COMMENT: Serbia and Kosovo’s dead-end dialogue

COMMENT: Serbia and Kosovo’s dead-end dialogue
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini signs with Serbian PM Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo counterpart Isa Mustafa.
By Alex Young in Pristina June 16, 2016

It was hailed as one of the shining achievements of EU diplomacy and soft power – a supposed reconciliation between two formerly warring parties. Baroness Ashton, then the EU’s high representative for foreign policy, was hailed for her negotiating prowess. Ivica Dacic (a former spokesman of Serbia’s dictator Slobodan Milosevic) and Hashim Thaci (former political leader of the opposing Kosovo Liberation Army) were even mentioned for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet three years on from the landmark Brussels Agreement, dialogue between Serbia and its erstwhile province but now independent state Kosovo is at a dead end. Many elements of this agreement remain unimplemented, whilst more substantive issues – such as property (particularly the Trepca mining complex) and Kosovo’s UN membership (a German condition for Serbia) – remain entirely excluded from the negotiating room, let alone the table. Recognition of Kosovo by Serbia is but a distant dream.

A much-vaunted deal to further normalise relations between the two agreed last August has become gridlocked. The long-awaited Association/Community of Serb-Majority Municipalities, which would strengthen governance through “full overview” in key areas, is vehemently opposed by the nationalist Kosovan movement Vetevendosje. Though Kosovo’s constitutional court ruled that many elements of the proposed Association/Community were not in-line with Kosovo’s constitution, Belgrade insists it be created as previously agreed. Kosovo remains without an international dialing code, despite an agreement on telecommunications; whilst redevelopment of the Main Bridge – a symbol of the ethnic divisions in the northern Kosovan town of Mitrovica – has been stalled.

Parallel lines

In the interim, Belgrade has moved to reinforce its so-called ‘parallel’ structures in the north, which provide the bulk of services. These interim municipal councils are directly appointed and funded by Belgrade, though most of their representatives also receive salaries from Pristina. Increasingly controlled by Serbia’s governing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), they constitute Belgrade’s daily presence in Kosovo. Whilst there are mayors and municipal assemblies within the Kosovo framework, there are no functioning municipal structures. The north also lacks a fully-functioning judiciary – the integration of Serbian judges and prosecutors is almost a year behind schedule – meaning most serious crimes go unpunished.    

Part of Belgrade’s strategy has been to shift Serbs off its own payroll and onto the Kosovo budget. The former Serbian interior ministry police now wear the Kosovo emblem after being fully-integrated into its policing structures. Almost 500 members of the civil protection corps – described by Pristina as a “paramilitary formation” – have been integrated into various Kosovo agencies and ministries, though most are yet to perform any tasks. Eventually, Pristina will start to question what it is they are actually paying for.    

Senior ethnic-Albanian Kosovo government members are prevented from entering the north, though Pristina’s media occasionally floats the idea (most recently proposing a visit by the prime minister, Isa Mustafa). Nor are conditions ripe for conducting a census; Kosovo’s Serbs in the north having boycotted the 2011 headcount, fearing that a reduction in their numbers would reduce their budget entitlements. The north is instead grappling with rather banal problems such as licence plates, ID cards and electricity payments.   

Property issues have returned to the fore. Serbian proposals to construct some 300 houses for 1,500 returnees has been described as ‘colonialism’ by Pristina. ‘Sunny Valley’, as the project is called, currently lacks the requisite construction permits from Kosovo’s authorities. Serbia persistently claims that over 200,000 were displaced from Kosovo during and after the war, with few able to return; Kosovo Albanians point out that their own return to the north has been obstructed. Tensions around the issue are resurfacing.    

Paralysing dependence

Amid this, relations between Belgrade and Pristina have stagnated. Multiple channels of communication have not evolved, though there is sterling work between the respective Chambers of Commerce. Problems are rarely tackled bi-laterally, but raised to the Brussels-level where they are invariably tied to other more tortured issues. In this sense, the parties’ dependence on Brussels has become paralysing, draining the process of courage and creativity.

The respective prime ministers are unlikely to meet in Brussels until at least the autumn, and the prospect of early elections in Kosovo could stymie any such intentions. Pristina has to contend with mounting opposition to compromises with Belgrade. Then there are the indictments by the newly-established Specialist Chamber that will further poison the atmosphere for dialogue, especially as they pertain to alleged crimes by the Kosovo Liberation Army. 

Serbia’s prime minister-in-waiting, Aleksandar Vucic, has problems of his own. In the grip of mounting mobilizations by those opposed to the Belgrade Waterfront development and its handling, Vucic postponed planned meetings with EU and US officials. Tabloid newspapers close to Vucic have blamed the West for stirring up the protests. His recent surprise Moscow visit to meet Vladimir Putin has raised the spectre of a more Russian-favourable cabinet being appointed – one that will invariably be more reluctant to compromise with Pristina. 

The time has come for the EU’s current high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, to reconsider new modalities for revitalising and complementing the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. Whilst contact between political leaders has become routine, dialogue has not fostered the sort of normalization nearer the ground that was envisaged. The climate and trust for resolving more challenging issues has not emerged. If both Belgrade and Pristina fail to uphold their respective ends of the bargain, then both their European perspectives will suffer. Regardless of Kosovo’s independence, the fortunes of Belgrade and Pristina are inextricably tied.