Can Brussels deliver a lasting peace in the Western Balkans?
The Western Balkans is nothing short of a Rubik’s cube for European lawmakers to solve. Ever since the fall of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Western leaders have sought to integrate the region in order to prevent future wars and combat Russian influence.
Serbia, the largest country in the region, has been at the centre of this struggle. Unlike their ex-Yugoslav neighbours in Croatia, Serbia has made little progress in its EU accession process since the country received candidate status back in 2012. Its ongoing dispute with Kosovo has derailed negotiations, but there might be a solution in sight, or so the EU hopes.
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During a Brussels meeting in February, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti made progress on an EU-backed deal, although fell short of actually signing it. The deal comprises an 11-point plan to normalise relations and pave the way for further accession negotiations. According to the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell, both sides had agreed that “no further discussions” were needed on the content of the agreement.
The agreement in Brussels was far from a done deal. On March 19, Vučić, Kurti and Borrell met once again, this time in Ohrid, North Macedonia, to discuss the implementation of the deal.
Relations between Serbia and Kosovo remain tense, with the latest flare-up starting in the summer of 2022 over the use of Serbian license plates in northern Kosovo. The talks, however, were somewhat successful. While falling short of a signed deal once again, both Serbia and Kosovo gave their verbal agreement to implement the EU-brokered agreement.
“The parties have fully committed to honour all articles of the agreement and implement their respective obligations expediently and in good faith,” said Borrell after the conclusion of the meeting.
The agreement signals an important shift in rhetoric from one focused on damage control to one focused on diplomatic dialogue.
The EU’s plan
The agreement’s ramifications will be crucial for ensuring peaceful coexistence. While far from a final binding treaty, it commits both parties to following the EU-led Dialogue which the EU has set out to help normalise relations.
Recognition of national symbols, use of separate documents, guarantees for self-management of Kosovo’s Serbian community and protection of Serbian cultural sites have all been agreed upon in principle. The agreement also stresses the importance of following the United Nations Charter in order to safeguard human rights and solve disputes only though diplomatic means.
While no formal recognition of Kosovo has been negotiated, both sides have agreed to not block each other from joining international organisations or attempts to impede each other’s EU integration process. Diplomatic missions will also be established for the first time.
Even without a signature, the EU hopes that both Serbia and Kosovo will commit to follow the roadmap outlined by the agreement under its lead. To this end, a Joint Monitoring Committee is envisioned, which will be chaired by the EU. Critics argue that the role of chair shows a lack of leadership imitative by the EU while leaving implementation to the national governments.
The situation in Belgrade also reflects the uncertainty surrounding the deal’s longevity. Despite progress, Vučić has stated that his government will not recognise Kosovo no matter the pressure coming from Brussels.
“I said that today, too – that no one can impose a legal obligation on Serbia. That is why we signed neither what the EU has called an agreement nor the annex, but Serbia is ready to work on implementation up to the red lines,” he said shortly after the Ohrid meeting.
In conversation with Emerging Europe, Donika Emini, executive director at the CiviKos Platform which gathers 250 civil society organisations in Kosovo, said that the agreement is unstable in the long run for various reasons.
“First, the annex does not guarantee any tangible timeframe. The annex agreed upon in Ohrid, though it commits to creating a Joint Monitoring Committee, and integrating the latest arrangements in Chapter 35 for Serbia, does not meet the minimal criteria for an implementation annex. The only tangible deadline is the donor conference to be organised in 150 days, but it misses the key elements to guarantee the parties’ commitment to the implementation process timewise,” she says.
“As for the internal implications, this agreement has raised many questions in Kosovo about what it offers for the Kosovo Serbs. For example, does it offer what was agreed in 2013 in the Brussels Agreement, based on the General Principles/ Main Elements of ASM/CSM, or the constitutional court decision which questions many points being against the spirit of the Kosovo constitution?”
Emini also stressed that, “there is a high risk that the establishment of the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM) will be politicised – as it already is. It will most likely create internal political fissures.”
“This is the backlash [Kurti] is facing in Kosovo, especially from the opposition criticising him for wasting ten years since the 2013 agreement and only delivering something similar,” adds Emini, noting that Kurti had built his political career on a rejection of the ASM.
“Kurti tried to herald the Ohrid Agreement as a success for Kosovo, more as a step closer to receiving de facto recognition from Serbia. On the other hand, the public is divided and unsure of what the future will bring and what the agreement means. The overall narrative around the ASM has been very negative, and the Vetevendosje party, led by Kurti, has developed this narrative. Kurti enjoys solid support from the public. Therefore, there is still immense support for him to lead the dialogue with Serbia and overall trust in his capability to steer the establishment of the ASM internally.”
Normalisation of ties between Serbia and Kosovo will remain a key foreign policy goal of the EU throughout 2023. While fears of expansion fatigue dominated discourse in the Western Balkans for years, Brussels has reaffirmed its commitment to the region following Russia’ invasion of Ukraine.
It will now have to deliver.
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