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[EWB Interview] Ker-Lindsay: Serbia-Kosovo compromise requires either partition or autonomy for Kosovo Serbs

Fifteen years after Kosovo’s declaration of independence and ten years after the landmark Brussels Agreement, a final resolution to the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo appears to be a distant goal. Despite an apparent move forward with the recently tabled Franco-German proposal, the latest developments came a after a series of crises in North Kosovo and a breakdown in already achieved normalization. What is the perspective of the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue and what could be the next steps forward? Will Serbia have to recognize Kosovo’s independence and what could it gain in return? European Western Balkans spoke about this with James Ker-Lindsay, professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a renowned expert on ethnic conflicts with expertise in Southeast Europe.

European Western Balkans: We are now 10 years from the Brussels agreement between Serbia and Kosovo from 2013, but we seem to be heading from crisis to crisis instead of coming closer to a solution. How do you see the prospects for the normalization agreement at this point?

James Ker-Lindsay: There’s no doubt that where we are today is certainly very different from what most of us may have expected. Bearing in mind that we are approaching the 15th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, most observers would have felt that by now, one way or another, we would’ve had some sort of final settlement – or at least a settlement that the parties could live with pending a final agreement. And of course, what we’ve seen is that the past 10 years has been disappointing. Today, the region is bouncing from one crisis to another.

And now we hear that there are new proposals on the table. But from what’s been revealed so far, I don’t think they are workable. In general, I think there is a real lack of imaginative thinking in how to solve this problem. So, 15 years after Kosovo declared independence, and 10 years after the Brussels agreement, we have to be very, very disappointed and worried about the lack of progress.

EWB: And how do you see the possible realistic solution for the Kosovo issue? What could actually be this „comprehensive normalization agreement“ which is expected at the end of the process? Is it formal recognition of Kosovo by Serbia? Is it some other model? What do you see as a realistic scenario that would be successful?

JKL: Well, let’s discuss what I don’t think is going to be successful. The two Germanies model that we are hearing about, I just don’t see how this works. This model would have Serbia say that it accepts having Kosovo in the United Nations but won’t recognize it. Frankly, that has no value whatsoever for Serbia. Serbia would be better just to accept Kosovo’s independence rather than accept a model that sees Kosovo recognised by the rest of the world, except Serbia. This would just leave Serbia looking very petty and rather silly.

My view is that, while I have deep concerns about the way that Kosovo declared independence, ultimately any normalization process, or whatever we want to call it, will have to see Serbia accept an independent Kosovo.

What we saw in 2008 was a deeply unfair process, a badly managed process. There was no real attempt made to try to get Serbia to buy into an independent Kosovo. Nor was any effort made to find a workable compromise. However, all this said, I do believe that it is now in everyone’s interest to move on. An independent Kosovo is not only good for Kosovo, but also for Serbia.

The question is how Serbia can accept this? That’s the really the key question here that I don’t think is being tackled. We need a grand settlement. Instead, we seem to bounce from one crisis to another instead of focusing on the end goal, which has got to be a settlement based on recognition.

EWB: Polls show that the publics in both Serbia and Kosovo are strongly against all solutions that are widely seen as realistic. That means that they are not really prepared for this final agreement, which would mean some kind of a deeper compromise. How could we create the situation where such a compromise is possible and politically rewarding for those who are agreeing to it?

JKL: This is the sad thing; we’ve lost the opportunity to try and do that. And I really think that around 2012, 2013, we were in a position where we could have reached some sort of a final agreement. Where we are today is so much more difficult.

I think that there is an uncompromising position in many parts of the public opinion in both Serbia and Kosovo. But we’ve also seen is a lot of outside actors who have stood in the way of an agreement.

For a start, Russia has been absolutely determined to keep this issue boiling so that it can maintain its leverage over Serbia. But I also think Western actors have been deeply unhelpful at times.

I think there was a missed opportunity a few years ago when we saw an interesting dialogue going on between President Vučić and President Thaci. I think it was regrettable that some of the ideas that were put on the table were closed off by Berlin and London. I know there was frustration in Belgrade and Pristina about this – and rightly so.

