Belgrade-Pristina - a false promise of normalisation

Belgrade-Pristina – a false promise of normalisation

The structural flaws in the foundations of the Brussels Dialogue may deal a painful blow to the aspirations of the European Union as the champion of peace in the Balkans.

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By Andrea Garaiova

As the Agreement on the normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia marked its fourth anniversary, the celebratory fanfares that once accompanied its conclusion seem to have run their course. Witnessing the increased frequency of political stand-offs between the former foes over the past months, some commentators have sounded an alarm that renewed conflict may be impending in the Balkans. While such appraisals of the recent developments are vastly overblown and shortsighted in their ignorance of unnecessarily fuelling the confrontation, it is fair to hang question marks over how much normalisation has been achieved through the EU-chaperoned process.

Much ink has been spilled on the many pitfalls of the Brussels Dialogue; critiques taking different shapes depending on which ethnic community, political faction or country one hails from. But the voices of civil society and media of both Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs sing in rare unison: the opacity of the Dialogue has become the major obstacle to real, tangible progress on the ground. If things are to be turned around, the EU will need to take a bolder stance in its role of facilitator, something it has shown not to have much of an appetite for in foreign policy.

Despite vast investments made by the international community and particularly the EU into the post-conflict recovery of Kosovo, most support has been directed towards strengthening the rule of law and building of democratic institutions. Reconciliation between Albanian and Serbian communities after the conflict of 1999 has largely been an afterthought, which has locked the Kosovo’s and Serbia’s leaderships into a standstill that compels them to employ polarising rhetoric in order to satisfy the affinities of their voters. This takes a particularly evident form in the Brussels negotiations: following each round of negotiations, representatives of both parties come out of the negotiation room claiming contradictory facts about what has just been agreed huis clos. Examining the content of the agreements themselves does not yield a much better result, as most of the crucial deals are written in an ambiguous language that gives nothing short of a headache to the media and commentators trying to interpret them. Without clarity on their practical meaning, each party is left to create political fictions that they find most acceptable to their constituencies. The agreement on the international dial code for Kosovo is a case in point. Concluded in November 2016, it was presented as a victory by Pristina, who affirmed that Kosovo had received a state code, while Belgrade insisted that it was no more than a geographical code, in an attempt to silence innuendos that it had ceded sovereignty over Kosovo.

The devil here is in the absence of the details. Whereas the oft-cited ‘constructive ambiguity’ once served as a useful approach to avoid dealing with the many irreconcilable differences that would be immediately lethal to any exchange between Kosovo and Serbia, recently conducted research* indicates that it may have turned into a hurdle for reconciliation between Kosovo’s communities. As the media lack access to any other information but that offered by the negotiating parties, they reproduce the official spins on the outcomes of the Dialogue. The divergent interpretations and the polarising ‘win-lose’ rhetoric of Kosovo and Serbia officials in media heightens fear and inhibits deeper forms of interaction. A political analyst from the Northern Kosovo goes as far as asserting that the publicly presented conflicting stances are “building up a new wall between Serbs and Albanians” of Kosovo. Local commentators, Albanian and Serbian alike, concur that the EU should take the initiative to inform about the results of the negotiations and their practical implications, so as to inject some clarity into the process. The questions posed by Besa Shahini, a policy analyst based in Pristina, encapsulate the feeling shared by many: “How are we supposed to build peace when people are really confused? Whom should they believe?”

The EU has so far ignored the full ramifications of the current configuration of the process. It strives to escape facing the issues of the past and Kosovo’s status, hoping that the constructive ambiguity will allow for solving minor issues first and then open the door for addressing the major ones later on. The futility of this approach is detectable in the media accounts of the Brussels Dialogue: more than one third of articles published by Kosovo Albanian and Serbian media on the topic look at the process through the prism of Kosovo’s status, striving to decipher what the provisions of the signed agreements mean for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and jurisdiction over Kosovo. The centrality of Kosovo’s status is perceptible in the very haggling that Belgrade and Pristina perform following the conclusion of each deal, squabbling over whether the latter constitutes an implied recognition of Kosovo by Serbia.

