Serbia, Kosovo & Brussels: Euro-style Mexican Stand-off

The eternal struggle between Serbs and Albanians over that bleak corner of Europe has merely moved in to a new phase

The problem remains, it's now just been kicked down the road
Charles Crawford
On 22 April 2013 12:48

Hurrah! A magnificent diplomatic triumph for European diplomacy in general, and for EU High Representative Baroness Ashton in particular!

Serbia and Kosovo have (it is said) reached an historic deal, opening a way to further reconciliation across the former Yugo-space. Serbia and Kosovo can edge towards full EU membership. As things go in the wearying Balkans, surely this is pretty darn good?

Yes. Baroness Ashton did well last week to broker a deal between Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci (the tough prime minister of Kosovo who was a commander in the Kosovo guerilla force fighting Serbs in 1998-99) and Ivica Dacic (Serbia’s current prime minister who previously was close to Slobodan Milosevic).

But does it make much difference? And what was going on here in the negotiation?

Basically, the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia that started in 1991 is still not complete.

All the former six constituent republics that comprised Titoist Yugoslavia are now independent countries. Kosovo was an ‘autonomous province’ within Serbia that had most of the attributes of a full republic. Kosovo proclaimed itself independent in 2008 and has managed to get 98 countries formally to recognise it.

But five EU members, led by Spain, as well as global big-hitters Russia, China, Brazil and India are not doing so until Belgrade itself does. Meanwhile the main remaining Serbian population of Kosovo lives in scraggy northern Kosovo and has been living as if in Serbia, its public sector salaries paid by Belgrade.

Thus stalemate. Kosovo’s authority has not run over all its territory. Serbia has refused to recognise Kosovo and to disentangle itself from ‘its’ land and people.

The European Union, backed by Washington, has been trying for years to break the deadlock, dangling the carrot of EU accession negotiations. But it is wrong to talk of EU ‘mediation’. Mediators have no stake in the outcome of a mediation. Here the European Union has its own serious internal disagreements on the issue, and its own credibility at stake. Belgrade and Pristina claimed to want the carrot, but would not move towards it.

Brussels therefore made an interesting power-play, mainly at German insistence. It demanded that Serbia had to reach a deal with Pristina on the northern Kosovo municipalities as a pre-condition for formally opening EU accession talks. Having done that, it then became a prisoner of its own conditionality – Brussels had to decide what minimum level of ‘deal’ would suffice to proclaim victory.

Serbia meanwhile felt squeezed to ‘do something’ – without movement towards eventual EU membership it would not get generous EU funds and investment to help edge back from the disaster bequeathed by Milosevic and Western sanctions/bombing. Could a way be found to get substantive operational autonomy for the Kosovo Serbs, while giving Pristina enough to allow Thaci to sign up?

Pristina knew Serbia conceding full recognition would not happen for the foreseeable future. But de facto acceptance by Belgrade of Pristina as the supreme legal authority for the whole of Kosovo would be an important step forward. It might nudge Serbia’s big international allies to think that a feeble Serbia was ‘accepting reality’ and so undermine Belgrade’s powerful global support-base.

Thus the deal: an interesting case-study in how diplomacy trades between substance and symbolism.

Kosovo did better on symbolism than substance. It won agreement that Serbian officials in the municipalities concerned would henceforth be paid by Pristina, not Belgrade, and come under Pristina’s overall legal and political authority. And by the very fact of Belgrade and Pristina signing an ‘international’ agreement, the Kosovo Albanians can now assert that de facto Belgrade has recognised Kosovo.

But to get this, Pristina conceded substantive autonomy to the ethnic Serbian communities in most major policy areas (health, education and especially police – in the Balkans control over the police is all). And it gave Serbia the chance to press on with its EU membership without recognising Kosovo.

Serbia in turn did better on substance than symbolism. Northern Kosovo and other Serbs in Kosovo have been promised far-reaching devolved powers that need never be ceded and allow them to work very closely with Serbia. Nothing real has been conceded on Serbia’s bottom-line issue of principle, namely Kosovo’s independence. And Serbia can get on with its EU integration processes without Kosovo-inspired blackmail.

Yes, the Albanians’ argument that Serbia has de facto recognised Kosovo is vexing. But Belgrade still has the diplomatic firepower to hold the line in the key capitals that matter (Moscow and Beijing) to stop Kosovo joining the United Nations except on Belgrade’s terms.

Brussels ended up with some substance (the prospect of easing wasteful tensions in that part of the Balkans, and getting the impossible Balkanites bogged down in EU accession bureaucracy) and some symbolism (a much needed diplomatic triumph amidst all that Eurozone misery  and a show of leadership for the EU method).

In the puny circumstances of that corner of Europe, a more than satisfactory result. But as the dreary bickering starts over every single word and punctuation-mark in the text, the eternal struggle between Serbs and Albanians over that bleak plateau merely moves in to a new phase.

There is in fact only one question here: Will Serbia ever recognise Kosovo in its current borders? Serbia’s President Nikolic is clear: Hell No! Indeed, he is now busy proclaiming the EU-brokered deal as “the only possible way to guarantee to Serbia that Kosovo will never be a state accepted in the United Nations”.

Well into the future the European Union will have to decide whether to admit Serbia without recognising Kosovo and/or to admit Kosovo that is not a state recognised by the international community as a whole:  A Euro-style Mexican stand-off.

This week Brussels, Belgrade and Pristina joined forces to kick decision-day well down the road. They all know that that fateful moment will come. But they’ll double-cross that bridge when they finally reach it. Oh, and who knows what the European Union itself will look like then?

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford

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