Belgrade - Pristina; Photo: EPA / Valdrin Xhemaj
Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group/ Primary Contributors: Florian Bieber, Tena Prelec, Srdjan Cvijic, Donika Emini, Nikolaos Tzifakis, Marika Djolai, Corina Stratulat.
Serbia and Kosovo have been talking about normalizing their relations for close to a decade. By now, it is the dialogue that became normality, instead of pursuing the goal of “normal” relations. Serbia denies Kosovo's independence and many questions between the two countries remain open. There is a risk of the dialogue becoming a replica of the never-ending peace talks in Cyprus - infinite negotiations and few concrete outcomes.
For several years, the dialogue had stalled and dangerously flirted with the idea of territorial exchanges between Serbia and Kosovo. This year, there has been an odd dual track with the US, led by Richard Grenell, the undiplomatic Trump-appointed negotiator, and the EU, led by Miroslav Lajčák. The level of coordination between the two is minimal and the goals are different. Despite ritualistic reassurances that the Euro-Atlantic cooperation persists, the Trump administration has been trying to claw a success from the EU, whereas the EU appears distrustful of US intentions.
But the difficult EU-US relations are not the biggest obstacle for dialogue. Neither the Serbian, nor the Kosovo government have the legitimacy to conclude an agreement to normalize relations. In the case of Kosovo, the government has the narrowest of majorities and weak support. Egged on by the Trump administration, it came to office during the pandemic, more as an effort by old-generation politicians to prevent the energetic Vetëvendosje-led coalition from tackling corruption and clientelism. The government lacks support from Vetëvendosje, the main winner of last year’s election, while the winning lead candidate of the main governing party, Vjosa Osmani, has been sidelined in her party and dismissed from its leadership. The mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic further undermined the government's legitimacy.
Thus, the Kosovo government lacks support and the ability to convince its citizens of any normalization arrangement with Serbia or to secure broad institutional support. The future of Kosovo’s president Hashim Thaçi is uncertain, due to his probable indictment for war crimes at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers. In short, neither the government nor the president are in a position to conclude a lasting agreement.
In Serbia, the situation would appear to be different. President Vučić won a large majority in 2017 (his term of office is until 2022) and his ruling Progressive Party gained just above 60 percent of the vote in June 2020, translating into more than three quarters of seats in parliament. Yet, there is a snag. Despite an overwhelming majority, the ruling party has not bothered to form a new government for over two months, highlighting the little relevance of formal legitimate institutions. Furthermore, the elections were boycotted by the opposition and protests broke out thereafter, over the handling of the pandemic. In particular, citizens protested the return to restrictions after most were lifted in the pre-election period, while credible evidence emerged that the ruling party had concealed the real numbers of COVID-19-related deaths and infections to allow for the ballot to take place.
However, neither a great turnout nor opposition participation would have shaken the dominance of the ruling party. The legitimacy deficit in Serbia stems not simply from an unpopular ruling party, but rather from a regime that has become increasingly authoritarian, leaving little space to critics and the opposition. This has made it hard to ascertain popularity in a democratic and free environment. The president and the ruling party, as well as the media loyal to the regime, have been systematically attacking opposition parties and critics. While the regime led a fictitious dialogue with citizens over Kosovo a few years back, there is not enough civic space in Serbia left for an inclusive conversation on any issue, not to mention Kosovo. As a result, the regime lacks democratic legitimacy and thus the ability to build broad democratic support for an agreement with Kosovo.
This leaves the international mediators in a conundrum. The status quo is destructive, in particular for Kosovo, as it is stuck without full international recognition and a clear prospect of EU accession. Despite fulfilled conditions for the EU visa liberalization, Kosovo citizens are the only ones in the region that can still not travel to the rest of Europe freely. Serbia is also stuck with unresolved relations with Kosovo and the phantom pain over Kosovo that prevents it from joining the EU is a continued source of regional instability and tensions. It also tilts the political spectrum to the nationalist right. With the current constellation, any comprehensive settlement is unlikely to gain support in the two countries to become reality.
As a failed settlement would be a greater setback than none at all, it would be wiser for EU and US mediators not to focus on a comprehensive agreement at this point. This does not mean that the dialogue should cease or be put on hold. Instead, making progress in implementing some of the numerous agreements concluded in the past decade would be an important step forward. This should focus on mutual monitoring mechanisms that reduce past blame games about (mis)interpreting the implementation of agreements by each side.
Another important pillar that should be in the focus of external mediators is trust-building, given that the relations are marked by high tensions and Serbia’s de-recognition campaign has been an additional polarizing factor. This might include new formats of dialogue and institutional exchange, involving parliaments and public administrations rather than just top politicians. In addition, international mediators should promote a higher level of knowledge among both countries' citizens about each other, by means of mobility schemes, exchanges among the media and other measures that can lay the ground for a future settlement to take hold.
What neither Kosovo nor Serbia need are more grandiose declarations and statements of intent that only serve the governments to ingratiate themselves with their Western mediators, but fail to result in any practical improvement of the lives of citizens in both countries.