And I think there was also frustration in Washington at the time. Like others, I strongly disliked much of what the Trump administration stood for. I think it did a lot of damage to the United States across lots of areas of foreign policy, including in the Balkans. But what I did find interesting was that at least you had some sort of movement towards exploring other ideas. Trump made a horrible mess of US dealings in the Balkans. But it was willing to think a little differently. Imagine what could have happened if Britain and Germany had been willing to do that too.

Vučić, Tusk, Hahn and Thaçi; Photo: Bulgarian EU Presidency / Flickr

Ultimately, we need some interesting, innovative thinking on how to solve this problem. We’ve lost the momentum with the EU, which was an important factor in all of this. Its lack of big ideas, coupled with a lack of incentives, and a short-term focus on just muddling through from one crisis to another has left us in what is actually quite a miserable state at the moment.

EWB: Territorial changes have disappeared from the radar in recent years, but do you believe that this option is still in the game? Does it still exist as a possible scenario?

JKL: Well, I’m always reminded of an event a few years ago where this point was being discussed and many attendees insisted that we were now beyond this option. One former senior US diplomat in fact described it as an idea whose time had not yet come. There are those who still feel that this is an option.

I think it is still there because ultimately there is going to need to be some sort of compromise between Belgrade and Pristina. And I think the reality is that it’s going to end up as an independent Kosovo. So, what can Serbia be offered to accept this? There are only two obvious options.

The first is partition. This can either be done officially with an agreed border demarcation, or there is what we can think of as the Northern Ireland route. This is where North Kosovo falls under Serbia’s control, and everyone just accepts that’s the reality on the ground and then at some point they sort of reach some agreement on it. Not necessarily the tidy way of doing it – and I think a formal agreement would make a lot more sense – but it is a way.

But if that’s not the option, then the alternative is going to have to be some sort of autonomy arrangement for Kosovo Serbs. In other words, the realisation of the Association of Serb municipalities.

What’s regrettable is that you have voices that want to prevent both options. On the one hand you’ve got people saying, “we can’t have any sort of territorial adjustment”. Alright, then let’s look at this option which will give Serbs meaningful autonomy within Kosovo, and which might be something that Belgrade is willing to accept. But then these people start insisting that it’s anti-constitutional. It seems that they just aren’t interested in a viable solution.

EWB: In Kosovo comparisons are often made between the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities in Kosovo and Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which are used as an argument why the former should never be created.

JKL: One of the great shames of Balkan politics is that everything now gets viewed through the prism of Bosnia. We now have people saying that the Association can’t be accepted in Kosovo because it’s going to be another Republika Srpska. No, it is not. There are many models of autonomy in the world. Republika Srpska is one version, albeit a very particular version that I accept is destabilizing, but nobody is proposing a repeat of that.

In the case of Kosovo and the Association, nobody is saying, “let’s form an Association and give it veto rights in central government, so the head of the Association will become the co-president of Kosovo, and that the association will have a chance to veto Kosovo foreign policy”. Nobody is proposing that at all, and yet people have got it into their head that any arrangement will be like Republika Srpska.

Sadly, I think there are some people who are deliberately trying to paint the Association as another RS. They know it won’t be. They know full well that autonomy comes in many shapes and that Republika Srpska is an unusual form created at a very different time and under completely different circumstances. But they want to push this message, for whatever reason. It is unhelpful and hindering efforts to solve a serious problem that, once addressed, will leave more space to deal with Bosnia.

EWB: Why was the international community, or let’s say one part of the international community, so strongly against the idea of border changes in principle on terms of that being a dangerous precedent if we know that Kosovo’s independence is already a precedent in itself, and that there were in fact some conflict resolutions in Europe that envisioned a potential border change?

JKL: I never understood it. There is nothing in international law that prevents this. And, in fact, given the anomaly created by Kosovo’s unilateral independence, a mutually agreed solution between Belgrade and Pristina would in fact be far more stabilising, not only in the Balkans but in the wider world.

Again, my sense is that has been driven by the fact that 80% to 90% of people – academics, journalists, policy makers – who work on the Balkans came through Bosnia. (I came from another direction, from the south end of the Balkans.) I think that that’s been very harmful in the case of Kosovo because it means that Bosnia automatically becomes the frame of reference in any discussion about Kosovo.

In the case of Kosovo, we were left with a very difficult situation. I readily accept that there weren’t easy answers. But we have to admit that the “solution” – the unilateral declaration of independence – was highly problematic according to international law. It clearly went against established principles and norms of secession and state creation. In fact, this had been accepted back in the 1990s by the Badinter Commission, set up to look at the legal issues arising from the break-up of Yugoslavia.

