Serbia – Kosovo: normalization but not recognition

02.10.2012 Branko Ilic , Serbian FBReporter


By Ian Bancroft


Tomislav Nikolic, President of Serbia


Before the UN General Assembly in New York began on September 25, Serbia’s new president, Tomislav Nikolic, expressed Belgrade’s readiness to engage in high-level negotiations with Pristina. Such political dialogue is expected to proceed during the autumn, to what end questions remain.

Thus far, Belgrade and Pristina have engaged in several rounds of negotiations on a range of technical issues – including freedom of movement, vehicle registration plates and the recognition of diplomas – under the EU’s mediation.
Belgrade has been widely criticized for failing to implement several agreements reached, including those on Kosovo’s participation in regional forums and integrated border management.

Some progress, however, has been made by Serbia’s new government. A protocol on integrated border management has been signed, whilst the insistence that nameplates for Kosovo representatives in regional forums contain a status-neutral footnote has been dropped. Instead, the footnote need only be mentioned in accompanying documents.

President Nikolic has already stated his willingness to publicly shake hands with his counterpart in Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga – a step his predecessor, Boris Tadic, was never prepared to take whilst in office (though he has since shaken hands with Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci).

Nikolic’s nationalistic past potentially provides him with a firmer political foundation from which to deliver difficult compromises. However, the domestic consensus amongst Serbia’s political elites that Nikolic craved is unlikely to materialise, partly because of the disarray in which the main opposition party – Tadic’s Democratic Party (DS) – finds itself at present. The lack of a clear government strategy also hasn’t helped.

Eager for a foreign policy success of her own, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, is likely to play a more intensive role in the enhanced dialogue. During a meeting with Kosovan Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, Ashton remarked that ‘difficult decisions would be needed both in Belgrade and Pristina, and both sides needed to be ready to engage, including at political level.’

The EU has made it clear that Serbia won’t receive a date to commence accession talks until further progress has been made vis-à-vis Kosovo. As such, additional agreements are now expected, pertaining in particular to electricity transmission and telecommunications issues. Steps to remove so-called ‘parallel institutions’ in the north of Kosovo, which is predominantly ethnic Serb, will also be required.

Solutions to more substantive issues, however, particularly concerning the status of the north, remain distant. Serbia’s prime minister, Ivica Dacic, recently called for the partitioning of Kosovo, describing it as the ‘only possible realistic solution’.

The idea remains unpopular within international circles – and has been rejected out of hand in Pristina – partly because of fears that partitioning Kosovo would have negative ramifications elsewhere in the region, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia.

However, as James Ker-Lindsay, a senior research fellow on the politics of south east Europe at the London School of Economics (LSE), tells bne, “I still believe that a negotiated redrawing of the boundary between Kosovo and Serbia is the most logical solution to the Kosovo problem. There is nothing under international law that says that a state cannot negotiate its own boundaries. Indeed this is a fundamental sovereign right. If this is the price for a comprehensive settlement that will lead to Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo, and Kosovo’s full entry into the international system, then it certainly seems to be a price worth paying to draw a line under the problem.”

Ker-Lindsay adds that, “if Kosovo really is unique, as we have so often been told, then surely any solution to that problem can also be presented as such. Moreover, Belgrade can simply say that its agreement with Kosovo is one that it reached in negotiations with Pristina. It has no bearing on how any other states in the region may wish to manage their own domestic affairs.”

Kosovo’s own domestic politics is set for a shake-up in the coming months, in part due to the expected return of Ramush Haradinaj, a former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and former prime minister of Kosovo. Haradinaj is expected to be acquitted before the end of the year following a partial re-trial on six counts of murder, cruel treatment and torture. Haradinaj was originally acquitted in 2008 of a host of charges because of a lack of evidence, in a trial that was dogged by criticisms of witness intimidation.

Rumours are rife of a possible coalition between Haradinaj’s Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) and Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo (DPK), with the former possibly serving as prime minister and the latter becoming president.

The possibility of early elections can also not be ruled out, which would provide the nationalistic Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) with an opportunity to build upon an impressive first election performance back in 2010. Vetevendosje has opposed dialogue with Serbia and advocated a Greater Albania platform.

Whilst relations between Belgrade and Pristina will likely continue to normalize in the coming months – barring any spike in tensions in the north of Kosovo – the more substantive issues of the north and recognition are likely to remain long unresolved. Those compromises achieved to date have been driven primarily by the prospect of European membership – a prospect that has since grown more distant. As the pace of accession slows, however, so too does the momentum towards further concession. While the doors of Europe remain open, a sustainable compromise agreement may still be possible in the future. Were they to close, however, the state of frozen conflict would ensue.

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