Kosovo and Serbia: Behind the endless Balkan quarrel
The escalation in Kosovo at the end of July triggered a wave of concern about the possibility of a new war in Europe. In reality, it was only the latest chapter of a longstanding dispute that grabbed the headlines only because, due to the war in Ukraine, Europeans are now more sensitive to new crises involving, albeit indirectly, major powers like Russia or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The latest escalation occurred the day before the planned implementation of a new regulation that would have required Serbia’s citizens entering Kosovo to obtain provisional car plates. In retaliation, members of the Serb minority in Kosovo’s northern municipalities – where almost half of all Kosovar Serbs live – erected barricades near two border crossings. Tensions subsided when the government announced its decision to postpone the implementation of the new rule. However, while a new armed confrontation between Belgrade and Pristina – who were at war in 1998-99 – is not favored by either side, both governments benefit politically each time tensions rise.
A new war in Europe?
A new conflict between Serbia and Kosovo is not an option for many reasons. First, both sides cannot afford it: while Pristina still does not have a proper army, Belgrade lacks the economic resources to wage a war. Second, neither would be actively supported by any of their partners. Even though Russia is Serbia’s main ally and supports Belgrade in countering Pristina’s recognition process within the international community, Moscow’s direct military involvement in the Balkans is to be ruled out. As a matter of fact, the Russian Federation has never sent ground troops to any non-neighboring country. Moreover, aside from being economically unsustainable, purchasing Russian arms to go to war against Kosovo would be committing diplomatic suicide. In such a scenario, the US and EU would very likely sanction Serbia, which in turn would have devastating effects on its economy and society – an experience all too familiar to many in the aftermath of the 1990s conflicts under Milosevic’s regime.
Last but not least, Kosovo represents NATO’s biggest mission. “The NATO-led KFOR [Kosovo Force] mission is closely monitoring and is prepared to intervene if stability is jeopardized, in accordance with its mandate,” reads the communique issued by the mission when tensions erupted on 31 July 2022. This kind of communication is but a reaffirmation of KFOR’s mission (an international peacekeeping force established in 1999, which today counts about 4,000 personnel), rather than a declaration of war preparedness – something that Serbian authorities are acutely aware of. Paradoxically, despite its inflammatory, nationalist rhetoric, Belgrade is the least interested in a new war as it would not be politically convenient. In addition to the aforementioned reasons, Belgrade also wishes to maintain the status quo. Over the past few years, there have been periodic instances of heightened tensions, some even more serious than the most recent one, as road barricades are nothing new. For instance, in 2017, the expression “Kosovo is Serbia” was painted in several languages on a train travelling from Belgrade to Pristina (eventually stopped before the border with Kosovo). One year later, Marko Djuric – who was then at the helm of the Serbian office for Kosovo – was arrested as he attempted to enter the former province despite Pristina’s ban.
The Serbian regime, led by President Aleksandar Vucic, has been manufacturing such episodes with the intention of creating ad hoc crises and then solving them so as to present itself as a “stabilizing factor” to Brussels and project President Vucic as a capable leader to his citizens. This is why there is no real intention to solve the Kosovo issue: it provides political legitimacy at both the national and international levels. It also explains why there would be no gain in a new conflict. For the Serbian regime, the status quo and keeping alive the perpetual threat of an ethnic war is far more politically profitable than concretely waging it. As such, as long as Vucic rules, tensions are likely to occasionally flare up in the former Serbian province.
Normalization and reciprocity
For their part, Kosovo authorities have changed the way they handle relations with Serbia since the leader of the nationalist-leftist Vetevendosje (Self-determination) party, Albin Kurti, was elected prime minister in February 2020. While his predecessor Ramush Haradinaj, and former president Hashim Thaci, followed the path of “normalization” (as the dialogue with Serbia has been called since the 2013 Brussels Agreement), mediated by the EU, the Kurti administration has opted for “reciprocity”. As per this principle, Kosovo’s government is to adopt the same measures towards Serbia as the latter does vis-à-vis Pristina. The car plate issue in July was but an application of the reciprocity principle: the requirement for temporary car plates and documents for vehicles coming from Serbia is Pristina’s version of the rules imposed by Serbian authorities on cars coming from Kosovo.
The difference between normalization and reciprocity lies, above all else, in their dimension. While normalization is a process mediated by the EU and regulated through bilateral meetings in Brussels, reciprocity has a local dimension and is mostly one-sided – on Pristina’s part – and does not require Belgrade’s consent. Following Kurti’s political initiatives, the Serbian President has been advocating for the Brussels Agreement in an attempt to prevent this paradigm shift.
