Of tariffs and statehood

At this point, removing the tariffs against Serbia without recognition by Belgrade would be a serious setback to Kosova’s wobbly sovereignty.

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By David B. Kanin

Calls for normalization and resumption of the dialogue between Serbia and Kosova mask the fact that there still exists no European strategy toward the Balkans.  The demand by the Great Power“ Quint” for Kosova to suspend its tariffs in exchange for a Serbian agreement to stop its campaign for countries to de-recognize Kosova serves the interest of neither protagonist.  The immediate rejection of the Quint’s instruction by Marko Djuric, Belgrade’s point person on the lost province reflects the fact that the stalled dialogue so important to the Quint is of only cosmetic interest to Balkan principals.  Whatever diplomatic dance ensues, neither side can accept what it views as unilateral concessions on the only issue that matters – Kosova’s status – for the sake of some nebulous notion of “normalization.”

The term “normalization” connotes a sense that there exists some sort of Platonic transactional universe of standards and behavior that governs a trans-Atlantic security community and that southeastern European supplicants must adhere to.  The actual conditions and behaviors afflicting the United States and Western Europe suggest this is not the case. The patronage bosses that still run political and economic life in the Balkans long ago figured out how to manage Western officials and academics much as their predecessors handled the representatives of earlier great powers – flatter them in person and ignore them in substance.

In fact, the situation in the region already is normalized.  The successor states to the former Yugoslavia, Albania, and sometimes Greece and Bulgaria remain engaged in multi-decades long disputes over identity, resources, pride of place, and, of course, history.  Governments, oligarchs, and other notables compete for international favor but also use the foreigners to gain advantage in local and regional power struggles. Appeals for transparency, democracy, or rule of law continue to involve the use of slogans as placeholders in the absence of coherent policies.  To be sure, something called “civil society” issues demands and complaints but is over-rated abroad and largely marginalized at home. Complacent assurances that the notional Europeanization process just needs time to take hold amount to waiting for Godot.

Whether Ramush Haradinaj chose well in imposing tariffs against Serbian good entering Kosova no longer matters.  For better or worse, the tariffs – and Hardinaj’s insistence that they stay in place until Belgrade recognize Kosova – have become a measure of the country’s status.  If Pristina backs off now without getting what Haradinaj demanded Kosova will lose an important round in its struggle for sovereignty. Resumption of the over-hyped negotiation started under EU auspices in 2013 would underscore the possibility Serbia eventually can both get into the European Union and recover its lost province. Creation of an association of Serbia municipalities in Kosova would make things even worse for Pristina because Serbian administrations would have a universally accepted status while Kosova does not.   Private assurances from Serbian notables to Westerners that Belgrade knows it cannot recover Kosova are unimportant – what matters is the public perception of official Serbian rhetoric and behavior and the simmering base line beat from nationalists and their Russian supporters that keeps irredentism alive.

  • Western efforts to appease Serbia with material or diplomatic benefits in the hope of mooting Belgrade’s claim on Kosovo will continue to have as little success as Bismarck’s effort in the 19th Century to distract France from Alsace-Lorraine by encouraging its imperial expansion in Africa. 

The principal weakness of Kosova’s tariff policy is not international opposition, but rather the feuding between Haradinaj, Hashim Thaci, and other politicians as they jockey over who should run Kosova’s foreign policy and how this should play into the coming election.  Haradinaj and his tariffs remain popular, but his future status depends on the outcome of the deliberations of yet another court over whether he committed war crimes. His previous voluntary surrenders to war crimes courts helped his domestic reputation and there is no sign even his conviction this time would break the regional pattern under which war crimes convictions automatically award those found guilty with a sort Roman-style Virtu in the eyes of their co-nationals.  Still a conviction likely would make it difficult for Haradinaj to remain/return as Prime Minister, and any successor might not be as staunch in defending the tariffs – and, therefore, Kosovar sovereignty – against international assaults. 

Thaci also is affected by the latest war crimes wild card, but he has different problems.  First, his overall stature and ability to manage the country’s foreign policy have diminished considerably since the initiative he co-authored with Alexander Vucic to swap territory as part of a deal that would include Serbian recognition was greeted with howls of fury at home and abroad. Second, his party could have a hard time maintaining power even if Thaci somehow manages to avoid a new election.  Third, occasional indications the United States would accept a land swap deal so far do not suggest Washington is ready to commit to pushing for one, and domestic opposition to the idea in both Kosova and Serbia remains considerable. Neither Vucic not Thaci has no Plan B.

The poisonous relationship between Thaci, Haradinaj, and other important Kosovar politicians trumps the fact that the tariff and land swap initiatives are not automatically contradictory.  Border changes and tariff removal could happen as part of an overarching deal – by creating a new reality that would be real “normalization.” Nevertheless, there is little chance of any such arrangement and, of course, furious resistance by domestic, international, and academic opponents of any such development will not go away.  The inertia enabling the status quo of momentary political geography remains powerful, no matter that serial US and EU celebrations since 1878 of supposed “final status” in the region have proven to be rhetorical fools’ gold.

Meanwhile, Vucic, unlike the Kosovars, would benefit if Pristina reverses itself on the tariff and the desultory EU-mediated dialogue resumes.  The Serbs would be able to use such a tactical victory to highlight the possibility they can join the EU without having to recognize Kosova. Once again, Vucic would look like the adult in this room and could use his burnished international stature to further marginalize the unimpressive collection of political opponents he has to deal with at home.  Regarding Kosova, Vucic would be able to sit back while politics in Pristina unravel. He could continue to play the Russians off against the chaotic constellation of Western governments and the EU. 

The critics should turn off their sirens and give Vucic and Thaci credit for constructing a general outline of an agreement on a hot-button issue in the face of certain domestic and international opposition.  This proposal presented an opportunity to open a dialogue regarding how best to organize negotiations on a settlement between the two countries and among the squabbling politicians on each side. Instead, knee-jerk rejection by the internationals, who continue to dismiss any idea created by locals instead of themselves, reinforced the prevailing stasis.  The dangers inherent in the land swap and the diplomatic freeze created by Haradinaj’s tariffs should not have led the foreign diplomats and experts to forget that they still have not produced any approach of their own robust enough to get the protagonists talking about more than technical trivialities. Next time authorities on different sides of still-simmering Balkan disputes agree on an approach to negotiating a potentially dangerous problem, it would be helpful if Western overseers would ignore their public intellectuals and work with the authors of a new initiative – whatever problems it has — instead of slamming the idea down a priori.  This is what enabled the 2001 Ohrid Agreement between Macedonians and Albanians and the recent Prespa deal between Greece and what became the Republic of North Macedonia.

The larger point is that only arrangements created and committed to by local authorities might lead eventually to what Karl Deutsch called a “security community.”  Without going into recent arguments between constructivists and their critics about this concept, there is no evidence great powers – whether allies or rivals – can force contestants in a contested region for more than a limited time to accept a demand that they resolve their conflicts.  Either the larger powers themselves engender conflicts that originate in or spillover into limnal security zones, or their rival patron-client relationships lead the system to break down. That has been the pattern in the Balkans (and Middle East) since the period of Ottoman decline. It will not be possible to know whether Balkan authorities and social activists are willing or able to effective take charge of their own geopolitical futures unless and until the big powers finally get out of the way.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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