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Cake doughnuts and western diplomacy in the Balkans

As September 2023 was approaching, the focus of western diplomacy once again gravitated toward the ongoing Kosovo-Serbia conflict, which appears to have no end in sight. Amid mounting tensions and the uncertain trajectory of the EU’s “Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue,” a comprehensive reassessment of mediation efforts becomes imperative to bring a definitive resolution to this enduring conflict.

September 11, 2023 - Leon Hartwell - Hot TopicsIssue 5 2023Magazine

Illustration by Andrzej Zaręba

There is a new joke circling around the Balkans: “Why did Miroslav Lajčák (the EU special representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue) and Gabriel Escobar (the US special envoy for the Balkans) decide to open a bakery? Because they thought cake doughnuts would be the perfect symbol for their diplomacy in the Balkans – full of holes and prone to crumbling!” The joke reflects the fact that mediations led by the European Union and the United States in the Serbia-Kosovo dispute have reached their nadir.

An empirical study of 137 mediated disputes found that conflicts about “sovereignty” and “security”, the two top issues defining the Serbia-Kosovo dispute, are notoriously hard to resolve. For these issues, mediation leads to success rates of 44.7 and 40.7 per cent respectively. For conflicts about resources, ethnicity and ideology, the success rate is 70 per cent, 66 per cent and 50 per cent respectively. Nevertheless, the bar for “success” is extremely low given that the study defines it merely as “reduced violence” or “securing an agreement”. The implementation of actual peace agreements, a more demanding task, occurs in only about a third of situations similar to the Serbia-Kosovo conflict.


In the coming days, the parties will resume the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue under the auspices of the EU and supported by the US. The insistence on Kosovo’s compliance with establishing the Association/Community of Serb-majority Municipalities (A/CSM) is poised to remain a focal point, ostensibly presented as a panacea to the Serbia-Kosovo conflict. However, there is a need to acknowledge the pitfalls of the mediation process and promote a long-term strategic approach rooted in a transatlantic outlook.

Firstly, mediators are taking the approach that any “agreement” is better than no agreement, which undermines the mediation process. The track record of the EU’s Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue boasts a collection of over 30 agreements, spanning from the momentous April 2013 Brussels Agreement to the more recent Agreement on the Path to Normalisation between Kosovo and Serbia – also referred to as the Basic Agreement – dated February 27th 2023. Additionally, the Implementation Annex to the Basic Agreement (the March 2023 Annex), contributes to this ever-growing inventory.

Yet, a palpable chasm remains, as none of the primary agreements have been signed and ratified by both parties. Even as Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, trumpeted the parties’ unwavering commitment to uphold all tenets enshrined in the Basic Agreement and its accompanying March 2023 Annex, an unsettling void persists in the form of the conspicuous absence of signatures. This has caused legitimate concerns regarding the enforcement and legal obligations associated with these documents.

Both the EU and the US must confront the reality at hand: agreements lacking the signatures and ratifications of both negotiating parties hold no legal substance. The act of signing and ratifying an agreement signifies a commitment to adhere to its stipulations. In the current milieu, Serbia has chosen not to implement or blatantly breach over 80 per cent of the articles encompassed within the Basic Agreement. Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, even openly ridiculed the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, asserting: “I have excruciating pain in my right hand, I can only sign with my right hand and that pain is expected to continue for the next four years.”

The “any agreement is better than no agreement” approach merely undermines the mediation process. It creates the impression that mediation is failing, thereby informing the behaviour of the adversaries with an eye on future mediation attempts. Consequently, critical facets underpinning the plethora of these over 30 agreements (however defined) stand to remain unrealised, effectively precluding a resolution to the Serbia-Kosovo conflict through the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue.

Simultaneously, the prevailing trend suggests that the EU and US have, perhaps inadvertently, resorted to pressuring Kosovo – the comparably smaller and weaker negotiating party – to accept the agreements as legally binding. This creates a lopsided process.

 Normalisation, a word with little meaning

Moreover, the EU and US mediators exhibit a palpable lack of a clear goal. Anchored within the epicentre of the Serbia-Kosovo conflict are two pivotal issues: sovereignty and security. As explained to me once by Glauk Konjufca, current chairman of the Kosovo Assembly, the intransigence of Serbia in acknowledging Kosovo’s sovereignty perpetuates the constitutional assertion of Belgrade’s dominion over and intervention in Kosovo. This impasse inescapably consigns both states to a perpetual security conundrum, with the potential to escalate far beyond the current low-intensity tensions on the border.

Recollections from the past couple of years alone bear testament to the volatility of this situation: Vučić falsely castigated Kosovo for orchestrating a “pogrom” against Kosovo Serbs and threatened to respond accordingly; Serbian tanks and formidable military hardware were deployed to the border (and even inspected by Russian Ambassador Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko Stefanović!); nearly thirty Kosovo Force (KFOR) troops, the NATO-led peacekeeping contingent, were injured by Kosovo Serbs; and the Kosovo government found evidence of Kosovo Serb terrorist groups in its territory, operating with direct military support from Belgrade.

