Where things stand

As it becomes clear that the arrangement between Belgrade and Pristina is no more decisive than was Dayton or so many other internationally supervised agreements, local actors will discount it and refocus on whatever issues shape the next rounds of their various, unending internal, inter-communal, and international disputes.

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Conflict Background


By David B. Kanin

The implementation process attendant to the deal brokered between the Prime Ministers of Kosova and Serbia by EU Foreign policy Chief Ashton has settled into a rhythm of ritual cross-interpretations.  The central question of whether the playing field involves one state or two is frozen; Kosova claims the agreement protects its sovereignty while Serbia denies Kosova has any sovereignty at all.  The EU claims to have resolved a dispute and to have forged a normal relationship between two future members of the club.  Western pundits associated with the stunted process of Kosova’s independence drive since 2006 or committed simply to the mythology of international management of disputes hail the development as an affirmation of their own activities and rhetoric.

Critics of the arrangement are practicing their dance steps as assiduously as its proponents.  Serb and Kosovar nationalists claim betrayal, and all political forces in both places are adjusting their rhetoric to the perceived impact of the deal on their parochial interests.  Kosova’s Prime Minister Thaci and Serbia’s ruling politicians remain engaged in attempting to rein in their co-national spoilers while focusing on personal and patronage politics.  The governments knew they could expect resistance when they entered into the arrangement and now are balancing the requirement of working with the EU with the political necessity of shoring up their domestic credentials.  Ten rounds of talks gave all sides ample time to prepare their ground and their press releases.

Baroness Ashton deserves credit for skillful mediation, no matter what potholes appear on the road to implementation.  Her measured, relatively quiet approach to her role contrasted sharply with the usual public hectoring that has defined – and undermined – too much Western diplomacy in the Balkans.  Whether this success makes up for the EU’s failure to influence the Arab-Israeli dispute or the Iranian nuclear weapons issue could depend on how things in Kosova go from here – and so the Kosovars and the various Serbian sides have a little leverage as they negotiate with Ashton.  It will be important for the EU to resist the temptation to return to its previous posture of bluster and hectoring as problems emerge in the deal’s implementation process.  This means Ashton should ignore calls from either side to define for the EU to dictate interpretations of aspects of the agreement on which the protagonists disagree – a cardinal mistake the internationals have made too often is take over the responsibility the locals assiduously avoid of being accountable for their own future.

Serbs in Serbia and in Kosova underestimate the long-term opportunities inherent in this deal.  Serb notables north of the Ibar have served notice they will resist efforts to disband their political and commercial (read: smuggling) structures, and – no matter all the rhetoric – neither Belgrade, EULEX, nor Pristina have much control in that enclave.  There are – and will continue to be – references on all sides to the new document as justifying their contradictory interpretations of what is supposed to ensure “normal” relations between Serbia and Kosova, and between Kosova and its Serbian minority.

Meanwhile, the other shoe(s) have not dropped – yet.  None of the five EU members that do not recognize Kosova have moved to do so (despite assurances from Kosova’s Foreign Minister in March that this was about to happen).  On March 25, the Greek Ambassador to Belgrade, reacting to reports that Romania was considering changing its stance, reiterated his country’s determination not to recognize Kosova.  Shortly after the agreement was announced, the Spanish government likewise reiterated its refusal to recognize Kosova.  On the other hand, Slovakia’s Prime Minister said her country “could” recognize Kosova once Serbia signed an agreement with Kosova.

These comments could indicate the Americans once again have attempted to press the five to change their stance.  Whether or not this is the case, Romania appears right now to be the only one that might make the move – during a visit to Bucharest by Spanish Foreign Minister Margallo on 16 May, Prime Minister Ponta called for parliamentary debate on the issue.  Margallo, on the other hand, stressed that his country would not recognize Kosova “as long as Serbia does not accept it.”  (On May 14, Serbian Foreign Minister Mrkic had nervously repeated his country’s gratitude to Romania for not having recognized Kosova.)  On the 18th, in contrast to Bratislava’s comments immediately after Belgrade and Pristina reached their deal, Miroslav Lajcak, Slovakia’s Foreign Minister Lajcak and a former international viceroy on the Kosova issue said his country also would not recognize Kosova.

There is some reason to believe Serbia now is ready to accept a Romanian decision to recognize Kosova.  In a press conference following a meeting of Prime Ministers on May 31, Ivica Dacic – rather than repeating Mrkic’s statement of gratitude for Romania’s stance, expressed “understanding” for the difficult situation Romania sometimes finds itself in as one of the five EU non-recognizers.  Romanian recognition is essential to a Kosova otherwise without much to show from seven years of American diplomacy.

