Kosovo has not been ruled by Serbia for nearly twenty years, yet the status of its sovereignty, as well as the territory and borders of both countries, remain mutually and internationally contested.
In the past months, the lack of progress in tackling key problems between Serbia and Kosovo initiated a new round of discussions about the normalisation of relations and brought up to what was until this year a taboo – an idea of territorial exchange. The proposal for border corrections was successful in unfreezing a political deadlock but so far only to lead to a renewed escalation of tensions between the two countries. Apart from being short-sighted and obsolete, the talk of borders seems to be primarily intended for short-term internal political points. Furthermore, the possibility of redrawing of borders could have negative repercussions on the stability of the region with similar demands possibly coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia or Montenegro.
The only way forward for Serbia and Kosovo, that would also secure broader regional stability, is their commitment to the full and unconditional implementation of shared European political values for the benefit of all their citizens. As a consequence, in a long-term perspective – should this proposal get accepted – eventually both Serbia and Kosovo will find themselves together within the EU enjoying the benefits of the “four freedoms” set out in the Treaty of Rome and extended under the “internal market” rules introduced by the Single European Act, namely the free movement of goods, services, capital and persons within the Union. Furthermore, both countries will be obliged to respect fundamental European values, discussed later in this text. Once becoming part of the Schengen area, they will benefit from the abolished physical barriers by eliminating external border controls.
All this points to a conclusion that current talks about borders are merely a smokescreen that fails to engage with the core question: how to improve the well-being of the citizens of Serbia and Kosovo and bring them closer to the European Union which will guarantee peace, tolerance, non-discrimination, minority rights and social inclusion.
What’s already on the table?
Since the end of 1999 armed conflict Serbia – Kosovo relations have been marked by several milestones, some of the most relevant being the Martti Ahtisaari Plan from 2008 and the 2013 Brussels Agreement.
The Brussels Agreement clearly states that neither side would block the other’s entry into the EU, which should have erased concerns on the matter for both Kosovo and Serbia. This commitment was reinforced by the Declarations at the Vienna Summit 2015 and the London Summit 2018, as well as, within the framework of the Berlin Process, all of them signed by representatives of both countries.
While the Brussels Agreement is quite technical in its essence, the Ahtisaari plan saw Kosovo’s future as a multi-ethnic society, governed democratically and with the full respect of the rule of law and human rights. Neither of the two documents was, however, fully implemented in practice.
Currently, it is hard to build a consensus in Kosovo that would give the Serbian minority more than it is already envisaged in the Ahtisaari plan, while at the same time, it seems highly unlikely that a majority of Serbs would endorse Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence.
The prolonged deadlock in the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo caused by the above-mentioned facts lead us to conclude that there is a growing need to revisit the current approach for resolving the dispute.
New agreement and the way forward
As its starting point, the new approach needs to ensure integration and implementation of all the existing formal agreements and recommendations in order to avoid duplication of what has already been achieved. In a nutshell, this list understands but is not limited to the Brussels Agreement, the 2015 agreement on the Association/ Community and commitment to upholding democratic values of Ahtisaari’s plan.
The new approach starts from the premise that resolving the Serbia-Kosovo dispute is a process of agreeing to a common achievable goal that should provide a broad base for building socio-economic relations and political collaboration in the region. All parties, including the EU, Russia and the US, need to accept a possibility of backtracking at some stages of the process, depending on the changing circumstances in the local context.
Here we outline the key milestones for the dialogue and the agreement to be successful.
As suggested in the 2018 EU’s Communication for ‘A credible enlargement perspective for an enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans’, the way forward should be a legally binding agreement with clearly outlined commitments by each party. The agreement needs to be in writing and comprehensive in wording, in the form of a treaty under which, if the parties fail to uphold their obligations, they will be held liable. It also needs to have a timeline of implementation.
Mechanisms to monitor implementation of the new agreement should have a formal character
The monitoring needs to be expanded beyond the current EU accession progress country reports; it rather should lead to the establishment of a permanent monitoring mechanism by the EU.
Inclusiveness and transparency of the dialogue
It is crucial to ensure that the opinions and views of various segments of society, including civil society organizations and opposition parties, are heard and taken on board when drafting the agreement. The future of the two countries must not be decided within a narrow circle of (currently) ruling political elites, domestic or international, in order to avoid a possibility of a deadlock similar to the one in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina. The consultation process and citizen inclusion, aimed at helping the dialogue, should, therefore, be threefold.
There is a need for internal dialogues in both Serbia and Kosovo. President Aleksandar Vučić has initiated an internal dialogue within Serbia, however, his approach still faces domestic criticisms and largely lacks results. Nonetheless, this approach needs to be recognized as a good idea for voicing dissenting opinions.
