Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Opinion

EU blackmailed: behind the scenes of Kosovo-Serbia talks

  • Aleksandar Vucic (r) at the EU-brokered Serbia-Kosovo talks (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)

Talk of "border correction" by Serbia's president Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo's Hashim Thaci is a distraction from what is really going on behind the scenes - blackmail of the EU for political and personal reasons.

The border idea - for Pristina to give north Kosovo (an ethnic Serb enclave) to Belgrade, in return for the Presevo Valley (an Albanian enclave in Serbia) - was first floated by Vucic (although in different terms) last year.

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  • Angela Merkel urged US not to endorse Kosovo-Serbia deal, but to little avail

It is - ostensibly - meant to end the region's most dangerous frozen conflict, but his public talk of peace should not be trusted.

When Vucic speaks about the need for Serbian and Kosovar concessions and for a painful compromise, what he is really saying to the EU is: "If you don't let Serbia join without recognising Kosovo, then I will force you now to deal with new problems in Kosovo and Bosnia".

Plenty of EU officials in Brussels have complained to me, privately, of what they called "blackmail" by Serbia and its ally Russia.

Vucic is being helped by Russian president Vladimir Putin, who is also threatening the EU with instability in the Western Balkans, but for different reasons - Moscow's fear that EU expansion will end the region's dependence on Russian energy supplies and sweep its influence off a square on the geopolitical chess board.

Thaci, the Kosovo president, is likewise playing the blackmail game, but for personal reasons. 

Facing possible indictment for war crimes by the EU's new special tribunal in The Hague, Thaci and his associates are saying to the EU: "If you go after us, then you will see trouble in north Kosovo and Presevo."

Vucic, Putin, and Thaci are using the same tactics - threatening the EU with instability - for different strategic reasons.

All this has pushed Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, to speak out against the Serbia-Kosovo land swap deal.

She did it, in Berlin on 13 August, in a press conference with the Bosnian prime minister because Bosnia - a fragile federation of Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs - could be the first domino to fall in a region full of border disputes if the Vucic-Thaci land-swap idea was to go ahead.

US split

Meanwhile, the situation is becoming more complicated on the geopolitical front.

Europe's oldest ally, America, has caused a rift with the EU over trade tariffs, the Iran nuclear arms deal, and Nato spending.

The US administration of Donald Trump has also walked away from Merkel, the engine of EU politics, on Western Balkans policy.

When Trump's right hand man, White House security advisor John Bolton, said in Ukraine in August that Washington had no objections to the land-swap proposal, Merkel phoned Trump three days later to voice concern.

With the Ukraine declaration, Trump joined Vucic, Putin, and Thaci in stirring trouble in Europe's south-eastern backyard.

Vucic meets Putin in Moscow on Tuesday (2 October) to ask what his next step should be.

Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb leader, already met Putin in Sochi, Russia, on Sunday to ask the same ahead of 7 October elections in Bosnia. Dodik is known for having threatened to rip the country apart.

"I would like to present to you the flag of Republika Srpska, which is actually the Russian flag upside down," Dodik said.

If Germany, which speaks for the EU in the Western Balkans, and the US, no longer have a common line here, that gives the blackmailers a free hand, with potentially severe consequences for people in the region.

If Berlin and Washington can stay united, they can block such dirty games.

But if Merkel thinks she can maintain peace by seeking help from Putin, as suggested by her plan to hold a summit on the Western Balkans, among other issues, with Russia, China, and Turkey, then she is sorely mistaken.

If she thinks Thaci will sacrifice his career and personal freedom on the altar of The Hague tribunal for the sake of peace and reconciliation, then she is even more mistaken.

Kosovo questions

At the same time, people in Kosovo are asking themselves: "What would be the price for us if Thaci stays free in exchange for his 'peace deal' with Serbia?".

The price could be instability if Serbia and the US pushed Kosovo to cede territory to Serbia.

That could also be the price if the EU pushed Kosovo to transform itself into a second Bosnia - divided internally with a Republika Srpska-type entity in north Kosovo under the name "Association of Serb Municipalities" (ASM). 

That is what last Saturday's rowdy street protests in Pristina by the opposition party Vetevendosje (VV) indicated.

Some might hope, including Thaci, that a referendum which included promises on Kosovo's future EU, Nato, and UN membership would see Kosovars accept either a land swap or an ASM deal.

But would Kosovo Albanians believe such promises?

Would Serbia ever recognise Kosovo under its current political class?

Would EU members Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain also recognise Kosovo even if Serbia led the way?

Would Russia, a permanent UN Security Council member, agree to admit Kosovo in the teeth of its own interests?

Would China, also a UN veto power, with its own anti-secessionist policy on Taiwan and Tibet, agree to do so?

We just saw what happened in Macedonia when voters in a referendum on the Greek name deal boycotted the vote due to lack of faith that their concession - a much smaller one than that being asked of Kosovo - would lead to EU and Nato membership.

Loss of faith

The fact is no one can guarantee EU, Nato, or UN membership even if Kosovo gives up land or splits itself in two - and Kosovars know it.

They also know all too well that an ASM deal could help Serbia to push for Kosovo partition in future no matter what Vucic says today.

The wounds of the Balkan wars have not yet healed.

Vucic was a minister under Serbia's late dictator and warlord Slobodan Milosevic.

Thaci was a guerrilla leader whose alleged crimes could soon surface in The Hague.

Putin, his spies, and his propaganda machine have been stirring trouble in the Western Balkans for years to do anything they can to maintain Russian influence.

The EU and the US should not ask Kosovars to tear apart their homeland because of these people's blackmail. 

If they do so, the moderate and pro-European kings of ethnic Albanians in the region will fall one by one at the hands of their own subjects.

The idea of a greater Albania to protect Albanian interests will resurface with ever-greater vigour and prospects of a lasting peace will fade.

Edmund Ekrem Krasniqi is editor-in-chief of DTT-net.com, a Brussels-based news agency on Western Balkan affairs

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