By David B. Kanin*
In April 2013, at the moment European Union dignitaries were declaring that Serbia and Kosovo had agreed to participate in a dialogue under EU mediation, a bunch of Balkan watchers happened to be together at a yearly conference devoted to exchanges of views on nations, nationalities, and other forms of communal identity. A well-known public intellectual invited those interested in the region to attend a plenary session to discuss the implications of the new development. (Truth be told, I was not invited but heard about it and showed up). Many of those present expressed optimism that the dialogue was a major step forward and would lead to a normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. The more enthusiastic attendees said at least some of the five EU members that did not recognize Kosovo now would do so – a couple claimed Slovakia (I think that was the one highlighted) already had indicated its interest in moving toward recognition.
A few of us – and it was only a few — did not agree. We expressed our belief this was yet another case of the EU attempting to use Balkan problems to elevate its own stature as an international security actor. We also drew attention to the trap laid for Kosovo by making the dialogue’s goal the establishment of an association of Serbian municipalities in Kosovo in return for Serbian agreement to establish a largely undefined normal relationship with an entity the terms of the dialogue did not say Belgrade had to recognize formally. My own view was that this dialogue, as advertised, would create an internationally recognized status for the new association but would leave Kosovo as a whole without one. In short, the deal of April 2013 was a significant Serbian success.
Here we are, more than seven years later. The dialogue has sputtered but the EU still plays the same tune. Negotiations did produce a few minor technical agreements but the process has yet to result in the creation of the association of Serbian municipalities. Serbia insists that the association will have executive powers, whether an agreement says it does or not, but of course would prefer to have such a victory confirmed in writing. For their part, negotiators representing successive Kosovar governments either object to granting such executive powers or – appropriately – reject the idea of such an association entirely.
Depending on the preferences of individual vice-regal personalities, Brussels reminds the Kosovars of what it says they agreed to and/or issues vague warnings about how Europe is losing its patience. Josip Borrell has declared a final agreement is a matter of months not years, but Miroslav Lajcak indicated he is not in such a hurry.
Meanwhile, a US initiative led to an agreement in Washington with a weird optic and a complicated content. The official photo showed the President of the United States at his ornate desk in the oval office, with the President of Serbia and Prime Minister of Kosovo occupying end tables brought in for the occasion and placed at either end of that desk. The two visitors looked like they had been relegated to sitting a=t the children’s table of an American Thanksgiving dinner.
The agreement already is – deservedly – largely forgotten. It addressed anodyne economic and financial topics, many already enacted in other documents and negotiated arrangements, but – as often noted – really was more about the Middle East than the Balkans. Regarding the Kosovo imbroglio, Washington was able to shove the EU aside because the Americans were willing to at least consider the actual cost/benefit balance of territorial exchanges, and because the Trump Administration was able to improve relations with Belgrade while retaining paramount influence in Pristina. Still, the net result of these negotiations was disagreement over whether the two sides should agree to exchange Kosovo’s suspending efforts to join international organizations for a Serb promise to stop trying to get countries that have recognized Kosovo to reverse themselves.
In one sense, this mixed result may have helped Kosovo avoid a looming trap. European and American overseers sometimes suggest that Belgrade accept Kosovar membership in the United Nations General Assembly in return for the establishment of the association of Serbian municipalities in Kosovo. Such a trade would do Kosovo no good. Remember that the decades-long recognition of Taiwan as “China” and Taiwan’s membership on the UN Security Council were assets that evaporated when the real China started to spread its wings as the coming global superpower. This conceptual swap would be much worse for Kosovo’s international status and security than would be a territorial exchange.
Times change. China one day will reabsorb Taiwan – peacefully or not – just as it was easily predictable in 1997 that it would on day swallow up Hong Kong, no matter the special status the British fooled themselves into believing they had negotiated for the colony from which they were retreating. That event will mark the formal end to the American era in the Western Pacific (practically speaking, this power shift already is taking place).
Similarly, Serbia eventually will renew its claim to its lost province. Make no mistake; there is no substitute for mutual recognition between Belgrade and Pristina as protection for Kosovo in advance of that future crisis. Assuming recognition remains a non-starter, Albin Kurti (or at least the version of him that existed before he became Prime Minister) was absolutely right to consider closer ties with the Albanian kin-state. Evaporating the border between Albania and Kosovo would be a logical outcome of post-Yugoslav security developments and the chronic lack of a strategic compass in Western regional diplomacy.
*David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.