Another difference between the two paradigms lies in their effectiveness. The normalization process mediated by the EU has not improved the conditions of local communities, mainly due to the failure to create an Association/Community of Serb-majority municipalities, as outlined by the Brussel’s Agreement. As such, the ineffectiveness of the normalization process guarantees the preservation of the status quo, which is Belgrade’s ultimate goal. On the other side, reciprocity is unilaterally and locally implemented and entails immediate outcomes. For instance, at the end of August, under the EU-facilitated dialogue, Kosovo and Serbia reached an agreement enabling people’s freedom of movement at their respective borders: Serbia will allow entry to Kosovo ID holders without the need for additional documents, while Kosovo agreed not to introduce the requirement for temporary documentation for those coming from Serbia. While the car plate issue still needs to be resolved by the end of October, these measures reflect the principle of reciprocity. However, it is surprising that, in this case, they were promoted by both the EU and the US, which have long upheld normalization as the only possible modus operandi for dialogue. In fact, both Brussels and Washington consider normalization as an impartial approach, while reciprocity would require Serbia to accept Kosovo as an equal on the playing field, which is essentially the de facto recognition of two sovereign and independent states. Even if Serbian authorities deny it, this agreement is an implicit recognition of the independence of Kosovo’s institutions. Allowing people with Kosovar documents – bearing the flag of Kosovo – to cross the border means recognizing the documents as valid and, indirectly, recognizing the authorities that have issued them. In other words, with this agreement, Serbia recognizes an authority that it has always considered non-existent or illegitimate.
While normalization is solving one issue at a time, and is proceeding slowly due to local incidents, reciprocity is having a more direct effect and pointing towards a de facto recognition of Kosovo authorities. Serbia may continue to not recognize Kosovo officially; however, through the reciprocity paradigm, Pristina will indirectly push Belgrade into treating it as an equal.
Role of the international community
The international community plays a fundamental role in Kosovo’s political stability through the dialogue it facilitates between Belgrade and Pristina and the agreements it promotes. The EU and the US, in particular, play an influential role here, which is not without geopolitical competition. This was mostly evident in 2020, when then US president, Donald Trump, brokered an “economic normalization deal” between Belgrade and Pristina as he was seeking re-election. This, however, was not a real deal, as the parties did not sign any joint agreements but, rather, two separate declarations of intent. On that occasion, Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic, and then Kosovo Prime Minister, Avdullah Hoti, did not even shake hands or take a group picture. This “deal” could be better interpreted as part of Donald Trump’s electoral campaign to promote himself as a global “peacemaker” and drive the US foreign policy agenda vis-à-vis the Middle East. In fact, this “deal” envisioned, among others, the mutual recognition of Kosovo and Israel; the realization of Serbia’s pledge to move its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (which has not occurred thus far); and the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization – which ultimately had nothing to do with economic normalization between the two Balkan countries.
A few months prior to the so-called “Washington agreement”, the US administration was partially responsible for the fall of the first Kurti administration. Trump’s envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, Richard Grenell, had firmly opposed Albin Kurti’s reciprocity agenda, which eventually led to his government suffering a vote of no-confidence in March 2020. Overall, the “economic normalization deal” promoted by the US – who was the main sponsor of Kosovo’s independence in the 1990s – was an attempt to take over the mediation of the dialogue at the EU’s expense, which, for its part, was losing its effectiveness and credibility in the region. Ultimately, the geopolitical competition ended with the election of Joe Biden. The new US administration – which, since then, has faced a host of other challenging issues – is aligned with the EU’s agenda, with the August agreement promoted by both Brussels and Washington as a case in point.
However, this case shows the extent to which Kosovo’s stability depends on global geopolitical balances and how fragile the normalization process is with Serbia. Political stability in the Balkans is not high on the US foreign policy agenda; however, the EU has had its own normative framework for leading the dialogue since 2013 – though it has been taking one step forward and two steps back thus far. Over the past decade, after many Brussels-mediated meetings and handshakes between the two delegations, a number of local crises have ensued, showing how evanescent the normalization process can be. All in all, the late August agreement was unprecedented because it (indirectly) adopted a reciprocity measure. Instead of preserving the status quo, it concretely changes the situation on the ground, directly benefitting the local communities – in this case granting them freedom of movement. If nothing else, after years of attempts at defusing tense situations, this more assertive type of mediation is proof that the international community can effectively improve Serbia and Kosovo’s future bilateral relations.
Despite the role of international diplomacy, local leaders will continue to be the ultimate decision-makers on this issue. This is both good and bad news, as it means that a local change can influence a regional one – showing that that status quo can indeed be loosened – but it also means that the overall issue, along with the lives of Kosovo Albanians and Serbs, will still be held hostage to nationalist rhetoric.
This is particularly evident for Serbia. Following the recent border agreement with Kosovo, Serbian President Vucic questioned the hosting of the EuroPride parade until Belgrade’s police ultimately banned the event. This can be interpreted as political compensation for the Serbian conservative electorate, who ensured their parliamentary representatives would win in the last election round. Any political agreement with Kosovo – apart from allowing Kosovo ID holders to enter Serbia – could potentially inflame these conservative groups, which would come at a high political cost for the regime. However, the parade ultimately still occurred, albeit not without unrest, because of international diplomatic pressure on President Vucic.
On the other side of the border, Pristina could capitalize on new escalations to show Kosovars that the government is able to defend their independence against ‘the enemy’ and that, by enforcing the law in Serb-majority municipalities, it is a sovereign and functional state. In other words, nationalism is a win-win for both countries’ domestic politics: both sides can present themselves as defenders of national interest. However, this comes at a high cost: at the bilateral level, both governments are failing to make progress by opting for the status quo. While a new war is unlikely, peace will also remain impossible to achieve, benefitting the two governments but coming at a high cost for the citizens of Kosovo in particular.
 “Kosovo Government Postpones Its Plan for Volatile North after Tensions Rise,” Reuters, August 1, 2022, http://bitly.ws/v53t.