This diplomatic tug of war remains the center of the action – the argument over whether the new Association of Serbian municipalities in Kosova has “executive” powers is a sideshow (more on this shortly).  As things stand, Serbia, but not Kosova, has a choice in how it will handle the issue of the latter’s contested sovereignty.

The nub of the problem is this: Serbia is a universally recognized state.  The new Association of Municipalities gives Serbs in Kosova – now including those south as well as north of the river – an internationally recognized entity.  Kosova, on the other hand, has no firm status at all.  It remains a contested “state” with uncertain sovereignty that is open to future alteration – no matter any ritual denials in Washington and elsewhere that this is the case.  Serbia will retain the choice of accepting or rejecting Kosova’s status as a state.  The same goes for Serbs inside Kosova.  Kosova lacks such agency, and so will remains dependent on the good will of Serbia and Serbs living on its disputed territory.

Belgrade already is taking advantage of this to undermine Kosova’s efforts to move toward European and international institutions – no matter its promise as part of the deal not to do so.  During a visit to Turkey in May, President Nikolic said “we expect” Turkey to keep the Kosovo issue out of its talks with other allies and…will not advocate for the recognition of Kosovo with other countries or lobby for Kosovo’s membership in international organizations.”  Serbia and two other states also blocked Kosovar President Jahjaga’s presence at the scheduled summit of the Southeast European Cooperation Process in Ohrid.  (Host Macedonia cooperated with the Serbian effort simply by not inviting Kosova’s President to attend, but Skopje was embarrassed when other issues combined with the Kosova dispute to derail the summit.  Foreign ministers agreed to meet instead, and Serbia acquiesced in a Kosovar presence at the diplomatic level.).

Kosova’s contested sovereignty will remain a time bomb unless and until Pristina manages to acquire universal recognition and at least UN membership, assuming the current situation persists, some day the regional security situation will shift, and Serbia will retain the option of attempting to reinvent the place again as its province of Kosovo. Those who believe the agreement has put paid to this contingency by creating a “normal” relationship between Serbia and Kosova forget they have used the same argument regarding the disaster that is Bosnia ever since Dayton.  In assessing regional futures, it continues to be a mistake to assume the existence of some sort of diachronic efficacy regarding Western teleologies concerning democracy, rule of law, transparency, and multi-cultural, civic integration.  Politics and security play out as synchronic categories.  Things change, no matter the rhetoric of those who want to deny they do (just look at the precipitous decline in Western influence in a dynamic and dangerous Middle East).

Regarding Serbia and Kosova, the EU could level the playing field by making it clear to Belgrade that it will not be admitted into the Club unless it and Pristina have come to a final binding, omnibus agreement on their relationship.  Germany sometimes seems inclined to do this, but “Europe’s” need to point to its recent mediation between Belgrade and Pristina as a success suggests it is unlikely to happen.

The Meaninglessness of Legality and “Powers”

Regarding this congealing conflict, three things are getting too much attention.  First, it is of only marginal importance what notional powers the Serbian Association in Kosova does or does not have.  The existence of an entity means its notables north of the Ibar can claim to represent Serbs against a state they do not recognize, while those to the south, who before the deal accommodated themselves to Kosovar rule, now know they may not have to do so forever.  It does not matter that EU and Kosovar negotiators focused on preventing the Association from having the legal and political status the Republika Srpska has in Bosnia – the very existence of a Serbian political and social unit sets up a structural, adversarial relationship in which the Serbs will have even more opportunity than before to orient themselves toward their continuing existence as a part of the Serbian nation and state.  They will have no more loyalty toward Kosova than their co-nationals do to Bosnia.  Political wrangling and the less than transparent legal and economic structures and policies endemic in Kosova will give Serbs ample arguments against whatever efforts Pristina makes to gain functional authority in Serb municipalities.

Second, any comparison to the Erdut analogy is off base.  By the end of 1995, Croatia was an uncontested state, having escaped from Yugoslavia and driven out what had been a cohesive, rebellious Krajina Serb community.  The Erdut deal of 1996 simply set terms under which defeated, fragmented Serb remnants could reenter what no longer was the Serbian Krajina as supplicant minority citizens of a forthrightly Croatian country.  None of this applies in Kosova, with its contested sovereignty and still-cohesive and recalcitrant set of Serbian communities (albeit communities affected by robust internal disputes).

Third, references to anything related to the Ahtisaari Plan, the latest in the line of diplomatic zombies going back to the earliest international proposals designed to save or cauterize the collapsing Yugoslavia, should simply be ignored.  This is a tussle over power, sovereignty, and resources, not legalistic details.

