Is new agreement a turning point for Serbia and Kosovo?

The EU and the US must be clear about the benefits that both Serbia and Kosovo can derive if they fulfill their obligations

The recent verbal agreement reached between Serbia and Kosovo in Ohrid, North Macedonia obviously represents a positive development in the process of normalisation between the two countries.

There are however many obstacles and a considerable number of ambiguities that will make it difficult to fully implement the EU-backed deal in spite of the fact that both sides have a vested interest in seeing many of the provisions of the agreement being realised.

Thus, the optimism that was expressed on March 21 by EU envoy Miroslav Lajčák that the new agreement reached between Serbia and Kosovo represents a “turning point in the process of normalisation of relations” may prove to be overstated. And to suggest that the agreement represents “de facto recognition” of Kosovo by Serbia, as stated by Prime Minister Albin Kurti, is rather wishful thinking.

That said, the EU and the US can mitigate many of the following obstacles provided they take specific measures to enshrine legality into the agreement on the one hand and clearly articulate what benefit Serbia and Kosovo can derive by implementing the agreement and what the consequences will be if they don’t.

The many hurdles that the two sides will encounter include: Russia’s continuing efforts to impede Serbia from forging strong ties with the West while seeking to destabilise the Balkans; Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić’s strong commitment to maintain Serbia’s close ties to its Slavic ally Russia; his desire to please the far-right groups in his country which view Kosovo as the cradle of the Serbian state and Orthodox religion; the considerable lack of clarity as to how to ensure a suitable level of self-management for the Serbian community in Kosovo; and the absence of a clear and enforceable mechanism to implement the various provisions of the agreement in a timely fashion.

Finally, due to the fact that the agreement is not signed, any successive government in either Serbia or Kosovo may find certain provisions in the agreement to be counterproductive or inconsistent with their political objectives and will not necessarily honour the agreement if it remains not legally binding.

Since the implementation of the agreement largely depends on the goodwill of Serbia and Kosovo to execute it faithfully, it remains up to the EU to exert constant pressure on both sides to live up to their commitments. This will prove to be difficult unless the EU works with the US to solidify the agreement and put on the table with clarity the ‘stick and carrots’ should either or both parties fail to fulfill their part of the agreement.

EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell stated that Vučić and Kurti “have reached an agreement on how to do it…This means practical steps on what has to be done, when, by who and how.” He emphasised that other than the direct benefit that both countries would gain, the agreement would bolster “the stability, the security and the prosperity of the whole region… and it will become an integral part of their respective European Union path.”

The essential provisions of the agreement

The agreement stipulates that Serbia will no longer block Kosovo from seeking membership in the UN and other international organisations, and both countries will be obligated to develop good-neighbourly relations and ‘respect’ (not recognise) their independence and territorial integrity. The two sides would also exchange permanent missions which will be established at the respective government seats.

In addition, Prishtina is committed to establishing specific arrangements and guarantees to ensure an appropriate level of self-management for the Serb-majority areas in Kosovo. And finally, both countries agreed to create a Joint Monitoring Committee, chaired by the EU. Although Borrell admitted that the agreement had fallen short of the “more ambitious and detailed” agreement, the problem here is exactly that – that the devil is in the details – and the question will be what measures the EU will take to ensure implementation other than the monitoring mechanism.

Legitimising the agreement

To begin with, it is critically important that that the US fully support the agreement and use its weight to ensure that Kosovo’s applications to join international organisations including the UN are accepted.

Second, it would be absurd for the EU to limit itself to monitoring; it must be proactive and see to it that all the provisions in the agreement are implemented in a timely fashion.

Third, it is critical that before Kurti begins to implement the self-management for the Serb-majority areas in Kosovo, Vučić begins in earnest to fulfill his commitments, especially because he is known to rescind promises he made in the past.

Fourth, the EU should register the agreement with the UN Secretariat to lend it both legitimacy and enforceability. As Kurti rightfully stated, “now it is up to the EU to make it internationally binding.”

Fifth, it is essential that the EU and the US make it clear that they stand firmly behind the agreement to minimise Russia’s and China’s efforts to undermine the agreement to serve their strategic objectives.

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Providing incentives

The EU and the US must be clear about the benefits that both Serbia and Kosovo can derive if they fulfill their obligations as stipulated by the agreement.

For Kosovo, it is particularly important that as it faithfully implements the various provisions of the agreement, Kosovo sees a clear path to EU integration, persuades the five EU states (Cyprus, Spain, Greece, Romania, and Slovakia) to recognise Kosovo which is essential for Prishtina to also apply for NATO membership, and negotiates in earnest visa liberalisation for Kosovars.

Finally, Kosovo must see that the EU provides financial aid to both countries. To that end, the EU must live up to its pledge to organise a donor conference within 150 days to set up an investment and financial aid package for Kosovo and Serbia. I believe however that some financial aid should be provided to both countries by the US and the EU much sooner, provided they begin the process of normalisation immediately.

The agreement wisely specifies that both countries commit to improving their ties, and recognises that any failure to honour their commitment to the agreement will have direct negative consequences for their EU accession along with the financial aid they receive from the EU.

Unlike any previous agreements going back to 2011, this agreement stands a better chance of succeeding, provided of course that the EU in particular not only monitors the progress being made but exerts any pressure necessary to compel both parties to implement the agreement in its entirety in good faith.

Indeed, in the final analysis, both countries want to integrate into the EU but since the process of integration is long and winding, it is critical for the EU to link the speed and the scope of the normalisation of relations between the two countries to concrete steps that clearly advance their integration process into the EU. This along with the legalisation of the agreement internationally will be the hallmark of this new agreement that differentiates it from any previous ones.

With the best intentions, however, it will still take still several years before Serbia recognises Kosovo’s independence—probably not before Vladimir Putin leaves the political scene. President Vučić has said this time and again. Neither the EU nor Kosovo should have any illusion that mutual recognition is around the corner.

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