By Ali Hoxha*
We ought not to consider The Balkans a region completely immune from potential crises and conflicts. The symptoms of this assumption are clearly visible in the current political situation in Bosnia, which is risking to enter into a new conflict with unforeseeable consequences, even 25 years after the Dayton Peace Agreement. The Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has threatened to establish full autonomy for Republika Srpska within Bosnia. Now, it seems like peace projects and investments in the region aren’t holding any longer.
On the other hand, and somewhat in strategic contradiction to what’s happening in Bosnia, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Joseph Borrell requested from Kosovo’s Prime Minister Kurti to fulfill his obligation and implement the association of Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo as a condition for Kosovo which is part of the Stabilization and Association Agreement towards EU integration. This request was not welcomed by Kosovo’s Prime Minister Kurti. The meeting in Brussels caused more contradictions than clarities in relation to the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.
To understand the dividing thoughts on association of Serb-majority municipalities, it’s necessary to elaborate the details and consequences associated with this EU condition. The association of Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo means giving Serb minority executive power or a share in local governance according to the Bosnian model which is a triparty state where three major ethnic groups have equal governing competencies. The association of Serb municipalities is based on the idea that Kosovo is a multiethnic state consisting of a major Albanian ethnic population (95%) and a Serbian minority (1.5%). The apparent differences in demographic numbers makes the association questionable in the first place. The insistence from the EU towards Kosovo to fulfill this condition causes a twisting turn of EU’s own role as a mediator into a negotiator who represents a party’s interests, which is in the case, Serbia’s interest to establish an autonomy for Serb minorities in Kosovo. The problem arises once the loops are turned to Bosnia which is an obvious demonstration of what ethnic autonomy within a state (or a state within a state) means and what consequences it holds for the region in the future. It seems the EU attempts to achieve results through Kosovo-Serbia dialogue has become counterproductive since it’s failing to facilitate trust between the involved parties. The Serbian party sees Kosovo’s independence as an aggressive act, whereas Kosovo perceives Serbia as an ongoing pretender of territorial expansion in the Balkans.
The implementation of association on Kosovo’s part doesn’t guarantee the prevention of a similar scenario as in Bosnia. It’s therefore difficult to rationalize EU’s stance when it seeks to reduce Kosovo’s independence as a condition for visa liberalization including further steps towards EU integration. The requirement of this condition has no historical or statistical basis, nor it can’t be justified through international law interpretations, or any comparison found that speaks for any benefits of this demanded action to be fulfilled by Kosovo. On the contrary, it contradicts the constitution and the territorial integrity of the Republic of Kosovo.
Is it possible that we’re witnessing an overwhelmed EU that’s rather preferring quick resolutions for achieving faster results? Is it necessary for the US, as an architect of independent Kosovo to step in and play a more dominant role in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue? The sending of special envoys to the Western Balkans indicates that this region needs more attention and a more constructive approach.
The bipolar character of the international system is coming with new geopolitical dynamics that calls for a more proactive role of liberal democracies in preventing deadly conflicts and maintaining peace across different regions that are politically unstable. The new geopolitical landscape will certainly produce new alliances and cooperation between state and non-state actors. In the global competition between US and China, it’s important to identify Russia’s position and its role in relation with the two superpowers. Russia is the greatest supporter of Serbia. Serbia has the advantage to partner with all three spheres of influence without having to risk its position at all. Kosovo on the other hand aspires to join the West, while its status remains unrecognized by Russia and China.
For the EU, Britain and the US it should not be a matter of who they should be supporting when the ideological orientation of the mentioned parties is already known. It’s therefore surprising that the EU halts the isolated Kosovo in such a way. So, what may be the motive for this diplomatic approach where association condition suddenly becomes the major obstacle in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue progress? Time plays an important role in this regard. The sooner the EU expects results for their efforts, the more contradictory the substance of the dialogue as an overall process. The more time is left for the parties to think, the more the dialogue risks fading. Why is Kosovo conditioned to risk its sovereign integrity in order to enter the EU? Let us not forget that Kosovo has not yet gotten visa liberalization, although it has met all preconditions in time. How can we justify EU’s stance towards Kosovo-Serbia normalization of relations process? There are two plausible explanations that could hint us on finding the answers we’re looking for.
- The West sees Serbia as a leader and peacekeeper of the Balkans, while leaving the perspective of Serbia’s relation to Russia completely out of the context.
- The West is trying to maintain the status quo by placing Kosovo as an interpretable entity according to the diplomatic advantages and circumstances of each side in order not to risk touch to Serbia.
The third point of view should be somewhat more justified and in compliance with the theory of collective security; creating pro-western alliance between Balkan countries as means to establish a balance of power in the region and prevent any kind of aggression in the future. If Serbia holds to Russia and China, it’s necessary to consider alliance between Croatia, Bulgaria, Kosovo, and Albania. This initiative should be supported by NATO and the West.
The foreign policy strategy of the Western Balkans has been defined by preserving status quo for a very long time because that was the only way to maintain peace in the region and avoid any political escalations. The diplomatic establishment throughout the Balkans has invested incredible amount of money and put a lot of efforts to build democratic institutions and strengthen rule of law in each country. As for the Kosovo-Serbia relationship, status quo means for Kosovo maintaining independence albeit based on a multiethnic plan as a concession, while for Serbia, it means recognizing Kosovo’s independence albeit with higher executive competencies for the Serb minority living in Kosovo. So, one party’s concession is another party’s advantage. The EU demands that Kosovo gives up part of its sovereignty so it can “equalize” with Serbian concessions, by fully disregarding its aggressive policies in the 90’s.
Mediation between two countries that have a very disproportional relation to power is quite a complex engagement that requires a huge amount of knowledge in the history of all countries that are involved in peace talks. In this case, there is a clear sign that EU seems to be more bias towards Serbia’s demands rather than evaluating the consequences that come with the implementation of such demands. You just need to look at Bosnia. It seems as the West isn’t disturbed by the fact the Serbia remains Russia’s most loyal partner. Or maybe Russia is no longer perceived as an obstacle to Western values. Speculation won’t bring us far. We can just hope that crises and conflicts don’t emerge as an answer.
Kosovo has shown to be a trusted and undisputable partner of democratic values, without taking into consideration that it’s the most isolated country in Europe. The EU needs to show leadership and bring third party proposals to the table. As long as it plays the facilitator of Serbia, Kosovo will become more reserved towards the EU, thus deepening the struggles between Kosovo and Serbia even more. The Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, above all, relies on the mediation of the third parties actors, something that can hardly be achieved when the mediator does not create trust, but favors the party that represents opposing values to its own ideals.
*Ali Hoxha graduated in international relations and specialized in conflict analysis. His areas of interest include: weak states in IR, balance of power, and conflict transformation.