I was in Belgrade this past May, at the annual NATO Week, co-hosted by the courageous and indefatigable Jelena Milic of the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies, Ambassador Bjornstad of Norway, and the NATO Public Diplomacy Division. I also had the privilege to meet with President Aleksander Vucic of Serbia.
I left Belgrade concerned but strangely optimistic.
It is time for a strong, concerted effort, led by the United States but in coordination with the European Union and NATO, to create the conditions that will enable Serbia and Kosovo to reach mutual consent on their ultimate relationship.
The three keys to achieving this are:
Give them space: Create space for President Vučić of Serbia and President Hashim Thaçi of Kosovo to talk, negotiate, compromise. The West should refrain from imposing red lines and lecturing these leaders. We’ve got to give them hope. Western integration must feel real, with tangible economic benefits. This will enable both presidents to push back on those groups in their own populations who don’t see the benefit in Western integration. The United States, NATO, and the EU can do this.
Local solutions: Look at what happened in North Macedonia. Thanks to the political courage of two leaders, and to the external support which created space for them to negotiate, and despite efforts by the Kremlin to derail it, the name issue was resolved and thus the future looks much brighter for the people of North Macedonia. The Serbia-Kosovo conflict is a different situation of course and may be more difficult to resolve. But give presidents Vučić and Thaçi the chance to demonstrate that same sort of courage and statesmanship by allowing them to come up with their own solutions. They’re the ones who’ll have to live with the consequences.
Strategic options: President Vučić needs strategic options for Serbia, other than becoming the Cuba or Venezuela of South-eastern Europe, a satellite state that is tied only to the Kremlin and which gains no long-term benefits for its people as a result. Instead, Serbia can become a responsible, stabilising influence in the region by reaching a peaceful agreement with Kosovo.
Why is this so difficult?
The Serbian president is under immense pressure from inside Serbia and from Russia. Kosovo’s 100 per cent tariff on Serbian goods crippled his negotiating position. He was also recently criticised by the Serbian Orthodox clergy, denounced as a traitor if he contemplates recognising Kosovar independence.
The Kremlin’s principal leverage in Serbia comes from Serbia’s need for Russian Federation support in the UN Security Council when Kosovo declared its independence. The Kremlin knows this of course and therefore has no incentive to resolve the situation.
Moscow often bypasses President Vučić, applying pressure through the clergy, fringe trade unions of active military and police personnel, and others who sense they will lose something if Kosovo gains formal Serbian recognition of its independence.
President Thaçi faces similar challenges where frustration too often leads some Kosovar political groups to call for more aggressive action towards Serbia or a union with Albania.
Despite all of this, President Vučić and President Thaçi have both demonstrated statesmanship in the past several months, trying to find a solution to what seems to the West an intractable situation. All this underscores the fact that both these Leaders need Western support.
The Balkans Summit in Berlin was not a success, but the Serbian delegation showed maturity and statesman-like poise. And that perhaps offers some hope for the upcoming Paris Summit in July.
We may soon have a window of opportunity to build fresh impetus towards resolution. The European Council, supported by a new European Commission could restore hope for EU membership for Serbia and Kosovo, assuming they make progress towards meeting EU standards. NATO could also use the coming Summit in London to re- emphasize the KFOR mission. NATO is aided in this effort as both militaries are led by general officers who understand and respect the West, and recognise that NATO provides stability, not a threat.
But the military domain in Serbia also remains uniquely susceptible to Russian influence. For example, a recent military parade in Nis to commemorate the end of World War II featured only Russian and Serbian troops. This was an insult to the Western Allies and was part of an effort to revise history to demonstrate that Russia is the only friend on which Serbia can depend. It is incumbent on President Vučić to correct this mistake in time for the 75th anniversary next year.
So what needs to be done?
America could have a decisive effect in the region if we employ a comprehensive strategic approach (well-integrated with EU and NATO efforts) that creates the political space for these leaders, protects them from internal and external pressures, and offers hope on the other side of what will be very tough but necessary compromises. But only if we convey the same level of commitment we showed during the Dayton Peace Accord negotiations and prior deployment of the IFOR and SFOR, which eventually brought a fractious but sustainable peace to the Western Balkans.
Critically, the West needs a respected senior diplomat to conduct “shuttle diplomacy” for this situation, similar to the role played by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke during the Dayton Peace Accords. Someone who can imbue the negotiations with a sense of urgency and who has the backing of the major and regional powers, the EU, and other key stakeholders, such as Romania, which also has a key role to play, given its strategic location connecting the Balkans and the greater Black Sea region. Indeed, even though Romania has not recognised Kosovo’s independence, it can have a moderating effect on Serbia.
NATO’s KFOR mission must also be kept in place. Senior Albanian and Serbian leaders pleaded with me in the past, when I was Commanding General of US Army Europe, to keep it there because it was the only anchor of stability in the region. More NATO cooperation with Serbian Armed Forces must also be encouraged, as well as a responsible and effective transition for the Kosovo Armed Forces established.
Finally, Serbia and Kosovo must make serious progress towards meeting the requirements for EU membership, instead of constantly bashing Brussels.
We are back in Great Power Competition and it’s time for the West to use positive influence in the region. We should continue to defend principles and uphold value, but that doesn’t have to mean lectures or red lines. Instead, let’s compete there. The Russians and Chinese will surely fill any vacuum. Let’s compete and enable the development of potential and hope. We have a better story to tell.