By Dragan Popovic*
From the start, the Brussels negotiation process met with serious criticism from civil society and public. The lack of transparency in the process and the exclusion of all parts of society except for governments contributed to the growth of fear and distrust among people on both sides.
The Kosovo government faces a strong opposition movement that uses the fear and poverty of the people to incite hatred and nationalism.
All the concessions given to the Serbian side have produced fresh discontent in Kosovo and have directly influenced the rise of the nationalist movement.
Due to the government’s obvious inability to solve social issues, and the high level of corruption, it is clear that the Kosovo government will stop making any further concessions, to preserve its political position.
The Serbian government is using a constructive position in negotiations only as a tool to retain international support at the same time as suppressing freedoms in the country and undermining the rule of law and democracy.
Meanwhile, most voters for the ruling Serbian Progressive Party are nationalists, and the Serbian government has to pay attention to its image as a “fighter for national interests”, which is why all other officials except for Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, as well as the pro-government media, remain hostile towards Pristina and the Albanians, even using hate speech.
After a long negotiation process, Serbia and Kosovo signed four agreements in August 2015. Characterised in the public as “mini-Brussels”, they related to the planned Association of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo, energy, telecoms and the Ibar bridge in the divided northern city of Mitrovica.
The most important of the four for Serbia was the agreement on the Association of Serbian Municipalities, which Serbia hailed as huge victory and as a key guarantee for preserving some kind of Serbian presence in Kosovo, at least in those municipalities with a Serbian majority.
Leaders in Belgrade encouraged a victory mood among Serbs and even called on people in the Serbian northern half of Mitrovica to come out on the streets and celebrate. Marko Djuric, director of the government’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija, described the deal as a “5-0 result for Serbia”.
In a tradition that has long been established in the process of “normalisation” of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, both sides had their own interpretations of the agreements, however.
For Kosovo, this was not a Serbian victory but final recognition of Kosovo’s sovereignty over its whole territory. And, while Serbian newspapers insisted the Association would have the same kind of territorial autonomy as Republika Srpska in Bosnia, Kosovo officials said it would be more like an NGO.
The Association was central for both sides because of the near-mythical status of territory in the Balkans. The focus of all negotiations and “red lines” by both sides is always the status of territory, boundaries, international status and various rather symbolic issues.
This focus remains the main obstacle to so-called “normalisation” in the Western Balkans. Instead of addressing people’s daily issues, the politicians are more interested in fighting over the ideas of the 19th century.
Big words, such as independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and such like have lost none of their substance in the past 100 years in this part of the world.
They still have a magical impact on society, and secure votes in elections, which is always relevant for the politicians.
It is also one of the main reasons why the other agreements have stayed in the shadows. The Association has almost no influence on daily life in spite of all the politicians’ efforts to prove different.
On the other hand, the agreements on telecoms and energy are very important for people in Kosovo, both Serbs and Albanians.
The agreement on telecommunications stipulates that Kosovo will obtain its own international telephone code, +383. Because Kosovo is not part of the International Telecommunication Union, the code must be requested by another country [Austria, under the action plan for implementation of the Agreement].
Serbian Telecom, the state-owned telecommunication company, would then obtain legal permission to work in Kosovo in those areas already covered by its signal. Permission would be given temporarily, until the international tender for a new mobile phone operator in Kosovo.
Also, the new telecom daughter company would obtain a full license for fixed telecommunications services. All the licenses will be issued by Kosovo regulatory agency.
In this way, the present situation would be practically legalised, while the Serbian operator would start to work in accordance to Kosovo law.
The timeline was clear in the agreement and put into the Action Plan. The Serbian company would be licensed at that moment when Kosovo obtained its international phone code. However, neither has happened.
Although Serbian Telecom registered a company in Kosovo, the company has never obtained a license due to the fact that Serbia has also prevented Kosovo from obtaining its international phone code.
New issues have popped up over the interpretation of what the exact territory covered by Serbian Telecom is. While Kosovo has insisted that the new company can apply only for the 31 stations still in function, the Serbian side wants all 72 stations included that were functioning till 2010.
The situation became even more complex when both sides realised that the property of the telecommunication company was the subject of claims from both sides.
The property issue is not just related to telecommunications. It is part of the wider issue of the fate of all former state properties in Kosovo, including companies, energy objects and land. Serbia maintains that all state property in Kosovo is Serbian property in accordance with its position that Kosovo is still part of Serbia.
On the other side, Kosovo took over most state property back in 1999 when Serbia formally withdrew its forces and institutions from Kosovo.
The Kosovo government claims that all state property in Kosovo passed to the newly formed state in accordance with the practice established in the process of succession in the former Yugoslavia.
The same issue – property – has also blocked implementation of the energy agreement.
Under this agreement, Kosovo was to allow the registration of Serbia-owned supply and distribution companies that would continue to deliver electrical energy to Kosovo Serbs.
This would effectively legalise the current situation in which the Serbian electro power company works without official permission in Kosovo.
This was to be connected with Serbian agreeing that the Kosovo regulatory agency would become a member of European Network of Transmission System Operators, ENTSO-E.
But both processes are blocked. Serbia and Kosovo have accused each other of preventing implementation of the energy agreement as well as the telecoms agreement.
At the same moment, the Kosovo parliament has also adopted a Law on Trepca, most famous ex-Socialist industrial giant in Kosovo.
According to the law, the company became state-owned, which Serbia characterises as legal violence. This has made the property issue even more important and put it at the heart of the new crisis in Serbia-Kosovo relations.
All other agreements are also blocked at the same time. The Association of Serbian Municipalities does not yet exist and there is not yet even a proposal for the statute of that institution.
There are issues with implementations of other agreements, too, even with the so-called technical agreements signed earlier, such as the agreement on mutual recognition of diplomas. The whole normalisation process is in serious jeopardy.
Two insincere governments are leading a “normalisation” process that does not favour either peace and stability or better future for the people in Serbia and Kosovo but their own political interests. Both are keeping nationalism alive as a strong political force and playing with fire while pretending to be factors of peace and stability.
The European Union is fully aware of this and it is only question of time before both sides are forced to accept reality – which is that both governments consist of people who have caused hatred and the wars and are far from capable of normalising relations between Serbs and Albanians.
*Dragan Popovic is the director of Belgrade-based think tank Center for Practical Policy. The opinions expressed in the comments section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.