November 5, 2020
The dialog on normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, crucial for the stability in the whole Western Balkan region, has gained a new momentum in the past two months. These important negotiations had been frozen since Kosovo government introduced 100% tariffs on goods imported from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2018. After the tariffs were lifted in April 2020, it paved the way for a resumption of the dialogue. This positive sign in the mutual relations was accompanied by an important change in Brussels. The responsibility for the facilitation of the dialog was transferred from the hands of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to a newly created post of the EU Special Representative for the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues, an experienced Slovak diplomat and well established personality in the context of the Western Balkans, Miroslav Lajčák. This new appointment could prove to be very beneficial for the EU’s representation in the Western Balkans as it allows Lajčák to focus solely on the region, previously taking up only a small space in High Representative’s wide agenda of EU’s external relations.
Simultaneously, there has been progress achieved in negotiations between the U.S., Serbia and Kosovo on economic normalization of the relations. In September, Kosovo’s PM Avdullah Hoti and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić travelled to Washington where they signed agreements committing them to a list of conditions. For the mutual relations, the most important points were the agreement to work on infrastructural connectivity, in terms of air and rail links, roads and highways, the commitment to a one year moratorium on Serbia’s de-recognition international campaign against Kosovo and Kosovo’s applications for membership in international organizations, opening of the talks on sharing the water and energy resources provided by the Gazivode/Ujmani Lake, and agreement to work more on issues of missing persons, refugees and internally displaced persons from the 1990s Kosovo war.
However, the agreement was met with criticism from experts, civil society, and even EU representatives, as some of its points are problematic, to say the least. First, the very basic questions is who actually signed the agreement with whom. While the event in Washington was praised by the U.S. administration as an “historic agreement”, in reality there is no document containing signatures of both, Hoti and Vučić, nor signed by either of them and President Trump. The documents for Kosovo and Serbia are not identical and Trump signed only a cover thank-you-letter for each side of the negotiations. As such, the documents are not legally binding but represent rather letters of intent. They also do not specify the process of ratification, most deadlines for implementation are missing and so are the monitoring mechanisms or consequences for not meeting the conditions. Furthermore, even the implementation of some of the points is considered unrealistic – for example Kosovo’s former PM Kurti warned that the opening of the Pristina-Belgrade airline is useless when Kosovo citizens cannot use their IDs to enter Serbia, as Serbia does not recognize documents issued in Kosovo.
Furthermore, the general impression from what was agreed in Washington is that in reality the agreements are more relevant for the U.S. and the Trump administration than either Kosovo or Serbia. Many of the points of the content reflect the U.S. foreign policy goals and it is questionable why they should be relevant for the mutual Kosovo-Serbia relations. For example, the parties committed not to use telecommunication and 5G equipment supplied by “untrusted vendors”. While there is no explicit reference to China, the underlying issue is clear. There is also a part dedicated to the commitment to increased energy diversification and energy security, translating into a decreased reliance on Russia. Some points are not only forwarding the U.S. priorities but can even be potentially harmful for Kosovo’s and Serbia’s EU integration. While it was obvious that the Trump administration considered the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel a crucial outcome of these agreements, these actions go against the EU official policy. In Washington, Kosovo committed to mutual recognition with Israel and opening its embassy in Jerusalem while Serbia agreed to moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by July 2021. According to Peter Stano, the EU Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, “the embassy move goes against the official policy of the EU which states that the status of Jerusalem has to be worked out between Israel and the Palestinians and that it should be part of the peace negotiations between the two parties.” While Kosovo might benefit from the recognition by Israel in its quest for gaining international recognition of its independence, the establishment of diplomatic relations of both countries with Israel against the EU joint policy can cause problems further down the EU accession road, in the alignment with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, an integral part of the accession process.
Although the EU representatives were critical to some above-mentioned parts of the agreements, the “Washington deal” is still presented in Brussels mostly as complementary to the EU-facilitated Brussels Dialogue. Naturally, if the normalization of the economic relations between Kosovo and Serbia is successful, it will contribute to the stability and prosperity in the region and quality of life of the citizens. In this regard, the joint statement signed by the heads of the Chambers of Commerce of Serbia and Kosovo at the US embassy in Belgrade on establishment of a joint team for economic cooperation will be probably much more meaningful for the normalization of relations than the pompous signing ceremony in Washington. The other most obvious benefit of the Washington agreements for Kosovo and Serbia is the U.S. pledge to boost American investments in both countries, including the opening of the American economic development agency in Serbia.
However, the issues crucial for a real and lasting normalization of relations remain to be solved in Brussels. The EU-led dialogue, building on the provisions of the Brussels Agreement signed in 2013, still has to tackle the sensitive and political questions that are currently making cooperation between Serbia and Kosovo nearly impossible. Furthermore, both countries have been recently steering the contents of the newly resumed dialogue towards the most problematic issues – the question of recognition, pushed forward by Kosovo, and the implementation of the Association of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo, insisted on by Serbia. Up until now, both questions have been impossible to reconcile for either side.
As the dialogue is reaching its stage where the most sensitive issues are being discussed, it is also potentially threatened by another stalemate. The role of EU Special Representative Lajčák is an important one and the fact that now there is one person dedicated to the Dialogue and the Western Balkans, compared to the previous situation when these were just one part of the EU CFSP High Representative’s wide agenda, certainly helps to keep the established momentum in the negotiations going. However, even such a skilled diplomat knowledgeable of the Western Balkans’ realities as Miroslav Lajčák, has only limited influence on the decisions in Belgrade and Pristina. His mandate needs to be strongly backed and supported by the EU Member States, particularly France and Germany. Especially in the context of the increasingly politicized EU accession process under the new enlargement methodology, with the Member States foreseen to play a more proactive role, it is crucial that the most influential EU Member States exert additional pressure on both Kosovo and Serbia to be willing to compromise. France and Germany thus should not let their effort, introduced this summer in the form of hosting joint summits, slide, now when the agreements in Washington were signed and Lajčák’s office is fully established and functional. On the contrary, a more coordinated approach between the Member States, EU Special Representative Lajčák and also the U.S. (whether continued under the Trump administration or newly led by Joe Biden) is now needed more than ever in this critical moment for the Kosovo-Serbia and wider regional relations.
Author : EUROPEUM