23 September 2019

The dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo through the Spanish scenario phase

Stelian Teodorescu

In February 2018, the European Commission announced European Union’s (EU) new enlargement policy. Given that announcement, the entire Western Balkans region got a new impulse for its integration ambitions into EU. Considering the different stages reached by region’s entities, Serbia is a top candidate, which could actually get a concrete agenda of the EU integration process for 2025, meanwhile Kosovo is still that candidate that is not recognized by all international actors.

Image source: Mediafax

Additional to EU’s warnings, the dialogue between these entities proves to be difficult

Belgrade’s leaders got many “calls” from EU on Serbia’s dual policy in terms of the West and Russia. Within those “calls”, the Serbian authorities were reminded, many times, that 60% of Serbia’s trade exchange gets done through EU, meanwhile the percentage they have with Russia is less than 7%, and the European investments in Serbia is bigger than Russia’s.

The Kosovo-Serbia relations’ normalization and continuation were quite difficult and unpredictable. This is an extremely important process, not just for the two entities, but also for the entire Western Balkans region, especially that through the so-called Brussels Agreement, ended on 19.04.2013, under EU’s aegis, both entities agreed to make mutual efforts to standardize the relations.

At the end of 2018, the Belgrade-Pristina political discussions went through hard times, as the dialogue was seriously affected after debating on three major topics:

- launching the controversial initiative related to borders’ correction following ethnical criteria, as a normalization solution for their relation;

-imposing 100% custom taxes for the goods imported from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH);

-creating the Kosovar armed forces.

Given the current political, military and security circumstances, which are extremely complex in the Western Balkans, Kosovo’s status issues and, implicitly, the continuation of the Belgrade and Pristina dialogue are still essentially important on the agenda of both sides involved in this file, but also on EU’s one, which is supporting the accomplishment of this region’s integration strategic objective.

EU tries to “save” the project.  Belgrade and Pristina want the same thing, at least, according to statements

The Pristina- Belgrade authorities’ dialogue is extremely important for these states’ relation standardization and their citizens also want for this process to continue. At the same time, the public opinion needs to understand better the expected purpose, content and results of the negotiations, given that this process’s effectiveness is still questioned and the lack of previous provisions’ implementation got seriously criticized.

In 2018, the presidents of Kosovo and Serbia have presented the public opinion the idea of a possible “borders’ correction”. Such a process involves, also, a possible exchange of territories between North of Kosovo, where are mostly living Serbians, and Serbia districts, where are mainly living Albanians. However, the proposal was not that welcomed on a regional plan, as in both Kosovo and Serbia there are strong voices against it, nor on a global plan, where Germany is the most serious opponent of this solution. As for the international community, there are serious concerns that any territorial exchange between Kosovo and Serbia could create a major instability risk for the correction of other Western Balkans borders.

Until now, the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, eased, led and moderated by EU, has only been materialized through a series of high level meetings, whereat have participated both the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic, and the Kosovar one, Hashim Thaci. Everyone was expecting for them to sign an agreement to be complete, complex and mandatory from a juridical perspective, following the international right an EU’s acquis. Given Belgrade and Pristina’s leaders clear signals on the lack of progresses, but also the contradictory objectives and approach differences, their dialogue has simply been cancelled in November 2018, after the Serbian leaders have strongly opposed the Kosovar government’ decision to impose 100% custom taxes for the goods imported from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH).

Although before blocking the dialogue Serbia and Kosovo have showed their availability to stay committed to negotiations, both parts have also proved to have different visions and to refuse to give the answers their dialogue partners wanted. This has only proved that they have to continue to make additional efforts in order to normalize the relations and end a legal agreement between Belgrade and Pristina, especially that such agreement is crucial for the entire Western Balkans region to actually access EU.

Within a meeting with the Serbian president, A. Vucic, that was held after France’s president visit to Belgrade, on 16.07.2019, the chief of the EU Delegation to Serbia, Sem Fabrizi, has underlined that “EU’s delegation will continue to support Serbia’s European integration and mediate the dialogue between Belgrade-Pristina, on relation’s normalization, which should open the path towards a complex agreement”.

Also, the Serbian president has stated: "Serbia must continue its European path and that’s why we need the bloc’s support in implementing reforms. It’s necessary to intensify the work on meeting the European agenda so we could speed up our road to the EU membership”.

Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s president, could not help expressing his will to reduce the tensions with Serbia, stating that the dialogue between them, as “sovereign independent countries” is “indispensable”. Furthermore, the Kosovar president has underlined that “both countries have the responsibility to normalize the ties”, which is essential if they both want to access EU and that they must create some ‘conducive conditions” for dialogue. Also, Hashim Thaci said that “Without good neighborly relations, there is no European future for any country of the Western Balkans".

Therefore, during the official visit to Spain, on 28.08.2019, Serbia’s prime-minister, Ana Brnabic, stated that the dialogue between both parts cannot start over as long as the 100% taxes imposed by the Kosovar authorities for the Serbian goods are still active. This decision, implemented by Pristina’s leaders, was considered to go against the Association Stabilization Agreement (AS) that Kosovo signed with EU.

Given these positive statements, made by both parts, emerges the question: who could actually take advantage on creating supplementary crises in Western Balkans, given that North Macedonia’s issue was solved and the Skopje leaders are now free to join NATO, and through multinational efforts and joint agreement they want to stabilize and solve BIH’s situations and also find a solution for Kosovo’s status?

