Alasdair Lane Senior Contributor 16/07/2020
Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.
There are hopes today that one of Europe’s most intractable territorial disputes might edge closer to resolution. The leaders of Kosovo and Serbia—Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti and President Aleksandar Vučić, respectively—will meet in Brussels for the nations’ first face-to-face talks in almost two years, as Europe regains the mantle of peacemaker from America.
A bloody war between the Balkan neighbours in the late ‘90s ended in uncomfortable stalemate: Serbia refusing to acknowledge Kosovo’s claim of independence—something the latter unilaterally declared in 2008.
For decades, the U.S. and Europe presented a united peacemaking front in what is former Yugoslavia, pushing the same conflict resolution policies geared towards integration with the West. But much to Europe’s annoyance, the arrival of President Trump saw a new unilateralist approach from America—one that bypassed Brussels altogether.
There were, however, some early signs of progress with Washington’s fresh attempts at accord. Flights and rail links between Belgrade and Pristina were resumed, with exorbitant trade tariffs slashed to encourage cross-border commerce.
But last month, the wheels came off. A White House summit between the nations’ leaders was aborted at the last minute when—shockingly—Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci was charged with war crimes by prosecutors in The Hague.
Might European meditors have more chance at success? Quite possibly. They do, after all, have control over that which both sides seek: EU membership. It was the promise of accession to the bloc that brought Serbia and Kosovo to the negotiating table in 2013, and though an interim deal struck that year didn’t come to much, it’s clear that Brussels has the ability to incentivise agreement.
Given the precarious economic future facing both Serbia and Kosovo post-pandemic, the allure of entering the European family—with all its attendant financial benefits—is surely stronger now than ever before. Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić is also in desperate need of some healthy headlines, as violent protests against his handling of the COVID-19 crisis continue to intensify.
Still, ethno-political grievances don’t easily diminish, regardless of economic realities. The offer of EU membership (and Brussels’ mediation of talks) will be “meaningless” if Serbia gets nothing else in return for recognising Kosovo’s sovereignty, Vučić said recently. Though the region is 90% Albanian-Muslim, he wants to see municipalities for ethnic Serbs established in Kosovo, as well as special status granted to Serbian Orthodox Christian churches and monasteries.
Belgrade’s demands are backed by Russia, whose consent is a prerequisite to any settlement brokered between the neighbours, Vučić made clear last month.
This is the crux of the issue: though European in location, the Serbia-Kosovo dispute is a thoroughly international conundrum. If the West wants to contain Moscow’s expanding influence in Eastern Europe, a united approach—one that utilises Washington’s diplomatic leverage in conjunction with Brussels’ offer of EU membership—is necessary.
But it isn’t clear whether fresh transatlantic accord can be reached—at least, not under the current White House administration. Kosovo seems to have dropped entirely from Trump’s agenda, despite the opportunity it presents to burnish his foreign policy credentials pre-election.
Indeed, as the president’s former—and now disavowed—National Security Adviser John Bolton said recently, it’s dubious whether the American leader “fully understands what the American interests at stake” in the Balkans.
And so, for now, it looks like Europe alone must try and heal the divisions that plague its periphery.