Kosovo – Belgrade plays smarter but still with nowhere to go?

The EU-led “dialogue” between Belgrade and Pristina will stall at some juncture because of the failure of the Quint and Pristina to accept a real compromise over the north, one that keeps it within Kosovo but also functionally part of Serbia.

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By Gerard M. Gallucci

The EU managed on October 19 to get the prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo into the same room. No agreements were made and there was apparently no historic handshake. But the meeting was important as an icebreaker, right? It clears the way for a dialogue leading to an historic mutual accommodation, right?

Maybe, but still doubtful. The entry of EU foreign policy chief Ashton into the fray does not mean any real change in the EU/US approach to settling the Kosovo conflict. Brussels and Washington still want Belgrade to surrender northern Kosovo to Pristina. For their part, Pristina still wants nothing from the “dialogue” but the north, and Serbia still refuses to accept Kosovo independence or to give up the north. Bottom lines have not altered and simply getting people who don’t like each other to sit in the same room won’t change anything.

Ashton’s lead in the new “dialogue” means only that the pressure on Belgrade to surrender will be at a higher level. With this first “historic” meeting out of the way, the press is reporting that the US secretary of state and British foreign minister will soon be visiting Belgrade to encourage it to meet the conditions for EU membership. That means to underline the need to give up Kosovo or be left out. EU officials are reaffirming the specifics – no partition but instead abolishing Serbia’s “parallel” institutions in the north – and emphasizing that Brussels expects the dialogue to continue at the “political level.”

What has changed is the smarter way the new Serbian government is playing the Kosovo issue compared with the previous one. President Nikolic appears to be content with leaving prime minister Dacic in the lead. This former Milosovic aide seems to have taken a page from the Nixon-to-China playbook. He has been stressing his stated eagerness for the EU while emphasizing he is ready to complete the negotiations with an “historic agreement” with Pristina. The fact that he now has met prime minister Thaci – albeit while holding his nose – underscores this positive stance. Dacic decided not to get hung up on meetings and not to worry about the possibility that some might see this as a form of recognition. The EU wants meetings, he’ll give them meetings.

None of this means Belgrade is ready to cross any substantive redlines. In comments to the press after the meeting, Dacic emphasized that the meeting was “status neutral”. The director of Serbia’s office for Kosovo, Aleksander Vulin, clarified for the press that Belgrade is not happy about meeting with Thaci, but must accept who the other side chooses. Dacic has launched a process for defining Serbia’s platform for the negotiations, but foreign minister Mrkic has cautioned not to expect anything “sensational” to emerge. Dacic suggested the dialogue should focus for now on technical issues, though status will have to be discussed at some point. But Serbia continues to reject Kosovo independence and remains unwilling to concede anything on the north. Dacic has in the past suggested partition as part of an overall solution. After the Thaci meeting, he told B92 that “the problem runs deep, Serbs from the north do not accept Kosovo.”

Serbia will attend meetings and present its views. The Quint countries supporting Kosovo independence – US, France, UK, Germany and Italy – will continue to try to bully Belgrade into giving up north Kosovo using the club of EU membership. (The north is the real Quint target because recognition is far less important to Pristina than gaining full possession of the territory and can be left for later.) Serbia remains unlikely to go this far. Indeed, any effort to abandon to Pristina the four northern municipalities – North Mitrovica, Zvecan, Zubin Potok and Leposavic – would probably lead only to more conflict and possible ethnic flight. More to the political point, neither Nikolic nor Dacic can accept the loss of Kosovo without getting anything in return.

The EU “dialogue” will stall at some juncture on the Quint/Pristina failure so far to accept a real compromise over the north, one that keeps it within Kosovo but also functionally part of Serbia. The EU simply speaking in a louder voice will advance nothing.

Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010.

To read TransConflict’s policy paper, written by Gerard and entitled ‘The Ahtisaari Plan and North Kosovo’, please click here.

 

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