It is naïve to assume that given the current geopolitical conditions in the Balkans and the psychological dimension of the conflict between Kosovo and Serbia that a resolution to their conflict can be found unless the EU and the US develop a clearly articulated cost-and-benefit strategy cushioned by a realistic process of reconciliation.
The recent demonstrations following municipal elections in the three Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo, and the events that followed, strongly suggest how raw the nerves are between Prime Minister Albin Kurti and ethnic Serbs in Kosovo, as well as between Kurti and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić. They demonstrate how far apart they remain, and how distrustful they are of each other.
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The unfortunate developments that occurred before and after the demonstrations include: the dispatch of police by Kurti to quell the demonstrations; Kurti’s refusal to sign off on the Association of Serb Municipalities; Vučić’s refusal to sign the Franco-German agreement even though he agreed verbally to abide by its provisions; Vučić’s call on Kosovar Serbs to boycott the elections and “resist the occupation”; and his dispatch of a Serbian military contingency to the border with Kosovo.
The violent flareup that ensued, in which 30 KFOR peacekeepers were injured, prompted intense criticism by the EU and the US of Kurti’s misguided action.
The psychological dimension
To maintain stability in the Balkans and make tangible progress in the negotiations between the two sides, the EU and the US must consider the factors that continue to weigh heavily on the thinking and attitudes of both Vučić and Kurti.
First, there is a need to understand and address the psychological dimension of the conflict that continues to haunt them. Second, there should be a clear framework that spells out the cost and benefit if they negotiate in good faith and deliver on the promised concessions they make. And finally, the EU must demonstrate their keenness to facilitate the process of integration and spell out what Vučić and Kurti would gain to advance their integration into the EU, to which both strongly aspire.
Before delving deeper, it is necessary to have a better grasp of the character of these two leaders, their strength and weakness, what they want to achieve, and how they want to be perceived by their own publics, their allies, and their foes.
Kurti is a nationalist for whom Kosovo’s independence is sacrosanct and cannot under any circumstances be compromised. This explains his resistance to the Association of Serb Municipalities and their potential implications for Kosovo’s territorial integrity. Even though he was imprisoned during the war, he was well aware of the atrocities and war crimes committed by Serbia against Albanian Kosovars and he still suffers from psychological scars the war inflicted on him and his countrymen. He resents Vučić’s continuing refusal to account for thousands of missing Albanian Kosovars believed to be buried in mass graves.
Moreover, Kurti does not trust Vučić to deliver on any promises he makes, which explains his reluctance to follow through on commitments he made, including several of the provisions in the Franco-German plans. He still has an anti-American streak from the time he was in the opposition, albeit he recognises the indispensable role of the US as the guardian of Kosovo’s security and independence.
Vučić has a no less complicated personality and set of hang-ups. He is a nationalist to the core who plays at the public sentiment. He staunchly refuses to recognise Kosovo’s independence as he stated in his appearance on Happy TV: “The Serbian leadership will not sign a capitulation, will not support the membership of the self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo in the United Nations, and will not recognise its independence.”
He hardly ever negotiates in good faith, as was demonstrated by his first accepting the Franco-German plan in Ohrid, North Macedonia on March 18 but then refusing to sign it, which he in fact stated weeks in advance. “As for signing something [in Ohrid],” he said, “I’m not planning anything.” He consistently encouraged ethnic Serbs in Kosovo to defy the central government as he called on them to boycott the elections and not abide the authorities in Prishtina.
Moreover, although he professes to seek integration into the EU, he does not share Western values. He is authoritarian, and a denier of war crimes committed by the Serbian army against Albanian Kosovars. He has maintained close ties with Russia, Serbia’s traditional Slavic ally, especially because Belgrade still depends heavily on Russia for military hardware and training and because there are strong religious ties between the Serbian and Russian Orthodox Churches. He relies on Moscow’s opposition to Kosovo’s independence in the UN and is fearful of Putin’s ire should he toe the Western line, particularly now as the Ukraine war is raging. Finally, he refused to join the sanctions against Russia, and is unlikely to change his position as long as Putin is in power.
What the EU should do
The EU with the full support of the US should develop a new strategy that would induce both Kosovo and Serbia to cooperate and accept the eventuality of mutual recognition through a process of reconciliation and intermediate agreements in which both countries develop a vested interest. The EU needs to provide a clear horizon for both Kosovo and Serbia based on reciprocity and a full adherence to any agreed-upon issue.
