“The future of the Balkans is within the European Union,” stated the leaders of the European Union member states at the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003. “The enlargement process will not be completed before the admission to membership of the entire Balkans,” Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajčak underlined 10 years later at an anniversary conference held in Dublin on May 24th. Some enormous changes have happened in the region within these ten years, with one of the most revolutionary changes happening just last month when Serbia and Kosovo reached the historic Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalization of Relations.
The agreement on the normalisation of the Belgrade-Pristina relations was reached and initialled on April 19th 2013, after six months of talks between the prime ministers of Serbia – Ivica Dačić, and Kosovo – Hashim Thaçi, mediated by the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton. By April 22nd, the agreement had been accepted by the governments in both capitals, the European Commission announced that negotiations for accession to the EU should be opened with Serbia, and a Stabilisation and Association Agreement should be launched with Kosovo. A month later, Dačić and Thaçi reached a consensus over the draft of the implementation plan in two days of talks in Brussels on May 22nd and 23rd; and although the deal on the action plan was expected in Brussels to be reached at least two weeks earlier, the question should definitely be asked whether it is possible to design the implementation process of one of the most breakthrough agreements signed in Europe since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement within a week, a month or even two?
Kosovo je Srbija?
The text of the April agreement (unofficial so far) remains extremely vague, and its interpretation and implementation will obviously require hundreds of hours of technical dialogue. However, the crucial thing has already happened. Dačić, Tomislav Nikolić (President of Serbia) and Aleksandar Vučić (First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence of Serbia) have made the impossible – they practically gave up on Kosovo and “traded” it for Brussels, while not changing the nationalistic narrative and discourse. And what even more important, society has accepted it.
The Serbian and Kosovan governments have proved the political will to normalise the relations and move together towards Brussels. It is a lot, but it is not enough. The implementation of the April agreement requires many extremely technical solutions regarding inter alia the country calling codes, licensing of the mobile and landline phone services in Kosovo, energy supplies and many others. The generality of the recent provisions suggests that the aim of the technical negotiations was so far to reach a political agreement and confirm the unity of the goals among Serbia and Kosovo, and not to agree on the specifics of the implementation process. A lot of questions remain open and a lot of them refer to extremely fragile issues.
The governments in Belgrade and Pristina are currently trying to harmonise their positions and reach a final text of the agreement to be officially signed. Vučić has stressed that there is some confusion regarding the implementation of the agreement reached recently, and the final confirmation of the government will be delayed until these are clarified in talks with representatives of the international community and certain guarantees are given to the Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija. “The changes refer to a lack of obligation to change Pristina laws, technical details for the Community of Serb Municipalities and a status part that would guarantee Serbian documents,” he explained.
According to the draft implementation plan, Serbia is supposed to provide a detailed overview of funding of the institutions in Kosovo by the end of May, to start to liquidate the parallel security structures by mid-June and finish it already by mid-July. Moreover, all Serbian judiciary institutions in Kosovo must be closed by the end of the year when new judicial bodies will be established. In order to facilitate the process the countries will exchange contact officers between Belgrade, Pristina and Kosovska Mitrovica (a city in North Kosovo divided by the Ibar river into the Albanian and Serbian part, with the northern part the de facto capital of North Kosovo). However, the withdrawal of Belgrade from North Kosovo should not be interpreted as a recognition of the independence of Kosovo. Such a perception will ruin the chances for an effective and peaceful settlement of the conflict, will preserve and support strong tensions not only between the Serbs and Albanians, but also between the Serbs from Serbia and the Serbs from the North. One should also stress that the question of the Serbs outside the northern part of Kosovo is still open. South of the Ibar river there are six Serb-dominated municipalities ruled by Kosovan law, the future of which significantly depends on the provisions of the agreed action plan and their rights to the Serbian citizenship, which Belgrade is so strongly insisting on. However, the citizenship and identification documents, which represent one of the few remaining elements of Serbia’s control in the North, constitute a key factor enabling Serbia to maintain the powerful Belgrade-Mitrovica relationship, as well as prove that Belgrade does not recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty.
