My Europe: New departure or same old story for Kosovo and Serbia? | Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 10.07.2020

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Balkans

My Europe: New departure or same old story for Kosovo and Serbia?

The door has been opened to allow new discussions between Serbia and Kosovo on Sunday. But even an agreement means that the next problem could be just around the corner, writes Nenad Pejic.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel talking to Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic on July 10

German Chancellor Angela Merkel talking to Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic on July 10

Kosovo and Serbia, two neighboring countries in Europe, have experienced more than their fair share of problems when it comes to living in peace with one another. It all began with ethnic conflicts during Tito's rule, when Kosovo was considered a province. The strife continued following the break-up of Yugoslavia and culminated in 1999 with NATO airstrikes and Milosevic's insane plan of expelling Albanians from Kosovo. The situation peaked when Kosovo's independence was recognized by 97 states.         

In the 20 years since, the European Union and the United States have tried several times to force the two sides to come to an agreement. Much was achieved by the Brussels Agreement in 2013 and subsequent agreements in 2015.        

Brussels 2013 promoted the normalization of relations. Serbia accepted a neutral position towards Kosovo's independence; an association of Serb-majority municipalities was on the horizon; local elections were planned as part of Kosovo's political structure; a bridge in the divided town of Mitrovica was opened; and judges became part of Kosovo's state structure.

Draft indictment for war crimes against Kosovo's President Thaci 

Following the US elections in 2016, a US official said that "there is no red line" for the US in discussions relating to Kosovo. It proved the death knell for the Brussels agreement. Kosovo introduced 100% custom taxes on products imported from Serbia, but the decision was mitigated after pressure from the EU and the US. Negotiations were scheduled to take place in Washington in June 2020, but these were canceled abruptly due to the publication of a draft indictment for war crimes against Kosovo's President Hashim Thaci.

Many expected celebrations in Belgrade and protests in Kosovo, but the reactions of President Aleksandar Vucic and Serbian officials were extremely calm. Hashim Thaci remained silent as well. With Berlin, Brussels and Paris playing an apparently strong diplomatic hand in the background, the door was opened to allow new discussions via video conference on July 12, and to direct talks in Brussels on July 19.

Kosovo's President Hashim Thaci

Kosovo's President Hashim Thaci

Prior to these talks, German Chancellor Merkel, French President Macron, together with EU officials conversed with the Prime Minister of Kosovo and the President of Serbia on Friday, July 10.

Serbian President Vucic emerged even stronger from the elections   

No one expects a breakthrough on Sunday, but the first political results are already apparent. Both Belgrade and Kosovo have been careful to avoid arousing the emotions of their citizens and negotiations are continuing successfully. The first real achievement would be a complete implementation of the Brussels agreements reached in 2013 and in 2015.

Every agreement reached in the region is welcome and has positive consequences. Vucic emerged from the parliamentary elections stronger, though police brutality towards citizens has weakened him in the last few days. The EU has no other partner to turn to, a fact of which Berlin, Paris, and Brussels are keenly aware. Nor has it escaped Vucic's notice. 

Read more: Opinion: Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia's stabilocrat

In the case of an agreement being reached, both negotiators will declare success. Vucic controls the right-wing movements in Serbia. With an agreement in the bag, he is hopeful of winning over some of his opponents. Kosovo's Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti would strengthen his position ahead of the next round of elections, but only if he succeeds in implementing steps towards Kosovo being recognized by Serbia, which is a tall order. Anything else, without strong support from home, could lead him to lose the election. His position is, therefore, weaker. 

Fostering optimism on the Balkans

North Macedonia also favors a positive outcome. An agreement in Kosovo that introduces a European perspective for Serbia and Kosovo — something both countries are publicly advocating for — would also ease North Macedonia's path towards reaching EU membership.

Kosovo: Independent and divided

Montenegro has reasons to be pleased that President Vucic has not interfered too much in its internal affairs; the fact remains that Vucic has never officially visited Montenegro. However, no one should be deceived; a potential agreement in Brussels might foster a little optimism, but it would still be far from a solution. Some even say that solving the issues in Kosovo is likely to cause problems to emerge in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and even Macedonia.

Though it is true that Vucic has not criticized Montenegro in public, it is also a fact that he finances the opposition and that the media and everyone else he controls are campaigning against Montenegro. It is true that he talks about the sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but he also strongly supports Milorad Dodik, whose aim is to break it. He may never interfere in the internal affairs of North Macedonia, but the Serbian media persists in promoting Russian propaganda about the country. 

Will Vucic resort to tried and tested recipes? 

The president of Serbia has pacified right-wingers by giving them power, fragmenting the opposition, and silencing a potential workers' revolt by selling companies in Bor and Smederevo to Chinese investors. He has managed — for now — to strike a successful balance between the interests of the EU, Russia, and the US.     

Vucic may launch any campaign he sees fit in the region. Serbia's policy in the Balkans has always been a fundamental problem. Many say that Vucic, like those before him, is a man who causes crises, rather than one who resolves them.

But will the pandemic, economic crisis, widespread corruption, low voter turnout at the elections, widespread public distrust of the president and his authoritarian rule, as well as pressure from the EU and the US be enough to force Vucic to reach an agreement? Or, will he resort to tried and tested recipes, giving the green light to the right-wingers to embark on campaigns to destabilize the Balkans once again, which would undoubtedly please Russia? 

Read more: Serbian protesters lash out at Vucic's botched pandemic response

Germany holds the EU presidency for the next six months and it would be Chancellor Angela Merkel's achievement to begin her term with success in the Balkans. But in addition to the Balkans, she still has the most serious health crisis in a century on her desk, as well as Brexit, an economic recovery, climate change, not to mention countless other problems.

In the Balkans, every agreement reached is good news, and if implemented, conveys the promise of even more. But it also means that the next problem could be just around the corner — Bosnia and Herzegovina or, perhaps, Montenegro. An agreement on Sunday in Brussels would, therefore, be a strong incentive for the better, but only an incentive.  

Nenad Pejić, the former Program Director of Sarajevo Television and Ex-Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, is living in Prague.

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