Serbia faces an existential choice in the next months between finally entering Europe or being left out in the cold. Room to avoid such a choice may be running out. Five factors – including Serbia’s economic future and Russia policy – are key to understanding Serbia’s strategic situation.
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By Gerard Gallucci
The Serbian government is “working intensively” on a new proposal on Kosovo. President Nikolic says it will not please everyone and may encounter resistance from the Western countries that support Kosovo independence. He also suggested that it would be appropriate for Russia to look for other ways to “invest” in Serbia now that President Putin has cancelled the South Stream. One might read all this as portending continued refusal to recognize Kosovo and reliance on support from Russia. But Nikolic may simply be trying to raise such a prospect in order to pressure Brussels into being more flexible on conditions for beginning EU membership talks. Either way, Serbia faces an existential choice in the next months between finally entering Europe or being left out in the cold. Room to avoid such a choice may be running out. Five factors are key to understanding Serbia’s strategic situation:
- Serbia’s economic future depends on actively moving toward EU membership. Nikolic admits it is “a matter of survival.” Indeed, Serbia must become a genuine free-market economy able to compete globally and thus create jobs. To do so, it requires substantial investment and technical assistance.
- Russia cannot provide the help Serbia needs. Russian “investment” usually means putting resources into the hands of its oligarchs. It does not develop economies. While Russia may provide political support on Kosovo in the UN Security Council, Putin doesn’t really care about Serbia. For him it’s chiefly a tool to tweak the West.
- The EU – led by Berlin – will not offer any flexibility on conditions for beginning membership talks. The main reason has nothing to do with Serbia per se. The EU remains in economic and financial crisis. It – and especially the Germans – are in no hurry to add to the problems with a new needy member.
- However the Germans spin the Kosovo recognition question from day-to-day, the bottom line remains that real progress on “normalization” with Pristina is necessary before opening EU chapters. The German ambassador to Belgrade has called for “full implementation” of the Brussels accords, making clear that the focus must be on bringing the northern Serbs firmly into Kosovo institutions by integrating the judiciary and forming the Serb community of municipalities.
- The EU is not pleased with Serbia’s Russia policy. As long as this was simply traditional Slavic solidarity over Kosovo it might be accepted as unavoidable. But Europe – especially Germany – is not happy with Russia and with being forced to apply sanctions against its own economic interests. No EU member would be happy with a sanctions cheater. Thus the additional requirement, before membership talks can be opened, for Serbian “alignment” on foreign policy.
The EU has laid down firm requirements for Serbia to move forward – accepting now the de facto loss of Kosovo (formal recognition later) and curtailing support for Putin: Do this and begin entering Europe, resist and remain outside.
Serbia’s leadership probably understands the situation better than anyone. Thus, perhaps, President Nikolic taking the lead to elaborating a new approach. While cautioning that no one should expect a “sensational recognition,” the President may have been given the job – as a matter of overriding national interest – of tabling an approach to meeting the EU conditions. The way forward remains what it has always been: to use the Ahtisaari Plan – as elaborated through the Brussels agreements with Pristina – to complete the placement of Kosovo’s Serbs into Kosovo institutions in a status neutral manner. Serbia would only gain, as would all of Kosovo’s people, by bringing the Kosovo Serbs into Pristina’s political mix.
In turn, Belgrade might insist on EU support on specific practical issues central to Kosovo Serbs: the judiciary and the Serb community of municipalities. Integrating the judiciary could lead to efforts by Kosovo Albanians to “return” in the north through pressing for “legal rights.” The northerners will resist any such effort as threatening to change the ethnic balance of their communities. Before bringing the northern courts into the Kosovo-wide system, the Europeans (and US) should make a determined effort to settle all property claims – Kosovo-wide – so that all the displaced are compensated and helped to remain where they now live. Belgrade also could insist that the Quint ensure that Pristina accepts the Ahtisaari Plan elements for an Association of Kosovo Serb Municipalities with a decision-making body (and on ensuring Kosovo Serbs get their fair share of central funding without unnecessary obstacles). But Belgrade has little choice but to work with the EU and find ways to move forward.
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. He was Diplomat-in-Residence at Drake University for the 2013-14 school year and now works as an independent consultant.
A previous version of this piece appeared in Vecernje novosti.