Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -
Two years on from the signing of the landmark Brussels agreement, attempts to normalise relations between Serbia and Kosovo are moving slowly, despite the occasional breakthrough. At the same time, Serbia is also building a better relationship with Albania, but even with the incentives of EU membership and potential economic benefits, occasional clashes – mainly over Kosovo – still threaten to derail the process.
Probably the most visible sign of Serbia’s willingness to improve relations in the region was Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic’s visit to Pristina on March 25. Photographs from the Western Balkans 6 ministerial conference showed Dacic and his Kosovan counterpart Hashim Thaci, a former guerilla in Kosovo’s war of independence against Serbia, drinking coffee together – an image that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
“It is undeniable that in the region of the Western Balkans, after much turbulence, an essential progress has been achieved,” Dacic said in an address to the conference, which had been carefully stage-managed to avoid the use of state symbols that might provoke either side. “The vision of EU membership has been the main driving force of a series of reforms and positive development in the region.”
In another significant development following the signing of the Brussels agreement on April 19, 2013, Serbia and Kosovo reached agreement in February to set up ethnically-mixed courts in Kosovo’s northern Mitrovica region, which has a mainly ethnic Serb population. The EU-brokered deal resolved one of the most contentious issues between the two countries. “Progress had been very limited, but we have seen positive developments recently,” Ali Sokmen, Europe analyst at Control Risks Group, tells bne IntelliNews, citing the agreement on the judiciary as well as Pristina’s “more positive stance” on minority rights.
Sokmen forecasts that such steps are likely to intensify over the coming months. “There is currently a window of opportunity in that both in Serbia and Kosovo there are governments committed to achieving the EU membership goal for their countries, for which a normalisation of relations is a prerequisite.”
However, recent clashes within Kosovo in recent months indicate that top-level support for reconciliaton is not sufficient to ensure harmonious ethnic relations within the country.
In January, Kosovo saw its worst outbreak of violence since independence when thousands of people took to the streets of Pristina to demand the sacking of Aleksandar Jablanovic, one of three ethnic Serb ministers in the government. Jablanovic angered many Kosovans when he described a group of Albanians who had tried to stop Serb pilgrims visiting a monastery during Orthodox Christmas as “savages”. The protests only stopped when Jablanovic was sacked on February 3.
Tensions between Kosovo Serbs and Albanians were further inflamed by plans to privatise the giant Trepca Mining, Metallurgical and Chemical Combine. The complex is also claimed by Serbia, and Serbian Prime Minister Alexandar Vucic warned that any attempt at privatisation represented a serious threat to the normalisation process. Kosovan Prime Minister Isa Mustafa stepped in at the last minute, calling off a parliament vote on a new law on public enterprises on January 19.
There are now fears the situation could be repeated, albeit on a smaller scale, after Kosovo Minister of Trade and Industry Hikmete Bajrami signed a €409mn agreement with French consortium MDP Consulting Compagnie des Alpes on the development of a tourist centre at the Brezovica Ski Resort, which is also in a majority Serb area. The head of the Serbian government’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija, Marko Djuric, has already spoken out against the plans.
The third side of this complicated triangle is Albania, and here again, there has been progress in mending relations with Serbia, highlighted by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s visit to Belgrade in November last year.
Rama was the first Albanian leader to make an official visit to Belgrade since Enver Hoxha’s meeting with Yugoslavian President Josip Broz Tito back in 1946. Despite a brief exchange of barbs when Rama raised the issue of Kosovo, overall both prime ministers indicated they were keen to improve relations, linking this to their ambitions for EU membership.
Economically, there have already been concrete results of the better relations between the two countries in the infrastructure sector. Albania and Serbia have agreed to cooperate on six regional infrastructure projects including a motorway linking the two countries via Kosovo. Having drawn up the list of priority projects, they plan to ask for EU funding at an upcoming conference in August.
However, the issue of Kosovo remains divisive. “Albania-Serbia relations have been unstable, and efforts to improve them have not always yielded the intended results. High-level meetings on issues such as infrastructure and regional cooperation have had positive outcomes, and are likely to continue,” says Sokmen. “Nevertheless, the main source of tension between the two countries remains Kosovo, and as such Kosovo-Serbia relations and inter-communal relationships in Kosovo will be the key determinant of Serbia-Albania relations in the near future.”
This was illustrated in early April when Rama said in a television interview that the unification of Albania and Kosovo was “inevitable and unquestionable". With Albania’s local elections just two months away, Rama’s comment was most likely aimed at a domestic audience. However, Vucic responded swiftly with an angry post on his Twitter feed on April 7. “I promise to Prime Minister Rama ... Kosovo and Albania ... will never unite!” Vucic wrote “Please Albanian leaders stop causing further instability in the region!” he added.
Unsurprisingly, this was not helpful for the reconciliation process. Unification with Albania would threaten the already uneasy coexistence of Kosovo’s 100,000-strong Serbian minority alongside the country’s mainly ethnic Albanian population. Talk of unification also raises the spectre of “Greater Albania” – a political concept encompassing not just Albania and Kosovo, but also parts of Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia with ethnic Albanian populations.
While Rama and other mainstream Albanian politicians do not advocate the creation of a Greater Albania, there have already been moves towards greater economic integration between Albania and Kosovo, including through plans to create a common energy market. The two countries are also coordinating their customs systems with the aim of launching a unified customs regime in May.
Once the dust settles, Rama’s comment is not widely seen as being a serious obstacle to the improvement of relations with Serbia, but it does illustrate the political sensitivity of this process, and the great potential for setbacks. However, with EU membership the primary goal of all three governments, the slow and often irregular progress towards better relations is expected to continue.
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