The Kosovo dialogue – must the show go on?

It is clear that “rallying ‘round the flag” is not a phenomena which is limited to the Kosovo territory, but something which represents a mainstream tool in “façade democracies” of southeastern Europe. In such a context, maybe it is better for Belgrade to wait out this political storm and abstain from reaction, rather than having to heal it afterwards.

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By Miloš Petrović

The tendency to deepen, or at least maintain some momentum, in the age-long Belgrade-Priština dialogue appears during the past months to be turning into a complete fiasco. On a weekly level, the warning signs are mounting: negotiating teams’ meetings are being cancelled, Priština’s unilaterally-imposed taxes for Sarajevo and Belgrade are taking its toll on the citizens and economies, the Community of Serbian Municipalities is becoming a far and abstract idea (rather than an international legal obligation) and calls for military readiness are becoming louder. And while the bad news keeps piling up and media networks mostly rush to present the situation as ever more dramatic and unsolvable, the international community under EU leadership keeps sending automatic replies: despite all alerts, the dialogue has no alternative and there is a certain chance for progress if the two sides keep up their work in that direction. Of course, this is in complete discrepancy with the activities which in certain moments appear as if they could go south.

And while the logic of Belgrade’s moves, as well as the dialogue itself, has been shrouded in mystery for the general public, and at certain points conspicuously abstains from making any moves (so the position perhaps appears to be more decisive than it actually might be), from the perspective of Priština, the escalation ensued as a manifestation of the lengthy and deep row between leading Kosovan political actors. After something which has looked like at least an implicit acceptance of the controversial idea of demarcation/border correction in the dominant part of the international community, a step backwards ensued: the PM of Kosovo* has decided to show-off muscles and to underline the lack of support for the realization of such scenario in Kosovan institutions. Moreover, a new platform has emerged, which limits the scope of action of president Thaci, which probably has more to do with the instrumentalisation of the deep political schism in Priština than with patriotism. In fact, by undermining the chief negotiator’s position (that of Hashim Thaci), the PM is trying to win over a larger share of Parliament and voters with steps which are largely out of line with the large part of the Western world.

The lack of decisive international support (which seems to be limited primarily to Washington, and to a much lesser extent to major European nations) the PM Haradinaj tends to overcome by winning over the public, and in doing so, to impose himself as the key figure for the fate of the dialogue and potential solution of the Kosovo dispute. As part of the growingly nationalistic, hard-line rhetoric, the Community of Serbian municipalities is more and more viewed as an association without competencies, the economic blockade (imposed in late November 2018) is pushed to last until the “act of recognition by Belgrade” and the steps leading towards creation of the Kosovo army are meant to secure at least the majority public support, despite limited international support and even declarative opposition to such moves.

Why right now? It is true that Brussels would like a deal on comprehensive normalisation of relations to be negotiated by May 2019; that is, in the current mandate of the European Commission. This is understood as such a mainstream expected outcome that it even appeared that at one moment the EU High Representative Mogherini had tied her further career ambitions with its contribution to successful conflict resolution. Meanwhile, Athens and Skopje “stole the thunder” and perhaps unintentionally or unnecessarily outshined the need for addressing the Kosovo conflict further, at least from the perspective of Brussels. It also appears that the Washington administration has come a remarkable way from the enhanced lack of interest for international affairs, to the point where it would in fact like to underline the lack of Brussels’ competency to deal with its own regional issues on the example of Kosovo dispute. The Serbian campaign for the de-recognition of Kosovo has perhaps yielded some results in terms of numbers, but it has also caused frustration, and not only in Priština. Apart from the fact that it appears that the dialogue, in spite of the “war for the public” is in fact intensifying underneath the surface, an additional rationale for Priština’s disproportionate reaction is the establishing and beginning of work of the so-called KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) Tribunal (Specialist Chamber for KLA crimes), which is expected, among others, to also press charges against the Kosovo politicians. In the growingly nationalistic and intolerant climate in Kosovo, where cooperation with international and other courts is ridiculed by the disappearance of key witnesses, intimidation and various different machinations, the operation of the new court is completely marginalised in the media in favor of a propaganda war (also evident in Serbian media), which is fought through additional means. The logic behind it may be that, even in an unlikely case some high-ranked officer does end up in front of the Tribunal, the anger would hopefully be circumvented through the national pleasure on the basis of steps towards establishing the Kosovo army, economic detachment from Belgrade and in fact, by bringing the dialogue into a deadlock.

It is clear that “rallying ‘round the flag” is not a phenomena which is limited to the Kosovo territory, but something which, to repeat myself, represents a mainstream tool in “façade democracies” of southeastern Europe. As some analysts have identified, superficially speaking, it appears that large part of the international community has been growing more sympathetic towards Serbia in the context of recent escalations; this could have been seen in December in Brussels, when Belgrade has continued opening new EU negotiation chapters (despite faulty progress in rule of law reforms), a new tranche of pre-accession financial aid has been initialled and, upon Cyprus’s incentive, common European concern regarding Priština’s steps has been voiced. Still, the dynamics of regional relations has taught us that international support to any side is a fluid and shifting category, so it is important to closely monitor developments to be able to consider and understand countless nuances. Perhaps abstaining will rather lead to the revival of the dialogue in comparison to a disproportionate response from Belgrade, but one needs to be aware of the direction and various outcomes of such steps, which is, again, closely tied with the increasingly unpredictable flow of international relations which are already challenging enough to comprehend. Having that in mind, from the perspective of Belgrade, and judging by growing pressures on Pristina to back down on its measures, despite the high costs, maybe it is indeed better to wait out this political storm and abstain from reaction, rather than having to heal it afterwards.

Miloš Petrović holds a PhD in Political Sciences from the University of Belgrade.

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

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