Opinion & Analysis

Is a breakthrough in Serbia-Kosovo negotiations finally possible?

Recent statements by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic have led to speculation about a potential breakthrough in negotiations over the status of Kosovo. Tena Prelec and Donika Emini write that while there have been many false dawns in the past, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has heightened the need for a comprehensive solution.

On 23 January, the Serbian public was treated to an almost one-hour-long oration by their President, which touched upon many tropes dear to him. Aleksandar Vucic framed the speech in such a way as to strike the right chords for both internal (domestic public) and external (western ‘allies’), painting a dramatic picture in which Serbia emerges as the victim of an overpowering western cabal, as well as the only constructive actor in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.

Women and pensioners were called upon; Noam Chomsky and Slobodan Milošević were carelessly thrown into the mix. The bottom line: there is a new framework in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue that was ‘imposed’ on Belgrade, and Serbia will have to accept that ‘something’ regarding Kosovo will change.

We’ve seen this scene many times: a heightening of tensions, followed by nebulous statements of goodwill, and then a reversion to the status-quo. It is likely that this scenario will occur yet again, given that the continuation of instability suits both Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Albin Kurti. Furthermore, even if the still mysterious ‘Franco-German proposal’ – the ‘new framework’ Vucic alluded to – gets past Kosovo’s five non-recognisers, it remains uncertain whether Albin Kurti will accept anything that resembles an Association of Serb Municipalities – a provision of the 2013 agreement that Kurti has always fiercely contested, and whose absence would be a dealbreaker for Belgrade.

And yet, there is a possibility that the dispute might indeed be reaching a key moment. Today’s scenario resembles the heightening of tensions before a potential breakthrough. This happened on two previous key occasions: in 2011, before the EU-facilitated Dialogue was launched, and in 2013, when a six-month-long deadlock preceded the First Agreement on Principles Governing Normalisation (the so-called ‘Brussels Agreement’). There are hopes that intense pressure from both the US and the EU could lead to a deal, symbolically, on the 10th anniversary of the Brussels Agreement.

Furthermore, although not everybody in Brussels might admit it openly, Vucic is right in saying that the new Franco-German proposal (which foresees a more ‘comprehensive’ solution than the incremental process led by the EU Special Representative) has de facto become the new framework for the dialogue. This setup was accepted by Kurti, who has long been advocating for a move away from the Brussels-style incremental approach and towards bigger and more comprehensive steps. Vucic’s change in tone might pave the way for another agreement in Brussels. This change of course, and the renewed urgency to address this issue is occurring in a new exigent geopolitical context.

Geopolitical hastening

Although the causes and dynamics of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue are deeper and longer-lasting, the current crisis is directly related to the conflict in Ukraine, in at least three ways.

First, due to Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, the West has been keen to solve those issues in which there is ‘room for Russian influence’ – including Kosovo. This has brought some unintended consequences, as both Belgrade and Pristina have started to tactically raise the stakes to strengthen their respective negotiating positions: Pristina by rejecting compromises and provoking on many fronts, Srpska Lista (the Belgrade-backed Serbian political force in Kosovo) by withdrawing from Kosovo’s institutions – and so on, in a never ending tit-for-tat. This muscle-flexing triggered reactions from the US and the EU on the need to end the cycle of instability and crisis management has been going on for almost a decade.

Second, the West’s ‘squeeze’ on Serbia has become more tangible. When Vucic says that Serbia cannot afford to be isolated because foreign direct investment would plummet, he is repurposing the old theme of Serbia’s economic ruin and economic salvation that has been one of his key campaigning narratives since his ascent to power. However, this time he knows that it is not an empty threat: the loss of investment from Germany in particular would be a huge hit for Serbia’s economy. The largely successful implementation of the sanctions against Russia shows the West is not joking around when it threatens to close up shop in a rogue country.

This strengthens the EU’s role and leverage, especially in regard to Serbia – which is seen, in Pristina’s view at least, as having enjoyed a more comfortable and less urgent position in the dialogue as compared to Kosovo, whose internal functioning and international fate depend on this process.

Third, Kurti has realised that Belgrade is in a tight spot because of its continued refusal to fall in line with sanctions against Russia and has been constantly trying to provoke Serbia to react harshly, presenting every act coming from Belgrade as warmongering. Provoking an actual shooting, or an unauthorised entry of Serbian forces into Kosovo (the latter being unrealistic) are scenarios that would lead to western intervention and increased control over the north of Kosovo by Pristina – acting within a ‘window of opportunity’ that would disadvantage Belgrade. For his part, Vucic conveniently justifies the non-introduction of sanctions against Russia by citing his need to make compromises over Kosovo with a disgruntled public.

This highlights another common misconception. It has become fashionable, among analysts and the wider twitter commentariat, to liken Serbia’s role in Kosovo as that of Russia in Ukraine, playing up Belgrade’s appetite for war. Although generally advanced by pro-Ukraine commentators, this stance is misguided, and it ultimately advances the interests of Russia itself. Another conflict in Kosovo would, in fact, be very much in Moscow’s interest, as it would distract and drain the political capital of the West. It is no wonder that Russian-connected disinformation on the matter amplifies the risk of war.

Vucic once again finds himself in a situation where he can reap benefits whichever way the wind might blow. He might be cynically expecting the agreement to fail, banking on either Kurti or one of the five EU non-recognisers to stop it. However, he has also hedged his bets in case the agreement does go through, as he will be able to frame it as having extracted a victory in the form of some sort of Association of Serbian Municipalities (which will almost certainly be called something else).

As for Kosovo’s leadership, the tensions in the northern part of Kosovo have further increased the pressure on Kurti to establish the Association of the Serbian Majority Municipalities. This could be the biggest compromise that Kurti will make and his political legacy in Kosovo will be linked to the decision.

In the unlikely case that Kurti bows to western, particularly US pressure for the two parties to conclude an agreement that puts UN membership on the table, the chances are that Russia might exercise a veto, or at least use the situation to draw parallels with Ukraine. For the reasons stated above, instability in Kosovo suits Moscow. Whatever the next moves by Pristina, the West, and the rest, Vucic’s geopolitical brinkmanship is again based on a calculation that allows him to edge the semblance of a win-win.

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