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Chill returns to Kosovo and Serbia

Bahri Cani / sgbNovember 15, 2015

Kosovo's Constitutional Court has suspended an agreement with Serbia negotiated with the support of the EU. The move marks a significant new deterioration in the relations between the two countries.

Belgien Treffen Isa Mustafa, Federica Mogherini und Aleksandar Vucic
Image: picture-alliance/AA/EU Council

Just a coincidence, or a genuine act of revenge? The decision of Kosovo's Constitutional Court to review an agreement to normalize economic and cultural relations between Serbia and Kosovo came only one day after Kosovo's failed attempt to join UNESCO.

With help from Russia, Serbia had set all diplomatic means in motion to prevent Kosovo's membership in the UN's cultural organization, which Kosovo's Prime Minister Isa Mustafa called a "racist campaign."

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic promptly rejected the accusation, describing the court's decision as a "breach of faith," "scandalous" and a "hard blow" to the ongoing dialog between Belgrade and Pristina.

Dacic said the decision was "a major threat to regional stability" in the Balkans. "Dialog under such conditions is meaningless," he said.

No longer any normal

Johanna Deimel
"Ultimately Serbia will have to recognize Kosovo": DeimelImage: Southeast Europe Association

"The talks between Serbia and Kosovo are on hold for now anyway," said Balkan expert Johanna Deimel of the Munich-based Southeast Europe Association. "Relations between Serbia and Kosovo are currently very frosty and the mood is very tense."

The decision of the court will have a "negative impact on the progress of negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina," said Dusan Reljic, head of the Brussels office of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). "But it was clear from the outset that the negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo would be neither quick nor easy."

Bridging the gap

Under EU mediation, Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement on the normalization of relations in April 2013. On August 25 this year, the two sides went one step further.

Kosovo's Prime Minister Mustafa and Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic agreed to establish an association of nine municipalities in Kosovo mostly inhabited by Serbs. This would guarantee the Serb minority a degree of autonomy in many areas. The highest court in Kosovo is now set to examine the constitutionality of this agreement.

Remote-controlled justice

Kosovar President Atifete Jahjaga called for the court to convene in late October. This came after the opposition had used tear gas and violence for weeks to prevent parliament from holding session, fearing that the association of Serb municipalities could lead to the partition of Kosovo. The court's ruling is expected in January.

Kosovo Tränengas im Parlament
Opposition lawmakers threw tear gas during a session of Kosovo's parliament in early OctoberImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Prenaj

But Serbs worry the decision will present an opportunity for Kosovo's judiciary to take revenge on them. It does not enjoy a good reputation: "The judiciary remains prone to political interference," the EU Commission wrote in its progress report published on Tuesday.

"The story with UNESCO is just the tip of the iceberg, because the problems with the implementation of the agreement between Kosovo and Serbia are much older," Reljic said. On Wednesday, officials in Brussels said they did not comment on legal procedures. But both sides have a responsibility to implement the normalization agreement.

Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence has been recognized by 111 countries, including 23 of the 28 EU members. Serbia, however, resolutely refuses to recognize Kosovo.

But Belgrade is hoping to start accession negotiations with the EU later this year. Among the first chapters to be opened is chapter 35, which provides for normal ties to be established with Kosovo.

"There must be a normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, and ultimately Serbia will have to recognize Kosovo," Deimel said. "Kosovo is independent and therefore Serbia must also come to terms with that."

Saving the best for last

Dusan Reljic
"The EU must exert pressure to continue the dialog": DeimelImage: DW

However, it's unclear when Serbia actually would have to make its final decision on the recognition of Kosovo, because EU accession negotiations can take years. "Chapter 35 will remain open the entire time until the accession negotiations end," Reljic said.

However, the two experts say one thing is clear: Both Belgrade and Pristina have shown that they only respond to either incentives or threats, making a carrot-and-stick approach essential.

"The EU must exert pressure to continue the dialog," Deimel said. At the same time, Reljic said, the EU must be able to offer some benefits. One, he said, could be a speedy liberalization of visa rules for the people of Kosovo.