The Brussels Dialogue also skirts around the issues considered most salient by Kosovo’s communities. A poll conducted by the Kosovo Democratic Institute shows that the questions of the war reparations, missing persons, and war crimes should be the priorities within the Dialogue in the view of both Serbs and Albanians of Kosovo. However, all of these fly below the radar of the negotiations. The EU seeks to reap the relatively lower hanging fruit first and score symbolic victories. The most emblematic example of the latter is the bridge connecting the Southern (Albanian-inhabited) part of the city of Mitrovica to the Serb inhabited North. While the EU officials have ceremoniously declared the bridge to be a symbol of inter-community reconciliation in Kosovo, local voices have been critical of it creating new, and unnecessary, points of contention. “Instead of leaving out the bridge as an unimportant thing, one of the many that don’t work in Mitrovica, and one that at some point in the future…would be an easily soluble local issue, it has become one of the imposed focuses of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, a painful reminder of how much we differ from, and don’t trust, each other” asserts Milica Andrić, a civil society expert from the Northern part of the city. Valdete Idrizi, who has been leading grassroots reconciliation efforts for many years, together with her organisation Community Building Mitrovica based in the South, concurs :“What’s the difference if they rebuild and open the bridge? They might as well destroy it, it is a symbol of conflict, not reconciliation.”

In the face of the political posturing of Belgrade and Pristina and the EU’s escapism, doubts among the local observers about the true goal and motivations behind the process abound. Willingness of each party to engage in a genuine dialogue is seen as wanting by both Serbs and Albanians. Rather, they view the negotiations as a convenient instrument for Kosovo, Serbia and the EU to achieve their immediate internal and foreign policy objectives. “There is a growing sense among the public that something is being purposefully hidden”, hints Andrić. The director of the Kosovo Sever Portal, the independent media outlet that follows and attempts to analyse the Dialogue process for its Kosovo Serbian audience, elaborates that “the model of negotiations is deliberately designed to be intransparent in order to last as long as possible, to produce a collective anesthesia that allows for easier compromise-making.” From the perspective of Kosovo Albanians, this amounts to making concessions to Serbia, surrendering further rights to Kosovo Serbs and risking dysfunctional governance as a result of Belgrade’s influence over Pristina’s internal matters. From the vantage point of Kosovo Serbs, the unwanted compromise corresponds to the ultimate removal of Serbian institutions from Kosovo’s territory (especially the North) and a full integration into Kosovo without satisfactory security, political, and economic assurances. Having failed to build a wide political and societal consensus on the very existence and objectives of the Brussels Dialogue, leaders of Kosovo and Serbia stick to nationalist lines for fear of losing voter support. What is more, they count on the Dialogue to guarantee their indispensability to the EU, which is to shield them from political irrelevance in some cases, and prosecution in others. The latter has become particularly urgent in light of the constitution of the Specialist Chambers that are going to try perpetrators of war crimes committed in Kosovo in the late nineties, and that are said to include some of Kosovo’s current political elite.

As for the EU, the prospects of the Brussels Dialogue delivering on its purported goal of normalisation are at their most tenuous since the negotiations started in 2011. The EU facilitators may try to make it go on in a business-as-usual manner for some time, taking comfort in both parties periodically ‘reconfirming their full commitment to the Dialogue’. But the latter is increasingly perceived as unsustainable; without answers to the most fundamental questions on what the negotiations should ultimately seek to achieve, the process seems to be an endless ‘dialogue for dialogue’, adduces Krenar Gashi, a civil society activist from Pristina. “If the Brussels Dialogue aims for normalisation, then what does it mean to be normal? The answer doesn’t exist because the international community doesn’t want to answer it, in order to preserve stability” he adds. Confronting the question would require contemplating the difficult issues of the past, historical injustices, territorial integrity and the status of Kosovo as an independent state, all of which are believed to constitute potential causes of renewed political and social turmoil.

