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[EWB Interview] Joseph: Taking away Serbia’s non-recognition campaign would be a game-changer for the Dialogue

In a recent article, Edward P. Joseph, Senior Fellow, and Lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, proposed a way to restore the leverage of the European Union and the United States in the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue by overcoming the divisions within the EU itself over Kosovo’s independence.

The solution to the current Western weakness on the issue, as described by Joseph, does not require Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece or Cyprus to recognize Kosovo, nor do these countries alter the stance on recognition of the EU or NATO. It would, however, require all EU and NATO members to stand behind the principle of ruling out political aggression, manifested, as he writes, both by Serbia’s ‘non-recognition campaign against Kosovo’ and by Kosovo’s promotion of ‘union of Kosovo and Albania.’

“Under the new approach, Kosovo will be free to join other international organizations – except for NATO, the EU and UN – and cultivate its bilateral relations around the globe. This will transform negotiating dynamics, as time will no longer be on the Vučić regime’s side. Continued intransigence in Belgrade will see Kosovo’s progressive development, backed up by a united EU and NATO”, he writes in the article.

The proposal has attracted attention among the experts and policy-makers dealing with the Balkans and Serbia-Kosovo dispute, and Mr Joseph elaborates on it further in an interview for European Western Balkans.

European Western Balkans: In your article on the way to close the question of Kosovo, you propose the agreement between the EU and the US to rule out political aggression between Kosovo and Serbia, manifested both by Serbia’s non-recognition campaign against Kosovo and by Kosovo’s promotion of union of Kosovo and Albania. While this would certainly lower political tensions in the region if it is enforced, how exactly would it lead to “Kosovo’s progressive development”, which you claim would happen?

Edward P. Joseph: First, this approach to ending ‘political aggression’ is based on commitments that the parties have already made, either to the EU or to each other, or, as well, implicitly to NATO.

Second, each practice – ‘the non-recognition campaign’ against Kosovo; and ‘union of Kosovo and Albania’ – is a form of political aggression to the other.

Third, in the case of ending of the non-aggression campaign, Kosovo would be free to join international organizations like Interpol, whose mission is to help police curtail transnational crime. That is an example of how membership in an international organization leads to Kosovo’s progressive development. Kosovo Serbs and Serbian citizens stand to benefit from Kosovo’s progressive development as well as Kosovar Albanians.

EWB: The principles that you propose aren’t wholly new. We have already known that the EU and the US are against Serbia’s non-recognition campaign and the unification of Kosovo and Albania. Why would their agreement to clearly commit to these principles be such a game-changer?

EPJ: Novelty is not the point, although, in fact, these principles and this approach are completely new.

The US and EU have done very little about the non-recognition campaign, either bilateral or multilateral (international organization) version. How is that Serbia, with or without Russia’s help, can convince a country like Ghana to reverse its recognition of Kosovo – if the US Embassy in Ghana is activated? Which relationship is more valuable to Ghana – with the US, or with Russia or Serbia?

But that’s not the reason why it’s a game-changer. The real reason has to do with negotiating leverage. This is the crux of the problem. It’s the reason why Serbia is still stuck. Like the ‘curse of oil’, Serbia has ‘the curse of leverage’, complicating its ability to settle the Kosovo question and finally accept the Western order and achieve a dignified, stabilizing final settlement with Kosovo. It’s the existence of this leverage that skews not just the power dynamics in the negotiations themselves – but the expectations of Serbian leaders and citizens.

Like the ‘curse of oil’, Serbia has ‘the curse of leverage’, complicating its ability to settle the Kosovo question and finally accept the Western order and achieve a dignified, stabilizing final settlement with Kosovo.

Remember, all nations in the Balkans are proud and even chauvinistic. Take the Macedonians.  At independence, there were in fact maps produced showing Aegeska Makedonija – like a Greater Macedonia, with Solun (Thessaloniki.)  But Macedonians have no capacity to achieve such a vision, and citizens know that and therefore have no expectation of such an outcome.

It was the opposite case, in fact. Greece, as a NATO and EU member, held the leverage over now North Macedonia, raising expectations and demands among Greeks. It took a visionary leader, former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, to grasp that, with or without leverage, Greece was suffering from this stand-off.  This was based almost wholly on geopolitical, not economic, reasoning. Tsipras realized that, even though more powerful, Greece needed to resolve the issue.

Serbia holds the leverage over Kosovo. So far, Belgrade looks for a ‘one-way compromise’; Kosovo should give up land in order to get recognition, or give up some other form of sovereignty in order to get ‘normalization.’

The reason is that it holds the leverage, due to the position of the EU 5/NATO 4 non-recognizers. It follows that if that leverage is eliminated, or even eroded, then Serbia will be more in a position to enter into a true, Prespa-style compromise.

That’s what taking away the non-recognition campaign does. Once Kosovo can join these international organizations, and expand its bilateral recognitions, then what is Belgrade achieving? Sure, Belgrade can continue with ‘inat’, just spiting Kosovo. But that policy will be failing, as Kosovo gains greater and greater international acceptance, even if the EU and NATO membership paths are blocked. The more Kosovo attains international personality, the more reason that Serbia has to settle. It’s that simple.

Note that this is different from coercing Serbia to settle. In my approach, there is no sanction or pressure on Serbia to recognize Kosovo. Just take away the non-recognition campaign (and union of Kosovo and Albania) – if the five EU non-recognizers won’t recognize. Full EU/NATO recognition would solve the Kosovo issue fully, as Belgrade would be utterly unable to stop Kosovo’s EU/NATO paths. Only the UN path, courtesy of Russia and China, would be blocked. But this is much less important for Kosovo.

