Securing agreement through international pressure alone can be very risky for Kosovo, Serbia and the EU, with the process vulnerable to changes in government and the wavering attractiveness of EU accession.
By Erdoan A. Shipoli
Despite so much going on in the Middle East right now, some attention has recently been focused on the Balkans; this time, fortunately, for diplomatic reasons. With Serbia scheduled to hold parliamentary elections, Albanian politicians having already started their battle for elections next year, and Bosnia and Herzegovina finally forming a government, this year is an important year for the region. One of the most important developments thus far has been the Kosovo ‘*’. Leaving aside whether it is negative or positive, and who are the winners and losers, it is important to understand the next steps required to ensure a more peaceful western Balkans.
One of the biggest problems at present is the lack of information – and indeed the sheer amount of misinformation – about the process. Whilst Serbia claims that they have strengthened their claim to Kosovo, the Kosovars claim that the asterisk ‘*’ is just a snowflake that will melt as soon as the weather warms up. One must wonder how such interpretations arise from people who have agreed on the same document, present in the same room, inhaling the same oxygen. Yet this is politics, and the respective governments want to be re-elected. Indeed, different interpretations have also came from international politicians as well; with some German politicians claiming that this agreement brings Kosovo back to Serbia, whilst politicians in Macedonia insist that the Serbian government has recognized Kosovo as a sovereign state.
These different interpretations leave us to understand that the ‘*’ is open to interpretation like never before. Normally such a symbol is known as a footnote and, in official diplomacy, is equivalent to reading a NATO document with a symbol next to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) which reads, “Turkey recognizes FYROM as the Republic of Macedonia”. The practice is therefore important, and the fact that Kosovo officials will take part in regional meetings should not be underestimated; nor the fact that the parties came to an agreement – either by international pressure or not. What next, however?
First, the citizens of both Kosovo and Serbia require the right information about the meaning of these lines. It is not what Belgrade and Pristina, respectively, imply – nor what international politicians understand as well – as they clash with one other. As the mediator of the talks between Belgrade and Pristina, it is in the responsibility of the EU to define what these lines mean and what will be the next steps. The main point here is that all parties – the Kosovars, the Serbians and the EU – need to have a defined strategy. Not having such a strategy and moving only by international pressure can be very risky for Kosovo and Serbia due to possible changes in government. Though the advantages of EU accession to both Serbia and Kosovo are the main drivers of the agreement, what if the current Serbian government of president Boris Tadic loses to more anti-EU parties? This is why the EU should make public its strategy and plans for Serbia, Kosovo and the region in general.
There are some important elements that need to be part of this strategy. As I wrote previously in English in the Turkish daily, Today’s Zaman, the exclusion of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, and Kosovo from the first round of the visa liberalization process effectively ghettoised the region; despite Bosnia and Albania ultimately being accepted. Nevertheless, Kosovo – with many economic and political problems and challenges – remains outside. The people of Kosovo have to travel in Europe, learn from Europe and explain themselves. Today, when Kosovo will be represented by its own diplomats, a seat, and an asterisk in regional conferences, Kosovar citizens need to have the right to travel freely and explain Kosovo to their European counterparts, particularly in international academic conferences, meetings, and exchange programs. This is the first and most important step that the EU should take vis-a-vis Kosovo.
Another important point concerns north Kosovo. Serbia is about to advance its relations with the EU, with a possible accession plan, but retains influence over, and a presence in, north Kosovo. The EU shall be very careful to solve the north Kosovo problem before making further promises to Serbia. EULEX does not have full command of the north Kosovo institutions, and the referendum of Kosovo Serbs was held without any prior permission, either from the Kosovo government or EULEX. In addition, the EU should be firm on not allowing Serbian elections to be held in the northern Kosovo.
It is in the hands of the EU to show that the good will demonstrated by Pristina is rewarded. A frozen conflict in north Kosovo, with the high possibility of escalating tensions, would affect the situation in the predominantly Albanian south Serbia and in neighbouring Macedonia, which would impact the entire Balkans. If the EU wants to support Pristina for the latest agreement, the EU should immediately grant visa liberation to Kosovo. Finally, the EU needs to have a long-term strategy for solving problems between Serbia and Kosovo, including the integration of both into the EU as soon as possible. This way the EU can demonstrate that the asterisk ‘*’ is not only an academic symbol, but can be used and is used for a constructive purpose.
Erdoan A. Shipoli is a faculty member of the international relations department at Fatih University, Istanbul, Turkey. He established and serves in the board of the Istanbul Leadership Institute, Praxis think tank in Kosovo, BALKANSIAD academic platform, and advises other organizations in Kosovo, Turkey and the US. He has published works in English, Albanian and Turkish. Erdoan can be contacted using Twitter – @eshipoli – or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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