Visar Xhambazi and Leon Hartwell, Pristina, BIRN, July 16, 2020

US and EU-mediated normalization talks are unlikely to end fruitfully while Serbia’s negotiating team is monolithic and Kosovo’s team is divided.

White House discussions to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo were set for June 27 but were postponed. Then, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron hosted a virtual Summit on July 10, which will be followed by face-to-face talks in Brussels on July 16.

While mediators may have good intentions to intensify the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, it might actually be better to slow the negotiations down. The current asymmetry between Serbia and Kosovo’s negotiation teams could produce problematic results.

Monolithic Serbia versus divided Kosovo

Negotiation experts would characterize Serbia’s negotiation team as “monolithic” in the sense that its participants are broadly unified. In part, this has to do with the fact that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s power is currently unmatched.

Prime Minister from 2014 to 2017, and Serbian President since then, Vucic has provided a fair amount of stability to Serbia’s negotiation team. His governing Serbian Progressive Party also recently scored a landslide victory in parliamentary elections, winning 63 per cent of the total votes cast, reinforcing its virtual monopoly in Serbian politics.

None of this means that Vucic will agree to normalization; it merely means he has the power to make an agreement without major obstacles. The coming months will reveal his true intentions and whether he is serious about normalizing relations with Kosovo.

In contrast to Serbia’s stable and “monolithic” team, Kosovo’s negotiation team is unstable and “heterogeneous” in the sense that negotiators from the same team hold different interests, which may be in conflict with one another.

Thaci indictment is a game changer

President Hashim Thaci was a dominant figure in Kosovo politics, even before the country declared independence in 2008. His recent indictment for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Hague-based Special Prosecutor’s Office  is therefore a major spanner in the wheel for the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue.

With regards to the top echelons of government in Kosovo, Thaci has been the only constant in the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue since the talks kicked off in 2011. Before becoming Kosovo President in 2016, he served as prime minister from 2008 to 2014. In 2013, together with Vucic, who was then Serbian prime minister, he brokered the Brussels Agreement. Thus, the two share a long-term relationship.

Since his indictment, Thaçi has not participated in the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue. The June 27 White House discussions were cancelled due to his indictment, and Kosovo was instead represented by Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti during the recent virtual Paris Summit.

Thaci’s legal battle may continue to keep him away from the negotiation table. Recently, he stated: “If the accusation is confirmed, I will immediately resign as your President and face the accusations.” Thaci’s absence from the negotiations may mean that Vucic will struggle to find a reliable partner, especially one that would back the controversial idea of “land swaps” as part of a final settlement.

According to Kosovo’s constitution, should Thaci step down, the chair of the Assembly, Vjosa Osmani, will take his position until the end of his five-year term. If he does not resign, Thaci’s term will end in 2021, but he could still run for re-election.

If Osmani fills the political vacuum, it could change the dynamics of the negotiations. She and Thaci have engaged in public feuds, there is a generational gap between them, they represent different political interests, and Osmani strongly supports Kosovo’s territorial integrity.

Too many cooks risk spoiling the broth

Generally, the more parties are involved in a negotiation, the more interests are at stake, which could complicate the process. In addition to Kosovo’s President, prime ministers have also played prominent roles in the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue.

Since 2014, Kosovo has had four prime ministers from three different political parties: Isa Mustafa, Ramush Haradinaj, Albin Kurti, and most recently, Avdullah Hoti. None of them completed a full four-year mandate. This means that the government has been unable to bring stability and consistency to the negotiation table.

The current Prime Minister, Hoti, represents the second-largest party in parliament, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), and is only the fifth most popular representative of his own party. In addition, Hoti was not the LDK’s candidate for prime minister, Vjosa Osmani was; he therefore lacks political and electoral legitimacy. Moreover, before the Paris Summit, Hoti had never been part of the negotiation process with Serbia, which puts him at a major disadvantage to his Serbian counterpart, Vucic.

Currently, Kosovo’s 120-member Assembly is divided between the Vetevendosje [Self-Determination] Movement, with 29 seats, the LDK, with 28, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), with 24 seats, and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, with 14 seats. The other parties have less than four seats with the exception of the Kosovo Serb party Lista Srpska, with 10 seats.

The composition of the Assembly is particularly important because international agreements have to be ratified by a two-thirds majority. In this fractured environment, even if an agreement is reached between Serbia and Kosovo, one of the top three parties, together with a handful of other naysayers, might object to its ratification, derailing the negotiation process.

Slowing the pace of the dialogue may help

Both the US and the EU are overzealously pushing for dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. However, the current pace of the talks seems to ignore Kosovo’s divisions and how that would impact the outcome.

Given recent developments in Kosovo and the heterogeneous nature of its negotiation team, it would be best for the US and EU to slow down the peace process and encourage Kosovo to develop a more monolithic team. A successful comprehensive agreement is unlikely to be mediated under the current circumstances.

The biggest risk for the Kosovo is that Vucic plays off different Kosovar negotiators against one another, enabling him him to score major victories at the expense of Kosovo.

Vucic could also blame failure to find an agreement on Kosovo. He could argue that while his side is ready to negotiate, his counterparts are not serious. In turn, this could impact Kosovo’s standing with US and EU mediators, as Pristina will be perceived as weak and indecisive.

The polarized nature of the Kosovo political landscape is not going to disappear overnight. US and EU mediators should rather encourage the Kosovar side to first negotiate internally before negotiating externally with Serbia.

This would entail building consensus on how Kosovo will approach the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue in a manner that would add stability and credibility to the process, and guarantee implementation of an agreement.

At the minimum, the US and EU mediators should first encourage Kosovo to form a mechanism that is truly inclusive to ensure that an agreement with Serbia will be widely accepted in Kosovo.

Second, Kosovo’s negotiators should be encouraged to agree on the main goals of normalization. Without addressing those two fundamental issues, it is hard to see any sustainable agreement.

Dr Leon Hartwell is a Title VIII Transatlantic Leadership Fellow at Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington D.C. and Visar Xhambazi is a Policy Researcher at Democracy for Development (D4D) Institute based in Pristina, Kosovo.