Instead of building their goals around the two defining issues of the Serbia-Kosovo dispute, the EU and US are officially saying that the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue aims to foster “normalisation”. While mediators often resort to constructive ambiguity to lubricate the wheels of accord, the moniker “normalisation” remains an enigma – an ephemeral concept with elusive substance and a foundation conspicuously devoid of legal gravitas.

Part of why the EU upholds an ambiguous goal for the dialogue has to do with the fact that five EU member states – Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania and Greece – still do not recognise Kosovo’s independence. However, in line with goal theory, a clear goal will increase the chances of mediation success. In the absence of a clear goal, the mediation process risks producing a situation that could create greater instability in the Balkans, thereby also posing a serious security threat to the EU.

 There is no Plan B

Another key issue is the fact that the EU and US mediators lack a “best alternative to a negotiated agreement” (BATNA). At its core, a negotiator’s (and mediator’s) BATNA signifies the path available should negotiations flounder. Consequently, a pivotal objective for any adept mediator hinges on broadening and reinforcing their repertoire of options, thus strengthening their BATNA.

At the end of 2021, one high-level US official said to me that Washington unequivocally backs the EU’s Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue. Intrigued, I probed further, querying the hypothetical scenario of the dialogue’s demise, to which the official asserted in no uncertain terms that “there is no Plan B.” Lajčák similarly echoed this sentiment in the early stages of the process, adamantly affirming the exclusivity of the EU-led dialogue. Crucially, the actions, or lack thereof, undertaken by western actors underscore the absence of a tangible BATNA. This dearth in cultivating robust BATNAs culminates in a precarious predicament. The EU and US find themselves relentlessly investing their efforts within a singular avenue, even when it is seemingly failing.

Linked to the above issue is the fact that the mediators are entangled in positional bargaining, a veritable taboo in negotiation circles. The pernicious aspect of positional bargaining is its propensity to entrench parties within rigid stances, engendering a state of impasse. A more astute and effective strategy would involve steering the mediation towards an interest-based framework, one that fervently pursues the main goals (which in this case, as argued, are unfortunately ambiguous).

A quintessential example of this positional bargaining is manifested in the mounting pressure exerted by the EU and US upon Kosovo to establish an Association/Community of Serb-majority Municipalities (A/CSM) – casting it as the panacea to finally conclude the Serbia-Kosovo conflict. A conspicuous dearth of empirical evidence belies the notion that A/CSM implementation is capable of addressing the sovereignty and security quandaries that underscore the conflict, even when existing agreements are legally questionable. In a peculiar twist, the A/CSM could potentially exacerbate prevailing security concerns, particularly given Serbia’s influence over Kosovo Serbs.

The unequivocal link binding Serbia’s ruling party – the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) – with the dominant Kosovo Serb party – Srpska Lista – is irrefutable. Further compounding this situation is the fact that Serbia provides annual support ranging from 300 to 500 million euros to Kosovo Serbs, who constitute five per cent of Kosovo’s 1.8 million populace. In context, this financial support for Kosovo Serbs eclipses the 2022 budget of Kosovo, standing at a modest 2.75 billion euros. The ramifications are staggering, as Serbia’s assistance to Kosovo Serbs represents 10 to 18 per cent of the entire government budget of Kosovo. The amalgamation of party affiliations, financial leverage and direct military support towards spoilers operating in Kosovo, bestows an astounding power on Serbia, empowering it to escalate tensions at will.

In particular, the prospect of an A/CSM wielding executive powers, which aligns with Serbia’s aspirations (rather than focusing on coordination), has the potential to mirror the contentious Republika Srpska scenario in Bosnia and Herzegovina: a breeding ground for secession. Moreover, should Kosovo capitulate to A/CSM establishment, Serbia’s incentive to compromise on other fronts within the negotiation landscape diminishes exponentially.

By shifting the dialogue from positional bargaining to an interest-based process, the mediators may come to the conclusion that there are alternative ways to meet the needs of both Serbia and Kosovo without establishing the A/CSM. Conceivably, the most effective way to promote and expand minority rights across the Balkans is not by reinforcing segregation as promoted by leftover bigoted politicians from the 1990s (Vučić was Slobodan Milošević’s minister of propaganda when his regime committed large-scale displacement and genocide in Kosovo), but by promoting EU integration. Such a trajectory would ensure that minority rights are protected under EU mechanisms and that members of minority groups will have a better quality of life.

