Vučić vs. Kurti: Who won the diplomatic battle in 2023?

14 nëntor 2023 14:15

Artikulli i përkthyer.

The year 2023 has been marked by significant developments in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. In Kosovo, Serbs began the year with collective resignation from Kosovo’s institutions, civic protests and a boycott of the local elections in the north of Kosovo.

Pristina deployed special police units to accompany the new mayors, which only heightened the tensions. Simultaneously, there was also a diplomatic offensive by the Quint countries (Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States), which culminated with the Second Brussels Agreement on the normalization of relations (Ohrid Agreement).

Nevertheless, the new agreement soon gave way to disappointment as the EU was unable to push for its implementation and, therefore, unable to ease the tensions. As a response, the EU sanctioned Kosovo for the first time ever, which led to a series of failed rounds of negotiations in Brussels and culminated with the attack of Serb paramilitaries at the Banjska Monastery.

Serbian and Kosovo leaders, namely President Aleksandar Vučić and Prime Minister Albin Kurti, responded differently to each situation. Thus, it is crucial to critically analyze the most important developments and who has ripped the benefits out of each major situation.

To address this question, it is imperative to begin by examining the initial positions of both Vučić and Kurti, and then contrasting them with the ultimate outcome of the dialogue in 2023.

Mapping key objectives of both sides

Starting with Serbia’s position, their primary objective is the successful establishment of the Association/Community of Serb-Majority Municipalities (ASM), which would give more autonomous powers to local Serbs. At the same time, Serbia pursued a strategy of disregarding any chance of recognizing Kosovo’s independence.

On the other hand, the Kosovo government has mulled establishing ASM for more than a decade under the pretext that it violates the constitution of Kosovo, recalling the Constitutional Court decision on the ASM, but failing to propose a new amended draft and respect its obligations. By postponing the establishment of the ASM, the Kosovo government aimed to exert pressure on Serbia, hoping to prompt a shift towards recognition.

Throughout this diplomatic engagement, three diplomatic battlefields stood out as the parties involved attempted to maximize their position in the negotiations.

Diplomatic Battle 1: The establishment of the ASM

Zooming into the first diplomatic battleground, it’s evident Belgrade firmly insisted on implementing previous agreements, particularly the 2013 and 2015 ASM-related agreements, before progressing further in the normalization process.

This tactic was employed in 2022 and repeated in 2023 during the talks on the Franco-German proposal. This approach was partially successful, as it found its place in Article 7 of the Agreement on the path to normalization.

However, despite reaching an agreement in March 2023, the ASM has not been established yet. At the same time, Prime Minister Kurti attempted to include mutual recognition in the dialogue agenda, but without success.

Kurti’s stance on the ASM was firmly against for years. He gained popularity among voters and ultimately came to power by protesting against the establishment of the ASM. However, a change of stance occurred this year, when Kurti nominally accepted to establish the ASM.

The fact that PM Kurti changed his stance and accepted this obligation marks a diplomatic win for Serbia.

Diplomatic Battle 2: Transatlantic Support

When it comes to gathering support and building alliances, the year 2023 displayed remarkable dynamism. Despite traditional partnerships and support from the Western countries on the independence of Kosovo, Serbia actively tried to secure the support of the U.S., France, Germany and Italy.

Serbia’s approach was successful to a certain degree, as it managed to win the PR war and blame the Kosovo government for stalling the EU-mediated dialogue.

Additionally, both the EU and the US imposed restrictive measures, due to their refusal to withdraw special police units from the north and comply with the de-escalation demands. This put Serbia in a favorable negotiating position and left very little room for diplomatic maneuvering for Kosovo.

On the other hand, Kosovo tried to strengthen its position by securing the support of the legislative bodies in the U.S. and UK. British MP Alicia Kearns acted sometimes contrary to the official stance of the UK Government in supporting Pristina, while eight chairs of foreign affairs committees, including Kearns and US Senator Menendez, together with senior parliamentarians from other countries have called on the EU, the U.S. and UK to change their approach to Kosovo and increase pressure on Serbia.

Despite the intense diplomatic struggle between Serbia and Kosovo, sanctions imposed against Kosovo, for the first time since its declaration of independence is hard to overlook. Thus, marking another diplomatic victory for Serbia.

Diplomatic Battle 3: Banjska Attack

Finally, the third main battlefield was the attack of Serbian paramilitary forces at the Monastery of Banjska. Although in this case, the word battlefield may have a literal meaning, the attack in Banjska influenced developments on the ground.

Among all developments during 2023, the attack in Banjska has been the most influential one by far. Despite an ongoing investigation and lack of clear information on what was the goal of this operation and who supported it, it put the dialogue and the normalization process in imminent danger.

What is clear at this point is that the events in Banjska have worsened the position of Serbia and that its consequences will be far-reaching. One immediate consequence of Banjska is the open request of the EU and its member states requesting Serbia to de facto recognize Kosovo.

This represents a clear win for the government of Kosovo, as the issue of recognition was not part of previous negotiations, and yet, Kurti managed to push it onto the dialogue agenda.

It is challenging to provide a definitive answer to the question posed in the title. The diplomatic battlefields seem more like a draw, with Kosovo managing to push forward the issue of recognition while Serbia securing the establishment of the ASM. However, Serbia has managed to secure a slight advantage as Kosovo continues to be under sanctions while Serbia is not.

14 nëntor 2023

Milos Pavkovic