Global Policy Forum

Kosovo's Recklessness Has Set Back Negotiations with Serbia

Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, which Serbia still strongly rejects. The region’s stability remains fragile, especially in Northern Kosovo, where a majority of ethnic Serbs live and oppose Kosovo’s independence. Despite the EU’s mediation as the two entities aspire to EU membership, an incident at the end of July has reignited tensions between Serbs and Kosovars. While the US role remains unclear regarding the situation in the Balkans, the EU fears that the situation between Serbia and Kosovo may worsen and contribute to destabilize the entire region.

By Andrea Capussela

August 25, 2011

Last month, on the night of 25 July, special units of Kosovo's police tried to take control of the two border posts linking north Kosovo with Serbia, to enforce a trade embargo.

This was an extremely rash move, because north Kosovo is inhabited by about 60,000 ethnic Serbs, who fiercely reject Kosovo's secession from Serbia. It is a largely lawless, self-governed territory where the Pristina government has no presence and only Belgrade and Nato exercise some control.

The mission failed: Pristina's (ethnic Albanian) special forces met armed resistance and roadblocks, lost one man and had to quickly retreat under Nato protection. Only a strong Nato presence and Belgrade's intervention avoided an escalation, and it took two weeks to restore some calm; exasperated by the fiasco, Pristina contributed to restoring peace by threatening to arrest the ranking Serbian diplomat who had been rushed to north Kosovo to negotiate with Nato and the furious local mobs.

This was Pristina's response to a perceived defeat in the first round of its negotiations with Belgrade, mediated by the EU.

This dialogue is meant to solve several problems inflicted upon Kosovo by Serbia's opposition to its independence: the EU wants them to find an interim modus vivendi to advance its strategic goal of finally stabilising the Balkans. In essence, Belgrade is asked to relax its opposition to Kosovo's independence, and Pristina is asked to drop its insistence upon being treated by Serbia as a sovereign government.

This concession is very painful to Pristina but of little value to Belgrade, which will not accept making life easier for Kosovo without receiving something in exchange; Pristina, however, has nothing else to offer. So, the dialogue will succeed only if the EU applies enough pressure on both sides, and it can do so because each aspires to EU membership.

But if the EU's sticks and carrots can deliver Belgrade's concessions, whose prospects of EU accession recently improved thanks to the arrest of its last war criminals, it lacks leverage on Kosovo, whose independence has not yet even been recognised by five member states and the EU itself. The crucial player in Pristina is the US, which exercises great influence on its government.

The first round of the dialogue was successful. For instance, Belgrade accepted the decision to make Kosovo's state archives (control over which is a prerogative of sovereignty) available to Pristina, which needs them to build its civil registry, and Pristina accepted the decision to receive only copies, not the originals, and not directly but through an intermediary (the EU mission in Kosovo). Evidently, the EU and the US had applied enough pressure on both sides, with both responding pragmatically.

The nationalist oppositions in both Serbia and Kosovo immediately criticised the deal, invoking patriotic arguments. To respond, the Pristina government – which relies on a thin parliamentary majority, and has been weakened by criminal allegations and dismal performance – implausibly declared that these agreements signal Serbia's "first step towards recognising Kosovo". When this was proven false, it decided to bolster its domestic standing by ordering an embargo against Serbian goods, even though – or precisely because – trade is the topic of the next round of the dialogue. And when it became clear that without controlling those two border posts the embargo wouldn't have had much effect, it tried to save itself by launching that ill-conceived raid.

Predictably, public opinion rallied around Kosovo's government, and last week an unnamed official boasted that its approval ratings had shot up. Indeed, this was the aim of the mission.

The EU is not pleased. This gravely irresponsible action has inflamed the most volatile corner of the Balkans, and squarely opened the intractable question of the fate of north Kosovo, which had been parked waiting for better times: its complete separation from the rest of Kosovo (usually called "partition", it is seen as a threat to the stability of Bosnia and Macedonia) is now openly discussed, frustrating two years of prudent EU efforts to pacify the northern Serbs.

Washington denies having been informed of the police raid, but it is difficult to imagine that it would have been ordered without American approval; indeed, the only voice supporting it was that of a local US proxy (namely ICO, the EU-funded but increasingly US-dominated mission supervising Kosovo, whose economics office I previously led).

The EU's strategic aims in the Balkans would suffer a major setback if US policy had turned against the dialogue, for the sake of protecting the Pristina government. This seems unlikely but is not unthinkable, because Washington has less interest than Brussels in the stability of the Balkans.

One would hope, therefore, that the responsibility for this mistake lay solely with the US ambassador to Kosovo, Christopher William Dell, who displays remarkable personal proximity to prime minister Hashim Thaci and his clique, and may have influenced Thaci's strategy.

But even if US policy on the dialogue didn't change, it would be hard to resume it: Pristina's government feared it even before the failed mission, and will now feel like a cornered cat. Fruitful negotiations may prove impossible until Kosovo gives itself a better and more confident government, which it badly needs for many other reasons.

Ironically, most of Kosovo's friends and supervisors have for years tolerated election fraud, corruption and woeful governance for the sake of political stability: this raid is Thaci's thank you note. Their misguided political realism has only bred irresponsibility, which produced an entirely avoidable crisis that has seriously harmed regional stability.


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