BELGRADE – The upcoming meeting in Berlin on 29 April, which will bring together high officials from all Western Balkan countries, as well as from Croatia and Slovenia, attracted significant media attention. The event – not to be confused with the Berlin Process – represents an initiative by the German chancellor Angela Merkel and the French president Emmanuel Macron.
Even though the event will be a regional one, the hosts made no secret of the fact that Serbia-Kosovo relations will be the main topic on the table.
The event comes after a long break in Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, as the talks were suspended after Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on Serbian goods in November. Serbia will not continue the dialogue before tariffs are revoked, but a myriad of Western officials who visited Pristina in previous months proved unsuccessful in convincing the Kosovo government to return to status quo.
The EU, whose role in Serbia-Kosovo normalization has insofar been crucial, not only failed to push the two governments to reach a comprehensive normalization agreement by the end of this European Commission’s mandate – as it insisted – but did not even succeed in bringing them back to the negotiating table.
Many then welcomed the organization of such a meeting by the member states at this point, especially as upcoming European Parliament elections appear to weaken the leverage of the EU, and the composition of the future Commission is at this point unknown.
But will the Berlin event represent an attempt by Germany to recover its leading role in pushing through Serbia-Kosovo dialogue and perhaps getting the dreaded border changes out from the negotiating table?
According to James Ker-Lindsay, professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), it is hard to say.
“It seems unclear exactly what is being planned. Some reports suggest that it is a major new initiative. Others seem to suggest that it is a stocktaking exercise. I get the impression that it is probably going to be something in-between.”
Ker-Lindsay believes that the meeting will mainly serve to help resume the dialogue.
“It seems likely that efforts will be focused on bringing all relevant parties together and creating the conditions for resuming talks by looking for compromises on the issues that have made a resumption of talks so difficult, such as battles over recognition and the imposition of tariffs”, states Ker-Lindsay.
Bodo Weber, senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council, agrees that the focus of the meeting will probably be on resuming the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue after a major deadlock.
“I see the April 29 meeting in the German Chancellory primarily as an effort to get past the land swap-tariffs dispute deadlock toward which the EU High Representative Mogherini and her team have dragged the Brussels-led negotiations over a final, comprehensive and legally binding agreement between Kosovo and Serbia in a highly politically irresponsible way, to some sort of negotiations reset.”
Weber is clear that this also refers to the border change proposal, which he sees as problematic.
“This includes burying ideas on any form of ethno-territorial “solution,” for Berlin and Paris to try to return to a joint policy, and thus for key member states to take back control from the Mogherini team hijacking the process in an unprecedented way, and to slowly move toward a restart of a negotiation process that bring the whole political dialogue back under its original, 2013-15 framework”, states Weber.
Border change scenario “not dead yet”
Many blame the EU for leading the Serbia-Kosovo talks to a deadlock by being open to the idea of border change, which appears to have killed the dialogue and polarized not only the two societies, but the international community as well.
But while Germany is expected to try to move the dialogue away from the border change narrative, it is far from clear whether this will prove successful. One the one hand, the idea seems to be losing support in the international community, but on the other hand, Serbia remains adamant that a formal recognition of Kosovo’s independence without compromises is out of the question.
James Ker-Lindsay believes that the approach to the border change idea among the international community did in fact change, but not significantly.
“My sense is that there has been a subtle shift in attitudes over recent months. It is not that any countries have become positive or negative about the scenario.”
According to Ker-Lindsay, there has been a growing realisation that any consideration of the issue needs to be weighed against two key factors.
“First, this may be the best opportunity to resolve the outstanding differences between Kosovo and Serbia for many years to come. If the chance for a comprehensive settlement is lost, it is hard to say when another opportunity will arise. If a deal is not reached, it will continue to limit Kosovo international recognition, including UN membership, and hinder Serbia’s EU accession process.”
Ker-Lindsay’s other point regards the responsibility for potential failure of the process.
“Secondly, that it is not up to outsiders to predetermine, let alone limit, what two sovereign states choose to do within the bounds of international law. If talks fail because of externally imposed limitations, then those countries will have to take responsibility for the situation.”
However, Ker-Lindsay believes that the international community still needs to be very careful with a border change scenario.
“I also get the sense that there is a growing awareness by all external parties that any ideas that are developed will have to have widespread approval and carefully consider the implications for wider regional peace and stability”, concludes Ker-Lindsay.
Bodo Weber does not hide that he would pretty much like to see the border change idea discarded and moved away from the Serbia-Kosovo talks.
“I sincerely hope so – for the future of Kosovo and Serbia, and particularly a future normal life for Kosovo Serbs north and south of the Ibar, for the stability and security of the Western Balkans, and the EU and the wider Europe as a whole.”
However, Weber does see the idea as “definitely” dead at this point.
“Until the EU’s chief negotiator isn’t out later this year, until the EU stops making the dialogue work for the two presidents, and not the future of the region and the EU, and until the whole negotiation process has been reset on a politically realistic basis – that Kosovo is gone from Serbia, that Belgrade will have to recognize that reality (as it did 2013-14), that the prime focus of both parties should be how the Republic of Kosovo and the Republic of Serbia can develop normal, peaceful bilateral relations, and that both Pristina and Belgrade focus on organizing a normal life for Serbs in Kosovo – we cannot be sure it is definitely dead.”, concludes Weber.
“Dual sovereignty” – fact or fiction?
But if not border change, then what could be the solution for Serbia-Kosovo normalization process that both parties would find acceptable?
One of the media reports on the Berlin conference mentioned “dual sovereignty” as a concept that would allow a Serbia-Kosovo deal by providing Serbia with limited sovereignty in areas which are vital for the Kosovo Serb community, such as the churches and monasteries belonging to the Serbian Orthodox Church.
However, Igor Novaković, representative of the Council for Inclusive Governance in Serbia, does not believe that these reports are based on realistic insights in plans of Germany and France.
“Although, in principle, any idea which is constructive could be of value for the process, I doubt that at this level of mistrust and political tension there could be a systemic breakthrough based this or any other idea.”
According to him, the event could perhaps prove to be a new beginning for Serbia-Kosovo talks.
“The elections for the EU parliament are looming, and I look at this effort more as a “damage control” and potentially an attempt to prepare the basis for some new process.”, concludes Novaković.
It remains to be seen what will be the consequences of the Berlin meeting, but having in mind the high hopes and anticipation regarding this event, it would probably be wise not to have great expectations, but still be open for a surprise or two.