(By the way, the ICJ case took no position on the legality of secession, as many mistakenly believe. It merely asked whether a Declaration of Independence, as a statement, was prohibited under general international law. It isn’t. Anyone can deviate anything. It doesn’t make it so.)

But, and this is important, Kosovo must also be looked at in the context of the break-up of Yugoslavia. It may not have legally been a republic with a right to independence like the others. But it was a republic in all but name. And it was wholly unrealistic to expect it to remain a part of Serbia, when other republics of a similar size, which also had far more in common with Serbia than Kosovo, became independent. Independence was the logical outcome.

Unfortunately, the issue was handled terribly by all sides and is still holding back the region decades later. The tragedy is that it didn’t have to be this way.

EWB: Speaking about Bosnia, which has definitely been an important topic in all of these decades in terms of its almost perennial instability and crisis. Would you consider Bosnia to be, all things considered, having in mind 28 years of peace, a successful example of a conflict resolution or it is more of a failure in terms that it’s a negative example how things shouldn’t be done? Is maybe Bosnia judged too harshly?

JKL: This is an incredibly difficult question to answer because I think that when one considers Bosnia, you don’t just have to look at the original settlement, you must consider how things have developed.

One of the things which really stands out when you work on conflict is just how important political will is. And with the right political goodwill you can make situations work. And there is no inherent reason why the Dayton Agreement can’t work. I think that what we see though is that it has become poisoned – and deliberately so – from both sides.

We see in Bosnia that there’s still a deep sense of resentment amongst many Bosniaks about the type of settlement that was introduced under Dayton. They believe that it rewards aggression and genocide. Others see it as an infringement on what they clearly believe should really be a Bosniak state.

Equally, there are obviously a lot of Bosnian Serbs who’ve never been happy about the Dayton Agreement and have wanted to see an opportunity to escape Bosnia. We are seeing clear efforts by key political figures to make the state unworkable and stir up tensions.

I think the trouble is that both groups have fed each other and provided a perfect narrative. Everyone has noted the way that politicians have been quite happy to seize on that nationalist viewpoint to further their agenda because it becomes so much easier to galvanize and to mobilize national support with an enemy.

There’s no inherent reason why Bosnia can’t succeed if both sides essentially are willing to accept basic reality. I’ve always said it comes down to two fundamental principles. Bosnia will only work when the Bosniaks accept, unequivocally and unquestioningly, the right of Republika Srpska to exist and when Bosnian Serbs accept, unequivocally and unquestioningly, that there is a Bosnian state.

Flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina; Photo: Flickr/ Jennifer Boyer

When those two groups can fundamentally accept one another’s existence, that there is a united Bosnia as a sovereign state, and that within it you have a Serbian entity which is autonomous, then I think that we can start to see some real progress.

But until you get that fundamental acceptance across society of these two fundamental truths, it’s very difficult to see how we’re going to see progress.

Then of course, you’ve got the Croat issue as well, which is becoming more difficult. There are other alternative routes that you can go down, but then you’d start to mess with Dayton and to move into potential models of federalization, which maybe is something to explore.

But, no, I don’t see why Bosnia can’t work.

EWB: In the last 28 years, the international community has invested a lot in stabilizing the Balkans. We can see in recent years that instead of resolving all these issues, there is more and more destabilization. We see a flare ups in Serbia-Kosovo relations, a perennial crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the last couple of years also a lot of tensions in Montenegro, which used to be stable, at least on the surface. Why has the international community failed in its ambition to stabilize the region?

JKL: A big problem is the fact that it’s been firefighting. It’s been trying to deal with crisis after crisis rather than going to the root of the problem and trying to solve the big picture issues. If you’d asked me 10 years ago what needs to be done, I would say we have three conflicts in the Balkans that we need to address if we’re going to have stability in the region and that is the Macedonia issue, the Kosovo Serbia issue, and Bosnia – in that order.

And what have we seen? We saw that the Macedonia name issue was resolved. The government in Skopje and in Athens were able to reach a compromise settlement that got that off the table. That was a tremendously positive step. I accept that it was a very different issue, but nevertheless it was a powerful symbol that these things can be solved.

