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Ex: Europe, Middle East, Education

Serbia and Kosovo’s Diplomatic Non-Breakthrough

Three Questions to Dana Landau

INTERVIEW - 18 September 2020

On September 4, the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia were invited to Washington D.C. to sign what was hailed as a historic peace deal. This deal, however, might end up serving Israel and the US more than the two countries concerned, bypassing the EU in the process. We interviewed Dr. Dana Landau, senior researcher at the Swiss peace research institute swisspeace, who explains what the agreement exactly entailed, and what the consequences of it might be for the Western Balkans and the EU.

Serbia and Kosovo recently reached an agreement, brokered by the US, aiming to normalize economic relations between the two. The results were mixed and contested. What did the agreement consist of exactly, and what are its concrete outcomes?

Aleksandar Vučić, President of Serbia, and Avdullah Hoti, Prime Minister of Kosovo, travelled to Washington D.C on September 4, for a meeting that had originally been planned for June. At the time it would have been Hashim Thaçi travelling, but then the Specialist Chambers in the Hague issued a public notice of war crime charges against him. The meeting in D.C., moved to September and now attended by Hoti and Vučić instead, was preceded by grand announcements of a signing ceremony which would conclude the negotiations led by US Special Envoy Richard Grenell over the last two years. In D.C., each party signed separate, almost identical documents, which did not contain the signature of the US. Separately, Trump signed a letter, commending them for their efforts to normalize economic ties. 

As far as the substance of the agreement goes, there was little new there regarding the parties’ relations. The documents contained statements of intent to implement past agreements, such as working on connecting the two capitals though a rail line and highway, and to recognize each other’s university diplomas. The transport ways were agreed on in January and February, and were brokered by Richard Grenell. The issue of the recognition of diplomas was already agreed on years ago in the Brussels-led dialogue, which began in 2011 and of which numerous agreements remain largely unimplemented. The documents also referred to a planned feasibility study for shared use of the Gazivode/Ujmani lake and a one-year moratorium on Serbia’s derecognition campaign, with a parallel moratorium on Kosovo seeking membership in international organizations. Given this US administration’s communication style, it should come as no surprise that this was presented as a game changing deal, when in reality it was not. 

The signing ceremony was clearly also geared towards a US domestic audience in the context of the upcoming US elections. Trump is keen to promote as many diplomatic successes as possible, as we saw just over a week later with the Abraham accords between Israel, Bahrain and the UAE. The speech he held at a rally in North Carolina on September 20, during which he claimed that his administration is "stopping mass killings between Kosovo and Serbia", is a case in point. These are meant to bolster an image of Trump as a talented global dealmaker, successfully pursuing foreign policy of peace over interventionism, and managing to break historic deadlocks around the world. As journalists were quick to point out in the press conference following signature on September 4, the agreement text seemed more like a statement of intent to pursue steps towards economic normalization, than the historic breakthrough it was presented as.

Kosovo secured diplomatic ties with Israel, which had not recognized Kosovo’s independence for the past 12 years. In exchange, Kosovo pledged to open an Embassy in Jerusalem.

While the latest Kosovo-Serbia agreement is not groundbreaking, it was potentially controversial for a number of reasons. From Kosovo’s side, the very fragile position Hoti is in bears mentioning. He became Prime Minister after a vote of no confidence against his predecessor Albin Kurti, and is in office with a very weak backing of only 61 seats in a 120-seat assembly. The lack of transparency leading up to this particular meeting in Washington, and the secret nature of the Kosovo-Serbia talks in general, are certainly not conducive to this government’s already weak legitimacy.

On the other hand, while Vučić is institutionally very strong, numerous protests took place against him in July, and it can be said for both countries that it is unclear how much legitimacy their leaders enjoy to bring their constituents on board for a resolution of this conflict.

Finally, the agreement also contained a potpourri of elements that seemed to have little to do with relations between Kosovo and Serbia, but rather aligned each of them with US foreign policy goals, including promoting the decriminalization of homosexuality, the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, and notably a prohibition of 5G supply from untrusted vendors, likely aimed at Huawei’s presence in Serbia. The most controversial of these pertained to the commitment by Serbia to move its Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem by July 2021. In parallel, Kosovo secured diplomatic ties with Israel, which had not recognized Kosovo’s independence for the past 12 years. In exchange, Kosovo pledged to open an Embassy in Jerusalem. 

What were the motivations behind involving Israel into this agreement and what are the consequences of such a move? 

It was a surprise to most that Israel was suddenly brought into the mix. Trump’s not so diplomatic Twitter style added to this, as he seemingly moved Kosovo into the Middle East. Certainly, one way to read this move is that it’s focusing on Trump’s strategy towards his upcoming election, seeking to link this ‘peace deal’ with the issue of peace in the Middle East, in the minds of the voters. 

There were a few interesting discursive twists, presenting the recognition as Richard Grenell’s success in having convinced Kosovo to normalize relations with Israel. In reality, Kosovo has been lobbying to have Israel’s recognition for years. The framing was misleading, given that Kosovo and Israel have never been in conflict, but rather that Israel had been reluctant to recognize Kosovo since its independence declaration in 2008. For the last 12 years, the ball has always been in Israel’s court. 