A “special representative” for a “special agreement” between Serbia and Kosovo

During the visit in Spain, Serbia’s prime-minister, Ana Brnabic, unofficially met with Spain’s current Foreign Affairs Minister and possibly the future chief of EU’s diplomacy, Josep Borrell. The Spanish official stated that, if he would ever become EU’s diplomacy chief, his priority will be finding a final solution for the Kosovar issue and that his attitude will be balanced and fair. Also, Ana Brnabic underscored that she expects to witness “friendly talks about bilateral relations and the resumption of the Belgrade – Pristina dialogue on the normalization of relations.” It is noteworthy mentioning that Spain is one of the five EU member states which did not recognize Kosovo’s independency. This happens also due to their similar issue on the autonomous regions Catalonia and the Basque Country.

The nominalization of Spain’s Foreign Minister, Josep Borrell, for the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy position created many serious debates on both a regional and international plan, as there were some voices claiming that this should be regarded as an opportunity which should be given to Belgrade, but also as a diplomatic alternative which could lead to solving the Kosovar issue.

Therefore, there were launched two possible scenarios on the Kosovo file solution.

According to a first scenario, appointing as EU-HR the representative of a state which did not recognize Kosovo’s independency could worry Pristina. However, given that J. Borrell stated that he supports the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, as well as an agreement between sides, the Spanish official could be that “instigator” element for this file, as he could support: 1) the creation of some concessions and a compromise to Belgrade; 2) convincing the other four EU member states, which are not recognizing Kosovo’s independence, to reconsider their position. This way, he would eventually make possible an agreement between these two entities. Such an estimation could become even more solid if we think that Spain proved to be the most vocal state in terms of Kosovo’s independence recognition and, in some of the cases, even in rejecting EU’s relations consolidation with Kosovo. Thus, it is highly important to remark that the former Spanish prime-minister, Mariano Rajoy, was the only EU leader who was not part of the EU-Western Balkans summit, organized in Sofia, in 2018, reasoning that he does not recognize Kosovo’s independency,

A second scenario would involve sending a special representative to continue and effectively mediate the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue and, implicitly, to normalize their relations. Such decision could end the Kosovo status issue.

Appointing a special representative for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue is not something new, as it was discussed within the conferences on analyzing the situation in the region, organized at the Aspen Institute (Germany). The international analysis circles are speculating that the future EU-HR will come from a state which does not recognize Kosovo’s independency, therefore, another institution will have to manage dialogue’s mediation and normalize their relation, even if the special representative for Kosovo would still have to work under the High Representative umbrella.

The lack of clarity, cohesion and the ineffective mediation is not only risking to continue to block the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, but also to question EU’s role in the Western Balkans and, implicitly, region’s integration process. Hence, a major success for this dialogue will strengthen EU’s credibility across Western Balkans’ integration process, as well as on the international plan.

Appointing a special representative is a necessary solution, because it seems to be the most effective way to solve this issue. This special representative must be a person to enjoy all EU member states’ support and have a clear mandate to actually get to a legal mandatory agreement between Kosovo and Serbia. To support the latter evaluation, the prioritization of the many urgent issues waiting to be solved by the future EU High Representative may also be brought to question, among them being also issues like those related to China, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine or Russia.

Concurrently with EU’s approach, other five states, Germany, France, Italy, Great Britain and US, NATO members, have sent a joint declaration, on 13.08.2019, by which were asking Serbia and Kosovo to “restart the EU-led dialogue urgently”, because the current situation is blocking both parts’ progress towards the EU integration and is it simply not sustainable at all.

The five NATO member states are willing to play an important role in the new discussions and negotiations, only if “Belgrade and Pristina will compromise, eliminate the obstacle and restart the discussions”. This could mean “for Kosovo, to cancel the 100% custom taxes imposed to Serbia”, and for Serbia “the stop trying to convince other countries to revoke the recognition decision of Kosovo’s independency”.

Consequently, in the following period, Russia, Turkey or other states could also get involved in this situation more, together with EU and US, to mediate the dialogue and normalizing the Belgrade-Pristina relations.

Still, there are few chances for the dialogue to start before Kosovo’s general elections and, implicitly, the creation of a new government in Pristina.

Conclusions… although there is a long way to the end

The Kosovo-Serbia dialogue is complicated and their relation’s normalization and reconciliation is part of a process which is longer than everyone would have expected. In order to get to that phase of the dialogue that would allow Belgrade and Pristina to make a step forward towards the European or Euro-Atlantic integration and for this process to actually become reality, both sides must understand that there is no alternative to this dialogue and the mutual acceptance. Therefore, EU can be an important element to get these entities at the finish line, by offering this process the concentration, resources and political assets that Brussels has to offer.

Appointing a special representative could be the proper way of doing it, even if such a position would be occupied by someone who will need all EU member states’ support and commitment, but also of the other international actors which have great influence in the region.

This possible agreement, but also the establishment and acceptance of compromises between Kosovo and Serbia could be a great accomplishment for the European security and foreign policy and, at the same time, it could confirm that EU is a competent and effective international actor when it comes to solving any types of European and international conflicts.

Translated by Andreea Soare