By Igor Novakovic
When it comes to the first round of talks between Vucic and Kurti, its only success is the fact that it was held. The one-hour-long meeting, in terms of the way it was presented in the media, was extremely reminiscent of the previous meeting of the two leaders in early 2020. As for the content of the meeting, Vucic insisted on consistent implementation of all agreements, including the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities (ASM), while Kurti attempted to portray himself as constructive by launching new initiatives and conditions while refusing to discuss what has been agreed so far. And here we reach a blockade since their attitudes and proposals largely move in opposite directions. But let’s have a look at the topics that were put on the table.
Speaking of the initiatives and conditions presented by Kurti, it appears to me that they are either cleared of content (just to be placed on the table) or they represent an attempt to put an obstacle in the path of the other side and to, at least, postpone the dialogue, even though they are presenting themselves as constructive. If I understand correctly, the proposal to establish a regional Southeast Europe Free Trade Agreement (SEFTA) based on the European Economic Community (EEC), which is supposed to be an alternative to the so-called „Mini-Schengen“ would essentially greatly limit domestic sovereignty in the economic sphere, whereby the governments of the Western Balkans would directly implement the decisions of the European Commission, as is the case with Norway, for example. Therefore, they would get such a status without negotiations with the EU and a long-lasting adjustment process envisaged to take place through negotiations on membership in the EU.
The second more likely option is the creation of an essentially supranational community (leaning on the EU) through which the implementation of the four economic freedoms would be enabled and which would be gradually adjusted to the EU. In that case, these processes would be managed by a newly established Western Balkan Commission, while the Western Balkan Parliament would have some kind of control, and other institutions such as the Regional Court of Justice, etc. would be established. In other words, supranational institutions would be created to which part of the sovereignty of the Western Balkan six would be transferred. In both cases, sovereignty gets chipped away, i.e. part of it is transferred. Is Albin Kurti ready for this, and if so, under what conditions? It might even be a good thing for Vucic to accept this proposal as a discussion topic, since he would thus show respect for Kurti and breathe a new spirit of constructiveness into negotiations, regardless of the fact that this proposal may not have a place on the Brussels table. I do not doubt that possible talks on this topic would lose their footing on various practical issues related to the subjectivity of Kosovo, but still, cooperation and the future would be discussed, not just issues from the past.
As for the proposal for a peace agreement, it seems to me that the final comprehensive agreement is a real peace agreement, which will be reached through negotiations and by resolving open issues between Serbia and Kosovo. Kurti’s proposal, therefore, looks more like a kind of „non-aggression pact“, and there is no explanation of what its meaning is in the given situation, with KFOR being deployed in Kosovo. I would not like to comment on the request for the dismissal of Veljko Odalovic and the ultimate request for the recognition of Kosovo.
The forming of a national council of Serbs in Kosovo may have some prospects, but I am uncertain as to whether there is an essential understanding of the way this system works, and it seems that it was a proposal whose basic premise is to achieve reciprocity between Kosovo and Serbia. That is, a proposal offering Pristina’s readiness to treat Serbs in Kosovo in the same way that Serbia treats Albanians. In essence, when it comes to the protection of minorities, each state has its own system for their integration, so I do not think that this issue should be viewed from the viewpoint of reciprocity. Just as an example, Bulgaria defines itself as a civil state, and has no system to protect national minorities.
In other words, it does not recognize national minorities (only cultural communities) and believes that all citizens getting the same treatment is enough for integration. Serbia, for its part, has a system and protects ethnic Bulgarians through the recognized status of a national minority and the rights that stem from it. Should Serbia, therefore, abolish the National Council of Bulgarians? Should Serbia abolish national councils and stop recognizing those national minorities that do not have a home country (e.g. the Roma people) because it cannot have reciprocity?
The system of protection of national minorities is specific to each domestic legal framework, and is formulated based on the assessment and agreement with minorities (as was the case in Serbia), but also based on specific historical circumstances, all to achieve integration of minorities. So, the formation of national councils in Kosovo may be perspective, but the question remains whether it will enable the essential integration of Serbs in Kosovo?
Let’s see what Serbia is insisting on. If we go back to 2013, when the Brussels Agreement was signed, the ASM had two dimensions. The first one was practical – to create a framework for the integration of Serb institutions in Kosovo that continue to function (health and education) into the Kosovo system, and to help the integration of Serbs in Kosovo, primarily those from the north.
The second one was symbolic – to create the illusion of a Serb entity, while its powers would be essentially quite limited. This symbolic function was important because its goal was for the ASM to be accepted as a solution by the citizens of Serbia, but also to enable Serbs in Kosovo to have a system that further connects them and has some kind of direct communication with Serbia, of course, in coordination with Pristina authorities.
But the constant equating of the ASM with Republika Srpska in public discourse in Kosovo from 2013 onwards (with the practically constant use of the term Community instead of the appropriate term in Albanian) has created a situation where the agreement is virtually impossible to implement unless Kosovo’s government is so strong that no one from the opposition can question that move.
Also, the question on the „utility value“ of the ASM for Serbia in the symbolic and political sphere (I do not question the practical one) at this moment arises. It was the price for the Brussels Agreement from 2013, and a way to present it as acceptable to the citizens of Serbia. I assume that the government in Serbia cannot sell the same thing to the citizens twice, and a scenario where the formation of the ASM was additionally conditioned by Pristina would not represent any kind of political victory.
And we have already seen that the formation of the ASM at this moment is politically impossible for the government in Pristina. So, the government in Serbia knows that insisting on implementation is a kind of dead-end for dialogue, but the fact is that this position is essentially principled. Because if the most important of all agreements for Serbia reached so far has to not be implemented, who can guarantee that any other will be in the future?
But both sides claim that positions presented in Brussels encourage each other, and I agree with my esteemed interlocutor, they enable the status quo. If it were different, Belgrade might show initiative, and by insisting on the implementation of all agreements from Brussels, it would show understanding and offer help to facilitate that implementation for Pristina in some way. That is, it would give room to Kurti to „get out“ of the gap in which he found himself and to which he contributed while he was in opposition. And Pristina would not come up with an ultimate position, as well as alternative proposals, without valid explanations of how they can essentially contribute to solving the challenges concerning the relations between Belgrade and Pristina.
Therefore, as one of my colleagues put it, one gets the impression that these are not negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, but negotiations of Serbia against Kosovo and Kosovo against Serbia. And if this continues, we may once again move in the direction of solutions that were greatly discussed a couple of years ago and which many consider to be bad.
However, the bigger problem in all this is the atmosphere that encourages conflict. It seems to me that this is the case even more than ever before. This may be the result of the „negative dynamic“ status quo.
The two sides took a firm stand, and it seems that this will remain the case. And yes, we are entering the barricaded status quo (at best), but how constructive and positively dynamic it will be depends on the USA and the EU. I already talked about that in the previous column.
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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