After meeting with five envoys from EU member states and the United States, the President of Serbia announced that Serbia was given an ultimatum. Either official Belgrade will accept the French-German proposal for dialogue with Pristina, or, in the alternative, the process of European integration will be interrupted, and all European investments will be withdrawn from the country.
“If I had thrown them out and said I wouldn’t negotiate, our visa-free regime would have been abolished. The other thing that would happen to us is that we would no longer have any investments, and investors would pull out,” said Vučić, adding that he would not agree to be the president who leads an isolated country.
In his address to the nation, he said that he explained to envoys what is unacceptable in the proposal for Serbia, adding that it was not “easy to find anything” that Serbia is satisfied with the proposal. What further complicates Serbia’s position in negotiations with Pristina, according to Vučić, is the “complete regional-European context” caused by the war in Ukraine.
“They have their own agenda- defeat Russia, and anything in their way will be cleaned up. When I say the Association of Serbian Municipalities (ASM) must come first, they say it’s unrealistic and that it should be put in another agreement. No objective or rational arguments pass,” said Vučić and added that Serbia wants compromises and talks, but both sides must make concessions.
Whether the European and American representatives have indeed imposed this type of ultimatum on the Serbian President, none of the participants in the meeting have yet confirmed or denied it. Only the Serbian President spoke about the details of the meeting with the envoys. The next day he received support from members of his party on social networks to continue fighting for Serbian interests.
There are not a few who saw the President’s speech as an attempt to turn the Serbian public opinion that some agreement with Pristina will have to be reached.
Maja Bjeloš, researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy (BCSP), assesses that the President of Serbia is currently signalling that he will accept the plan and secure public support, counting on the fact that the Prime Minister of Kosovo may reject the French-German plan if he does not receive guarantees for recognition of independence from five EU countries and if he has to form the Association/Community of Serbian Municipalities (ASM).
“In the case that Kurti accepts the plan and approaches the formation of ASM, the authorities in Belgrade would present it as a diplomatic victory. If there is still no progress in the negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, sanctions should be borne by political leaders and their associates, not by the citizens of Serbia and Kosovo,” says Bjeloš for European Western Balkans.
However, she believes that the President of Serbia has further strengthened anti-Western sentiments with his talk of ultimatums and EU blackmail and deliberately shifted the focus of public interest from the content of the French-German plan, which is secret, to the consequences for the citizens of Serbia if its political leadership does not accept the plan.
“Citizens in Serbia understand sanctions and international isolation well, and the President of Serbia is blackmailing the citizens by manipulating their existential fear. He has announced to the citizens that if we reject the European plan for Kosovo, there will be no money for pension payments, which means there will be no food, medicine, and other basic necessities. There will be no investments, therefore no jobs for tens of thousands of employed, and the visa regime will be reintroduced, which is a concern for those citizens who are not part of the clientelistic network of the current regime. All of this is meant to prompt citizens to provide unconditional support to the President of Serbia regardless of the fact that they do not know, and may never know, the content of the French-German plan for Kosovo,” adds Maja Bjeloš.
The new EU negotiation framework for Serbia?
In his speech, Vučič said that the European Union’s plan for Kosovo, which was presented to him by Western representatives, actually became a new negotiating framework for Serbia in the process of European integration.
“All EU member states accepted that plan, including five countries that did not recognize Kosovo, because they explained to them that there is no explicit recognition of Kosovo’s independence, although they concealed the fact that there is an implicit obligation that Serbia does not oppose Kosovo’s entry into the UN… Everyone accepted that, and the plan actually, not formally, became a new negotiating framework for Serbia,” said Vučić.
Florian Bieber, a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) says for EWB that he doubts that the negotiation framework would be formulated like that.
“It is realistic that there is a demand for real progress in the relations between the two countries and that if Serbia is seen as holding it back, that negotiations would either slow down or come to a halt. Now, there has been little progress in recent years anyhow, so this makes little difference, but it is clear that Vucic, while not being interested in actually joining the EU is interested in keeping up the illusion that Serbia is still actively negotiating”, believes Bieber.
According to him, the Franco-German proposal is a decent plan, considering the circumstances.
“The main problem is that I don’t expect it to actually pass. I think Vučić’s speech and tactics are about delaying, not accepting the deal. He has not prepared the population for an agreement and he has got a lot of reasons to stick to the status quo. I fear that even if it were agreed, it would be a “cold” peace as there will be plenty of opportunities to create crisis and escalations like we saw in recent months”, adds a BiEPAG member.
In the current negotiation framework for Serbia, dialogue with Pristina is a part of Chapter 35. This chapter, together with rule of law (Chapters 23 and 24) are “blocking” chapters. This means that if there is no progress in these areas, there will be no progress in other negotiating chapters either. Serbia opened the last negotiating cluster in December 2021. Many believe that the opening of the ecology-related cluster in the wake of the most massive environmental protests in Serbia was a purely political decision and a reward for the implementation of constitutional changes in the judiciary.
Western powers intensified negotiations on the French-German proposal
Following New Year, negotiations on the French-German proposal, whose full content is still officially unknown to the public, have intensified. Both Belgrade and Pristina have not yet stated whether the proposal is acceptable to them or not, while both sides are highlighting numerous shortcomings of this document.
International envoys have not visited Belgrade and Pristina only in recent weeks. EU envoy Miroslav Lajčak visited EU member states that have not yet recognized Kosovo last week. As things stand now, all EU member states accept the French-German proposal, making it “European”. Many believe that one of the outcomes of signing this agreement could be the recognition of Kosovo by five EU member states. If that were to happen, it would open the European path for Kosovo, which is now almost impossible, despite Kosovo officially submitted its candidate status application for EU membership last year.
Answering the question of Lajčak’s visit to EU countries that do not recognize Kosovo, is not just about unity on the proposal, but also about securing that they would recognize Kosovo in case the agreement is agreed upon by both parties.
“If they do not, it would seriously undermine the agreement. After all, the purpose of the agreement is not just for Serbia to de facto recognize Kosovo, but to end the problems Kosovo is facing with non-recognition. If there is movement, then Kosovo could start its own EU accession process in earnest and also move towards NATO membership”, says Bieber.
He concluded, that if there is no movement, the whole plan would fall apart as it offers little to Kosovo, especially if the main condition is the creation of the Association of Serb Municipalities.
For years, the Association of Serbian Municipalities has been one of the main stumbling blocks in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. Both sides are firm in their positions: Serbia that the Community should be implemented as it was signed, Kosovo that it wants to form an ASM without the foreseen competencies.