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Serbia-Kosovo relations after the Brussels meeting: What do we know so far?

Vučić-Kurti meeting in Brussels, 18 August 2022; Photo: FoNet

On Thursday, 18 August, the public received scarce information about the content of the high-level round of the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue held in Brussels, leaving the overall impression that it was another failed attempt to bridge the numerous differences between the two sides. The next day, however, brought several new elements to the story, opening the possibility that the process of negotiations, at least on the freedom of movement, was not over yet.

Unlike the previous meetings between President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić and Prime Minister of Serbia Albin Kurti, which were held in June and July 2021 without any tangible progress, the negotiations between the two sides reportedly continued a day after the meeting on Thursday.

The deadline for reaching some sort of an agreement on the freedom of movement is interpreted by all sides to be 1 September, when the Government of Kosovo is expected to implement its decision requiring Serb citizens to use Kosovo-issued car license plates and for people entering the country via Serbia to receive special entry documents. Serbs in the north of Kosovo protested against these measures on 31 July, setting up road barricades, which led to a worrying rise in tensions in the fragile area of the Western Balkans.

The complexity of the situation was illustrated by the re-scheduling of the address of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, which was originally announced for Friday, 19 August, then for Saturday, only to be moved to Sunday.

Thus, on Friday, 19 August, the Director of the Serbian Government Office for Kosovo and Metohija Petar Petković held a press conference instead of Vučić, hailing the President’s leadership and commitment to peace in the negotiations, and also throwing some new light on the Serbian position in the negotiations.

According to Petković, Serbia offered to accept the Kosovo-government-issued entry-exit document for the Serbian citizens living outside of Kosovo, but not for the Serbs living in Kosovo. Belgrade also, according to Petković, proposed that Serbia-issued license plates which are still used in the North be replaced with the status-neutral KS license plates instead of Kosovo-government-issued RKS.

Both proposals have been rejected by Kosovo, Petar Petković said, adding that Albin Kurti was deliberately destabilizing the region by opening these issues and that Serbia was ready to discuss other topics, such as the Community of Serb Municipalities and energy.

Kosovo Government has not reacted to Petković’s remarks. On Thursday, the Government released a statement on the third round of Kurti-Vučić Dialogue, stressing that there were two topics on the agenda: the General Framework of the Agreement and the current political and security issues.

“Prime Minister Kurti pointed out the importance of legality and constitutionalism in our country as guarantees of peace, security and equality for all citizens without distinction”, the statement read.

Political scientist Ognjen Gogić says for European Western Balkans that, ahead of the meeting, Aleksandar Vučić appeared to be utterly dismissive of demands made by Pristina,  but that the insights from the meeting that were disclosed by Petar Petković afterward paint a completely different picture.

“Somewhat surprising, the Serbian side turned out to be much more accommodating to the requirements of Pristina. Even though Belgrade rejected the validity of Pristina’s demands beforehand, at the press conference Petković conceded that they were to a large degree in compliance with the (previously reached) agreements on freedom of movement. Accordingly, Belgrade purportedly showed a willingness to accept Pristina’s requests under the condition that they get modified to address the concerns of the Serb community in Kosovo”, Gogić says.

He adds that although no compromise was made, the overall situation does not seem hopeless.

“The space for reaching a deal is wider than previously deemed, provided that Belgrade is genuinely ready to revise its position. However, Pristina also needs to offer certain concessions. Belgrade rightfully pointed out that some Serbs who reside in Kosovo cannot obtain Kosovo IDs due to procedural and bureaucratic reasons. This might be an opportunity for Pristina to uphold its commitment to engage in an internal dialogue with Kosovo Serbs and seek solutions for the issue they face”, Gogić stresses.

Is there a risk of a violent conflict?

On the night of 31 July, tensions were high in the north of Kosovo, with sirenes set off and reported gunshots heard. Serbian army did not attempt to enter Kosovo, and the NATO-led KFOR mission stated it was ready to intervene if the stability was jeopardised. Nevertheless, many interprted the situation in the context of a detoriating security situation in Europe due to the war in Ukraine and the worries about a serious violence in Kosovo have remained present.

Ognjen Gogić, however, believes that, while the deal might not be within the grasp yet, it seems unlikely that the dispute will revert to a situation from twenty days ago when the risk of a skirmish was high.

“The coercive mediation employed by NATO might have deterred the parties from resorting to violent means for pursuing their goals”, he says.

Borth Albin Kurti and Aleksandar Vučić met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels on Wednesday, 17 August. In a press conference with Vučić, Stoltenberg once again said that, should stability be jeopardized, KFOR stands ready to intervene.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the President of the Republic of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić

“While the situation on the ground has improved, it is the responsibility of all parties, particularly officials from Belgrade and Pristina, to prevent escalation again. I call on all sides to show restraint and avoid violence. NATO continues to monitor closely the situation on the ground. Our KFOR mission remains focused on its UN mandate”, Stoltenberg said.

Meanwhile, in a press conference with Albin Kurti, Stoltenberg further called on Belgrade and Pristina to “engage positively and constructively” in the EU-facilitated talks, calling the dialogue “the only way towards sustainable peace”.

Serbian officials continue to stress their commitment to peace. However, at the same time, the tabloid media close to the ruling Serbian Progressive Party continued to openly spread warnings of a possibility of a war with Kosovo, contributing to the atmosphere of unease still present in the country.

EU-led dialogue “in trouble for some time”

While some sort of a compromise on the freedom of movement might still be reached, the main goal of the EU-facilitated dialogue, a comprehensive agreement on the mutual normalization of relations, seems to be far out of reach. The overall state of the process is negatively assessed by European Western Balkan interlocutors following the meeting on Thursday.

“The EU-facilitated dialogue has been in trouble for some time”, states Nikolaos Tzifakis, Professor at the University of Peloponnese and a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG).

“Instead of working towards the genuine normalization of relations, Belgrade and Pristina have been pretending to strive to avoid the eruption of (recurring) crises, which are largely of their own making”, he remarks.

Tzifakis adds that the EU cannot bring the Brussels dialogue back to life for as long as it does not restore the credibility of its promise that these two countries have a clear accession perspective.

Meanwhile, Ognjen Gogić assesses that the EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina is increasingly becoming an obscure process that is devoid of due transparency.

“The public in Serbia is hardly ever properly informed in advance about the agenda of the negotiations. The recently held round of negotiation between Vučić and Kurti was no exception in this regard”, he adds.

In his remarks following the meeting on Thursday, High Representative of the Union Josep Borrell described it as a “crisis management meeting, not an ordinary meeting”.

He added, however, that both leaders had the opportunity to talk – in detail – about this comprehensive agreement on normalisation of relations, as the current tensions on the ground, according to Borrell, are symptoms of the broader issue of the unresolved status of their relations.

“There are, certainly, well-known differences among them on their view about what will be the final the status of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, what this should be. But they agreed to continue discussions on a regular basis in the coming period to take the normalisation process quickly forward”, the High Representative said.

There does not seem to be much cause for optimism in this area, given that, in the previous year, the discussions were dominated by the freedom of movement issues, a topic that was first tackled way back in 2011 as one of the easier, “technical” issues paving the way for more complex political problems.

In June this year, the two sides agreed on a roadmap for implementing the 2013 agreements on energy, one of the rare steps forward in the Dialogue in recent years. Several weeks ago, the EU confirmed that the implementation of the roadmap had been delayed due to “technical reasons”.

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