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Can the Serbia-Kosovo Deal Prove a Game-Changer for the Balkans?     Print Email
By Garret J. Martin, Editor-At-Large, European Affairs

garretmartinThe agreement signed between Kosovo and Serbia on 19th April was a stunning and major breakthrough; a significant compromise that opens the possibility of a normalization of relations for the two former belligerents and could unlock their accession path to the European Union. It was yet another vindication of the constructive and leading role played by the EU in the Balkans for over a decade, in stark contrast with the traumatic failures of the 1990s. Thus, even during the Eurozone turmoil, the EU can still remain a major diplomatic player. It was also a very sweet moment for the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, who played an instrumental role in mediating the negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade. That accord will not be easy to implement, and will face some resistance. But it could prove a game changer in the Balkans, providing new momentum to the stalling process of reform in the various countries in the region and to their road to EU accession.

In an article written in 2010, European Affairs had chronicled Kosovo and Serbia’s failure to normalize relations, more than ten years after the end of the 1999 war. Not only had Serbia rejected Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008, but the fate of the ‘Northern Communities’ presented a major obstacle to any peaceful settlement. North Kosovo, dominated by ethnic Serbs – estimated to be 140,000, with a third in the North, out of a total population in Kosovo of 1.7Million – refused to recognize and cooperate with Kosovar authorities in Pristina, looking instead to Belgrade as its rightful capital. Since 2008, this lingering instability in the Balkans had also periodically flared into violence, including serious incidents in the summer 2011 when Kosovo police tried to take control of northern border crossing posts located in Serb-dominated municipalities.   

Determined to facilitate the mending of ties between Kosovo and Serbia, the EU achieved a small step forward in March 2011 when it convinced Belgrade and Pristina to take part in direct talks in Brussels, the first such contacts since Kosovo’s declaration of independence. These discussions centered mostly on technical questions – such as border questions, the free movement of people and energy supplies – until the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, decided to jump-start the process. On 19 October 2012, she convened Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic – formerly a close associate of Slobodan Milosevic – and his Kosovar counterpart Hashim Thaci – the former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army – for a meeting in her offices. After nine further rounds of grueling negotiations, Thaci and Dacic initialed a breakthrough agreement on 19 April 2013.

The accord is particularly significant because it attempts, through a grand compromise, to address the legitimate concerns of all sides, from the Kosovo Serbs wanting to preserve their ties with Serbia to Pristina’s desire to see its authority accepted in the Northern part of the country. Thus, as part of the agreement, the Serb-dominated municipalities in the North will receive some autonomy in issues such as health care and education, while in exchange the police and courts are committed to implementing the laws from Pristina. The Kosovo government also agreed not to send its police forces to the Serb areas for an unspecified number of years.

While the agreement – overwhelmingly ratified by both the Serbian and Kosovar legislatures – falls short of a full Serbian recognition of Kosovo, it could still have far-reaching consequences for both countries. Not only does it promise to open the way for a full normalization of relations, but it has also unlocked the path towards EU membership. A few days after the agreement was reached, the European Commission recommended that the member states should provide in June a starting date for membership talks with Serbia. It also suggested initiating a Stabilization and Association Agreement, an early step towards accession to the EU, with Kosovo.

Furthermore, the Serbia-Kosovo agreement is a major vindication for Ashton and the European External Action Service [EEAS].  Since she took the post of High Representative in December 2009, Ashton has been the subject of criticism because of the difficult learning curve of the EU’s diplomatic service, which she helped establish. Yet, Ashton and the EU’s fledgling diplomatic corps have slowly turned the tide in recent times, first gaining plaudits for their management of the Iranian nuclear dossier. As for Kosovo, the High Representative took full  advantage of the free reins she was given to try to settle this intractable conflict. The foreign ministries of the EU member states did not interfere because many thought that she would have no chance of reaching a deal. Ashton also relied on her strong relationship with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to both maintain US support, and to make sure that it did not intervene too strongly on Pristina’s behalf. Using that carte blanche and her accomplished negotiating skills, Ashton thus pulled a major diplomatic coup by mediating the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo. By doing so, she confirmed that the EEAS can provide an important added value, and that the EU can have an important impact on the world stage when it speaks with one voice.

Despite the gloomy economic context and the current woes of the Eurozone, the Serbia-Kosovo accord highlights  the continued relevance of the EU and its ability to still attract countries. After all, Ashton was able to achieve a breakthrough in the negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade because she precisely had something to offer: the prospect of EU membership (with Serbia and Kosovo promising not to block each other’s path towards the EU). Moreover, the Serbia-Kosovo agreement provided yet another vindication for the overall strategy of stubborn engagement pursued by the EU for more than a decade towards the Western Balkans.