Lost on the EU path

Unfortunately, the mediation process rests on too many incorrect assumptions, chief of which is the naïve belief that the tantalising prospect of EU membership will serve as a catalyst for conflict resolution. This notion fails to withstand scrutiny when juxtaposed against recent polling data. These polls shed light on a disconcerting dissonance: while a staggering 95 per cent of Kosovars would undoubtedly vote in favour of EU membership, a mere 33 per cent of Serbians would echo this sentiment. This may seem mindboggling, given that in terms of trade, foreign direct investment, official development aid and pre-accession support, the EU has undoubtedly been Serbia’s foremost partner for the past two decades. So what explains these anti-EU sentiments?

On the one hand, Serbian aspirations for EU enlargement have been waning due to perceived lack of enthusiasm from Brussels. This disillusionment is, in part, amplified by narratives propagated by both Serbian and Russian media. In response to the February 2022 escalation in the Russo-Ukrainian War, the EU imposed sanctions on the Russian state-controlled international news television network RT. However, Serbia allowed it to open a multimedia online website in Serbian called RT Balkan, which will also be launching television broadcasting in 2024.

On the other hand, the Vučić regime exhibits palpable reticence in embracing the necessary reforms required by the EU. Vučić’s trajectory appears inexorably authoritarian. Should Serbia’s accession to the EU entail the circumvention of serious political and economic reforms, Vučić would seize the opportunity forthwith. However, should such reforms remain mandatory, his approach will veer towards caution. Nonetheless, a steadfast 77 per cent of Serbians remain resolute in withholding support for the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, even in exchange for an expedited EU accession process.

In this intricate landscape a state of limbo – a perpetual EU candidate country – paradoxically emerges as the optimal outcome for Vučić. This nuanced equilibrium allows him to glean substantial rewards from the EU accession journey while sidestepping reforms that could undermine his autocratic path.

Escalate to de-escalate

Another failing is due to the fact that the EU and US fail to calibrate carrots and sticks. Within the tapestry of the mediation process, instances abound where the EU and US have invoked “both sides” statements, imploring Serbia and Kosovo to “de-escalate” hostilities. Regrettably, such even-handed pronouncements often obfuscate the disquieting asymmetry inherent in this conflict, rendering Vučić’s destabilising actions on par with the endeavours of Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti to uphold reciprocity and democratic norms.

Observers familiar with Vučić’s strategic playbook are attuned to his penchant for employing an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy. At the current juncture, faced with a domestic crisis, Vučić adeptly navigates the realm of escalating tensions with Kosovo. As such, Vučić is both the arsonist and the firefighter. Curiously, this characterisation sharply diverges from how the EU and US perceive him. It seems that from their vantage point, Vučić embodies the solution to Balkan stability.

Adding to the dissonance, the EU and US have taken an increasingly accusatory stance towards Kosovo, rather than Serbia, in matters of conflict escalation. An illustrative case in point lies in the response to violent unrest in May. At the instigation of Belgrade, Kosovo Serbs boycotted the local elections, culminating in a dismal 3.5 per cent voter turnout. As such, Kosovo Albanian officials were elected in areas where predominantly Kosovo Serbs live. It is crucial to underscore that Srpska Lista together with the Serbian government, actively campaigned for the local election boycott. Moreover, the US validated the legitimacy of these elections by asserting their alignment with Kosovo’s constitutional and legal requisites.

When the newly elected mayors attempted to assume office on May 26th, they were confronted by violent protesters. Astonishingly, Viola Von Cramon, the European Parliament’s rapporteur for Kosovo, directed a condescending query towards the security situation, encapsulated in her infamous words, “What the hell brought you here?” Yet, the very next day, the tapestry of tension darkened further as Kosovo Serbs unleashed an assault on Kosovo police units, KFOR peacekeepers, and journalists.

Following the injury of approximately 30 KFOR peacekeepers, perpetrated by Kosovo Serbs under the influence of Belgrade, the EU suspended “high-level visits, contacts and events as well as … financial cooperation with Kosovo”. At the same time, the US abruptly suspended Kosovo’s participation in a military exercise – Defender 23 – which took place from May 22nd to June 2nd. In parallel, the US and EU members surprisingly rewarded Serbia. From June 27th onwards for 12 days, Serbia hosted Platinum Wolf 23, a military exercise that brought together the US and eight other NATO member states.

This recurring inability to calibrate carrots and sticks reverberates as a persistent challenge. For example, in December 2021, only a few months after joint military exercises with Russia and sending tanks to the Kosovo border threatening to escalate the situation, the EU rewarded Serbia by opening up Cluster 4 in its accession process.

Stability above all else

Finally, resonating through the corridors of EU and US foreign policy is an echoing void – a glaring dearth of a comprehensive, long-term strategy tailored for the intricate terrain of the Balkans. The US vision of a Europe “whole, free and at peace” retains a beguiling allure, but in the absence of a clear strategy for how to achieve that dream, serious mistakes are made with long-lasting consequences.

