By Igor Novakovic
From an ideal point of view, Belgrade and Pristina could have resolved open issues through the Ahtisaari process or later through negotiations in Vienna. But they didn’t. There was also an opportunity to do so in the period from 2013 to 2015. The results of these processes are also influenced by the fact that their implementation is not the greatest (neither is the rhetoric of both sides), which additionally hinders the continuation of negotiations and the possibility of reaching a solution faster.
What needs to be done is clear to all well-meaning people – a final agreement must be reached between Serbia and Kosovo which would completely normalize relations (both between governments and societies) and resolve open issues. This would free both sides of the dead weight that is the current situation and they could focus on other important issues. Also, a conflict that could escalate in some dramatically changed security situation would be defused. But the gap in the perception of what this agreement should contain and imply is difficult to bridge.
The optimistic announcements that have been coming from Miroslav Lajčák for more than a year have not materialized. The reasons for this can be found in the fact that the previous Kosovo government was wobbly on its feet, but also in the extremely problematic principle, „nothing is agreed until everything is agreed“, which essentially hinders progress and leads to a deadlock. We will see how many things that have been agreed will remain in the new process. Also, according to some data, what was agreed upon is presented in short documents, which mostly focused on principles.
In other words, even if the full text of the agreement had been agreed upon, each item would most likely have to be renegotiated, while implementation would be delayed. It would be a very long process, and I believe it would be better to implement parts of the agreement immediately than to wait for a comprehensive solution, as this will make the results of the dialogue more visible.
The second item concerns the transatlantic agreement. The cacophony and essentially parallel processes led by the EU and the USA in 2021 did not improve the situation. But it would be naive to expect that everything would be resolved with the very fall of the Trump administration. Announcements of a new transatlantic agreement will materialize, but foreign policy and economic interests do not always have to coincide. The gap that emerged between Turkey and the United States after 2016, and the establishment of Greece as a key US partner within NATO in this part of Europe, testifies to the existence of processes aimed at stabilizing the Balkans not only from a value perspective (unfinished business) but also practical, geopolitical perspective. Also, regardless of what some politicians are saying, the Washington agreement will not be reevaluated and the United States strongly insists on its implementation. Therefore, the question is how this new stability will be achieved, and what kind of agreement between Kosovo and Serbia will bring stability to the region?
The next item relates to the positions of other countries, primarily Russia and China, on this issue. Although it sounds paradoxical, the interests of Serbia and Russia on this issue are fundamentally opposed, that is, there is a false agreement. While finding a solution to this issue is in Serbia’s interest (of course, one that the political elite will be able to present as acceptable to the citizens), no agreement is in Russia’s interest, as it drastically reduces the practical leverage of Russian influence in Serbia, and the possibility of resolving this issue along with some other issue that Russia is very interested in collapses. Also, the situation with Russian influence in Serbia has changed drastically and it seems that the domestic political elite is not nearly as dependent on Moscow’s views on certain issues, like in 2013, when critics from the Kremlin halted the reform activities of the Serbian Ministry of Energy. The first test of that will be the announced improvement of Serbia’s harmonization with the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU. As for China, although it seems uninterested in the Kosovo issue at the moment, it may become interested depending on developments in the South China Sea or around Taiwan. This is just speculation, but I think it should be taken into account since China’s influence in Serbia has much more serious potential than the influence of Russia.
Finally, I think the most important thing is the issue of atmosphere and trust. How to lead a constructive dialogue and reach an agreement in an atmosphere of constant exchange of „barrage media fire“, populist announcements that have little chance to succeed, but ones that raise the expectations of the local population, as well as the level of mutual distrust, and incidents that create a picture of siege, etc.?
Therefore, I think that it is necessary to use the upcoming time to „feel the pulse“ of the two sides through direct meetings and trust-building. Neither Belgrade nor Pristina are in a position for any concessions, primarily because of the elections – local ones in Kosovo, and parliamentary, presidential, and local Belgrade elections in Serbia. But that time can be used to create a plan to regulate the process to contribute to improving mutual perception, strengthening trust, implementing what was previously agreed upon, essential integration of Serbs in Kosovo and solving the problems this community faces, etc. Also, it is necessary to create a mechanism for the incremental process (step by step, i.e. abandoning the previous principle) with a clear and efficient implementation system. Finally, it is necessary to define the topics of the dialogue and the roadmap of how it should take place.
Apart from the EU’s determination on all of the abovementioned (and the support of the United States), the seriousness of the leaders, the understanding of the position (and trauma) of the other side, and the desire to really move and fundamentally change something are needed. And that, as is always the case in the Balkans, poses the greatest challenge.
Igor Novakovic was born in Novi Sad in 1981, where he attended primary and secondary school. He obtained a Ph.D. at the Faculty of Political Sciences at the University of Belgrade and a postgraduate degree in International relations and European studies at the Universities of Bologna and Novi Sad. He completed his undergraduate studies at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Novi Sad. Novakovic is the research director of the International and Security Affairs Centre – ISAC Fund.
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