Serbia and Kosovo—Top Leaders in Talks, But Major Issues Remain (2/20)     Print Email

By Dan Mahoney, European Affairs Editorial Assistant

Top leaders from Serbia and Kosovo have had significant bilateral meetings in Brussels recently, raising some faint glimmers of hope for progress toward a more constructive relationship between the two former combatants. 



Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and Kosovar President Atifete Jahjaga met for the first time on 6 February 2013, in Brussels with EU Foreign Affairs head Catherine Ashton moderating.  The Prime Ministers from each country have held multiple meetings also in Brussels and met again this week. Serbia’s hopes of commencing its EU candidate status depend on reaching a path toward  normalization. 

EU’s Ashton lauded “constructive engagement from both sides,” and she added,   “The coming weeks will be critical.”  These talks have focused on the status of North Kosovo, which is majority Serb and rejects Pristina’s authority.   The EU has stated that formal recognition of Kosovo by Serbia is NOT required to initiate membership discussions, but that movement toward normalization is necessary.   Belgrade, however, has given mixed signals about how far it is willing to go toward reconciliation.   While Serbia has been willing to engage in dialogue, it has refused to alter its position that Kosovo is a non-sovereign entity belonging to Serbia. After the meetings Serbian President Nikoli? told reporters that agreement will be difficult if Kosovo remains committed to being an independent state, clearly a deal breaking position if maintained.   

The Kosovo region was placed under United Nations administration following NATO’s air campaign against Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia in 1999.   Following a nine year period under UN authority, Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence on 17 February 2008, and has since been recognized as an independent state by the U.S. and 22  (of 27) EU member states. 

Serbia understands that normalization of relations with Pristina is crucial for its chances at EU membership. The most contentious issue between the two sides is the status of ethnic Serbs in North Kosovo. Unlike the rest of Kosovo, North Kosovo (the area north of the Ibar River also known as Kosovska Mitrovica) is majority Serb and does not recognize the authority of Pristina. The area has seen sporadic violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbs, most recently on  February 4.

Currently, both Belgrade and Pristina have government institutions in the region, though most of the population in North Kosovo recognizes the authority of the Serbian institutions. The issue of parallel institutions must be settled before Serbia can enter into serious membership talks with the EU.  One proposed solution is a territory-for-recognition swap, in which Pristina would allow its northern province to re-join Serbia in return for diplomatic recognition from Belgrade. All parties currently reject it.  Another possibility is the creation of an autonomous province of North Kosovo, also a non-starter for the moment.

If Belgrade and Pristina can determine a constructive solution to the North Kosovo issue, another question will need to be answered.  Will Serbia have to recognize Kosovo’s independence in order to join the EU?

While the EU has stated that Serbian recognition of Kosovo is not a prerequisite for membership, the EU has already experienced what can happen when a state without defined borders is admitted into the club. With Cyprus in 2004, the EU accepted a member state with long-standing border issues in the north and is not likely to want another similar situation.

Kosovo also seeks to enter the EU.   But before negotiations can even begin, it will have to win recognition of its independence from all EU member states. With Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain still unwilling to officially recognize Pristina, Kosovo remains in limbo vis-à-vis the EU. 

Intern Dan Mahoney is student at American University and visited Kosovo and Serbia last spring.