Sweeten the pot, or there will be no pot

Belgrade would need a good reason to give up its “curse” of leverage.

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By David B. Kanin

Ed Joseph has a serious proposal.  It deserves to be taken seriously.  Joseph, a Fellow and Senior Lecturer at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, has for many years been a prominent proponent of ideas meant to cajole or force states in the post-Yugoslav Balkans to accept the stated norms – if not actual practices – of the transatlantic West.  Like other public intellectuals, Joseph appears to believe the pull of Western-style democracy and tantalizing possibility of eventual membership in the EU makes the US and EU much more appealing to prospective Balkan partners than anything on offer from Moscow or Beijing.

Proceeding from the premise that the Western actors remain and will remain the dominant powers in the Balkans, Joseph proposes they impose a trade-off under which Serbia would halt its campaign to promote de-recognition of Kosovo by states who care little about Balkan disputes but initially blessed Kosovo’s sovereignty in the wake of its unilateral declaration of independence in 2008.  Belgrade also would drop its objection to Pristina’s membership in Interpol, UNESCO, the Council of Europe, and other international organizations.  In return, Kosovo would agree not to seek political union with Albania or anything that would head in that direction.  Kosovo also would not be guaranteed membership in the UN, NATO, or – most importantly – the EU [1].  Joseph calls his proposal a “game-changer.”

Importantly, such a deal would finesse the signal American failure to convince five EU members to drop their refusal to recognize Kosovo.  During the run-up to Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence American policymakers and public intellectuals scoffed at those who warned them that some member states would refuse to accept Kosovo’s unilateral de jure separation from Serbia  and that the Kosovo created in Washington would achieve no more than a stunted status.  Under Joseph’s proposal, Kosovo would improve its international position without needing to gain the approval of the EU-5/NATO-4.

By stressing this last point, Joseph makes clear that the removal of Serbia’s negotiating leverage is a primary motivation for his idea.  He characterizes this leverage as afflicting Serbia with something like the “oil curse” afflicting countries with a lot of that resource but not much else.  According to Joseph, this leverage curse has the effect of “complicating its (Serbia’s) ability to settle the Kosovo question and finally accept the Western order…”   Again, the benefit and necessity of accepting the ”Western order” is simply assumed – not accepting the embrace of the West is defined as a self-inflicted curse..

This proposal offers Kosovo clear tangible benefits.  Membership in various international organizations would be a tangible demonstration of Kosovo’s status as a stand-alone actor, if not quite a sovereign one.  Sacrificing the option of uniting with Albania would not be much of a concession — the specter of a greater Albania, once a significant talking point in the rhetorical quiver of Albin Kurti, receded considerably as Kurti rose to become Prime Minister.

The problem is that the deal would not offer Serbia much beyond warm words from the West (leavened, of course, with demands for greater progress in the areas of transparent governance, rule of law, and anti-corruption laws and actions).   Presumably, the Serbian government would tell its people that it has offered up a major concession on Kosovo’s status in return for a better view of Serbia in Western capitals.  Perhaps the government would be able to negotiate economic and financial deals in the West designed to convince Serbs there was something tangible in this for Serbia.  Of course, given the track record of international financial dealing with Serbia and other states in this and other regions, the public might be a little suspicious regarding which individuals and patronage networks in Serbia would benefit from any such arrangements.

Nevertheless, there could be a way to turn Ed Joseph’s rather one-sided proposal into something that would benefit both Serbia and Kosovo.  The EU could check a lot of boxes if it would offer to admit Serbia immediately to EU membership if it accepts Joseph’s initiative.  Belgrade would get to bypass the excruciating and never-ending hell that is the Acquis and chapter opening and closing process.  However – and this would be non-negotiable  — Belgrade would agree that it as an EU member it would recuse itself from any role in the EU admission processes of Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia, or Albania.  Serbia would not have a voice regarding anything to do with Kosovo’s EU application, would not have a veto when the EU actually votes on Kosovo’s admission, and would not lobby the EU-5 or any other EU members to vote against Pristina’s admission.  Belgrade also would pledge to refrain from supporting Milorad Dodik’s efforts to obstruct Bosnia’s effort to join the EU in its current political form.  Serbia, in short, would capture the holy grail in return for losing the leverage curse that so concerns Ed Joseph.

Kosovo still would not be an EU member but would gain a strengthened international status and have a path to membership clearer than the one Bulgaria is able to force North Macedonia to trod.  Serbia would concede its leverage but immediately vault into the Premier League.  And the European Union – which once again has presided over a useless Kosovo-Serbia “diaiogue” and failed to move on Albanian and North Macedonian accession processes – would actually do something useful in the Balkans.

That would be a game-changer.

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.


  1. See “Taking Away Serbia’s Non-Recognition Campaign Would Be a Game-Changer,” Joseph’s interview in europeanwesternbalkans,com, June 24, 2021.

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1 Response

  1. Name*

    god who writes this nonsense? if it is known that almost 50% of Serbs DO NOT WANT TO ENTER THE EU, then why would they give part of their territory?

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