While politicians may have been left unhindered to run the show until now, local organisations are starting to pick up the slack. Initiatives such as the one led by the New Social Initiative, a think tank from Northern Kosovo, and the platform Sbunker based in the Kosovo’s capital, named “Dialogue as a means, normalisation as the aim”, have been cropping up recently. The initiative brings together credible local voices and citizens from Kosovo Albanian and Kosovo Serbian communities, with a view to establish open communication between them and foster reconciliation. However, the EU should not lull itself into thinking that the process can be slowly surrendered to the grassroots while the leaders on top continue their usual polarising bickering. Given their reach through the media, influence in the respective societies and resonance of their inflammatory statements with local audiences, they will continue to affect relations between communities. Changing the discourse and focus at the local level needs to go in tandem with changes at the highest echelons of leadership. This, however, will only be possible if the EU changes incentives within the Dialogue, by rewarding honest commitment and tangible progress, enforcing penalties for non-compliance and serving as the source of full and credible information on the process.

Although a firmer stance of the EU towards both parties is seen as a sine qua non of any genuine normalisation, many recognise the frailty of the Union’s political clout to exert effective pressure on Belgrade and Pristina. Nenad Radosavljevic from the Kosovo Serbian TV station Mir contrasts the current situation with past negotiation efforts, noting that the process “needs a strong mediator for a real dialogue to take place, as there was one during the Vienna talks”. The talks attempted to solve the dispute over the status of Kosovo in 2006-2007 and involved strong US engagement. The feebleness of the EU’s leverage over Balkan leaders is ascribed to the political shocks it has been experiencing in recent years, from the migration and economic crises to Brexit, as well as to its attachment to the ‘stability before anything’ strategy. The willingness of the EU officials to turn a blind eye to the burgeoning of non-democratic practices in both Kosovo and Serbia, as long as the latter’s representatives obediently partake in the Dialogue, has further weakened the EU’s position to hold the parties up to the obligations they signed up for. Emphasising form over substance, the EU is perceived to be an honest broker no more than Kosovo’s and Serbia’s leaders are seen to be honest negotiators.

The EU’s timid policy has amounted to touting as success a mere presence of parties at the negotiating table. While this may have been a breakthrough in 2011, today it is an old, inadequate and perilous strategy. Setting the bar low may have secured the initial cheers of the international community and ignited local hopes that were needed to keep the opponents motivated to stay engaged in the process. But not raising the bar over time has shattered expectations that the Dialogue would lead to true normalisation and better lives for ordinary citizens. Instead, it has created a new status quo that is favoured by all sides.

Many commentators as well as the EU itself insist that Kosovo and Serbia should be the drivers of the process. However, this fails to acknowledge the reality that the EU, and the legitimacy and influence it confers onto them, is the sole reason the representatives of both countries care to show up at the table at all. The absence of genuine willingness and interest in resolving their disputes is palpable, in the lack of implementation of the agreements, their rhetorical posturing in media, and regular provocations directed at each other.

Altering the current incentive structure within the Brussels Dialogue is needed to avoid deterioration of relations between Kosovo’s communities. And while challenged within and without, the EU remains the sole actor in the region who can impel Kosovo and Serbia towards more honest and constructive engagement. As Pristina and Belgrade became accustomed to gaming the Brussels Dialogue to score political points with their domestic constituencies as well as foreign partners and benefactors, resistance to changing the demands on their commitment is to be expected. But if the Dialogue is to deliver on normalisation, the EU will need to summon the courage to nudge the negotiating parties to join in a genuine conversation, one in which they listen to the grievances of the other side and craft solutions that they both are able, and intend, to implement.

Andrea Garaiova is a researcher and consultant in the fields of post-conflict reconciliation, democratisation, EU integration, and civil society development in Kosovo. She currently serves as a Senior Project Manager/Grant Writer at Open Data Kosovo. Andrea holds a Master of Public Policy from the University of Oxford, an MA in International Peace and Security from King’s College London, and a BA in Political Science from Sciences Po Paris.

*A part of the research for this article was supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society within the project “Building Knowledge of New Statehood in Southeast Europe: Understanding Kosovo’s Domestic and International Policy Considerations”, whose findings will be published soon.

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

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