BALKAN BLOG: Is a long-term deal in sight for Serbia and Kosovo?

BALKAN BLOG: Is a long-term deal in sight for Serbia and Kosovo?
A temporary car number plate issued by the Kosovan authorities amid a standoff over the application of new rules in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo. / Kosovo interior ministry
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow November 2, 2022

Yet another crisis has been temporarily averted in the long-unresolved standoff between Serbia and Kosovo, as the latter stepped back on its controversial new rules on car number plates in the face of strong opposition in the Serb-dominated north of the country. This follows a pattern seen for years where crises erupt, then are headed off, but no real progress is made on the fundamental issues. 

The number plate issue has been a hot topic that has elevated tensions and sparked occasional protests for months. Despite the new rules, only a couple of dozen Serb-owned cars in northern Kosovo had reportedly been issued with RKS number plates as of late October, and some of their owners had been the targets of abuse. Given the potential for the issue to ignite the volatile situation in the region, the deadline set by Pristina for re-registration of Serbian vehicles in Kosovo with Kosovan RKS number plates has been repeatedly pushed back on the urging of the international community.

This time, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti said the measures would not be delayed again but in the end announced some temporary concessions; the decision on the replacement of Serbian licence plates with the RKS code remains in force, but its full application will start on April 21, 2023. Still, the situation remains volatile, with Serbia's new Defence Minister Milos Vucevic announcing on November 1 that President Aleksandar Vucic had ordered the military readiness of the army to be raised in case of possible tensions in northern Kosovo.

However, while the two sides spar over technical issues such as car number plates – and before that ID cards for Kosovo Serbs – the fundamental issue of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia and Belgrade’s refusal to recognise it as a separate state remains unresolved, and largely unaddressed. 

This – as with most frozen conflicts – leads to disadvantages for both sides, the obvious one being their stymied progress towards EU accession, and populations in the vicinity poorer and more isolated. 

A new proposal 

However, there is a new effort to tackle that issue in the form of a proposal put forward by the presidencies of France and Germany, both of which have turned their attention to the Western Balkans as the outbreak of war in Ukraine has raised the spectre of conflict elsewhere on the EU’s southeastern borders. The Scholz-Macron plan, as it has been called, has not been officially disclosed but politicians from Kosovo and Serbia have confirmed its existence and there have been a number of reports some of them conflicting as to its content. 

What appears to be on the table is a proposal for a new agreement to be signed in 2023 on the normalisation of relations between the two sides. Serbia would “accept the reality” of Kosovo as an independent state, as reported by the Albanian Post, but would only formally recognise its independence in around 10 years, when it can be expected to be ready to join the EU. 

Vucic personally confirmed the existence of the proposal, saying on October 8 that the key element is for Serbia to allow Kosovo's entry into the UN and other international organisations, and in turn to be rewarded with economic benefits and faster entry into the EU. However, commenting on the question of whether Serbia will eventually recognise Kosovo, he said that will not happen as long as he is in power. 

Reviving the process 

Back in April 2013, five years after Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia, the landmark Brussels agreement was signed between the two sides. A major breakthrough in relations brokered by the EU, the deal said that while Serbia does not recognise Kosovo as a state, it concedes its legal authority over the whole territory. In exchange, the Kosovo authorities conceded a level of autonomy to four Serb-controlled areas of northern Kosovo. 

However, that is nearly 10 years ago now, and progress since then has been sluggish. 

While disagreeing on various issues, representatives of the two countries Donika Emini, director of the CiviKos Platform, and Dragisa Mijacic, director of the Institute for Territorial Economic Development (InTER) in Serbia both told an online event, The Belgrade-Pristina dialogue: How to get it back on track?, organised by the European Policy Centre (EPC) think-tank, in October of the lack of progress and the need for more to be done. 

Mijacic pointed out that barely a year after the “positive momentum” from the 2013 deal, the statement by then European Commission president Jean Claude Junker in July 2014 that there would be no more enlargement for the following five years dashed hopes in the Western Balkans of a smooth and speedy path to EU accession and removed the main incentive for the two sides to improve their relations. 

