Serbia’s Kosovo Dilemma: Shying Away from the Final Agreement

16 qershor 2023 12:38

Lexoni artikullin në shqip

The lengthy dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo—which has spanned over a decade—has produced multiple agreements. However, a final comprehensive agreement that would result in the full normalization of relations between the two entities remains elusive.

While Kosovo participated in the Brussels negotiations with different Prime Ministers, the situation for Serbia has remained the same, with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic running the show by himself. Over the past decade, Vucic has held various positions of power in Serbia, including deputy prime minister, prime minister, and currently, president. 

Irrespective of his specific role, Vucic has exerted significant—if not complete—control over decision-making in Serbia, particularly concerning Kosovo. Despite his considerable influence and authority, Vucic has displayed a lack of interest in finalizing a deal with Kosovo. Several factors have contributed to this lack of enthusiasm on this part. 

Political and legal implications

First and foremost, there is a widespread expectation that the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue should ultimately result in mutual recognition. This stance is not exclusive to Kosovo but is also held by many European countries and the US. However, for political leaders in Serbia, including Vucic, recognizing Kosovo as an independent state would be political suicide.

A recent public opinion poll showed that 75% of citizens of Serbia would oppose recognizing Kosovo, even if it meant accelerating EU membership for Serbia.

The main political motive for prolonging and delaying the comprehensive agreement is the desire to extend Vucic’s hold on power. 

Serbian progressive party (SNS) and Vucic came into power in 2012, following a period where former President Boris Tadic was perceived as unconstructive and unprepared to pursue the normalization of relations with Kosovo. Tensions between Tadic and Chancellor Merkel regarding Kosovo during her visit to Belgrade in 2011 contributed to this shift. 

Vucic promised to engage more actively in the dialogue and initiated this commitment by signing the Brussels Agreement in 2013, facilitating the integration of Kosovo Serbs in Kosovo institutions and withdrawing Serb police and judiciary (parallel institutions) from four northern municipalities in Kosovo. 

However, Vucic eventually realized that concluding the dialogue process would mark the end of his political career. Consequently, he began to delay the implementation of agreements agreed upon in Brussels and avoided signing new ones, and deliberately create tensions to stall the negotiations. 

Additionally, recognizing Kosovo goes against the Serbian constitution. The preamble of the constitution considers Kosovo as an integral part of the territory of Serbia. Besides, any constitutional amendment requires a 2/3 majority vote, followed by a compulsory referendum in the case of changing the constitution. Thus, these factors significantly complicate the possibility of reaching a final agreement that includes explicit recognition of Kosovo.

Hopes for a land swap

The lack of implementation of the Association/Community of Serb-Majority Municipalities (ASM), which was agreed upon in Brussels in 2013, has created additional obstacles in the dialogue. 

The lack of progress in implementing the ASM pushed former President Thaci and President Vucic allegedly to discuss the option of a land swap between Serbia and Kosovo. Under this proposal, Serbia would cede the Albanian populated areas in the Presevo Valley in southern Serbia, while regaining control over the majority ethnic-Serb areas in the north of Kosovo. However, this idea faced swift resistance from Germany and some other EU member states, ultimately, leading to its dismissal. 

The land swap deal would have benefited Vucic in two ways. Firstly, it would have allowed him to save face in front of Serbian citizens by avoiding a complete loss of Kosovo. Secondly, he could have proclaimed himself as a strong leader making tough decisions for the future of Serbia.

This aligns with Vucic’s strategy of victimization, presenting himself as ready to “sacrifice” and “die” for the sake of Serbia’s interests. In 2023, it is plausible that Vucic is deliberately raising tensions—and taking advantage of actions initiated by Kurti’s government—to prove that integration of Serbs in the north of Kosovo is unattainable.

This approach serves to reinforce the notion that a land swap could resolve a longstanding issue in the Balkans. Thus, the persistent discussions surrounding the idea of a land swap could be one of the reasons why a final agreement has not been reached yet. 

(Non-existent) European integration

The promise of EU membership has played a crucial role in driving the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. When the promise of EU membership held credibility, significant progress was achieved in the dialogue.

For instance, Serbia agreed to sign numerous agreements with Kosovo in 2012 because it obtained EU candidate status. Kosovo, on the other hand, signed the Brussels Agreement in 2013 because it signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), its first contractual agreement with the EU. The following year, Serbia’s accession negotiations with the EU kicked off.

However, Vucic eventually realized that the prospect for EU membership was not imminent in face of EU enlargement fatigue and became less committed to the dialogue. Furthermore, the repeated delays and obstacles faced by Kosovo in obtaining visa liberalization raised serious concerns about the EU’s commitment to its enlargement policy.

Thus, this contributed to a sense of uncertainty and skepticism by both sides, stalling further progress in the dialogue.

Serbia is currently hesitant to make additional concessions without receiving something in return from the EU. Along with EU membership, Serbia’s expectations include territorial autonomy for the Serbian population in the north of Kosovo, as stipulated by the first and second Brussels Agreements (2013 and 2023). 

Vucic will never sign a final agreement with Kosovo 

Vucic is a right-wing nationalist, and his electoral base consists of right-wing supporters, who are not willing to compromise over Kosovo, due to its historical and cultural significance. 

This position was publicly expressed in 2019, when he unequivocally stated that as long as he holds the Presidency, Serbia will not recognize Kosovo. Moreover, he reiterated his stance when the Franco-German proposal was leaked in the media last year. Vucic stated that Serbia will not recognize Kosovo and opposed its membership in the UN. 

Even after the Ohrid agreement in March 2023, Vucic stated again that Serbia would not implement any measures related to Kosovo’s UN membership and emphasized that recognition remains a red line for Serbia. 

Thus, given the current circumstances, it is highly unlikely that Vucic would even consider signing a final comprehensive deal with Kosovo centered on mutual recognition.

16 qershor 2023

Milos Pavkovic