Only joint mediation involving the US and EU can push the stalled Kosovo-Serbia ‘dialogue’ towards the end goal of normalisation.
Joint EU and US mediation in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, with senior level involvement, is promising. Russia should also commit itself to accepting the outcome of the Kosovo-Serbia normalisation process.
That way, normalisation will lead to UN membership for Kosovo, and to joint EU accession for Kosovo and Serbia. For the dialogue to get back to normalisation, it must achieve three things: greater consensus on the topics of the agreement; rapprochement between the mediators; and, international commitment to the outcomes of the deal.
Some Balkan observers predict an expedited agreement between Kosovo and Serbia coming before September and before the next US presidential elections. But conditions are still not ripe for a sustainable, mutually beneficial deal, with both governments in Kosovo and Serbia facing new elections.
The contents of the “existing agreement” are also mostly unknown. The coronavirus pandemic is also ongoing. Both the German and French foreign ministers have acknowledged that a successful agreement will take time: “A serious approach requires well-structured, in-depth negotiations, with the EU as an honest broker.” They did not mention US mediation.
Many topics, little consensus
The deal may include: a land swap in which Serbia receives portions of northern Kosovo for lesser portions of southern Serbia; a supra-institutional Association of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo – a body previously struck down by Kosovo’s Constitutional Court; and, extraterritorial status for Serbian Orthodox churches—this has otherwise been a non-issue. Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo has only been mentioned by the Kosovo side, as has Kosovo’s membership in the UN.
An amnesty for war crimes committed in Kosovo was an option discussed in Kosovo. But the public response to this was clear and unequivocal: all war criminals should be tried for the crimes they committed, and all wartime victims should receive justice.
Serbia was the aggressor in the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the major perpetrator of war crimes – a Kosovo-Serbia deal should not invite a false equivalency.
Kosovo needs to achieve a consensual government, through new elections, before it can re-engage in normalisation. An alternative may be a one or two-year national unity government that includes Vetevendosje and either the Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, or Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK. The voters’ strong message of change in the October 2019 elections was distorted by political maneuvering that brought the new government down. Parties should once again present their political platforms and programmes, including on the Kosovo-Serbia talks.
President Aleksandar Vucic is likely to win another impressive majority in late June elections in Serbia, not least due to limited political competition. Serbia has fallen in its democracy ratings, but it will need to articulate its own consensus positions on how to accept and normalise relations with Kosovo.
Objectives at the outset
Bilateral normalisation equates to: mutual recognition between Kosovo and Serbia, border demarcation along internationally recognised borders, and an exchange of ambassadors.
Serbia may not be ready for a deal if it is unwilling to recognise Kosovo’s statehood or its borders. Kosovo should not make concessions on its international subjectivity; it should further that subjectivity, even if that means a deal is delayed to 2021.
Both countries should recommit to adjudicating war crimes. They should improve their fraught economic relations, learning from the past cooperation of their business associations. They should each be afforded expedited EU accession.
Reconciling US and EU mediators
Rapprochement between the EU and US mediators is lacking, let alone that between Kosovo and Serbia. It is clear that both the EU and US are needed here.
Kosovo and Serbia both seek EU membership; the carrots and sticks of accession could bring both parties to agreement. The EU has not fully recognised Kosovo due to five non-recognising member states, so it alone cannot truly mediate normalisation.
The US recognises both Kosovo and Serbia, and can thus fairly arbitrate between them. Kosovo has constantly pushed for US involvement in the talks. The Trump administration’s senior level involvement is welcome; it should now be channeled into a sustainable, mutually beneficial, deal.
Commitment to endgame
Normalisation depends on international mediation. EU and US joint mediation has added the commitment and credibility that was previously lacking. The Albanian-American community in the US has recognised this: speaking out to commend senior US involvement, while cautioning that it be channeled to a consensual, non-land swap deal.
Russian acceptance of Kosovo-Serbia normalisation outcomes is necessary for real closure and for Kosovo to enter the UN. However, Russian involvement in the process would derail it and distort the outcomes. Russia’s ambassador to Serbia has stated: “The final solution of the Kosovo issue should be determined in the UN Security Council by passing a new resolution that would replace the current Resolution 1244.” That is wrong.
Kosovo instead needs to apply for UN admission; the Security Council would decide whether to recommend admission (assuming no veto); two-thirds of the General Assembly would have to vote in favor of admission; and, a successful vote would mean the adoption of a resolution for admission. A new, middle-of-the-way resolution would only create ambiguity on Kosovo’s statehood.
In exchange for recognising Kosovo, Serbia should be rewarded with expedited EU accession or with increased economic linkages with the EU or US. Kosovo should likewise be rewarded with simultaneous EU accession with Serbia. The EU and US, achieving this deal and continuously promoting good governance in both Kosovo and Serbia, would make them strong, democratic EU and UN partners.
A deal is necessary and should not be delayed too long. The current status quo is untenable for both Kosovo and Serbia, and undesirable for the international community. The new EU and US configuration, clarity on topics, re-focus on normalisation, and international commitment could provide the right conditions for success – and a deadline for a deal that all parties can meet.