BCSP: The majority of Serbian citizens want broad autonomy for Kosovo, but they know it is unrealistic

In the period from the beginning of the political dialogue in 2013 to this day, the support of the citizens of Serbia for the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina has been above 50%. The initial resistance to dialogue in April and October 2012 was slightly reduced and today, about one third of citizens oppose the process. The recognition of independence, as well as the exchange of territories are undesirable options for the majority of Serbian citizens. Even Serbia’s EU membership as compensation for the recognition of Kosovo would not be an acceptable concession. Citizens still prefer the status quo.

At the beginning of March, ten years have passed since the beginning of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. Immediately after the signing of the Brussels Agreement in 2013, it seemed that the dialogue unquestionably led to a compromise and the achievement of a binding agreement on the comprehensive normalization of relations between the two sides.

Today, it is clear that the final solution is “low-hanging fruit”. There are many reasons for this outcome, but it is indicative that the elites in Belgrade and Pristina have often referred to public opinion “tying their hands” and preventing them from making a compromise, reveals the study “A brief history of citizens’ on the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. What has (not) changed?” conducted by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP).

The President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, did it openly, emphasizing that the people “did not support the solution he offered.”

On the other hand, the highest officials in Pristina justified themselves behind closed doors that the establishment of the Community of Serb Majority Municipalities or the withdrawal of prohibitive customs duties are impossible due to the opposition of the public in Kosovo.

“Even regardless of whether these claims were completely true or were just an alibi for the reluctance of the political elite to make a substantial compromise – public opinion is certainly a factor that has influenced and will influence the course of dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina and the possibilities for achieving final solution on the Kosovo issue,” the study, in which more than 30 relevant public opinion polls in Serbia were analysed, states.

The EU-facilitated negotiation process was characterised by ambiguity and conflicting interpretations of the agreements reached in Brussels, by stagnations, frequent changes of government in both political communities, by rising tensions in Serbian and Albanian communities, embargoes, assassinations of Serbian politicians in northern Kosovo and other incidents.

Citizens support the continuation of the dialogue

BCSP’s survey shows that today, the vast majority of citizens (83%) think that the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade should continue, despite pressure from the international community to resolve outstanding issues with Kosovo Albanians.

A high percentage of support for the dialogue with Pristina calls into question the common assumption that the dialogue is not popular. This also suggests that citizens see the value and benefits from a process of peaceful and diplomatic conflict resolution. However, this assumption was disrupted by an exceptionally large percentage of Serbian citizens (91.6%) who do not see any possible personal benefit from the dialogue,” as shown by the BCSP’s survey from 2020.

This result may indicate that citizens consider the dialogue to be the responsibility of the political elite or a process that takes place at the macro level, in which they are not directly involved, and which does not affect their lives – BCSP underlines.

 “A large percentage of citizens who believe that the dialogue does not bring them any personal benefit may also be the result of ineffective communication of the benefits and results of the dialogue by the Government of Serbia. Negative opinions of citizens regarding the benefits of the dialogue are also related to access to information of public importance and transparency of the process, as well as general information citizens have about domestic and foreign policy processes,” the study further states.

After almost ten years of negotiations and achieved results, according to the CSDRI’s survey from 2019, 62.3% of Serbian citizens claim that they are not familiar with the content of the dialogue, while one fourth of citizens are partly familiar, and only 12.6% state that they are well informed about the content of the dialogue.

This is also confirmed by CRTA’s research on citizen participation in democratic processes from 2019, according to which 65% of citizens estimate that they know little or nothing about the course of negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, and the number of citizens who feel uninformed about that topic has grown by as much as 4% compared to 2018. Apart from not knowing what the subject of negotiations is, according to BCSP’s survey from 2020, half of the citizens do not even know what the goal of the authorities in Belgrade is in the dialogue with Pristina, while CSDRI’s survey indicates that 58.5% of them do not know what the Serbian president’s policy is with regard to Kosovo.

What do the citizens of Serbia want now?

When it comes to the views of Serbian citizens on the final solution to the Kosovo issue, the prevailing attitude is that a solution for the status of Kosovo that does not imply recognition could have the support of the majority of citizens. Although division has the support of a slightly larger number of citizens, it does not have enough support “at this moment in order to succeed in a referendum.”

Even Serbia’s EU membership as compensation for the recognition of Kosovo would not be an acceptable concession for the majority of the citizens, the study reveals.

“Despite the government’s narrative of the need to find a historic solution and compromise with the Albanians, citizens still prefer the status quo to a solution in which Serbia would have to make concrete concessions and get something in return.”

 “According to the latest survey of the Belgrade Center for Security Policy (BCSP) from October 2020, a total of 7.8% of Serbian citizens believe that the recognition of Kosovo with the existing borders is the best final solution for the status of Kosovo. Since opinion polls began to consider options for Kosovo’s final status, support for (recognizing) Kosovo’s independence as a final solution has almost never been in double digits. The only slight exception was the survey of the Center for Social Dialogue and Regional Initiatives (CSDRI) conducted in late September 2019, but even then, only 12.4% of citizens said that, in a possible referendum, they would support an agreement by which Serbia recognizes Kosovo, while 78.5% were against it, and 9.1% were neutral. So, it is obvious that this is an option that continuously (and as expected) has the least public support in Serbia.”

According to BCSP’s review, if an EU membership is followed by concessions for the Serbs and the SOC in Kosovo, it is possible that this would “lead to an increase in support.”

“Future research should also address how possible large sums of money that the EU and the United States would donate in case of recognition would affect the opinions of citizens on this issue. Of course, the key question would be how the authorities would articulate this proposal in their communication with the public and how much resources they would they invest in winning the public for such a potential solution.”

Broad autonomy for Kosovo within Serbia is still the most popular option, so in the last BCSP survey from November 2020, 48% of respondents chose this concept as their preference for the future status of Kosovo.

Somewhat less support for this option was recorded in OSF’s surveys in 2017 (August – 26%; December – 28%), but it was still the most popular first choice that respondents would choose.

 “Of course, this is the option of the first choice, so the possible support for this option in a referendum would be far greater. However, research through focus groups conducted by OSF in 2018 showed that citizens were still aware that, although this was a desirable scenario – it was not realistic, because Pristina would not want to accept it – just as it did not want to accept this proposal during the 2006-2007 dialogue. At that time, the support of the citizens of Serbia to this idea as an official proposal of Belgrade was also high and amounted to 57% of respondents, according to findings of an IDN survey from October 2007 (Slavujevic 2018).”

Although we know what we do not want at all, as well as what we would like the most if it was possible (broad autonomy of Kosovo within Serbia), it seems that it is difficult to define what would be acceptable to us in the end, the BCSP concludes.

“This situation is not surprising, given the confusion produced by the state leaders regarding this topic,” they pointed out, citing IEA’s survey from June 2020, in which as many as 89% of citizens believed that they did not know what the plan of the Government of Serbia for Kosovo was.

Belgrade and Pristina have negotiated approximately 50 documents over ten years, signed 21 agreements, with about 80% of the agreements being implemented. Due to the significant progress in the dialogue and the signing of the Brussels Agreement on the Normalization of Relations, Serbia was given a date for the start of negotiations on EU membership, while in 2015, Kosovo signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU.

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