In dealing with Kurti, the EU must first make it clear that integration into the bloc is a process that requires full cooperation with the EU and full adherence to the rules and agreements that bind the EU together. By dispatching the police to northern Kosovo in an extremely sensitive context and time without consultation with the EU, he ignored the advice of the EU to reduce the tension and maintain calm, which suggests to the EU that he is not a reliable partner.
Second, since the EU and the US are the guardians of Kosovo’s security and independence, Kurti must demonstrate greater trust in their judgment as neither wants to compromise Kosovo’s independence and territorial integrity. Kurti should sign off on the Association of Serb Municipalities without any further delay. In addition, he should begin to implement the Franco-German accord and put Vučić rather than himself on the defensive.
Third, as a prospective EU member, Kurti should demonstrate considerable sensitivity regarding the West’s concerns over the stability of the Balkans, especially now due to the war in Ukraine and Putin’s determination to do everything he can to destabilize the region and engage the West in another volatile front.
Fourth, however distrustful Kurti is of Vučić, he must learn to deal with him and demonstrate to the EU that he will always negotiate in good faith. He should not allow any failure in the negotiating process to be attributed to him while enhancing his credibility with the EU, which is central to advancing Kosovo’s integration.
Fifth, Kurti ought to pay far greater attention to his domestic affairs. He ought to progressively meet the EU’s socio-economic, educational, cultural, and human rights standards. He should weed out corruption, encourage foreign investments, create jobs to prevent the brain drain which is hampering Kosovo’s growth and progress, invest in education, healthcare, infrastructure, and housing, and tend to the needs of the poor, especially children.
Since Kurti has cast Kosovo’s fate with the EU, he must now demonstrate that Prishtina is worthy of EU membership, because, regardless of when that might happen, its voice will be equal to that of France, Germany, Italy, and every other member state. This will be an incredible feat for Kosovo, which also carries an awesome responsibility. His standing with the EU and the US is currently questionable; the burden is on him to prove that he is trustworthy and has the leadership quality, the acumen, and the skills to live up to the call of the hour.
The EU on its part should offer Kosovo a framework for its prospective integration by reciprocating Pristina’s commitment to follow EU guidelines and condition the process of integration to the progress that Kosovo makes on all fronts.
The areas where Kosovo wants to realise important gains and where the EU and the US can play a critical role include: membership in international organisations; recognition of its independence by the five EU states that have not yet recognised Kosovo—Romania, Cyprus, Greece, Spain, and Slovakia; opening a dialogue with the EU in connection with the integration process; exerting pressure on and/or persuading Vučić to fully implement the Franco-German agreement, which is central to the reconciliation process between the two countries.
Vučić must restore his credibility
In dealing with Vučić, the EU is fully aware that unlike Kurti, by virtue of his connection to Putin, Vučić is not as free to act transparently to advance Serbia’s integration with the EU. But given Serbia’s aspiration to become an EU member state, he has to come around and accept the inevitability of coexistence with an independent Kosovo.
Vučić must stop defying and denying Kosovo’s independence publicly, knowing that its independence is irreversible. He must stop instigating ethnic Serbs in Kosovo to rebel against Prishtina as he has recently done following the elections in the three Serb-dominated municipalities.
He should slowly and gradually distance himself from Russia and be reminded of Moscow’s growing international isolation, its military failures in Ukraine, and its much-diminished global stature and power; it is becoming an uncertain ally on whom he cannot depend.
Moreover, Vučić should actively persuade the Serbs in the north of Kosovo to return to the institutions and play a constructive role to stabilise the area. He should sign and fully adhere to the Franco-German agreement to enhance his credibility, which presently is in tatters.
Vučić should also should take steps to normalise relations with Kosovo by reaching interim agreements regarding water distribution from Lake Ujmani and mining at Trepça Mine, expanding trade, and encouraging cultural ties, student exchanges, and more.
Although these activities do not constitute recognition of Kosovo, they will prepare the Serbian public psychologically for such an eventuality, especially once Putin departs the political scene.
In return, the EU should offer Serbia a roadmap that would lead to full integration and open up a dialogue towards that end. The EU should also develop and agree on a quid pro quo so that Vučić will know what he might receive in return for any concession he makes. This includes compliance to the provision of any accord, verbal or otherwise, especially the Franco-German agreement which is crucial to bring an end to the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo.
Since for the EU and the US, solving the Serbian-Kosovar conflict is critical to the stability of the Balkans, they should change the dynamic of the conflict between Belgrade and Prishtina by offering a roadmap to integration with the EU that both countries aspire for.
It is now up to Vučić and Kurti to either squander the prospect of becoming an integral part of the European community, or work together, seize the opportunity, and enjoy the growth, prosperity, and security accorded to all member states of the EU.
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