How can we expect the situation to develop with regards to the implementation of the European plan for the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, given that Serbian President Vucic and Kosovo’s PM Kurti have both agreed to it, but the process is slower and more challenging than expected?
I was sceptical from the very beginning that the European plan and the implementation annex agreed in Ohrid this year would lead to any swift implementation. In fact, I expected, and I still do, that the entire plan will collapse during the so-called implementation. The main reason is that, on top of the weakness of the basic agreement, the implementation annex is devoid of the substantiative elements it had originally been announced to contain: a detailed sequencing with detailed timelines for implementing the various parts of the agreement. In addition, the issue of how to return Serbs in the north of Kosovo to state institutions has not only not been solved within the agreement framework, but has not even been touched by the EU negotiators. Thus, it is, unfortunately, no surprise that ‘implementation’ got stalled over the most contentious issue – the establishment of the so-called Association of Serb-majority municipalities (ASM) – as no procedure was agreed in Ohrid on how to get to an agreement over a statute for the ASM. It is also no surprise that the issue of Serbs not being represented in Kosovo institutions since Ohrid has led to further, dramatic escalation in the north, with local elections being boycotted by Serbs, and the ethnic clashes triggered by the attempts of the ethnic Albanian elected mayors of taking office.
Do you believe that the European plan is the appropriate solution for ultimately resolving the issue of Serbia-Kosovo relations, or do you think that Brussels and Washington may have been overly optimistic in their expectations?
No, I believe that the approach taken, that is moving away from the previous framework of negotiations on a final, comprehensive agreement, to some sort of vaguely defined intermediate agreement was and is the wrong approach for several reasons. First, because it leaves most of the carrots and guarantees offered to Pristina in the form of oral promises that have failed to convince the Kosovo government. Second, it offers no solution to the issue of Kosovo Serbs. Third, an interim agreement without a long-term strategy and masterplan will ultimately fail in the long run. Finally, the plan is based on courting an autocratic regime in Belgrade and on working around Vucic’s declared red lines, when earlier dialogue phases have proven that it can only be successful when it is the West defining the principles, red lines and aim of the dialogue, making use of its full leverage over Serbia (no border changes, recognition of Kosovo in return for EU membership perspective). Thus, I believe the only real solution lies in returning to direct negotiations on a final, comprehensive agreement with Serbian recognition of Kosovo at its core, based on clear messages and strong pressure on Serbia, i.e., a strategic U-turn on the West’s policy towards Serbia.
Regarding the pace of the enlargement process in the Balkans, what is your assessment, especially considering that Bosnia and Herzegovina is experiencing cyclical crises mostly due to the secessionist policies of the Bosnian Serb leadership, as well as the lack of progress made by Montenegro, Albania, and North Macedonia towards their EU goals? How dangerous is it to proceed too slowly with the enlargement?
The problem has never been one of speed, but of the credibility of the EU’s enlargement process. This is primarily referring to maintaining a realistic offer of EU membership alive. This offer has been already undermined by the so-called ‘enlargement fatigue’ that kicked in after the 2009 Euro crisis, a dynamic that dramatically accelerated with Brexit and then with French president Macron entering office and taking an anti-enlargement stance, blocking North Macedonia’s and Albania’s opening of accession negotiations despite all conditions being fulfilled for four years. In addition, the EU, despite the long learning processes, never nurtured the enlargement process as a strategic approach and instrument for external promotion of democratic transformation and for achieving sustainable solutions for ethnic disputes and conflicts in the Western Balkans. All this has contributed to major rollback on democracy and rule of law throughout the region over the last decade.
Despite the delays in the EU integration process that started in Thessaloniki 20 years ago, do you think that EU integration is still a goal for the leaderships in the Balkans? And is it still a ‘dream’ for citizens in the region?
Most of the ruling leaders and elites in the region never genuinely wanted EU integration, as they were, and are satisfied with the corrupt, authoritarian nature of the political systems in their country, and with instrumentalizing ethnopolitical disputes and tension for such purposes. It was always primarily citizens of the region that by large majorities truly aimed at EU integration. Unfortunately, due to the weak and non-strategic approach of the EU, ruling leaders and elites have managed to easily adopt the narrative of EU integration, to present themselves as ‘champions of EU integration’, and even be praised as such by EU officials, while such de facto allyship with authoritarian elites and autocrats has increasingly alienated citizens.
If the conflict in Ukraine lasts longer than expected, should we be concerned about Russia playing a more and more destabilizing role in the Balkans? Additionally, what direct and indirect negative consequences could the conflict have on a region that is still outside of the EU, apart from Moscow’s involvement?
We should have been concerned about Russia’s increasing meddling into the region since its gradual return to the Western Balkans for over a decade, but which was for a very long time ignored by the EU, and the US. The Ukraine conflict provides dangers and opportunities. There is the risk Russia will at some point open a second front in the Balkans, making use of existing tensions in the context of unresolved status issues. On the other hand, the Ukraine war presents a window of opportunity in terms of finally kicking Russia out of the region. Thus, with the Russian aggression against Ukraine, Serbia has for the first time seriously come under pressure to end its ‘sitting between two chairs’ policy and to get rid of its energy dependency on Russia. But the West and the EU so far have missed to make use of that opportunity. EU has missed to pressure Serbia into turning away from Russia. And it has not extended the move it made when extraordinarily granting candidate status to Ukraine to the Western Balkans. Thus, as for the last decade, Russia’s leverage in the Western Balkans is primarily based on the power vacuum created by the EU, and by wider West’s weakness, not by Moscow’s strength and objective leverage.