Kosovo remains a place where all the Balkan security dynamics cross, but it also remains a symbol of how extremely difficult peace building and state building processes are, even if external aid is unprecedentedly big. This breakthrough could have been reached at least 6 years ago when the Ahtisaari Plan was rejected in Belgrade, in which case the implementation process would probably have been relatively advanced by today. Most probably the approach in Brussels and readiness to support the implementation of the provisions would also have been more beneficial both for Kosovo and Serbia back then, before the EU had experienced the financial and institutional crisis. Today, the EU lacks not only resources, but also successes. The developments of the Arab Spring have proved its absolute inability and unwillingness to consistently act on the international scale. Catherine Ashton also lacks successes and desperately needs a record of achievements to confirm, before the 2014 exchange of European elites, that the establishment of the position of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy was not a mistake. The normalisation of the relations in the Balkans and opening the enlargement doors to one of the most troublesome and inconvenient countries in the neighbourhood seem to be a great bargaining card, but these are Pristina and Belgrade, and particularly the Serbs in North Kosovo, who will pay an enormous price for the rush and pressure to design the implementation process as quick as possible.
The integration of Serbia and Kosovo into European structures will not be an easy task for the EU itself, and Brussels does not seem to have an idea or strategy on how to cope with it. Kosovo is still externally governed and the involvement of the United States in the reform processes will create an unprecedented case of a trilateral Brussels-Washington-Pristina dialogue. Serbia is not an easy partner either. The fact that at the time the Serbian prime minister was discussing the deal on the implementation plan with Thaçi in Brussels and with the government back home, President Nikolić, Deputy Prime Minister Vučić and Foreign Minister Mrkić met in the Black Sea resort of Sochi with Vladimir Putin, signed a declaration on strategic partnership and announced a “new era in cooperation” for Russia and Serbia, is definitely not an accidental coincidence. Nikolić has expressed his gratefulness to the Russian Federation for “being on the right side, on the side of international law, concerning our Kosovo problem”, and not recognising the self-proclaimed independence of Kosovo. Thus, he has shown to Brussels, but mainly to his electorate back in Serbia, that Belgrade has alternatives when it comes to foreign policy and the agreement on Kosovo is just a political concession, not a resignation.
Fragile peace, fragile future
The end of the Balkan wars in the 1990s resulted in a situation when the young, unconsolidated, under-resourced and physically destroyed countries have been coping simultaneously with peace building, state building, democratisation and integration with Western international structures for the past two decades. The enormous number of profound and successful reforms conducted in the region is impressive; however a huge number of passed reformatory laws remain only on paper. European Union pressure and the extremely pushy use of the conditionality mechanism in the case of Belgrade-Pristina dialogue can only result in agreements which will be signed and passed, but can never be effectively put into practice. Brussels should accept that local elections in Kosovo scheduled for October may be delayed until the technical solutions of the reforms are agreed. More importantly, the conditional integration offer should not correlate with the negotiations over the implementation. Another essential element of the implementation of the April agreement is local ownership and the inclusion of the northern Kosovo Serbs, both in the dialogue over the implementation and the implementation itself. While keeping the relationship between North Kosovo and Serbia, and doing it within the framework of the Kosovan legal system, external pressure and efforts should be additionally aimed at the development of common values and interest-based cooperation among the Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo. Finally, the focus on the implementation of the agreement and fulfilment of the integration criteria should not shade the significance of the regional reconciliation which remains extremely fragile, and frequently a facade.
Ida Orzechowska is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Political Science of the University of Wroclaw, Poland, obtaining a degree in political science. Her main research interests relate to international security, the Western Balkans and conflict studies. She is currently a visiting fellow at the Institute for International Relations in Zagreb, developing her dissertation on the correlation between power relation and stability in the Western Balkans region.