The explosive tensions of recent weeks have exposed the limits of the dialogue brokered by the European Union.
The evolving relationship between Kosovo and Serbia, facilitated by the European Union, is facing its sternest test since 2011, when barricades throughout north Kosovo reflected a situation threatening to spiral out of control. Hopes are high for a final agreement in the coming year or so, to normalise relations between the two, and so are the diplomatic stakes. To supplement however this path towards sustainable peace, the EU must consider how it can better engage those constructive voices from civil society thus far largely neglected.
For the last year and a half, the predominantly Serb north of Kosovo has been gripped by soaring tensions—amplified by Russia’s war in Ukraine and concerns about the stability of the western Balkans more generally. Last July, Kosovo moved ahead with plans to end the use on its territory of vehicle licence plates issues by the Republic of Serbia. Simultaneously, it announced that Serbian identity cards would no longer be valid to enter Kosovo, Belgrade having long rejected those issued by Pristina.
While the latter argument was swiftly resolved, the former lingered on. Kosovo resisted repeated pleas from the EU and the United States for a delay. As the stakes rose, Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia’s president, reiterated calls for the establishment of an ‘Association/Community of Serb-majority municipalities’. This was a central element of the Brussels Agreement to normalise relationships, brokered by the EU in 2013, but which remains unimplemented.
Also critical to that agreement was integration of policing, albeit with a commitment that the commander of the Kosovo Police in the four northern municipalities would be a Kosovo Serb. The situation escalated in November with mass resignation of Serb police officers—ostensibly because they refused to impose warnings and then fines on their own community.
They were swiftly followed by elected officials (mayors and municipal assembly members), judges, prosecutors, local-government employees and others who had transferred to the Kosovo system in the past decade or so. It is a profound blow to the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, a key dimension of which is the integration of Kosovo Serbs through the 2013 agreement.
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The security vacuum created by the resignations has been partly filled by members of the Kosovo Police special operations units, replete with long-barrelled weapons and tactical uniforms. Though professional and well-trained, they are ill-disposed to such tasks as patrolling traffic. Their numbers have been supplemented by mainly Albanian-speaking police brought from elsewhere in Kosovo.
There have been various reports of harassment and intimidation, including an assault on a prominent civil-society figure. Trust between the local community and the police has broken down, with patrols having been shot at on several occasions.
The arrest on December 10th of a Serb former member of the police led to renewed roadblocks, which would ultimately stand for some 20 days or so. There were a spate of accompanying incidents, including shootings, vehicle burnings and attacks on journalists. A reconnaissance patrol by the EU’s rule of law mission in Kosovo (EULEX) was targeted with a stun grenade, leading to widespread condemnation. The barricades have been dismantled but the crisis is far from over.
Point of contention
Though the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue has been imperfect, sizeable steps have been taken. The presence of the institutions of Kosovo in the north had been becoming more routine. Many more Serbs possess Kosovo ID cards and even passports. Money flows from the public purse in Pristina to north Kosovo.
A major point of contention remains the Association/Community of Serb-majority municipalities. It was conceived as the primary mechanism for integrating the functions sustained by the Republic of Serbia in Kosovo, which declared its independence in 2008 after a violent conflict, having previously been treated as a province of Serbia in the former Yugoslavia. Education, healthcare and waste disposal, to name but a few, are vital services which remain under Belgrade’s remit.
The association/community has, however, been fundamentally opposed by Pristina—despite a ruling in 2015 by Kosovo’s Constitutional Court obliging its establishment. Many fear that it would serve as an instrument of ethnic division, with some going so far as to describe it as Kosovo’s own Republika Srpska, the predominantly Serb entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina which frequently pushes for secession. Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, has publicly rejected it.
The EU continues to believe that a vital window of opportunity exists finally to reach a binding deal on the normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. The incumbents in Belgrade and Pristina enjoy the requisite support to take difficult decisions—whether they are willing to is another matter. Russia’s war in Ukraine has focused minds across Europe on the need for a lasting solution to the impasses in the western Balkans. There have even been suggestions that spring 2023 is essentially a deadline, though this feels ambitious given the experiences of recent months.
The latest developments, however, have again exposed an element missing in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue—substantive engagement of civil society in Kosovo and Serbia. The process has been elite-led, with negotiations conducted largely in secret. There is little in the way of transparency. The definitive content of agreements remains disputed and open to interpretation.
While ‘constructive ambiguity’ may be deemed necessary to facilitate difficult compromises, it permits the evasion of commitments if and when it comes to implementation. Several agreements have come a cropper, with both sides blaming one another for the deadlocks then hampering progress. Constructive ambiguity has proved a short-term fix with a long-lasting hangover.
Priorities have been set in Brussels—by and between the respective negotiating teams—to the neglect of the communities on the ground directly implicated. Many wonder, sometimes out loud, just how they have benefited from over a decade of negotiations, plus those ultimately leading up to Kosovo’s ‘supervised’ independence.
Even 20 years on from the end of the war, rarely do citizens’ concerns come in first place. Kosovo and Serbia meanwhile face a common challenge—emigrating populations making their homes elsewhere.
Critical voices have been intentionally marginalised and ultimately found themselves resorting to unconstructive mud-throwing. Yet influential civil-society figures are vital to help prepare communities for the day after an agreement is reached—figures who can help navigate the pitfalls of implementation as promises are made, fulfilled and then forgotten.
Destabilisation resulting from a potential breakdown of the dialogue would have a profound impact on various communities in Serbia and Kosovo. It is thus imperative to invest resources in those capable of managing conflicts in their localities and building structures resilient to malign influences. These voices confront disinformation and divisive rhetoric, building confidence within and between communities.
As the tenth anniversary approaches of the Brussels Agreement—arguably one of the high points of EU diplomacy—it is appropriate to reflect on the process and the structure of the subsequent dialogues. The destination of Kosovo and Serbia remains broadly the same—membership of an enlarged EU. Yet that horizon has become increasingly distant.
Building genuine and lasting peace in such a challenging and often unfavourable context requires that the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue be opened to constructive voices from civil society. It is they who can genuinely represent their communities and articulate a vision for the future, unbound by the diplomatic necessities and niceties as sensed in Brussels.