The EU facilitated dialogue: Bullying Kosovo, appeasing Serbia

14 mars 2023 13:37

Artikulli i përkthyer.

In recent months, the EU has invested significant energy in reinvigorating the long-running Kosovo-Serbia dialogue. Following discussions around a proposal drafted by France and Germany, the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, invited Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbia’s President Alexandar Vucic to sign this proposal on February 27, 2023.

Prior to the summit, the primary focus became the establishment of the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities (ASM). The Kosovo government – and Kurti in particular – were subjected to ‘bulldozer diplomacy’ by the U.S. and EU, demanding Kosovo to agree to the ASM.

The rhetoric was often bullying; the declaration by U.S. special envoy for the Western Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, that the U.S. was prepared to subvert Kosovo’s democratically elected government and find alternative ‘partners’ in Kosovo if they did not agree to its ‘demands’.

Despite the prevailing sense that Kosovo was poised to be the “spoiler”, Kurti welcomed the draft proposal before the meeting, calling it a step in the right direction and stated afterward that he had been willing to sign it.

What resulted from the summit between Kurti and Vucic was framed as an “agreement”; indicatively, the EU’s European External Action Service published the text titled: “Agreement on the path to normalisation between Kosovo and Serbia”.

But when is an “agreement” not an agreement? When one side refuses to sign it? We know Kurti wanted to sign it, but Vucic refused.

Rather than acknowledge this, the EU engaged in verbal gymnastics; indicatively, Josep Borell tweeted that Vucic and Kurti had “today agreed that no further discussions are needed on the EU Proposal”.

If both sides had agreed to the text, they surely would have signed it – or at the very least expressed their support (as Kurti did) – and the resulting EU statement would have been, “Vucic and Kurti today agreed to the EU Proposal”.

If one side (Kosovo) agreed, but the other (Serbia) refused to sign the agreement, then logically, the statement should have read, “Kurti agreed to the proposal, Vucic did not”.

Given how the Kosovo government was portrayed as uncompromising spoilers prior to the negotiations, it is worth wondering what the response would have been had Kurti refused to sign an agreement Vucic expressed a willingness to sign; it is safe to assume the ensuing statement would have been a blunt condemnation of Kurti. 

The true nature of the “agreement” became even more evident in the days that followed; Vucic made a series of statements that clearly outlined his opposition to the “agreement”. In a television interview, he stated the following, “I will not sign formal or informal recognition of Kosovo nor membership in the UN…I will not sign this”.

Later in a public address, Vucic stated, “On Monday, we had a conversation in Brussels - we did not agree”.

While we may lament that Vucic rejected the EU’s proposal, we cannot deny the fact that he has forcefully and openly done so. It is, therefore, curious that Vucic’s overt unwillingness to compromise has not been greeted with any condemnation by the EU or the U.S., especially as Kurti’s mere potential rejection previously impelled so much opprobrium.

How did we get to this point?

While previous governments in Kosovo had been willing to engage in a dialogue with Serbia without ever substantively discussing recognition, Kurti has repeatedly stated that this had to be the primary focus.

This is hardly an unreasonable demand; if you believe Kosovo is an independent state, then it is logical to expect that this is accepted by all parties involved when signing an agreement.

Kurti has not, however, demanded that Serbia formally recognise Kosovo; he has accepted that an arrangement akin to the de facto though not de jure recognition between West and East Germany would suffice. In this respect, he has shown a willingness to compromise whilst standing his ground that ongoing attempts by Serbia to deny Kosovo’s very existence cannot be tolerated or ignored. 

The reality is, however, that the EU, and increasingly the U.S., have sought in recent years to use the “Belgrade-Pristina” dialogue as a means by which Serbia can be rehabilitated. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has increased this desire to bring Serbia closer to the West despite Serbia’s reluctance to implement the EU’s sanctions on Moscow.

Thus, the goal of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue has become to contrive some great fudge that will enable Serbia to be presented as an acceptable partner for the West. This has meant ignoring Kosovo’s status to focus on a series of technical arrangements that can be achieved without ever dealing with Serbia’s explicit refusal to accept Kosovo’s right to exist.

The dialogue thus became a means to achieve “normalization”. When asked what the summit had achieved Miroslav Lajcak – the EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue – reverted to the trope that the goal was “normalization”.

What exactly this means has always been opaque; in what respects can the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo be deemed “normalized” if Serbia continues to deny Kosovo’s very existence? This is the opposite of a “normal” relationship between two states.

The fact that the EU and the U.S. seek “normalization” explains why Vucic’s refusal to agree to the proposal did not precipitate condemnation. If Serbia is to be welcomed into the West, its overt refusal to accept Kosovo’s right to exist must be ignored.

This is why the proposal rejected by Vucic is framed in Orwellian terms as something that needs “no further discussion” and why the focus immediately shifted to the Implementation Plan.

One would logically expect that an implementation plan would only become operable if an agreement had been reached.

–This gives the EU and the U.S. another opportunity to contrive a situation whereby Serbia is cast as the party on the moral high ground; should Kosovo refuse to accede to the ASM - which forms part of the Implementation Plan -  then it will be presented as the “spoiler”. On the other hand, Serbia will be cast as the wounded party, its refusal to agree to the original proposal conveniently forgotten. 

The ASM has become essential to the EU and the U.S. beyond anything rational. It is important not because of what it will provide for the Kosovo Serbs but because it has become Vucic’s core demand.

If the ASM is created in its original form – which 97.6% of people in Kosovo believe will put the country at risk – it could fatally degrade Kosovo’s internal sovereignty; if rejected, it will allow Serbia to decry Kosovo’s recalcitrance. Either way, Vucic wins, and the EU and the U.S. achieve their goal of appeasing Serbia.

Ultimately, the EU and the U.S. appear keen to ignore the fact that Serbia has rejected the EU proposal and focus instead on the Implementation Plan, as this offers greater potential to contrive the framing of Serbia as the victim of Kosovo’s intransigence. Should this occur, it would be a profound inversion of the truth and a damning indictment of the EU and U.S. foreign policy priorities.

14 mars 2023

Aidan Hehir