The main significance of the wording of the deal is that it sets the parameters under which the sides will wrestle for domestic authority and international support.  Each side (Pristina, Belgrade, the Association, and local notables in each Serbian town and village) will use the agreement to lay claim to “legal” justification for each new argument.  It is not clear that the EU and US have figured out how they will do better in Kosova than they have in Bosnia regarding their bet they can cajole or coerce local communities to use a framework agreement as the basis for another chimerical effort to construct transparent, integrative, multi-cultural, civic politics.

Can the Spoilers Spoil?

The back and forth right after the deal was signed over a possible referendum in Serbia said a lot about the relative weakness of the Serbian hardliners and the skills of both Ivica Dacic and Alexander Vucic.  Angry Kosovo Serb notables initially demanded a referendum, but when Vucic and Dacic agreed one might take place they realized they would lose and so demanded the right to decide the wording of the referendum question.  Vucic and Dacic refused to let this tail wag the Serbian dog, and – against the backdrop of polls showing a majority of Serbs favored the agreement – said a referendum would not be necessary.  The failure of the referendum initiative permitted Pristina to rhetorically assert its sovereignty north of the river by ruling out any referendum on its territory – this was just bluster, but Vucic enabled it to remind the local Serbs how dependent they remain on Belgrade.  Vucic has managed the locals’ protests skillfully and has undermined their appeal to passions and politics in Serbia.

The strange thing about the Serb hardliners is that they, more than many other locals, accept the Western teleology about civic development.  Two decades of American and European diplomacy have been based on the hope that transferring legal authority from local notables to notional states eventually will lead to civic integration.  That is exactly what the Serb hardliners fear.  So far this has not happened elsewhere in the Balkans and the guess here is that it is unlikely to happen in Kosova any time soon.

Kosovar rejectionists have had even less impact on the controversy.  After initial demonstrations, Alben Kurti’s “Self-Determination” movement and pan-Albanian groups have become relatively quiet – it is clear the deal has overwhelming support in Kosova, no matter the longer term impact on the relative positions of the contested Kosova and what will be a universally recognized Association of Serb Municipalities.

Perhaps the most interesting among the potential spoilers are Serbs living south of the Ibar.  As noted above, they no longer have to assume they have been cast adrift in a resoundingly Albanian country.  On the other hand, it is not clear they are willing to tie their future to co-nationals north of the Ibar who so far appear to be tone deaf regarding the concerns of the Serbs of the South.  Naturally, those Serbs who made their peace with Kosova before the deal have a strong interest in protecting their threatened positions from the hardliners, whether a new Association of Municipalities comes into being or not.  Some are attacking the northern Serbs for attempting to destabilize Serbia while they ignore southern interests.  Vucic – recognizing the differences between Serbs living north and south of the Ibar – continues to work to attract southern support for the agreement so he can undercut the northerners’ claims to represent a unified local rejection of the deal.

Now that the initial process of celebration/commiseration (depending on what side one is on) has passed, all sides are adjusting their rhetoric on the deal to their own priorities – not the other way round.  The issue for Ashton and the EU is to find a way to impose the Western narrative – they are counting on the implementation process to gradually trump mutual inter-communal hostility.  In my view, international overseers once more will find their ideologically tainted diplomacy unequal to the inertia of Balkan tectonics.  As it becomes clear this arrangement is no more decisive than was Dayton or so many other internationally supervised agreements, Macedonia and Bosnia – not just Serbia and Kosova – will discount it and refocus on whatever issues shape the next rounds of their various, unending internal, inter-communal, and international disputes.

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).

To learn more about both Serbia and Kosovo, please check out TransConflict’s reading lists series by clicking here.

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13 Responses

  1. My impression is that Southern Serbs are in a delicate position. Any position they take that is not popular with the surrounding Albanians endangers their position. This could be because of more hostility from neighboring villages but also because their politicians are less able to achieve goals in Pristina. However, they will also be aware that – if Albanian nationalists get their way – Northern Mitrovica might become Albanized and just as hostile to Serbs as all other cities in Kosovo. That loss of access to a nearby Serb city would do rather serious damage to the viability of the remaining Serb villages in Kosovo.

    1. Hesh

      How could “North Kosovo become Albanianized” ?? If you are referring to continued ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide in Kosovo then yes I could see that most Albanians do want the north to become “Albanianized”.

      The “remaining Serbian villages in Kosovo” are nothing but modern day ethnic ghettos. The Serbs in the south need a responsible and legal Serbian gov’t policy that raises the profile of the conditions Serbs have to face in the south of the province.

      And any continued (inevitable) attacks by the surrounding Albanian towns will only make the case more clear that whatever solution is found in Kosovo-this one is not it.

  2. Lt Rinas

    Well balanced article, from which everybody may draw conclusions. Also shows that K&M will be an issue for the next generations and why.

  3. Pingback : Five inconvenient truths about Kosovo | TransConflict

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