Filip Rudic, Belgrade, BIRN, January 31, 2019
Serbia’s president says Belgrade has honoured the commitments it has made so far in negotiations with Kosovo, but a closer look reveals the results are mixed, at best.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic says he is committed to reaching a compromise deal in talks with Kosovo, the former Serbian province which declared independence in 2008 but is not recognised by Serbia. But while Vucic has fulfilled some of the promises he has made so far, on others he has fallen short.
“We will continue to seek [compromise], but I repeat, and I told this to Putin, we will not let anyone humiliate Serbia,” Vucic said on January 17 during a visit to Belgrade by the Russian president.
Serbia and Kosovo signed a deal in 2013 on a raft of measures designed to settle relations between the two, but European Union-mediated negotiations continue, with the aim of reaching a comprehensive final settlement that would clear a path for both to one day join the EU.
Vucic has said repeatedly that Serbia is honouring its side of the deals struck in Brussels. According to the Serbian president, the main outstanding issue is the lack of will in Kosovo to create an agreed Association/Community of Serb Municipalities, which will encompass municipalities in Kosovo where Serbs constitute a majority.
For its part, Kosovo has frustrated the EU with a 100-per cent hike in taxes on Serbian and Bosnian imports in retaliation for Serbia’s lobbying against Kosovo’s membership of Interpol and other international bodies.
Washington and Brussels are putting pressure on Kosovo to reverse the tax increase, but an overview of Vucic’s promises show that Belgrade too is dragging its feet.
Facilitating elections in northern Kosovo – FULFILLED
According to the 2013 Brussels agreement, municipal elections were to be organised in Kosovo’s mainly Serb northern municipalities with the facilitation of the OSCE and in accordance with Kosovo law.
Serbian officials called on local Serbs to participate in the elections, in which the Belgrade-backed Srpska lista (“Serbian List“) party emerged as the dominant political power in the north.
The local assemblies were constituted in January the following year.
Integrating police, judiciary, border management and Civil Corps – PARTIALLY FULFILLED
In 2011, Serbia and Kosovo agreed to implement a system of Integrated Border Management, a concept devised by the EU in which agencies involved in border management would coordinate their activities.
The agreement was struck before Vucic’s Progressive Party took power, but as of 2019 the deal has still to be fully implemented.
The integration of Serb policemen on the Belgrade payroll into the Kosovo police fared better, finishing in 2014 with few issues.
However, the situation in northern Kosovo remains volatile. A BIRN investigation has catalogued 74 attacks on Kosovo Serbs involving guns, grenades, arson or explosive devices since 2014.
On January 18, 2018, the Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic, who was in opposition to Srpska lista, was shot dead in front of his party office.
As part of the agreement, Belgrade also gave up the Civil Protection Corps, CPC, portrayed by Serbia as a first responce unit in emergency situations but viewed by Pristina as a paramilitary formation. It was integrated into the Kosovo institutions in 2016.
The agreement on integrating the justice system in the Serb-run north with the Kosovo system came into force in October 2017. The courts are still plagued by lengthy delays.
Energy agreement – UNFULFILLED
The two sides agreed in 2015 that the Serbian energy distributor, EPS, will register two subsidiaries in Kosovo that will take over the distribution of power in the north.
However, the deal has not yet been implemented because Serbia refuses to include the name ‘Republic of Kosovo’ in the registration documents, despite pledging to register the companies in accordance with Kosovo laws.
Kosovo’s then-minister in charge of dialogue with Serbia, Edita Tahiri, warned as early as September 2015 that the company address must include the name of the state.
“Everywhere else in these documents, where there are formulations or expressions that are politically provocative and legally incorrect, they need to be removed and replaced in accordance with Kosovo laws and the Brussels agreement,“ Tahiri said at the time.
Vucic says Kosovo is responsible for the failure of the energy agreement, falsely stating that the Association of Serb Municipalities must be established first, because it would be the entity that registers two new power companies in the north.
However, the agreements clearly stipulate that the founder should be the Serbian EPS.
Mitrovica bridge deal – UNFULFILLED
Serbia and Kosovo agreed in 2015 to open the bridge on the Ibar river that divides the northern town of Mitrovica into the mostly Serb north and the mostly Albanian southern part.
The bridge was supposed to be revitalised in 2016 and opened for traffic, but the mayor of northern Mitrovica, Goran Rakic, has halted work several times because of incidents in Mitrovica.
At one point the Kosovo Serb authorities built a wall near the bridge on the northern side, which was torn down after protests from Pristina and the west.
In June 2016, the EU reminded Serbia and Kosovo that progress on normalisation of their relations is vital, singling out several key agreements, one of which was opening the bridge in Mitrovica. But it remains closed for traffic to this day.
International calling code for Kosovo – FULFILLED
In 2015, Belgrade agreed that Kosovo should be given an international calling code, and this remains one of only a handful of deals that have been fully implemented.
The International Telecommunication Union, ITU, allocated Kosovo its own telephone code, 383, in 2016, more than a year after Kosovo and Serbia initially reached a deal on telecommunications in Brussels.
In 2018, people in Kosovo reacted enthusiastically as instant messaging and internet call service Viber became the first telecommunications application to use Kosovo’s international dialling code.
’Internal dialogue’ and ’plan for Kosovo’ – PARTIALLY FULFILLED
It is not just promises made to Kosovo and the EU that Vucic failed to deliver.
In June 2017, the Serbian President promised a broad debate in Serbian society on the issue of Kosovo, but this ’internal dialogue’ remained opaque to most Serbians.
Several public debates were organised, mostly ignored by the Serbian opposition, which accused Vucic of trying to shift the blame for his own Kosovo policy.
The initative was not helped by the fact Vucic refused to put forward his own ideas on a possible solution.
In October 2017, the Serbian authorities announced a “second phase“ in the ’internal dialogue’, while the results of the first one were still unknown.
Vucic has repeatedly promised to reveal his ‘plan for Kosovo’. Having declared in February 2018 that suggestions Kosovo could be partitioned were ”not serious“, Vucic came to propose just that within months.
The proposal was heavily criticised by the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo, as well as the Serbian opposition.
Kosovo’s own politicians are divided on the issue, with President Hashim Thaci open to ‘border corrections’ but Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj staunchly opposed.
In the hopes of reaching a comprehensive agreement on the normalisation of relations in 2019, the Kosovo government expressed willingness to remove the tariffs on Serbian goods under certain conditions.
But the number of unimplemented agreements indicates that there is a long way to go before a legally binding agreement can be reached.