Benjamin Netanyahu is in a difficult position domestically, having had to hold 3 consecutive elections to form a government, with serious corruption indictments on his shoulders, and the pandemic spiralling out of control under his leadership. As such, he was also keen to present foreign policy successes, and is in no position to deny those to Donald Trump. The announcement of both Kosovo and Serbia opening Embassies in Jerusalem, is thus a big win for Trump and Netanyahu, both in need of a boost. 

For Trump, the issue of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the attendant US Embassy move of 2018, was an issue favoured by his evangelical base, more than anything. In turn, Netanyahu framed it, somewhat distortedly, as part of a larger diplomatic success in normalizing Israel’s relations with the Arab and Muslim world, claiming that Kosovo would be the first Muslim state to open an Embassy in Jerusalem, and that many other Muslim and Arab nations would surely follow. This serves to disprove the argument maintained for years, including as part of the Arab Peace Initiative, that peace between Arab nations and Israel could not take place until the Palestinian issue was resolved.

By discursively moving Kosovo into the Arab world, Netanyahu sought to show that Israel will not pay a price for not resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, when in actual fact, Kosovo has nothing to do with any of this.

By discursively moving Kosovo into the Arab world, Netanyahu sought to show that Israel will not pay a price for not resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, when in actual fact, Kosovo has nothing to do with any of this and had been pining for Israeli recognition for years.

While the geographical incongruence of linking Kosovo to the Arab world can easily be dismissed, the religious implication of the statement is not without consequences. Kosovo, which defines itself as a secular state, has made serious efforts to distance itself from a perceived Muslim identity, as have the other two European states with Muslim majority populations, Albania and Bosnia & Herzegovina.There are some strategic risks to embracing such an identity, which could easily be instrumentalized against Kosovo in the context of EU enlargement. Given a rising discourse that juxtaposes Europe and Islam as inherently incompatible, no matter how historically unfounded such a view, the reluctance of Kosovo to present itself as a Muslim state is understandable. It is thus particularly ironic that Kosovo’s Muslim character should now be instrumentalized by its most important ally, the US, in pursuit of Trump’s election campaign.

On the other hand, Kosovo did gain one further recognition from this deal, after years of relatively slow progress on this front, and is now recognized by 117 states. However, it is one that comes with a big caveat in the form of the planned Embassy in Jerusalem. So far only one state, Guatemala, has followed the US example of opening an Embassy there, putting both Serbia and Kosovo in a very controversial corner, and making the recognition rather pricey for the latter. It is therefore also doubtful that Israeli recognition, under these circumstances, will indeed inspire other, more important non-recognizers like EU members Spain, Slovakia, or Romania, to rethink their positions on Kosovo. In agreeing to this deal, Serbia and Kosovo blatantly disregarded a clear EU position, and European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano was quick to state that such steps "could call into question the EU’s common position on Jerusalem are a matter of serious concern and regret.

Given the goal of EU membership, which both Serbia and Kosovo aspire to, it thus remains to be seen whether this element of the agreement will survive a potential change in US administration in November. In Belgrade, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić already stated that the final decision would have to be discussed by the government and will depend on "a number of factors," including future development of ties with Israel.

What does this all mean for the EU's strategy in the Serbia-Kosovo relationship, and the Western Balkans more broadly?

There is a lot at stake for the EU in this. One could say that because the Trump administration has been much more proactive and aggressive in seeking mediation this year, which at times has been out of sync with the Brussels-led process, the EU has been pushed into more serious engagement with the region. It is important to remember that many of the things that are now in this agreement reiterate old achievements that have been made between Serbia and Kosovo under EU facilitation since 2011, and that the EU is needed to move the process forward.

In the meantime, the credibility of the EU is diminishing as the enlargement prospect becomes less and less tangible.

It is telling that the Monday directly after the D.C. meeting, the parties resumed talks in Brussels. The EU’s strategy was quite successful at the beginning of the dialogue in 2011, in making incremental progress on certain issues. Europe had decided to adopt what it called "constructive ambiguity", prioritizing a piecemeal approach to progress. However, it is clear that this approach has its limits. Over time, the lack of implementation of the agreements reached, and their ambiguous language gave way to a blame game around the slowing-down of the process.

In the meantime, the credibility of the EU is diminishing as the enlargement prospect becomes less and less tangible. This is most clearly illustrated in the area of visa liberalization, where there were technical requirements that Kosovo met, but which was then blocked by some member states. While von der Leyen did make reference to the Western Balkans and their European future in her speech on September 17, stating that enlargement will be on the Commission's agenda in early October, there is little reason to believe that the process will speed up significantly anytime soon.

The dialogue has now resumed in Brussels and currently the parties’ technical teams are meeting to discuss more politically sensitive issues, including settlement of mutual financial claims and property, as well as the controversial Association of Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo. The latter was previously agreed, but it remains unimplemented, is contested in Pristina and has in the past led to serious political deadlock in Kosovo. After its previous piecemeal approach, the EU now aims for the dialogue to produce a legally binding, comprehensive agreement, but this seems unlikely given the domestic circumstances in each country, as mentioned above. It does not seem that the agreement signed in D.C. has substantially changed anything in this regard. The next high-level meeting between the parties is scheduled for September 28 in Brussels.


Copyright: POOL / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

 

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