Friday

22nd Jan 2021

Opinion

Kosovo-Serbia: will they or won't they?

  • Thaci (l), Ashton and Dacic (r) - red lines everywhere as talks get under way (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

With a key new round in the ongoing, EU-mediated negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina due on 2 April, little is being made public about the actual content of the talks.

And one could be forgiven for expecting little to come out of them.

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Ivica Dacic, a former spokesman for the government of Slobodan Milosevic, the arch-protagonist of the Balkan wars, is negotiating with Hashim Thaci, a former commander of the Kosovar guerrilla army, the KLA, on a deal to normalise relations.

For his part, Dacic seems to think that what Milosevic could not achieve by military means, he can achieve, at least in part, by diplomacy - Serb rule in north Kosovo.

His official "platform" for the talks is clear on two points: that Serbia will not accept Kosovo independence and that Pristina cannot have authority over its ethnic-Serb dominated north. It is trying to dictate the outcome of the negotiations in advance.

For its part, the EU has hoped that by avoiding the big question - north Kosovo - until the end of the talks, a positive atmosphere created by initial agreements on smaller issues will help them to make a painful final deal.

Well, the end of the talks has come.

And nothing seems to have changed on the big issue.

EU foreign service chief Catherine Ashton is optimistic that the Union's normal enlargement model will bear fruit.

The enlargement process promises to bring countries' closer to accession step by step, in return for their steps on internal reform and on solving regional disputes.

It learned a lesson with Cyprus, which it took in despite its frozen conflict with Turkey, that no country should join the Union unless it solves its disputes first.

And so, Serbia has been promised a date for starting accession talks if it solves the Kosovo problem on EU terms.

Kosovo has likewise been promised to start talks on an EU Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) and to get EU investment in north Kosovo if there is a breakthrough with Serbia.

Meanwhile, EU integration is just one part of the story.

If Kosovo and Serbia come to terms, it will have implications for whether Kosovo attains genuine territorial integrity, for whether rule of law replaces Serb paramilitary structures in the north, for whether the five EU countries which do not recognise Kosovo change their position, for its future membership in UN agencies and in the UN itself.

It was clear from the beginning that it is Serbia which will have to budge if there is to be an agreement - it holds all the cards.

To get a better idea of whether to expect a new dawn on 2 April, one should look at what are the red lines and what is at stake.

On one hand, Thaci is bound by Kosovo's constitution and by the Ahtisaari plan - the blueprint for Kosovo statehood drafted by Finnish politician and Nobel peace prize winner Martti Ahtisaari in 2007.

If Thaci goes home with a deal that violates these documents by ceding any kind of control on north Kosovo, he is likely to face massive protests both in parliament and on the streets.

It could see him defenestrated as PM. It could also see an upsurge in support for Kosovo nationalist movements such as Vetvendosje, which already won 12 percent of seats in elections in 2010.

If Dacic goes home without north Kosovo, he also risks a massive backlash.

A Serb parliamentary committee recently defined nine criteria for any agreement - one of them is a semi-autonomous arrangement for north Kosovo which flies in the face of the Kosovo constitution.

Dacic' idea is to set up a new Association of Serb Municipalities with far-reaching powers that would make Serb enclaves in Kosovo into a second Republika Srpska, the Serb entity in the federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the region's closest thing to a failed state.

The room for compromise is further reduced by member states' interventions.

Germany, which leads EU policy on former Yugoslavia, has said that any Serb "association" in Kosovo must fall under Pristina's rule.

There seems to be no win-win solution - either Dacic loses, or Thaci does.

There will only be a positive outcome if Serbia gets real.

Dacic knows very well that neither the 22 EU countries which recognise Kosovo nor the US will accept an agreement that turns Kosovo into another Bosnia.

He also knows that Serbia will never join the EU until the mess is sorted out.

His delegation will find itself between a rock and a hard place on 2 April - no Kosovo or no EU integration.

But there is already no Kosovo - Kosovo is no longer part of Serbia whether Serbs accept it or not. It is time for Belgrade to make a historic change and to look to its own future.

The Kosovo delegation's job will be to open up to new ways to improve the quality of life for Serb minorities and to give them a meaningful role in its political system, without crossing the Ahtisaari line.

In terms of EU incentives for Kosovo, the SAA talks are not a big carrot because they are likely to happen either way.

A promise of visa-free EU travel would be more interesting for Thaci because it would give him a real boost among Kosovar voters, but it is still too small to change the outcome.

Despite the recent hype in major newspapers, the prospect for a historic deal on 2 April is low.

But if there is no deal, Serb leaders will have to think deeply about their country's future.

Whatever the outcome in Brussels, it is time to stop the nationalistic propaganda, time to be honest with Serb people that Kosovo is gone for good.

It is also time to reflect that Serbs and Kosovo Albanians, once bitter enemies, are for ever neighbours and can one day be friends.

It happened with Germany and France with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community just six years after the end of World War II.

It even happened with Germany and Poland and with Germany and Israel as the years went by.

Jeton Zulfaj is a post-graduate student of European affairs at Lund University in Sweden and the holder of a Swedish Institute Scholarship. He is of Kosovar Albanian origin

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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