The article was originally published on The European Council on Foreign Relations website.
The EU-sponsored dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina is a source of growing impatience in many European capitals. The talks, which have continued for close to a decade, are proceeding almost as quickly as the reforms Kosovo and Serbia have undertaken on the path to EU membership. These reforms are modest, technical, and often transactional, with the negotiating parties tending to carefully calculate what they will gain from various courses of action based on their short-term political interests. And maybe that is a good thing – given that Kosovo and Serbia currently lack any big ideas for reaching a final agreement that is democratic and sustainable, and that would commit them to a future within the European Union.
The dialogue has had its ups and downs over the years. Its lowest point came in 2011, when the two parties started drawing up plans for territorial changes at private dinners, going so far as to start talking about land swaps and the adjustment of borders. These meetings were reminiscent of those in the 1990s between Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic, then the presidents of Croatia and Serbia respectively, in the early phase of the Balkans wars. For many reasons – including strong opposition from key EU member states – the proposal for a land swap hit a dead end.
Yet this was the last big idea that Serbia’s and Kosovo’s leaders had for coming to a comprehensive agreement (even if it was a misguided one). Since then, with Brussels acting as a facilitator, the dialogue has aimed to address small pieces of the dispute while ignoring the grand puzzle into which they fit.
According to a public opinion survey conducted by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, most of Serbia’s citizens support the dialogue and an agreement with Kosovo. But 50 per cent of them say that they do not know what the dialogue is about, 21 per cent that its goal is for Kosovo to rejoin Serbia, and 71 per cent that it has not changed anything. These responses are contradictory and anachronistic, but they mirror the narrative of the main protagonist of Serbian politics, President Aleksandar Vučić. Publicly, he always refers to Kosovo in unclear and indefinite terms. His speeches on Kosovo include Serbian nationalistic rhetoric, reminders of the importance of a peaceful solution, and everything in between.
Given that 63 per cent of respondents to the survey form their opinions based on TV reporting predominantly controlled by the government, it is understandable that many of them repeat the false impressions and expectations of the dialogue that are at the core of Vučić’s public statements. Nonetheless, 73 per cent of respondents do not believe that Serbia and Kosovo will have a normal relationship any time soon.
This may be because the government has never publicly revealed its goals for the relationship. But Vučić’s reticence on the issue reveals his political strategy: playing the waiting game with Brussels and Kosovo – an approach that is likely to buy him time to win another five-year term in the presidential election scheduled for 2022. As Serbian citizens have generally become more right-wing and anti-EU than ever during Vučić’s eight years in power, he will take no chances on a compromise solution for Kosovo that they could see as ‘defeat’ or ‘treason’. In the lead-up to the election, he will likely attempt to control the public mood with an emotional, self-pitying, and unrealistic narrative on Kosovo.
Another aspect of this strategy also plays well for Vučić. So long as Kosovo objects to the implementation of agreements signed in the framework of the EU-sponsored talks, Vučić will look as though he is wholeheartedly engaged in the process and ready to compromise. Given that Albin Kurti’s party will probably win the snap election in Kosovo scheduled for 14 February, Vučić may not need to change his strategy for some time. Kurti, who has an uncompromising approach to Brussels, will not prioritise the dialogue.
The EU may also have little interest in the dialogue – for now – given that it is busy adjusting to Brexit, its recent trade and investment deal with China, and the geopolitical shift likely to occur with the inauguration of a new US administration. As president, Joe Biden could develop a new strategy for the Balkans, but this is probably too much to expect in the first year of his term. So, in 2021, the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia will probably make only limited progress through technical agreements, with lots of waiting and delays.
The Balkans is much in need of a historic political settlement of the kind that the two countries could eventually reach. Yet this is unlikely to happen without authentic and honest leadership in their negotiations, and genuine attempts to prepare the public for a compromise. The serious work of normalising relations between Kosovo and Serbia, and thereby drawing them towards EU membership, is yet to be done.