By Gordana Andric
After Brussels conditioned Serbia’s EU candidacy bid on progress over Kosovo, experts voice cautious optimism that Belgrade can meet Europe’s expectations by the December deadline.
While Serbia insists it will not change its fundamental policy towards the former province of Kosovo, analysts believe the centre-right government will do its best to improve relations and so obtain EU candidate status later this year.
In a progress report issued on Wednesday, the European Commission issued an opinion, known as an “avis”, that Serbia obtain EU candidate status.
However the recommendation was made “on the understanding that Serbia re-engages in dialogue with Kosovo and moves swiftly towards implementation in good faith of agreements reached to date”.
A final decision on whether Serbia receives EU candidate status will be decided when EU members meet in December.
British Balkan expert Tim Judah says the clock is ticking for Serbia to meet Europe’s conditions and find a way to “normalise” ties with Pristina in a matter of weeks.
“Normalise relations is ambiguous phrase. It allows some deal to be reached, as each side will be able to interpret it as it suits them, so nobody claims defeat,” he said.
However, Judah believes that Serbia will do its best to obtain EU candidate status. “They really desperately want it,” he said. “It’s not definite and it will be difficult, but I just feel it’s possible [for Serbia to obtain candidacy],” Judah said.
He believes that as Serbia ardently wants EU candidate status, and because Kosovo wants the EU to scrap visa requirements for Kosovars, both countries will make an extra effort to reach a deal.
Following the publication of the European “avis”, Serbian President Boris Tadic said the country wanted to solve problems with Kosovo, but cautioned that Serbia would not abandon its principles regarding its own territorial integrity.
Serbia still claims Kosovo as part of its national territory.
Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic was equally ambiguous, saying the “avis” would not affect Serbian policy towards Kosovo, while at the same time saying that Serbia remained dedicated to the EU integration process. “For us these are two separated processes and one cannot affect the other,” Jeremic said.
Serbian analysts believe that in the run-up to next year’s general election, the ruling centrist coalition is ready to back away from some but not all of its standpoints on Kosovo in order to obtain candidacy.
“They will do everything to calm down the situation in the [Serb-run enclave of the] north [of Kosovo]. The European recommendation was a big thing for Serbia and the ruling coalition will use it in the election campaign,” said political science professor Predrag Simic, a former ambassador to France.
Simic said the government will closely monitor public opinion after the Commission recommendation, taking into account that support for EU membership fell by 7 per cent over the last three months to the lowest level since 2000.
According to the latest poll, only 46 per cent of Serbian citizens support European integration, while 37 per cent are opposed.
If this trend halts following the European recommendation, Simic believes the government will be ready to subordinate its policy on Kosovo to EU demands.
Vladimir Todoric, director of a think-tank, the New policy Centre, says Belgrade may go for early elections if renewed dialogue with Pristina does not kick off.
“In that case, the authorities would call early parliamentary elections, which would stop the international pressure,” Todoric said.
Belgrade and Pristina commenced talks in Brussels in March. These were the first direct talks the two countries had held since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008. Serbia has not recognised its former province’s independence.
In early September, Kosovo and Serbia reached an agreement on custom stamps allowing Kosovo to export goods to Serbia for the first time since it declared independence in 2008.
But in mid-September, Kosovo deployed customs officers at the two checkpoints in the Serb-run north of Kosovo, stating that this was part of the agreement.
Locals Serbs then blocked roads while Belgrade insisted that the customs agreement did not imply giving a green light for the deployment of Kosovo customs staff on the border.
The talks were cancelled on September 28 when Serbia refused to discuss anything but the situation on the north Kosovo border.