Whilst Belgrade shows a willingness to compromise on specific issues, Pristina remains wedded to a maximalist stance – particularly towards the north – that inhibits its scope for making concessions and has led to suggestions that regional stability could be threatened if the spectre of partition is raised.
By Gerard Gallucci
Belgrade has been playing the negotiations game well over the past months. Continuously turning “sow’s ears into silk purses,” Serbian diplomacy on Kosovo since 2008 has kept the issue from being settled unilaterally by the Kosovo Albanians and their international allies. Well less than half of the world’s countries recognize Kosovo independence and the EU has abandoned efforts to simply impose Pristina’s rule on the Serb-majority north. The EU’s commitment to seek negotiated outcomes between the two sides keeps open issues – such as courts and customs, telecoms and electricity – that Pristina and its Quint supporters would rather have kept closed. This is so because while the dialogue is supposed to begin with “practical” matters – with status put aside for now – even “technical” solutions would have to accept some form of continued Serbian role in Kosovo and the north.
Belgrade understands this dynamic. The Tadic government has emphasized willingness to reach a “historic” compromise through discussions with the Kosovo Albanians while reserving Serbia’s position against accepting independence. While noting that even “practical” issues have a political dimension, Belgrade has suggested readiness to reach accommodations with the Albanians on a number of such issues, and reportedly presented proposals of its own while seeking involvement from the EU mediator to help bridge gaps between the two sides. The chief Serbian negotiator visited Pristina last week to meet senior officials there to discuss matters without a mediator. The visit may have been more clever “marketing” by Belgrade – something its officials deny whilst calling it a “very intelligent” approach ” – but the EU labelled it “positive” and called for more direct contacts.
The burden is increasingly on the Albanian side to respond positively. But having remained wedded to a maximalist position for so long, Pristina and its closest allies seem unable to contemplate anything less than winning everything. They have not put forward any ideas of their own and have not even pressed the Serb side to define what an “historic” agreement agreement might look like. During the visit by the Serbian negotiator, Pristina’s lack of preparation for dialogue, and failure to work for domestic support for the talks, boiled over into street violence.
Serbia has hinted clearly on outcomes it might accept. Serbia’s Interior Minister was the latest official to signal that perhaps separation of north Kosovo could be part of a solution. Belgrade’s proposals for the “technical” issues would allow Serbian entities to serve Serbian communities in Kosovo, while keeping customs and the courts in the north under the status neutral umbrella of UNSCR 1244. Further sessions of the EU-facilitated discussions continue. The Serb side has been suggesting agreement on some matters is near. The next move seems up to Pristina.
But the Kosovo Albanians are most likely to continue to resist compromise. They and others have been suggesting threats to regional stability, including in Presevo, if they don’t get all of Kosovo. Pristina will also seek to pressure the northern Serbs on the ground through efforts to wrest control of local police or provoke conflicts around construction efforts or other activities in the north. The latest move by Pristina to remove current local KPS commanders north of the Ibar runs the risk of leading them to remove their uniforms. This may be Pristina’s objective, to disrupt the talks through creating a crisis over “partition.”
The northern Serbs’ peaceful resistance to being incorporated into independent Kosovo has kept the issue of the north alive. Tadic was never eager to assist the northern Serbs but politically he had no choice but to appear supportive. Now, however, Belgrade clearly sees the north as both leverage and possibly a key part of what it might come away with from its “historic” compromise. Will the EU be able to make this work? Or will the Kosovo leadership be allowed to stonewall and threaten peace?
Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Gerard is also a member of TransConflict’s Advisory Board. The views expressed in this piece are his own and do not represent the position of any organization.