Since the trauma of the 1990s, when a divided Europe failed to stop the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia and ultimately required US assistance to that end, the EU has been heavily engaged in helping the region recover from war, with 4 civilian and 2 military missions (with 2 of these still ongoing). The EU, through its declaration at the Thessaloniki summit in June 2003, also laid out a roadmap which outlined that the “future of the Balkans is within the European Union”. That has meant, over the years, that settling the remaining political and security problems in the Balkans and supporting their integration in the EU are intrinsically connected and mutually reinforcing processes; and ten years after Thessaloniki, the states of the former Yugoslavia have made significant progress in their road towards membership, with Croatia leading the way (see table below).

 

State

Association Agreement (5/6)

Applied for Membership

(4/6)

Candidate Status

(4/6)

Start of Negotiations

(2/6)

EU Member

(1/6)

Bosnia and Herzegovina

16 June 2008

/

/

/

/

Croatia

29 October 2001

21 February 2003

18 June 2004

3 October 2005

1 July 2013

Kosovo

Recommended

/

/

/

/

Macedonia

9 April 2001

22 March 2004

17 December

2005

 

/

/

Montenegro

15 October 2007

15 December 2008

17 December 2010

29 June 2012

/

Serbia

29 April 2008

22 December 2009

1 March 2012

/

/



However, the path to the full integration of the Balkan states in the EU is still littered with significant obstacles, and many of the impressive steps taken so far remain reversible, starting with the Serbia-Kosovo deal. Putting into practice the articles of the accord and giving them real meaning will not be straightforward. The Kosovar Serbs will have to at least tacitly accept the authority of Pristina, while the Kosovar Albanians will have to live with the fact that the allegiance of the Serbs in the North will only be superficial at best. The nationalist pockets of opposition to the deal in both countries will also have to be placated, in particular the Kosovar Serbs. Their leaders have already stated their intention to oppose the accord, the region overwhelmingly having voted in 2012 against cooperation with the Pristina authorities, and has even threatened secession from Kosovo. It is not clear whether pressure from Belgrade, and the promise of funds from the EU and the US, will suffice to convince the Kosovar Serbs to fall in line.

Furthermore, the promise of unlocking the door to the EU and facilitating the start of negotiations played a major role in convincing Serbia to make a deal with Kosovo – especially the prospects of future funding and trade opportunities for a Serbian economy that is now in recession. Yet, it is another question whether or not Belgrade’s enthusiasm for the EU and its support for normalizing ties with Kosovo will endure in the longer run. Accession, if it happens, will likely be a painful and prolonged process. Not only will Serbia need to engage in extensive reforms, but it is approaching the EU at a time of enlargement fatigue. Adding new members is hardly seen as priority on the barometer  of European public opinion, the difficulties associated with integrating newer member of the Union will mean that Brussels will be particularly stringent throughout negotiations, and Serbia could face vetoes or obstacles from existing member states.

Any setbacks for Serbia could also adversely impact the wider Balkans context. This would be on top of the unmistakable signs that the Stabilization and Association Process – the blueprint for the step by step accession of the Balkan states to the EU outlined in Thessaloniki – is already running out of steam: the general process of enlargement has become more and more complicated and lengthy, with prospective member states needing to adopt a huge volume of EU legislation; the economic crisis has both dwindled the appetite for adding new members among European citizens, and undermined the attractiveness of the EU for the Balkan countries; and member states seem less inclined to fully trust the Commission’s opinions on enlargement, with some countries viewing the Commission as more of a self-interested party than an honest broker.

The Stabilization and Association Process is also struggling because of the domestic problems afflicting the Balkans, starting with economic difficulties. Serbia (25%), Macedonia (over 30%) and Kosovo (over 40%) are saddled with very high unemployment rates, while the World Bank has predicted that the combined real GDP of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia would fall by 0.6% in 2012. In addition, the pace of reform has too often stalled. Bosnia and Herzegovina has so far failed to implement the 2009 European Court of Human Rights decision which struck down the provision whereby elected posts are only open to to Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats. Bosnia cannot formally apply for EU membership until it breaks that deadlock.

Montenegro remains riddled by corruption and ‘clientelism’, while the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece is still unresolved; Macedonia also faced major political turmoil last December when the opposition left the Parliament and threatened to boycott the elections. There is thus a serious risk that enlargement and reform fatigue could worsen, creating a sort of vicious circle. The process, as pointed out by Stefan Lehne, former Director for the Balkans, Eastern Europe and Central Asia in the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union,  could then “degenerate into a kind of double bluff in which the EU just pretends to remain open to further accession and the Western Balkan states pretend to reform”.

Nevertheless, these major challenges should not be a cause for resignation. The Serbia-Kosovo accord has highlighted how even intractable conflicts between former enemies can be overcome; and a successful implementation of the deal could very well act as a game changer, re-injecting needed momentum into the process of reform in the region. Thus, it could provide a model for the ethnic groups in Bosnia as to how they could put their enmity behind them in order to build a working state.  From a larger perspective, the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue is an important reminder that the promise of EU accession has been a major force for positive change in the states of former Yugoslavia. Now is not the time for the EU and its Balkan partners to retreat from that path.