In recent years, the EU and US began to pivot towards the aspirations of “stabilitocrats”. Coined as “stabilitocracy”, this term delineates the semi-authoritarian regimes in the Balkans that garner western backing under the deception of ensuring stability. This is despite the fact that this approach, as discerned by scholars such as Florian Bieber, inherently grapples with a glaring flaw. This is namely the absence of a foundation based on liberal democracy within the region, which inherently serves as a wellspring of instability.

Embedded within the fabric of stabilitocracy lies an insidious alliance – a western propensity to accommodate the demands of Balkan leaders who perceive the concept of Balkanisation as an enticing prospect. Emblematic instances include the infamous yet unrealised land swap proposal between Serbia and Kosovo, championed by Vučić and former Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi. Another example includes recent changes to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s voting system in the middle of an election, orchestrated by the High Representative allegedly under pressure from Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, which tilts the balance in favour of ethnic groups rather than individual citizens’ rights. The unyielding drive by Vučić to establish an A/CSM in Kosovo is therefore understandable in these circumstances.

In these intricate diplomatic entanglements, western diplomacy inadvertently nurtures the incremental birth of illiberal democracy and creeping apartheid. This represents the resurfacing of an unfinished project that involves the participation of familiar Balkan players from the 1990s. Perhaps, one can call this the promotion of “apartheid lite”, but these transatlantic actions are reinforcing and hardening the identity politics that led to several bloody wars in the region.

Forging a path forward

In the crucible of this precarious juncture, the EU and US possess a repertoire of immediate and medium-term actions that can be harnessed to navigate towards a resolution in the Serbia-Kosovo conflict.

  1. Acknowledge the stalemate and expand BATNAs

Embracing an unvarnished assessment, the EU and US must acknowledge the impasse in the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and utilise this recognition as a springboard to explore and expand their BATNAs. This recalibration amplifies their leverage in the mediation arena.

  1. Define and align objectives

Convergence between the EU and US on overarching goals is pivotal. Whether the goals are to get Serbia to recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty, or to create an arrangement that would prevent the conflict from unfreezing once and for all, then there are a variety of BATNAs to consider. The point is that clarifying the goals paves the way for innovative solutions. One BATNA to consider is for the US and several NATO member states to enter into a security alliance with Kosovo until the country eventually becomes a NATO member state. Examples of such security arrangements include the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, and the Mutual Defense Treaty between the US and the Republic of Korea. Such an arrangement will not resolve the sovereignty issue, but it will deal with the security issue.

  1. Engage EU non-recognisers

Concerted efforts to sway the five EU states which do not recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty is a dual-pronged strategy. It bolsters Kosovo’s trajectory towards EU and NATO membership, underlining the inviolability of its territorial integrity. Such diplomatic cohesion also eases the process of fostering consensus within Serbia. Eventually, it will make it easier for Serbian leaders to sell the idea of Kosovo’s independence to Serbians, as they could argue that “If Serbia is serious about EU integration, we will have to recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty.”

  1. Prevent escalation of the conflict by expanding KFOR and supporting Kosovo

Augmenting KFOR’s 4,500 troops is essential, particularly in light of Russian threats to escalate the Serbia-Kosovo situation in October. Escalation in the Serbia-Kosovo conflict will not only have implications for the Balkans but also for the Russo-Ukrainian War.

In Serbia, military expenditure averaged around 823.26 million US dollars between 1996 and 2022, reaching an all-time high of 1.462 billion in 2022. Meanwhile, Kosovo’s military expenditure averaged a mere 54.51 million US dollars from 2008 to 2022, reaching its peak at 107.60 million in 2022. As such, on average, Serbia’s military expenditure has been approximately 15 times higher than Kosovo. Beefed up with support from western powers, Kosovo’s military will help create a greater balance of power between the two states, which will prevent Serbia from taking rash and risky military actions.


  1. Calibrate carrots and sticks

Adopting a resolute stance in calling out Serbia’s leadership, specifically Vučić, for propagating instability, supporting Putin and indulging in autocratic tendencies is imperative. You cannot feed steaks to a tiger and expect it to turn into a vegetarian. A judicious balance of incentives and consequences is crucial. Swift accountability for adverse conduct ensures that transgressions do not go unchecked. This approach guards against the illusion of appeasement and prioritises meaningful progress.

  1. Develop a comprehensive Balkans strategy

All these steps demand the crystallisation of a comprehensive, long-term Balkans strategy. Rooted in liberal democracy and stability, this framework should delineate clear goals for the region. It should shun creeping apartheid and autocracy and steer the region’s trajectory towards a harmonious and prosperous future.

Leon Hartwell is a Senior Associate at IDEAS, London School of Economics (LSE), and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington DC.

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