Kurti and Vučić: The odd couple who made oddity a science

The EU’s decade-long strategy of making Serbia and Kosovo’s European integration conditional upon mutual recognition has failed.

Since Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia 15 years ago, the two countries have remained at odds with one another.

In spite of the continuing efforts by the EU to mitigate the conflict between them, little if any progress has been made. The contentious point is that Serbia is simply unwilling to recognise Kosovo’s independence and still considers it one of Serbia’s provinces.

The EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, who has been leading the efforts, believes, for good reason, that a resolution to the Serbia-Kosovo conflict not only serves the national interests of Prishtina and Belgrade but also enhances the stability of the Balkans, which is of great concern to the EU, especially as the Ukraine war continues to rage.

The EU has all along made the accession of Serbia and Kosovo conditional upon their mutual recognition. The European Council believed all along that such a precondition would motivate both countries to make the necessary concessions, which would have made them begin the process of integration into the EU. Sadly, the European Council’s hope did not materialise. Neither side has agreed to modify their principal position in spite of the fact that both countries want to integrate into the EU.

Following arduous back and forth negotiations and scores of meetings between Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo’s prime minister Albin Kurti, the leaders remain at odds with each other to a point where they managed to make oddity a science. They often appear as if they have agreed on a range of issues but then it turns out that their interpretation of what they have supposedly agreed upon fundamentally differs from one another.

A case in point is their acceptance of the Franco-German plan, which focuses on the normalisation of relations from the perspective of a common EU future, the most critical element being the exchange of permanent missions, similar to embassies but at a lower level. Vučić subsequently refused to abide by the agreement and the Franco-German plan remains frozen.

The Association of Serb Municipalities

Another earlier example is the EU mediation of an agreement between Prishtina and Belgrade in 2013 that called for the formation of the Association of Serb Municipalities that would allow the Serb-majority communities in Kosovo to have limited self-rule but remain solidly as an integral part of Kosovo. Since then, the Association still has not been established. Prime Minister Kurti opposed the plan when he was in the opposition. Recently he came to accept it conditionally upon Serbia recognising Kosovo’s independence, because he needed to demonstrate to his public that he can receive something significant in return from Belgrade.

Vučić, who initially agreed not to oppose Kosovo’s membership of several international organisations in exchange for the Association of Serb Municipalities, reneged on his promises stating that Serbia is “ready” for the formation of the association, but it does not accept Kosovo’s membership in international organisations, including the United Nations, nor its independence.

The European Council expressed deep concerns about the lack of genuine interest of both parties to implement any agreement that could lead to normalisation and implementation of the Association, along with other EU-facilitated dialogue. The EU’s call on Kosovo and Serbia to implement the agreement without any further delay or preconditions was another shout in the wilderness that no one could hear.

On October 27, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni called on Serbia to “deliver on de-facto recognition” of Kosovo, to which Vučić simply paid no heed. From his perspective, de facto, which translates to recognising Kosovo’s territorial integrity, is tantamount to recognising Kosovo’s independence, which for him is a non-starter.

Recently, Borrell stated, “Unhappily, the parties were not ready to agree on that, without preconditions that were unacceptable to the other party. We will continue insisting and working in order to get an agreement.”

It is rather puzzling that after so much trial and error, the EU has failed get the two sides to agree on anything. The reasons are clear.

For Kurti, the preservation of Kosovo’s independence is sacrosanct. Even though scores of countries have not recognised Kosovo, those are not as critical as Serbia’s recognition because it is Serbia that considers Kosovo as one of its provinces and has categorically refused to recognise Kosovo’s independence or even accept its de facto independence by recognising its territorial integrity.

Vučić can wait

For Vučić, the current geopolitical environment in the Balkans is not conducive to take such a momentous step for three reasons.

First, he wants to maintain good relations with both Russia and the EU. Second, the close cultural, religious, and commercial relationship between Serbia and Russia coupled with the raging war in Ukraine risks raising the ire of Vladimir Putin at a time when he is eager to maintain Serbia’s economic and political stability.

Third, Vučić is not in hurry, and as long as Putin is in power and is breathing down his neck, he can wait knowing that the EU seeks to distance Serbia from Russia, feeling assured that the EU will always welcome Serbia into its fold.

The above strongly suggests one glaring fact. The EU’s decade-long strategy of making Serbia and Kosovo’s integration conditional upon mutual recognition of their independence has failed. It is now time for the EU to adopt a new strategy anchored on rewarding the party who is willing to make the necessary concessions without punishing the party that refuses to concede any ground but will be under intense pressure to do so. This approach will take away from Vučić the “veto” power that he exercised, which prevented Kosovo from becoming even a candidate for integration into the European community.

The following are the four steps Kosovo should take, with the support of the EU, to break the impasse.

First, Borrell should work with Kurti and schedule new elections in the majority-Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo. This first step will dramatically reduce the tension between the ethnic Serbian communities and Pristina, which has been building up since the beginning of the year. It started with the license plate dispute, to the municipal elections that were boycotted by ethnic Serbs, to the violence that erupted following the failed elections. Kurti should make it clear time and again that he considers every person within the country’s borders a Kosovar, and embrace the ethnic Serbs like any Albanian Kosovar, which is consistent with and required by the EU charter.

Second, Kurti should immediately begin creating the Association of Serb Municipalities, irrespective of whether or not Vučić reciprocates. Against this step, the leading EU member states, Germany, France, and Italy, should work diligently to persuade the five remaining EU member states—Greece, Romania, Cyprus, Slovakia, and Spain—to recognise Kosovo, which is a prerequisite for Kosovo’s eventual full accession.

Strengthening Kosovo’s economy

Third, Kurti should declare that Kosovo will accept the Franco-German plan as it stands and will act on its implementation as soon as Serbia also agrees to follow suit. The EU should reward Kosovo by making it a candidate for EU membership.

The above three steps will exert tremendous pressure on Vučić to change his tune, because the last thing he wants to see is Kosovo advance toward integration while he is left behind.

Fourth, Kurti should focus on strengthening Kosovo’s economy, weeding out corruption which would encourage foreign investment, creating job opportunities for those who graduate with university degrees to prevent brain drain, and improving healthcare and certainly the entire education system. The greater progress Kosovo makes to meet the EU standard in these areas, the closer it comes to integration.

The EU mediation between Serbia and Kosovo has hit a brick wall. By no longer conditioning Serbia’s and Kosovo’s integration into the EU unless Serbia recognises Kosovo’s independence, it will dramatically change the dynamic of the conflict and end the impasse.

Photo: Kosovo’s PM Albin Kurti. © European Union

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About the author

Alon Ben-Meir

Alon Ben-Meir

Dr Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.

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