for Serbia’s society, economy, and development – as waves of young talented Serbian migration illustrate. At the same time, Russia offers no practical alternative, as Serbia trade figures demonstrate.

However, none of the three negotiating parties have contributed to setting the stage for the upcoming talks to arrive at a comprehensive agreement.

Vucic and other Serbian politicians, aiming to steer the upcoming negotiations into a direction at odds with the original dialogue framework and aims, have become masters of a consistent political spin. If one listens to them, the negotiations  are concerned with finding a classical “compromise” about “what to give to Serbia,” and by offering “solutions” such as land swaps or territorial exchanges that cross long-established red lines.

On the other hand, Mogherini and her team have raised serious doubts as to whether they understand that their role is not in mere technical “facilitation,” but in  marking clear red lines and offering a defined negotiation framework, which is at the core of the exercise. In Kosovo, the performance of ruling and opposition political elites has raised worries among Western policymakers as to whether the Kosovo side will be able to act as a serious negotiating party.

Statements such as one by Foreign Minister Behgjet Pacolli, who said that Serbia “does not have to say that it recognizes Kosovo, but act like it,” suggest that Prishtina might cede ground to Belgrade before negotiations have even started. At the same time, there are doubts, given the fragile internal political situation, whether Kosovar negotiators are able to garner sufficient domestic political support to guarantee future implementation of any signed agreement.

It will thus be crucial that the West – the governments of the leading EU member states, with the US – set the stage for a concrete resolution. It must be made unambiguously clear to Vucic that he needs to return to the political reality that formed the basis of the joint path that started in 2012. Finally, Kosovars need to get their act together before the start of negotiations.

Bodo Weber is a Berlin-based Senior Associate of the Democratization Policy Council.

21 May 2018 - 10:53

Bodo Weber

21/05/2018 - 10:53

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.