Despite the mixed responses to the Scholz-Macron plan, Mijacic welcomed it as the only new initiative since the discussions of a potential land swap between the two sides back in 2018. He argued there has been a "huge dip in activity from [international] actors”, and “any initiative, especially from the two biggest EU countries, has to be welcome”. 

Warning of the potential consequences of not trying to seek a deal, he described the situation as “really fragile” and “on the edge of conflict that might happen”. 

Emini also noted that "unfortunately after the 2013 agreement there was no political will to move forward”. She too warned that due to long-unaddressed issues, the region was “brewing conflict” even before the Ukraine war, not only between Kosovo and Serbia but also within Bosnia & Herzegovina. She argued that what is needed is a long-term solution rather than the current ad hoc conflict prevention steps. Currently, “no new issues being opened, just recycling what has been agreed on, adding elements, pretending doing something in the process,” she said. “We need to stop talking about technicalities and recycling things from 2011.

“If we don’t do this, we will still be sitting here 10 years later. Things are not getting any better in Serbia or Kosovo. People are demotivated to continue the battle for democracy. It’s now make it or break it time. Ukraine should be a lesson learned for all of us, especially the EU, on the urgency to act,” she added. 

She believes that the EU has “more power than they think” in the region and should use it. “The EU should stop sugar-coating things, really get real and push both sides, use leverage in long-term, not short-term conflict prevention; that’s not going to work.” 

Democratic backsliding

There have been repeated warnings of democratic backsliding in several of the aspiring EU members in the Western Balkans as the prospect of EU accession becomes increasingly far off. 

Emini considers the current situation is “perfect for stabilocrats like Vucic” and in the context of the war in Ukraine “it’s very easy to sell stability to the EU … we’re now going to talk more about stability than democracy and that’s a godsend for autocrats”.  

However, the lack of progress in the talks is not only on the Serbian side. One major change for the process was the election of a new government in Kosovo led by the left-wing nationalist Vetevendosje in 2021. Then in April 2021, Kosovo elected a new president, Vjosa Osmani, also a relative political outsider. 

“We had a complete change in political elite through democratic elections, bringing to power two people who had never been part of processes before,” said Emini. Moreover, Kurti’s government "came to power saying no to everything related to Serbia and the dialogue … Kurti only continued dealing with issues left open by [former prime minister Avdullah] Hoti’s government.” Kurti once famously said he had never shaken hands with Vucic despite several meetings between the two. 

For the Serbian authorities, the biggest problem will be getting the public to accept a deal with Kosovo. Within Serbia, Mijacic argues there is simply no political will to recognise Kosovo. “There is no political or societal factor in Serbia that even considers, not to say supports, Serbian recognition of Kosovo,” he said. This is not only political parties, but also “the church, academics, businesses … everyone”. 

Accordingly, he believes the best chance for recognition would be for Serbia to agree to do so on the point of its accession to the EU. 

Until that time comes, “nobody will take that position. To expect recognition in the foreseen future is impossible,” he said. “On other hand, if we do not have some kind of agreement there will be war.”

Outside pressure 

One positive to emerge after the invasion of Ukraine is the EU’s deeper engagement with its southeastern neighbours. This has affected not only Ukraine and neighbouring Moldova, which were given EU candidate status at the EU Council meeting in June, but also the Western Balkans, where EU officials and member state politicians have been suddenly working much harder to unblock the accession process and embrace them into the EU, as shown by initiatives such as the newly launched European Political Community and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s tour of the region in October.

Since the election of President Joe Biden in the US, Washington has returned to a co-ordinated approach with the EU on tackling the problems of the Western Balkans. Asked about the Scholz-Macron proposal recently, Escobar commented: “Our position is that whatever these European countries suggest through the dialogue must be taken seriously. We will support and we do think as it has been explained to us this proposal will unlock closer engagement and closer integration of Kosovo and potentially Serbia into Euro-Atlantic structures.” 

Finding a solution that both governments can accept will not be easy and bringing the populations of both countries on board will be even harder. However, a new attempt at big picture thinking to address the fundamental divisions between the two countries and enable both to progress towards eventual EU accession makes a welcome change from the years of short-term fixes as relations between Serbia and Kosovo lurch from crisis to crisis.