Main Image Credit No breakthrough in sight: Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić meet in Brussels on 18 August 2022. Image: Council of the EU
With prospects of EU enlargement stalling, the incentive for Kosovo and Serbia to reduce tensions in their bilateral relations is steadily evaporating.
For several weeks in August, tensions were on the rise between Kosovo and Serbia. The latest round of tensions began at the end of July when Kosovo decided to require that all citizens, including Serbs in the north, would have to carry identification documents and car license plates issued by Kosovo. After tensions escalated, Kosovo conducted consultations with the US and the EU, and postponed the implementation of this regulation for a month.
In undertaking this step, Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s government introduced reciprocal treatment in bilateral relations. Kosovo’s documents were not recognised in Serbia, and now, Serbian-issued documents for the Serb citizens of north Kosovo would no longer be recognised in Kosovo.
The postponement of the July decision was due to last until 1 September. A meeting of Kurti and Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić in Brussels failed to produce a breakthrough. NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also weighed in by reiterating the Alliance’s readiness to intervene if tensions escalate. The NATO mission in Kosovo numbers nearly 4,000 soldiers and remains a pillar of stability in the country. Then, US and European diplomats scrambled to find a solution as 1 September approached.
After these diplomatic efforts, the EU announced that an agreement had been reached. The essence of the deal is that Kosovo will not be introducing entry-exit documents for holders of Serbian identification documents. And, in exchange, Serbia will scrap the entry-exit documents for holders of Kosovan documents. With this hurdle resolved, the issue of car license plates remains to be tackled. It is expected that this issue will dominate meetings and discussions in the next two months.
What Kurti’s approach did was twofold: it imposed regulations that applied for all citizens of Kosovo over the whole territory of the country, and introduced reciprocity in relations with Serbia. Both of these steps are fundamental means by which any state exercises sovereignty and conducts relations with its neighbours.
The dominant narrative in Belgrade that Kosovo is still part of Serbia not only denies reality and the processes that have unfolded over more than two decades, but also prevents progress on establishing working relations between the two states
What, then, is the problem with identification documents and license plates? The central issue is Belgrade’s unwillingness to recognise that Kosovo is an independent state. More than two decades ago, the Slobodan Milošević regime undertook a campaign of terror against Kosovar Albanians that prompted NATO to intervene. The 1999 intervention forced Milošević to back down, and NATO’s presence provided security to Kosovar Albanians. In 2008, Kosovo declared its independence, and to date it has been recognised by more than 100 countries.
Yet, Belgrade clings to the fiction that Kosovo is still part of Serbia. By failing to recognise that Kosovo’s independence is irreversible, Serbia’s politicians are unable to move forward. The dominant narrative in Belgrade that Kosovo is still part of Serbia not only denies reality and the processes that have unfolded over more than two decades, but also prevents progress on establishing working relations between the two states.
In addition to car license plates, another looming issue is the so-called Community of Serbian Municipalities. This is advocated by Belgrade and would essentially be a grouping of municipalities based on ethnicity. Kosovar leaders are concerned that this would infringe on Kosovo’s sovereignty. Furthermore, the establishment of such a community would be a stepping-stone for separatism to develop.
In a recent interview with Al Jazeera Balkans, Kurti pointed to how such communities of municipalities in Bosnia embarked on separatism in 1992. He also emphasised that no Serb citizen of Kosovo had asked for such a community. Rather, it was an idea pushed by Belgrade.
[subheading]Quo Vadis, EU?
As these crises unfold in the Balkans, the one hope that had captured the imagination of the peoples living in this region is fading. For more than a decade, Kosovo–Serbia normalisation was conceived of as a process that would somehow produce a breakthrough under EU auspices. As long as there was a membership perspective for both Serbia and Kosovo, this notion was not seriously questioned.
Absent a clear membership perspective in the foreseeable future, the EU can offer few incentives for Kosovo–Serbia normalisation or for the resolution of other intractable issues in the Balkans
Now, Serbia is far ahead in the process, with candidate status granted in 2012. In early 2014, Serbia began its negotiations with the EU. On the other hand, Kosovo is not a candidate, nor has the EU lifted its visa regime for the country’s citizens.
The EU’s ability to project its influence and shape outcomes in the Balkans has been dependent on its enlargement to this region. In fact, enlargement has been a rare source of leverage for the bloc. However, over the past few years, several factors have combined to shelve enlargement. French opposition, rising nationalism across Europe, growing Islamophobia and enlargement fatigue have all led to the unspoken conclusion that the Balkans will not be joining the EU anytime soon. Absent a clear membership perspective in the foreseeable future, the EU can offer few incentives for Kosovo–Serbia normalisation or for the resolution of other intractable issues in the Balkans.
With the EU’s declining leverage, it is clear that Kosovo cannot place too much faith in the bloc. In fact, the current crisis shows the importance of Kosovo’s anchor to NATO. The 4,000-strong mission in the country is a reassuring sign of Western commitment to Kosovo. However, to ensure a long-term security guarantee, the country’s primary objective is to join the Alliance. Only if it is firmly grounded in NATO would Kosovo be able to fully safeguard both its borders and its citizens.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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