Hazir Reka / Courtesy Reuters A couple walks past a traffic sign in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, March 2013.

Kosovo and Serbia Make a Deal

Debalkanizing the Balkans

This week, after months of negotiations, Kosovo and Serbia finally reached an agreement to normalize relations, clearing the way for both parties to move ahead with their applications to join the European Union. For years, progress had been held up by Serbia’s refusal to accept Kosovo’s February 2008 declaration of independence. The accord marks the end of the West’s two-pronged strategy in the region: on the one hand, persuading Belgrade to recognize Kosovo's independence formally; and on the other convincing Pristina to grant the Serbian community in Kosovo’s northern reaches a separate status. Drawing on the time-honored principle of "don't ask, don't tell," these crucial status issues were left aside.

Under the terms of the agreement, Belgrade acknowledged that the government in Pristina exercises administrative authority over the territory of Kosovo -- and that it is prepared to deal with Pristina as a legitimate governing authority. It did not, however, formally recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state, even as it promised to drop its objections to giving Kosovo a seat in international organizations (if other states were prepared to accept Kosovo as a member). For its part, Pristina accepted that the Serbs living in northern Kosovo can, in large measure, run their own affairs, so long as they acknowledge that they are nominally part of Kosovo. The Serbs of northern Kosovo will also get their own regional police chief, and Pristina has pledged not to deploy Kosovar Albanian forces in the area.

When the European Union, which brokered the recent deal, first concluded a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Serbia in April 2008, it had far higher hopes. At the time, the union was dealing with Mirko Cvetkovića, the moderate and relatively pro-Western prime minister of Serbia, and was pressing for full independence for Kosovo as a precondition for Serbian integration in the Euro-Atlantic community. The process stalled, and when the EU finally confirmed Serbia as an official candidate for EU membership in March 2012, it did so on the condition that Serbia improve its relations with Kosovo. Then, last summer, Cvetkovića lost his seat to Ivica Dačić, a much more nationalist figure. Faced with a less friendly negotiating partner, the European Union opted for pragmatism: It backed away from its previous stance against any arrangement that would grant northern Kosovo de facto independence and its insistence that any government-to-government contact should be seen as recognition by Serbia of Kosovo’s independence.

Given that the Kosovo-Serbia agreement simply pushes aside issues that have blocked negotiations for so long, it might serve as a template for melting other frozen conflicts, such as the standoff between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, where the risk of an armed conflict reigniting has been growing in recent months. It might also be a useful model for the new Georgian government, which is looking to restart talks with Abkhazia and improve relations with Russia without having to concede on the very sensitive point of Georgia's territorial integrity.

The strength of agreement, however, is also its weakness. For it to work, all sides will have to accept certain fictions. Serbia must believe that the door has been left open for a settlement down the road that would return Kosovo to its jurisdiction. Kosovo, meanwhile, cannot crow that the deal represents a backdoor acceptance of its claim to sovereignty. The Serbs living in Kosovo must be prepared to embrace Pristina’s governing institutions, at least superficially, and Kosovar Albanians must live with the fact that the Serbs’ allegiance will not be more than skin deep. Once these roles are understood, all the parties will have to memorize their lines and stick to their scripts. The complicated relationship between China and Taiwan -- including China’s acquiescence to Taiwan’s taking part in a number of international organizations -- shows that it can be done, but that it is difficult and vulnerable to collapse at any time.

It does not help that nationalists in both Kosovo and Serbia resent the deal, levying identical cries of "treason" at their respective governments. And in all camps, government ministers who understand the deal’s rationale also desire reelection, so it is not improbable that some will walk back from the deal or be replaced by opponents of the agreement. There is thus no guarantee that all the actors will faithfully play their parts.

The calculated gamble is that even an iffy deal buys time, especially for both Kosovo and Serbia to get through the long, drawn-out process of EU accession. Some have suggested that the most salient issues -- including Serbian access to key historical and religious sites -- will be resolved once Serbia and Kosovo join the European Union, because the citizens of each member state possess complete freedom to travel, live, work, and own property anywhere in the European Union, and Brussels stands ready to protect their right to do so.

The major test will come in the weeks and months ahead, as the agreement’s principles are translated into concrete policies. The devil, of course, may well be in the details. But if the spirit of the deal survives, the agreement will be counted as an important success. At the very least, it will have broken the ice that has kept the region frozen in old conflicts for so long.

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