As a result, it has left us with two problems. Bosnia and Kosovo. I’ve always felt that Bosnia is, in many ways, the trickiest one and the one that is probably going to be solved last. Hence, we should’ve really have given a much, much bigger push to try to solve Serbia-Kosovo because I think it is doable.

We’ve missed opportunity after opportunity to do it, and to have a big, coordinated effort by the EU and USA to reach that compromise settlement. And then once that’s done, we will be left with a clear run at Bosnia, which is much more complex.

EWB: Talking about incentives to the political leaders to resolve all these open questions instead of creating problems and crises, is EU membership the main incentive? Is it the lack of EU perspective which led to this crisis, and can a realistic EU perspective be the solution? Or it was wrong from the beginning to imagine the EU as a magic wand to resolve all problems?

JKL: I’ve always believed that the EU provides an amazing opportunity to resolve these issues. It is not only an incentive for countries to resolve their issues, but that it also it provides powerful tools to do so.

Again, I come back to Northern Ireland. It was the EU factor that created the conditions for the Good Friday Agreement. It has allowed borders to become increasingly irrelevant in conflict situations. In Northern Ireland it didn’t matter if you were a nationalist Republican, i.e. from the community that wanted unification of the island of Ireland. You might want that at a political level, but what the EU allowed you to do was to live much of your life with an open border. If you were living in Northern Ireland and you were close to the Irish border, that border didn’t really mean anything, and you could feel yourself to be part of what felt like a united Ireland. And I think that was incredibly powerful.

In the case of the Balkans, I think that is incredibly important as well. If you had the Balkans within the EU, then a lot of these border issues cease to become important when you have free movement so that people’s identity can reflect the daily reality of their existence.

At the same time, of course, the EU was an incredible incentive, it really offered opportunities that if you can sit down and sort out your problems, you will get all sorts of goodies. You’re going to get more investment and assistance. Your citizens are going to get much better opportunities to study abroad, work abroad, just travel abroad. All these things would’ve been incredibly valuable. So that was an incentive.

Of course, that isn’t looking positive at the moment. In that sense, you can’t help but feel that the lack of an EU perspective now is doing incredible damage. Back in 2016, 2017 we were talking about Serbia in the EU by 2025. Who’s talking about that these days? People do feel disillusioned at this point. They do start to say, “well, why do we solve these big issues? What’s in it for us?”

So, I’m disappointed. The EU element is so important. It should be a positive factor. But as we are also seeing it has now become a part of the problem.

EWB: We can often hear the argument that Serbia and Kosovo will have to resolve all of their issues before entering the EU because the EU will never again import territorial disputes like it did with the entry of Cyprus. How strong do you think is this conviction?

JKL: I think it’s very important. No one wants a situation where you take in one country which will then block another from joining. That’s the worry.

EU accession is still an area where member states have veto rights. The last thing anyone wants is to take in Serbia and then the next day Serbia says, “fine, thank you very much for acceptance of membership, but no go on Kosovo.” That leaves Kosovo in limbo. This would be unacceptable to most members.

If you have a deal between Serbia and Kosovo, and Serbia recognizes Kosovo, then the five non-recognizers can recognize Kosovo as well. Then Kosovo can take its own time to join in the knowledge that Serbia doesn’t have an inherent reason for blocking it. Although, as we have seen with Bulgaria and North Macedonia, there are plenty of opportunities for nasty surprises.

That’s the reason why, when they talk about normalization, they are really talking about recognition. Let’s not pretend otherwise. You can say, “the EU can’t demand it because of the five non-recognizers”. That’s true, but everyone understands that normalization effectively means recognition precisely because no one wants to leave this issue open for a potential Serbian veto. That’s a very important factor in all of this.

EWB: Do you think it’s even realistic to imagine any scenario in which Serbia does not formally recognize Kosovo as a state, but Serbia and Kosovo become a part of the EU? Is there such a precedent or an argument that would be in favour of this kind of solution?

JKL: No. It would create all sorts of problems in terms of how EU member states interact with each other. To have two that didn’t formally recognize each other, or one that didn’t formally recognize the other, I just don’t think it would be a particularly healthy situation in all sorts of ways. Ultimately, it has to come down to Serbia and Kosovo recognizing each other as sovereign independent states. The question is how do we get to that situation.

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