Once again the West struggles to enforce a deal of questionable value on unwilling Balkan participants.
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By David B. Kanin
The old saying that a deal satisfying neither side involved in it must be a good deal does not apply to the text Western diplomacy (finally) published and forced on Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo’s Alvin Kurti on February 27. It is not an agreement but rather an agreement to negotiate an agreement. Its statement of principles regarding Kosovo’s status, Pristina’s longstanding commitment to create an Association of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo (ASM), and whatever amounts to a “normalization” of relations did not settle any piece of the dispute. Neither side signed anything. Each side interpreted every outstanding issue as it wished. Once the text was made public it was clear it would have no life unless and until the sides negotiate an implementation annex.
Kurti did win one negotiating point. By subsuming attention to the necessity of adhering to commitments already agreed to by the sides in the new text’s language regarding status and sovereignty issues Kurti reasonably could claim he does not have to create the Association in advance of reaching agreement on how to implement everything else in the deal.
In his press conference on February 27 EU external action chief Josep Borrell said the sides were going out of crisis management and “are looking for a structured solution to the normalization” (whatever that means). A meeting on implementation was set for March 18 at which Borrell said the EU expected the sides to engage constructively.
So that meeting took place. If the version of the implementation annex read out by Vucic after it was over is accurate it does not implement anything but rather just adds another layer of verbiage leaving everything still up for grabs – status, ASM, missing persons, “normalization.” It speaks of implementation in the future tense and says each article will be implemented independently of each other – so the sides can continue to squabble over what gets done first. As in February neither side signed anything and both sides blamed the other for not doing so. On April 4 a working level meeting produced a text on missing persons and another agreement to forge an agreement on ASM.
In short, the much anticipated normalization agreement so far is just another damp squid. Borrell seemed to recognize this when he issued his by now ritual expectation that the two sides would implement what they had agreed to and ritual warning that they would incur consequences if they did not. Diplomatic back and forth no doubt is going on behind the scenes but neither Belgrade nor Pristina seem in any hurry to do anything.
As is often the case no Balkan protagonist is as interested in an agreement as are the Westerners eager to claim credit for it. Kurti knows that if Kosovo forms an ASM it will be creating an institution in danger of being controlled from Belgrade no matter how tight is its formal integration in Kosovo’s constitution and institutions. For his part, Vucic knows he would put the political domination he has so carefully constructed at great risk if he agrees to anything nodding toward an independent Kosovo—even though the conditions laid out in the February 27 text would leave the lost province short of the universally recognized sovereignty it craves.
Kurti continues to hold a weaker hand than Vucic even given the former’s success on February 27. Pristina is saddled with its 2013 commitment to forming what would amount to a fifth column no matter its legal details. The West long ago lost patience with him and may force his replacement by someone more docile. For his part Vucic has Kosovo’s ASM commitment in his pocket and will continue to insist Pristina must live up to it before it can be trusted to fulfill an agreement to implement whatever process is formed to give life to the February 27 text.
No lasting settlement is likely unless the two parties disgorge the outsiders’ self-serving demands and find a way to work together. Their task would be to resolve the stunted status forced on Kosovo by American diplomatic failures to pass a UN Security Council resolution in 2006 meant to replace UNSC 1244 and then to force through universal recognition of a unilaterally declared Kosovar state in 2008. The West’s howls of protest in 2018 when Vucic and Hashim Thaci considered a land swap as part of a settlement demonstrated that these outsiders are not open to any deal conceived of by the locals rather than in Washington or a West European capital. It is in the interests of both Belgrade and Pristina to use this or another approach they mutually agree on as the basis of a bilateral agreement.
It would be good if Serbia and Kosovo put domestic development and regional security before their disputes over identity and sovereignty. It also would be good if the US and EU (and Russia) would learn from their decades of frustration, drop their pretensions to expertise and leadership and involve themselves in mediation only if Pristina and Belgrade decide to develop their own path to “normalization” as they define it.
Of course, none of this is likely to happen. What is likely is that the current crop of US and European diplomats, like their many predecessors, will complete their mandate, and move on in their careers. They likely will be replaced by another crop of people armed with a sense of diplomatic entitlement and committed to the same paradigm of rhetoric and Olympian perspectives that have marked the West’s post-Cold War engagement in the Balkans.
Ukraine is the wildcard here. NATO and the West are fully committed to a Russian failure, which gives Moscow an opportunity to come out of the war with a strategic victory no matter how miserably the Russian military and its mercenary auxiliaries have performed. Russia does not have to achieve battlefield success in 2023. It just has to keep the current stalemate in place long enough for Western unity to fray, enabling a peace as bad for Ukraine as was the Minsk Agreement in 2014. Moscow’s disinformation warriors might plant the seeds of a rationale enabling the West to swallow such a defeat. Such a narrative might claim Russia has been chastened by its casualties and material losses and will be left too weak to renew its effort to swallow whatever remains of Ukraine after a new deal leaves the Russians in control of more territory than it held before it invaded last year.
There is no question that the accession of Finland and perhaps Sweden to NATO would be tangible Russian setbacks even in the context of a post-war situation otherwise acceptable to Moscow. Perhaps those gains would convince the West to reassure Moscow formally that the rump Ukraine will not get into NATO or the EU. This would reinforce a Russian success.
Ukraine’s spectacular military victories in 2022 set a high bar for 2023. Kyiv needs successes in the field of the magnitude of those last year to maintain Western patience for a war increasing percentages in Europe and the US are ready to end no matter the consequences. Breathless press commentary regarding Ukrainian heroism has inflated an expectations balloon Kyiv must keep inflated. If its military is indeed able to reprise last year’s performance then Russia might experience something like the aftermath in the US of the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam – a realization that it cannot win the war on the battlefield and must find a way out of the quagmire it created for itself. If such a palpable success does not materialize Western resolve will face existential questions.
Either way the Balkans will face tectonic shifts in its security context just as it has repeatedly since 1878. Successful Ukrainian counteroffensives would further weaken Putin’s brand and the interests of still-considerable pro-Russian elements throughout the Balkans. A re-burnished sense of Western power and cohesiveness would build on the performance of US and European weapons systems in Ukraine. Kurti would come under even greater pressure to create ASM, assuming the West does not simply engineer his removal. There would remain the problem of declining US power in east Asia but Taiwan and the South China Sea is a long way from the Balkans.
On the other hand, if Russia is able to keep the Ukrainian stalemate in place or make military gains of its own Western triumphalism regarding Ukraine and the so-called “rules based international order” will evaporate. Russian influence in the Balkans would increase along with its ability to conduct cyber and other aspects of hybrid warfare against its weakening Western adversaries. The US and EU likely would redouble efforts to force creation of ASM in Kosovo, to finally remove Milorad Dodik from his birth in the Republika Srpska and otherwise draw from what Charles Tilly called performance repertoires to act as if they retain hegemony in the region. Whatever happens the Balkans can expect little useful to come their way from the outside powers. Local leaders and publics should stop sloughing off responsibility for their own problems of identity, sovereignty, economy and society. With luck, they will dust off proposals previously shot down by the outsiders, wrestle with the very real problems such proposals contain and decide whether it is possible to pursue them no matter predictable outside disapproval. For a start, Vucic and other decisionmakers should flesh out the “Open Balkans” initiative so it is a concrete program rather than just a slogan useful to Belgrade’s effort to present an image of regional leadership.
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.