In my approach, there is no sanction or pressure on Serbia to recognize Kosovo. Just take away the non-recognition campaign (and union of Kosovo and Albania) – if the five EU non-recognizers won’t recognize.

In short, even just taking away the non-recognition campaign would be a game-changer as Belgrade would be confronted with the failure of its strategy of isolation of Kosovo. It would eventually have to re-calculate what benefit there is from intransigence towards Kosovo. It would have to re-calculate what benefit it is getting from Russia and China as well.

European Western Balkans: Your proposal would still leave Kosovo out of NATO, EU and the UN, since it is not based on the non-recognizers within the EU and NATO recognizing Kosovo. Why is this, then, a substantial move towards closing the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia?

EPJ: Getting Kosovo into Interpol, Council of Europe, UNESCO and other international organizations would erode Serbian leverage, denying Belgrade the ability to keep Kosovo weak. This would incline Belgrade to recalculate: ‘so what do we achieve by all this effort when we are unable to block Kosovo the way we have tried’.

The proof here is the intense investment that the Vučić government put into blocking Kosovo’s recognition.  That means removing or lessening Belgrade’s ability to block Kosovo will lessen the benefit of intransigence.

EWB: How is your proposal more beneficial to EU and NATO than simply putting their political weight behind the Dialogue on normalization of relations, urging Serbia and Kosovo to reach a comprehensive agreement, which would also clear the way for non-recognizers to recognize Kosovo?

EPJ: The US and EU are already putting their political weight behind the EU-led Dialogue. As US officials state, the US and EU are “shoulder to shoulder.”  But these shoulders are not very strong in the face of Serbian leverage. Because Kosovo is blocked by Belgrade, then Belgrade benefits by just keeping the status quo. And Belgrade keeps the status quo with relatively modest effort. The aim, as former Foreign Minister Dačić once stated, is simply to avoid being blamed, i.e. to continue the charade of serious negotiations and the charade of serious interest in joining the EU.

We have to remember that Serbian democracy is very much a casualty of all this. The US and EU are unable to hold Serbia to account for corruption and democratic backsliding because the West ‘needs’ Belgrade to resolve the Kosovo question. Serbia gets a free pass on democracy because it is needed over Kosovo.  These two issues are very much connected.

What the EU and NATO need to do is move towards unanimity at a higher level than the current ‘normalization’ – which leaves Serbian leverage intact (because Belgrade doesn’t really share the same interest in closing the Kosovo question.)

We have to remember that leverage is the key: all Belgrade needs to do is sustain the status quo, where the West is off-balance and Serbia can continue its false “balance” between the West and the West’s adversaries, Russia and China. Allow me to point out that Cold War dictators like Tito, who also drew competitive support from East and West, were not promoting the East. Tito promoted the Non-aligned Movement, not the Soviet Union or Maoist China. What does Belgrade do today with its open promotion of ‘Brother Xi’?

EWB: Some analysts do not see political will in the EU to advance the enlargement process in the coming years, leaving the region in the status quo when it comes to Kosovo-Serbia dispute and illiberal tendencies in Serbia. Why do you believe that any serious progress can be achieved?

EPJ: It may be true that the EU has little will, on enlargement, on fighting corruption, addressing the Kosovo dispute and the main obstacle to resolution: the internal divisions within the EU over Kosovo.

Let’s remember that the world doesn’t operate simply on the basis of what the EU is willing to do.  In other words, the EU has to accept the consequences of just tolerating the status quo.  How will it continue to make the case that Brussels, not Washington, should lead? How on earth can the EU make any case for ‘strategic autonomy’ from the US, if it cannot address these resolvable issues over Kosovo?  What about malign Russian and Chinese influence in the region? What about the continued out-migration from the region, along with the other maladies.

Is the EU happy about accepting the consequences of failure?

EWB: You claim that by accepting the new principles, “president Vučić could become the historic Serbian leader who leads his democratizing country towards its rightful place in the European Union, in equal standing with all of its neighbors”. But this is a similar argument as in 2012 when there was a lot of hope about normalization with Kosovo and further democratization of Serbia, but instead, we have seen significant democratic backsliding.

EPJ: That statement was both true and also a bit sardonic, i.e. mindful of that cliche.  The point I was making is that the cliche could become true if the EU were truly unified over Kosovo – at least enough to take away the non-recognition campaign (and union of Kosovo and Albania) – as it would erode Serbian leverage, inclining Belgrade to review its strategic calculus.

That’s the whole point. The democratic backsliding also stops when Serbia accepts the Western order, which is another way of saying that all Serbs who want to live in a democracy are hurt by the failure to resolve the Kosovo issue. That failure only perpetuates the charade, and the inability to hold the Vučić regime accountable on democratic standards. Serbs who care about Serbian democracy should care about resolving the Kosovo question, which means caring about creative ways to blunt Serbian leverage. Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece and Cyprus are not helping Serbia by refusing to recognize Kosovo; they are hurting Serbia, only prolonging the status quo, which damages Serbia and Kosovo.

That’s the whole point. The democratic backsliding also stops when Serbia accepts the Western order, which is another way of saying that all Serbs who want to live in a democracy are hurt by the failure to resolve the Kosovo issue.

Remember that the two ’principles’ I came up with, for the EU and NATO, are designed to protect, for example, Spain on Catalonia. The principles are clearly applicable only to Kosovo and Serbia as aspirant countries – a status that Catalonia can never have without Madrid’s approval.  That’s what I was trying to show: that the whole problem is with the refusal of the EU 5/NATO 4 countries to recognize Kosovo – and that they don’t even need to recognize Kosovo in order to improve the situation. They only need to come together on principles and policy to halt the non-recognition campaign, and also the union of Kosovo and Albania. Those are balanced steps that could survive domestic debate in each of those countries.

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