Serbia and Kosovo restarted talks in June but failed to make any progress. Do you expect a breakthrough in the following months?
I don’t expect a breakthrough — and I never rule one out either. The dynamics for a breakthrough are not good –– and not just for the obvious reasons, e.g. Serbia holding elections next year or Kosovo having recently held decisive elections. People imagine that these very different circumstances lead to the same circumstance: a disinclination to deal.
I think the real obstacles to a breakthrough are deeper than election cycles. There is a serious power imbalance, a serious difference in interest in the outcome, a serious difference in approach to democracy, a serious difference in international orientation and affinity. And, of course, there are the actual, intrinsic differences of a conflict in which the perceptions of needs are starkly different.
What kind of agreement Serbia and Kosovo could reach?
First, anyone who was concerned by the reverberations across the Balkans in April after a lone, anonymous “non-paper” was released on a Slovenian web portal, could not even contemplate the land swap. This proposal sent tremors about the possibility of new conflict.
Second, neither “land swap” nor “Two Germanys’ is necessary to resolve the Kosovo dispute.
Every negotiation hinges on relative power, in addition to some other factors. It is not just about the positions of the sides; it is about the ability to achieve those positions –– and to sustain any cost for sticking to the positions.”
It is helpful to compare to other situations. For example, in what is now North Macedonia, there was a time when maps were produced showing “Agean Macedonia” belonging to what was then the Republic of Macedonia. This included the city of Solun, the Macedonian word for Thessaloniki. These maps were highly provocative. They were also never taken terribly seriously in North Macedonia for the straightforward reason — power. There was no way that this territory belonging to Greece would somehow become Macedonian.
Relative power is the same reason that the “name issue” dragged on so long. Athens could “prevail” simply by maintaining the status quo — resisting calls to allow Skopje into NATO and to open negotiations with the EU. As a member of NATO and the EU, Greece held the power advantage.
This is exactly my thesis on Serbia and Kosovo (in my Wilson Center paper and in the recent Foreign Policy article). Serbia’s position on Kosovo is a hard line because Belgrade holds the leverage. If it didn’t hold the leverage, then the sides would have a “Prespa-like” negotiation and settle the issue in a dignified, stabilising way, with the aid of EU mediation and active US engagement. There would be no dangerous land swap or inapposite “Two Germanys.”
How important are the divisions inside the EU in keeping Kosovo’s question unresolved?
These divisions — the refusal of five EU countries/four NATO countries to recognise Kosovo
are the single biggest obstacle to stability in the Balkans. The position of the EU 5/NATO 4 is the single biggest advantage the West gives to Russia and China.
These divisions inflict serious damage on EU and NATO interests, on Kosovo’s stability and population, or the stability of neighbouring countries, and, ironically, these divisions inflict serious damage on Serbia, preventing the country from finally making the decisive break to embrace the Western order. The reason is simple: the position of the EU 5/NATO 4 hands Serbia the leverage over Kosovo, and over the Kosovo negotiations.
It is not for the Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN Security Council, but because of the five EU/four NATO countries that don’t recognise Kosovo. If only the four NATO countries (Cyprus is not a member of the Alliance) recognised Kosovo, the entire situation would be transformed. Kosovo would have a pathway to the Alliance, to security, to solid international personality. And that would end Serbia’s strategy of isolating and weakening Kosovo. Belgrade would be faced with two options: to continue to isolate Kosovo to no avail, watching and grumbling as it becomes stronger and more accepted; or to negotiate seriously.
In other words, the possibility for a Prespa-like negotiation would suddenly come into focus. It is not only about the final terms, but also the context for the negotiation — one in which the power balance becomes more equitable. So, for me the way forward is clear, work with the five EU non-recognisers/four NATO non-recognisers to modify their positions, even if they cannot recognise Kosovo. The closer the EU 5/NATO 4 move towards recognition, the more they erode Serbia’s leverage, and the closer they bring Belgrade and Pristina to resolution of this dispute.
How do you read the “modernization” of US sanctions for the Balkans?
The recent executive order from President Biden is a significant step— potentially one of the most significant in the region in decades. It’s a statement of serious commitment by the Administration to the region — to seeing that the peace agreements that have been signed are implemented, and a commitment to stemming rampant corruption, which is a major obstacle to stabilising the region.
The question I raised in my recent Foreign Policy article is whether this major policy commitment will be applied evenly around the region, including the country with the most sophisticated and extensive system of corruption: Serbia. I noted that, up to now, the US and EU have a paradoxical stand; Washington and Brussels give the most favourable treatment to the most anti-democratic country. That needs to change, as part of a wider shift in policy to hold all the region’s aspirants accountable to their commitments.
The EU integration process seems to be stalled. How dangerous is that for the region?
This is quite dangerous, and a serious mistake in ways that European countries do not really appreciate. For example, take the concept of European “strategic autonomy.” How can Europe aspire to a meaningful security role anywhere, if the EU cannot finally stabilise the Balkans without clear, continuing dependence on the US? One can imagine the chortling in the Kremlin when this concept comes up. Any savvy Russian analyst will say, “the Europeans can’t sort out Kosovo or Bosnia, how are they going to act without the US in the Middle East?” Individual EU states like France (or the UK, when it was in the EU) have and continue to act decisively in select situations in Africa. But it is hard to see how Europe can harbour wider ambitions without the ability to resolve the ethno-national stand-offs in the Balkans.
It’s worth thinking about all the advantages that the EU enjoys in the Balkans that are not present, say, in the Middle East.
It’s also worth thinking about the uproar just two months ago (in April) over the purported “Slovenian non-paper.” How often does an anonymous paper on an independent website send tremors about potential resumption of conflict across a region and much of Europe? It’s a completely unnatural event.
To me, it’s proof that there is a crisis of confidence in Western strategy — which should have been noticed already with all the outmigration from the region, amidst the continuing uncertainty and ethno-national divisions. At the root of this crisis of confidence are both European disingenuousness about enlargement and those crippling European divisions over Kosovo. They are not the mark of a continent ready to fully assume responsibility for its security.