The EU has managed to appear to be resolving the Kosovo conflict through dialogue without actually going anywhere; Serbia and Kosovo have edged closer to each other physically, but the substantive gap between their positions remains total and zero-sum.
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By Gerard M. Gallucci
The EU-sponsored dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo appears to have made striking progress in the last months. The two prime ministers have met repeatedly and even had their pictures taken together. Dialogue produced apparent substantive movement on two important issues: boundary crossings and representation. The long stalled IBM agreement (“integrated border management,” text here) is now being implemented at northern and southern crossing points. Prime Ministers Dacic and Thaci have agree to place representatives in each other’s capitals. (The EU will play an intermediary role with the representatives being housed in EU offices. No date yet announced for posting them.)
However, a close look at what is happening on the ground, and at the EU’s position on Serbia’s EU membership prospects, suggests there is less than meets the eye.
Belgrade hoped that cooperation with the EU over Kosovo would win a decision to fix a date for beginning talks on Serbia’s accession. Indeed, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule called the recent developments “great news” and Belgrade “brave” for matching deeds with words by taking “numerous valuable steps in the implementation of the agreements reached in the dialogue to date.” He suggested that there is now a “clear timetable” for Serbia. But the EU also made it clear that more is expected from Belgrade before a starting date is granted and that the dialogue needs to continue in January. EU foreign ministers “praised” Serbia and Kosovo for progress in the talks but concluded that “visible and sustainable improvement in relations between Serbia and Kosovo is needed so that both can continue on their respective European paths.” The ministers decided to postpone decision on a date pending further progress. Fule explained that the EU’s “conditions” for Serbia still must be met.
Belgrade knows what those conditions are. As deputy prime minister, Suzana Grubješić, explained to the press, the EU expects “normalization” of relations with Kosovo – not outright recognition, but implementation of all agreements reached in the dialogue and a “search for a solution for north Kosovo.” But the EU wants more than a mere “search.” While press reports suggested some division within the EU on Serbia – with a majority favouring setting a date now – Germany apparently wants first to see Belgrade withdrawing its presence from northern Kosovo. The choice being set by Brussels (or Berlin, really) is the EU or Kosovo.
Implementation of the IBM in north Kosovo has begun with the northern Kosovo Serb leadership backing off, for now, from any effort to blockade the two Gates. The northerners have been concerned that the agreement would lead to a “border” between them and Serbia and had been occupying the roads to the crossings (without closing them). But the four northern mayors decided to “suspend” their protest given assurances from Belgrade that nothing would be done to subject them to Kosovo customs or border procedures. (All that seems to have actually happened on the ground is that Serbian and Kosovo police and customs have moved their containers – long in place to house staff – closer to each other. No flags or other national markings at the crossings are allowed and whatever functions performed should be in the presence of EU staff.) The mayors said they would monitor the situation but charge that Pristina’s officials at the crossings are already demanding that customs be paid.
The EU has managed to appear to be resolving the Kosovo conflict through dialogue without actually going anywhere. Serbia and Kosovo have edged closer to each other physically but the substantive gap between their positions remains total and zero-sum. Most crucially, the status of the north – part of Serbia, part of Kosovo or somehow part of both – remains unresolved. The Quint still sees “dialogue” as a way for Serbia to surrender the north and still is using the prospect of EU membership to bully Belgrade into doing so.
Talk is always better than violence. And it is good too that KFOR and EULEX appear to have put aside for now the use of force to subject north Kosovo to rule from Pristina. But it remains the case that Belgrade cannot simply surrender north Kosovo to Pristina. When the edifice of “dialogue” collapses without having changed anything essential, what will be the Quint’s Plan B?
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.