Kosovo and Serbia have been playing a zero-sum game since they started talks—but it’s time for Serbia to realize it would benefit from a prosperous Kosovo.
After eight years of talks between Belgrade and Prishtina, the EU, Serbia, and Kosovo seem to be gearing up to find a comprehensive settlement. This is good news: Serbia cannot join the EU without clarifying its relations with its neighbor, and Kosovo cannot move forward to the EU without an agreement that would also pave the way for recognition by the EU’s non-recognizers. The Brussels-facilitated dialogue has lost a lot of its initial dynamism from earlier years, and it is a good time to be more ambitious. It is also a risky moment, as the stakes are higher and the risk of tensions and obstructions increases. In Kosovo, any compromise with Serbia will be strongly challenged by the opposition, most of all Vetevendosje. In Serbia, the opposition is too weak to mount a challenge; the risk is more that some in the government hope to drive a hard bargain and make a good ‘deal’ with Kosovo.
While President Vucic has been hinting that any normalization would require some unnamed benefits for Serbia, his coalition partner Ivica Dacic has been suggesting for years that border changes would be the best solution. However, such a solution would be dangerous and irresponsible. The only form of border changes that would be imaginable would be consensual, if both Kosovo and Serbia agree, as unilateral border changes would be unacceptable and would close the door to EU integration and other forms of partnership.
However, even an agreed border change would be a source of problems. First, it is hard to image that Kosovo would agree to a border change without compensation, such as Preshevo. However, drawing new borders in Serbia would be a major problem and I am sure that most Serbs in Preshevo would not want to join Kosovo. If there was no compensation, opposition in Kosovo to any compromise would be strong, and would have negative consequences. Most Serbs in Kosovo live south of the Ibar River and would not live in Serbia, no matter how the borders are redrawn. They are the most horrified of border changes; they would become a smaller minority in Kosovo, and one that, if borders are changed, could face more resentment. The Kosovo government agreed to far-reaching minority rights because it was able to declare an independent state that included the entire territory. It would be hard to maintain this level of minority rights if the size of the Serb minority would be reduced by more than a third. This would put Serbs in the south in a more vulnerable position and would, in effect, be like Serbia trading territory in exchange for only supporting its minority in the north.
In a partitioned Kosovo, voices calling for unification with Albania would also be strengthened. While currently it seems difficult to imagine a merger of the two, the constitutional promise that Kosovo made on its independence—not to join Albania—would be more easily abandoned in the event of border changes. Needless to say that a small Serb minority in Gracanica, Strpce and other towns and villages in central Kosovo would become completely marginal in such a scenario. Thus, changing the borders might be what benefits the Serbs in the north of Kosovo, but not most Kosovo Serbs. Furthermore, Serbia would emerge with a few more square kilometers and a few more thousand Serbs living in it, but it would jeopardize its ability to be a constructive partner for other countries in region, as it would be seen as a bully seeking to gain territories from its neighbors if they are (eventually) coerced to consent.
It is out of concern for broader regional repercussions that the EU and the governments have excluded an eventual partition as an option. Redrawing borders, even if agreed upon, would encourage others to redraw borders from Macedonia to Bosnia, and this would destabilize the whole region. The idea launched by Milorad Dodik that Serbia should support his goal of partitioning Bosnia and Herzegovina in exchange for a deal on Kosovo is even more ridiculous. The territorial integrity is guaranteed by the Dayton Peace Agreement and the only reason Republika Srpska exists is because of Dayton. Abandoning Dayton effectively challenges the existence of Republika Srpska. A change of borders in Bosnia will trigger a conflict and the 200,000 Croats and Bosniaks in Republika Srpska would overwhelmingly oppose leaving Bosnia. In other words, changing Bosnian borders is a recipe for disaster. To make matters worse, even Republika Srpska is divided in two parts, with the the district of Brcko a separate unit of Bosnia, recognized in the constitution (with the support of Republika Srpska). No change of the borders in Bosnia could take place in a peaceful and legal manner.
Opening the question of borders would be a great risk and a major moral problem offering not more, but less stability for Serbs, as well as everyone else. Only reckless gamblers would take this road.
So what ‘compensation’ is possible for Serbia? The idea that Serbia should be rewarded for normalization is already a flawed premise. Serbia rejected Kosovo’s independence more than a decade ago, yet the far-reaching autonomy and minority rights protection of Serbs that were offered in the Ahtisaari Plan were nevertheless implemented. With the Brussels agreement of 2013, Serbia gained additional influence in Kosovo, and Kosovo Serbs achieved additional guaranteed protections. Thus, Serbs in Kosovo gained extensive rights, especially considering their small size, despite Serbian intransigence.
Now it is time for Serbia to embrace the reality of Kosovo. At the end of the day, the lives of Serbs in Kosovo will improve most if Kosovo and Serbia co-exist as two friendly states, unforced to choose loyalty or hedge their bets. As the murder of Oliver Ivanovic showed, it would also be in the best interest of northern Kosovo Serbs for the lawlessness of the north to cease and for rule of law to emerge to protect citizens from criminals. All of this can only happen through normalization–through Serbia learning to live with an independent Kosovo and stopping its obstruction of Kosovo’s bids to join international organizations, as well as its petty and rather silly celebrations when it is able to block Kosovo. This has been the biggest flaw of the Brussels-facilitated dialogue: despite the agreements, there has been no rapprochement. Of course, the responsibility lies with both countries, but Serbia would do well to accept that Kosovo as a country is an irreversible reality and that a prosperous and successful Kosovo is in Serbia’s best interest.
A new binding agreement could achieve to formalize the main agreements signed by the countries over the past decade. It could also establish links between the countries and formalize cross-border relations, similarly to bodies that were established between Northern Ireland and Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 (when the Republic of Ireland agreed to remove its claim to the whole island in its constitution). Real normalization in a way that opens the door to EU accession will only emerge through moving beyond the zero-sum game in which every loss for Kosovo is gain for Serbia. Only when both governments start seeing their future relations in these terms will there be room for a genuine agreement.
Florian Bieber is professor for Southeast European History and Politics at the University of Graz and coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG). He tweets at fbieber.
A version of this article in Serbian was published by the weekly NIN on March 8, 2018.
The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.