Jeta Krasniqi Pristina BIRN September 14, 2020

With America’s role in bringing the two sides together now over for the time being, the ball is back to Brussels’ courtyard to bring this process to a final conclusion. The question remains, will it be up for it.

A peace agreement between Serbia and Kosovo brokered by the United States has been the “talk of the town” for nearly two years.

The impression was there of a potential breakthrough, putting an end to decades of strained relations between Kosovo and Serbia since the 1999 war.

It even felt closer once the White House had appointed the US Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, as its special envoy for the negotiations.

While the EU-facilitated process aiming at a normalization of relations is still only vaguely defined, the US position was clear and bold; mutual recognition between the parties was the goal.

As time passed, however, the rhetoric around the process changed. Achieving mutual recognition was transformed into the lesser aim of reaching economic normalization as an intermediate step towards a final legally binding agreement in which the EU would also be engaged.

Nevertheless, US determination to have an agreement between the parties remained staunch. It influenced the lives of two consecutive governments in Kosovo.

Serbia would not sit down at the same table with Kosovo before the latter removed its measures, meaning the 100-per-cent tax on imports from Serbia, and, later, its so-called reciprocity measures.

So, on the formation of the new government replacing the 52-day government led by Albin Kurti, who had refused to lift his reciprocity measures, the moment was considered ripe for a joint trip to the White House.

Then the announcement by the Specialist Chambers in the Hague that a war crimes indictment would be filed against President Hashim Thaci and Democratic Party of Kosovo lesder Kadri Veseli halted the June meeting, pushing it back it to early September.

Finally, Kosovo and Serbia sealed the deal at the White House in the presence of President Donald Trump who witnessed the parties sign individual documents on economic normalization while he himself signed congratulatory notes for them.

The agreement has been hailed by the US as “historic”. Trump said it moved the two countries from “a lot of conflict” to “a lot of love”.

While “leaving politics aside and focusing on the economics” became the motto of the US-led process, the agreement in fact represents a hybrid document. It reflects local issues of concern for both sides but also global matters considered important by the US.

As expected, the provisions dealing with economic issues included commitments already reached in the past, through Letters of Intentions brokered by Grenell.

The effects of these pledges will be seen if and when they are implemented, and might create other, greater opportunities for regional cooperation.

Other commitments, for “energy diversification” and “additional bilateral projects”, are yet to be determined – what they really mean, and how they will be operationalized.

Previously signed agreements under the EU-led technical process, though still not implemented, such as on mutual recognition of higher education diplomas and professional certificates and integrated border management, became part of the agreement, too.

As did a Feasibility Study for sharing the disputed Ujman/Gazivoda Lake, the pledge to cooperate more on missing persons, refugees and internally displaced people from the Kosovo conflict, and a provision on protection of freedom of religion, linked in a particular way to the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo.

These issues will certainly continue to be discussed further under the EU-facilitated process, and over which the parties are not likely to be that constructive, and will continue to hold opposing views, despite their expressed commitment.

What caused most surprise was the way the agreement was projected within a broader scope of America’s foreign policy agenda.

Israeli recognition of Kosovo is included in the document signed by Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti, which is an important step for Kosovo. Meanwhile, in the document signed by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia committed itself to moving its embassy to Jerusalem by July 1, 2021.

Alongside side both the parties pledged to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

These provisions linked the normalization process between two European countries with a Middle Eastern one – especially when Kosovo was labeled a “majority Muslim country” despite being a secular state, as well as with Jerusalem becoming part of the conversation.

Other US foreign policy issues, like the use of 5G equipment were also included; the targeting of “untrusted vendors” – a clear reference to Chinese companies like Huawei – made its way in. So did the issue of decriminalizing homosexuality.

While the public is divided between those who see the agreement as a major step towards normalization of relations, and others whose expectations were much higher, the fact remains that the parties have pledged to cooperate on economic issues that might benefit the wider region.

But, alongside expressing a set of commitments, which they could not agree to sign in a single document, the discussion of the very legal character of these documents remains an open one.

It has created ramifications beyond the intended narrow relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Indeed, it hit the whole can of relations that Serbia – standing with one foot in the East and another in the West – has been playing around with for some time, affecting its relations with Russia, China, the Arab countries and the EU.

On the other side, it has left Kosovo again in the position of having to choose whether to align with US foreign policy, or with the EU –  aside from the fact that EU cannot agree on a common foreign policy towards Kosovo, since five of its member states do not recognize it.

Apart from everything else, the core issue between the sides – mutual recognition – remains unsolved, postponed for future discussion.

Kosovo has in the meantime agreed not to apply for membership of more international organizations for a year, while Serbia has agreed to stop its international campaign for the de-recognition of Kosovo.

The EU has breathed a deep sigh of relief, despite criticism of the move to opening embassies in Jerusalem, sensing that it can now go back to its own way of doing things, taking the upper role in brokering the final legally binding agreement and leading the parties towards the normalization of relations.

Yet as we mark the tenth anniversary of the UN Resolution that gave EU the role of bringing these two countries closer to one another, its own path of reaching a plethora of agreements that still remain unimplemented should not make it feel all that comfortable.

The process led by US, despite being in the shadow of US president elections, has again revealed the complexity of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. It has reaffirmed that there are no shortcuts to a final solution and that ambiguous solutions will no longer hold.

The issue is clear; the parties have to find a path towards mutual recognition while ensuring that they remain fully functional democratic, multiethnic states.

It is also clear that the political dynamics between Kosovo and Serbia, and within each of these countries, will continue to undermine the process.

The transatlantic rift, which started over the call for “border corrections” between Serbia and Kosovo must narrow. A bold, clear and sustainable path must be envisioned. Now, over to you Brussels. Are you up for it?

 Jeta Krasniqi is project manager at the Kosovo Democratic Institute (KDI), leading the project European perspective building national consensus for normalization of relations with Serbia.