At a top-level meeting in Brussels on January 24, officials from Serbia and Kosovo agreed to continue attempts to normalise their relations following a spike in tensions – and warnings of possible armed clashes – since the beginning of the year. But the following day the two sides were again trading accusations, highlighting the fact that their fundamental differences won’t easily be resolved.
There were high hopes of a normalisation in relations between Serbia and its former province Kosovo – which unilaterally declared independence in 2008 – when the Brussels Agreement was signed almost three years ago. However, as the broad brushstrokes of the landmark deal give way to the nitty-gritty of reaching consensus on specific issues and actually implementing those deals on the ground, previously overlooked flaws in the process are being revealed.
Matters came to a head at the beginning of 2017, when former Kosovan prime minister Ramush Haradinaj was arrested in Basel on a Serbian war crimes warrant. Haradinaj was previously cleared of two sets of war crimes charges by a UN tribunal, but Belgrade wants him to stand trial for other crimes he is suspected of committing against Serb civilians in 1998 and 1999 during the civil conflict with Serbia.
Thousands of people have protested in Pristina to demand his release, while smaller demonstrations by ethnic Albanians have taken place in Albania, Macedonia and outside the region. Meanwhile, Serbians were angered when a French court released Haradinaj on bail, pending a ruling on whether to extradite him to Serbia. As the dispute continued, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic claimed that the Albanian diaspora planned to attack Serbian embassies to force Belgrade to drop its request for Haradinaj’s extradition.
A separate dispute erupted on January 14, when Serbia attempted to send a train painted with the sentence “Kosovo is Serbian” in more than 20 languages into northern Kosovo. The Russian-made train was sent back to Belgrade before it left Serbia on the orders of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, following reports that the line had been mined on the Kosovan side. Pristina had already sent ROSU special forces to the area, in breach of the 2014 Brussels agreement.
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic repeatedly raised the possibility of armed clashes between the two sides in the days following the train incident. “We were on the edge of clashes, the Albanians want war,” he said after a session of Serbia’s National Security Council on January 15. Two days later, he claimed in an interview with the daily Kurir that he was prepared to step down as president and go to war along with his two sons.
Meanwhile, Kosovan President Hashim Thaci has repeatedly said in interviews with the international media that Serbia is plotting to divide Kosovo. In an interview with Reuters on January 16, he claimed Serbia was planning to seize part of northern Kosovo using the same tactics as Russia used to annex the Crimea in 2014.
The January 24 meeting in Brussels, chaired by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and attended by Nikolic and Thaci along with Vucic and his Kosovan counterpart Isa Mustafa, appeared to have defused the situation – at least temporarily.
Mogherini commented late on January 24 that at the “very constructive meeting” the politicians had “agreed to leave the tensions behind and to focus on the work ahead”. There was a commitment on both sides to continue with the normalisation process, and more meetings are planned for the coming days.
However, the following day the accusations started again, and it has become clear that the normalisation process has been stalling. The train incident did not come out of the blue, but followed growing difficulties on reaching agreement on a range of issues.
There has been speculation that the changing geopolitical situation could be responsible for heightened tensions in the region. EU accession had been the main “carrot” offered to both sides as a reward for their cooperation, but with the EU in internal disarray, enlargement is no longer a priority. Meanwhile, the election of Donald Trump as US president could also signal a change of policy.
Trump has not so far shown much interest in the Balkans, although his wish to reset relations with Russia has implications for the region. In the absence of any clear statements about the new administration’s intentions, governments are seeing what they want to see. In particular, the actors closer to Russia – Serbia and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska – anticipate benefits. Nikolic stated this explicitly at a meeting with the US ambassador to Belgrade Kyle Scott on January 17, accusing Washington of favouring Kosovo. “I hope that such behaviour will stop with the new administration,” Nikolic added.
Nonetheless, analysts urge caution and warn against extrapolating too much and expecting a radical change of US policy in the Balkans.
Cvete Koneska, analyst at Control Risks Group, argues that the train incident and subsequent rhetoric should rather be seen in the context of the approaching presidential elections in Serbia. “Fanning nationalist sentiment will help Nikolic, or whoever represents the ruling SNS, in the presidential election,” she tells bne IntelliNews. “Reforms and EU integration have become exclusively Vucic’s rhetorical area, so the presidential candidates will need to compete on who is the biggest defender of Serbia.”
The incident also follows months of deteriorating relations between the two sides. The 2014 Brussels agreement was followed by the signing of separate agreements on areas including energy, telecoms and the creation of an Association of Serb Municipalities within Kosovo in August 2015. However, since then, progress has stalled.
“The dialogue that started in 2011 was misrepresented by all sides – Kosovo, Serbia and the EU – as a technical dialogue. However, this left aside one big issue: Serbia considers Kosovo to be its province, while Kosovo considers itself to be an independent republic,” Pristina-based independent analyst Besa Shahini tells bne IntelliNews. “From 2015, when the first concrete agreements were made and had to be put into practice, it has become clear that things are not going to go well if we avoid the big elephant in the room - Kosovo’s statehood.”
This is not to say there has been no progress. Following the 2015 deal on telecommunications, at the end of last year Kosovo got its own international dialing code, while in return the Serbian side is allowed to set up a telecom company to serve the majority Serb areas of Kosovo.
“The normalisation process is not progressing as quickly as people hoped a few years ago, but has not stalled completely,” says Koneska. However, she adds that, “There has been progress on some issues such as telecoms, but while this was once seen as a victory for both sides, now overall sentiment is not too happy.”
State within a state
A thornier issue than telecoms is the creation of the Association of Serb Municipalities, a self-governing association of the Kosovan municipalities with majority Serb populations. This sparked vocal opposition because of fears it was creating a Serb state within Kosovo, which some feared would eventually lead to the secession of some parts of the country.
There are also problems on the ground in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica. The two sides had agreed to reopen a bridge over the Ibar connecting the Serb and Albanian sides of the town, but in December the Serbian authorities instead started building a wall on their side of the river.
Another issue is that EU accession is looking like a far-off prospect, even for Serbia, which opened its first negotiating chapters in December 2014. Serbia now has six chapters open, but progress has been slower than hoped, and Belgrade has also been rattled by Croatia’s repeated use of its veto power to push for concessions from Serbia. Meanwhile, Kosovo is unable to even apply for candidate status since five EU member states do not even recognise it.
Kosovo’s government in particular is having an increasingly tough job to try to convince its population that the normalisation process will reap benefits. This, combined with the approaching presidential election in Serbia, means the process will most likely be slow at best.