While inter-ethnic dialogue in Kosovo is crucial, so is the dialogue between different Albanian forums and individuals. Second, a non-politically driven process between different segments of society should be strengthened and supported by the EU so that it becomes more inclusive, possibly as a way of exchanging contrasting opinions and deflating nationalist rhetoric. Third, the agreement should foresee the establishment of national action groups for the facilitation of dialogue involving CSO representatives, legal and EU studies experts and political actors whose responsibility would be to advance the implementation of the dialogue through direct mutual contact, but also via communicating potential benefits of the dialogue to the broader society.
The new agreement should be based on the respect for fundamental European values and objectives
The EU’s fundamental values as defined by the Treaty of Lisbon are respected for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. According to the document the EU is to defend these values and promote peace and the wellbeing of the citizens so that nobody may be discriminated against; instead, people and government representatives must respect others and be tolerant. Everybody must be treated fairly. Minority rights must be respected. No country that does not abide by these rules can join the European Union. By agreeing and implementing mentioned values and objectives, not only will Kosovo and Serbia provide a viable framework for the wellbeing of their citizens regardless of their location between the two countries, but will also bring their countries closer to the goal of joining the EU.
Both Serbia and Kosovo should have their EU paths cleared
While Kosovo has thus far only signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU in 2016 and has since been blocked in its EU integration efforts due to its non-recognition by five EU member states, Serbia has already been negotiating its EU membership with 14 negotiating chapters open and 2 provisionally closed. In the meantime, both countries have their fair share of political, economic and administrative problems that currently obstruct their accession to the Union. Yet, even under the presumption that these problems are removed, the problem of unsettled bilateral disputes threatens to become a deadlock to the successful completion of membership talks. In this regard, it is important to remember that both countries are signatories to the 2015 Vienna Summit Declaration and the 2018 London Summit Declaration including the annexe on the resolution of bilateral disputes in the Western Balkans that explicitly spells out that a country that joins the EU first cannot obstruct EU accession of their neighbours. This commitment taken by six Western Balkan foreign ministers should be consistently monitored by the EU.
Equally important, additional efforts should be made to introduce the citizens of the region with international commitments taken over by the governments. Given that five EU member states – Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain – that did not recognise Kosovo’s independence are blocking its EU progress, the EU needs to commit resolving this problem with full respect of the principle of inclusiveness as a part of pledged normalisation efforts. In addition, the Commission should immediately commence all integration related activities with Kosovo that do not require member states consensus – including to prepare for the screening process and ask the Kosovo Government to prepare Action Plan for membership negotiating chapters.
Finally, as voiced by Romanian Foreign Minister, Teodor Melescanu, at an informal meeting of EU member states’ and Western Balkans’ Foreign Ministers in Vienna in August 2018, a legally binding agreement between Kosovo and Serbia would help those EU member states who have not yet recognised Kosovo to arrive at a final decision about it.
Dealing with the past is a prerequisite for normalisation
Coexistence on its own, even if peaceful, is not enough for reconciliation and advancement of strained social relations. Establishing interactions on a forward-based manner that includes the addressing of past and present disputes, will only work successfully if they are future-oriented. In this regard, it is crucial to start from discussing the role of those political elites who propagated nationalistic policies that instigated violence in the region during the 1990s and later.
With the same elites still largely in power in both countries, the process of facing the past is rather blurred and it was thus far impossible to effectively confront its root causes. The new agreement should, therefore, envisage specific bilateral mechanisms to deal with the contentious regional past, such as commissions to investigate the past violations, and bring justice to victims; solving cases of missing persons; working towards establishing a shared understanding of the past and recent conflicts via joint historical commissions; agreeing on the school curriculum that would harmonise history textbooks.
In 2017, President Hashim Thaçi initiated the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Kosovo, which can be used as a base to build further. These bilateral efforts should enjoy international financial and logistical support. Finally, the agreement should find a sustainable solution for those who have been forcibly displaced and have been living in temporary conditions for the past 17 years. This urgent solution for the displacement problem must not depend on the concurrent political processes and should enjoy the widest support from the international community.
A special EU representative should be appointed to act as a rapporteur. His or her role in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue would be that of an intermediary. This position would also help to bridge between the current and the incoming European Commission, and to ensure a smooth transition of the process amidst the expected alternation of key stakeholders in EU institutions next year. It would also take the weight of EEAS, given that the Balkans is not their only engagement. The EU appointed envoy should enjoy international support, particularly by the US and Russia.
The key to the successful implementation of the new legally binding agreement for the resolution of the Kosovo-Serbia dispute is the emphasis on cooperation rather than separation. This cooperation should be concentrated along the honest commitment for an active promotion of shared European values to the benefit of Serbian and Kosovar citizens, facing the past through constructive and mutual dialogue, and the inclusion of the broadest possible spectrum of actors in rethinking the region’s future.