The uproar over the European proposal in Serbia does not stop. Ahead of the new meeting in Ohrid, the atmosphere is the same in Kosovo too. Part of the public in Serbia believes that the European proposal is a historic opportunity to define relations with Pristina. At the same time, the impression is that many more believe this is a case of betrayal and de facto recognition of Kosovo’s independence.
As politicians accuse each other of high treason, citizens are confused about what the deal means and how things will be fixed in practice. Although the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borell, in an address to the media after the meeting in Brussels, said that the two sides agreed on the text of the European proposal, negotiations were needed on its implementation, due to the conflicting statements of Kurti and Vučić, there is still speculation what was accepted by whom, whether the agreement should have been signed, and how the fact that no one signed it affects the binding nature of the plan.
Regardless of the ongoing negotiations, Kosovo Serbs are still outside the institutions. No one is even talking about their return, and the authorities in Pristina are determined to organize elections for the mayors of four municipalities in the north.
What is the immediate future of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, what will happen with the European proposal and its implementation, and what is left outside the agreement, we spoke with Dragiša Mijačić, executive director of the Institute for Territorial Economic Development (InTER) and coordinator of the work group for Chapter 35 of the Serbian National Convention on the European Union.
European Western Balkans: What do you expect from the meeting in Ohrid? Can we expect a step forward when it comes to the agreement on the implementation of the European plan?
Dragiša Mijačić: The meeting in Ohrid is very important, and whether local elections will be organized in the north of Kosovo will depend on its results. On the other hand, the success of this meeting lies primarily in its preparation. Lajčakhas already held talks in Priština, and he is also expected to have meetings in Belgrade.
I do not believe that all open issues related to the implementation of the agreement can be resolved at this meeting, but I believe that after Ohrid it will be known whether the Association of Serbian Municipalities will soon be formed. If there is no success in Ohrid, pressure will be exerted on the negotiating parties to reach an agreement in the coming days, and certainly before the session of the European Council scheduled for March 23 and 24, 2023.
EWB: How do you assess the scope of the previous meeting in Brussels? Can we say that it was a historic meeting between Kurti and Vučić?
DM: The verbal agreement on the text of the Agreement on normalization during the recent meeting between Vučić and Kurti in Brussels introduces the negotiating parties to a new phase of the dialogue, which will be further formalized by the creation of an implementation plan.
Bearing in mind the resistance of the public in Serbia and Kosovo, as well as the indignation of representatives of the opposition parties in Belgrade and Pristina, the acceptance of the agreement passed quietly and peacefully, without fanfare and confetti.
On the other hand, it is an important agreement that moves the boundaries in the regulation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, so the importance of this document cannot be completely ignored.
EWB: As the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy pointed out, both sides agreed that the text of the European plan should not be changed, but that it was necessary to agree on the implementation modalities. What problems do you see on the path to an implementation agreement?
DM: Previous experience with Brussels agreements has shown that the biggest problems arise in their implementation. First, the problem of using the principle of “constructive ambiguity” should be highlighted, which allows parties to creatively interpret the provisions and obligations from the agreements reached. Constructive ambiguity is a common diplomatic practice in reaching compromises for international and bilateral agreements, but in this case, it caused more problems than good.
Another problem lies in the fact that the provisions of the previous agreements have not entered into the legal acquis of Serbia and Kosovo, therefore their implementation refers to a moment in time, not a permanent obligation. Hence, it is not surprising there is a great mutual mistrust among the negotiating parties regarding the realization of the assumed obligations, which is also reflected in the problem of reaching an agreement on the modalities and deadlines within the annex of the agreement.
There is also a problem with the concrete steps that should be taken, whether it is necessary to realize the previous obligations before the implementation of this agreement, or whether these processes will be carried out in parallel. Finally, it is important to note the importance of the first paragraph of Article 10 of the Agreement, which emphasizes that a joint body will be formed to monitor the implementation of the agreement, which will be chaired by the European Union, which is a missing link in previous arrangements.
EWB: The European Union has published the text of the Franco-German, which is now a European proposal. In your opinion, is this plan really a good basis for the final agreement?
DM: First of all, the goal of this plan is the international affirmation of Kosovo and it aims to achieve that Serbia no longer invests efforts in preventing Kosovo’s membership in international organizations. Through negotiations, the agreement also foresees provisions regarding the obligations assumed by the previous agreement (Article 10) but also the need for greater protection of the rights of the Serbian community and the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo (Article 7). The introduction of these provisions is primarily a consequence of the non-implementation of obligations from the Brussels Agreement, the Ahtisaari Plan, and the Constitution of Kosovo.
Serbia must inevitably sign an agreement with Kosovo in the coming period in order to preserve peace in this area. However, in order to determine the assessment of the quality of this agreement in relation to the final agreement, one must know what is Serbia’s goal in the negotiation process, and what Serbia wants to get out of it.
“If the main goal of the negotiators from Belgrade is to return Kosovo under Serbia’s constitutional and legal order or to prevent Kosovo’s membership in international organizations, including the United Nations, this agreement is certainly not a good step in that direction.”
If the goal is that there is no formal recognition of Kosovo, this agreement achieves that because such a request is not in the document that was adopted. If this agreement is intended to solve the existential problems of the Serbian community and the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo, such provisions exist, but their implementation will depend on the quality of the implementation plan and the political will of the authorities in Pristina. It is certainly clear that there will be neither normalization nor reconciliation if negotiators and holders of high political positions from Belgrade and Priština continue with incendiary rhetoric and inappropriate vocabulary in communication.
EWB: Are there any issues that are important for the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo that are not covered by the European proposal or earlier agreements within the dialogue?
DM: Although negotiations have been going on in Brussels for more than ten years, many topics have remained off the negotiating table. First of all, there is the issue of private property, which burdens sustainable return. In the first days of Miroslav Lajčak’s mandate, this issue was put on the agenda, but for unknown reasons, it was soon put away and forgotten.
There is also the issue of public property and financial claims, which will surely be resolved at some point. In this sense, the most challenges will be around the ownership of energy plants, but also related to other issues. The issue of war crimes was also not discussed in the negotiations, which is extremely important when it comes to reconciliation between two peoples.
Article 6 of the Agreement envisages cooperation in areas of importance for the affirmation of mutual relations between the two societies, it will be interesting to see if these forms of cooperation will be operationalized through the implementation annex.
EWB: EU officials emphasize that there is full agreement on the European plan by all 27 member states. Do you see that the acceptance of this agreement would lead to a softening of the attitudes of the non-recognizers towards the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, which would enable Kosovo’s progress on the road to the EU?
DM: All EU members support negotiations on the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo and will accept any agreement accepted and signed by both sides, so the statement of EU officials on this matter is not surprising.
When it comes to the relationship between this agreement and the eventual decision on the recognition of Kosovo by the five countries, I think that each of them will act on the basis of their own interests. I must emphasize that although these countries do not recognize Kosovo, they have “normalized” relations with it, which can be seen through the presence of their offices in Pristina, the recognition of travel documents, etc.
“In some way, this agreement requires Serbia to normalize relations with Kosovo on the same principle as Greece, Slovakia or Romania did.”
If it is a matter of bidding whether any of these countries will recognize Kosovo after this agreement, I think Greece is the closest to that step, followed by Romania and Slovakia, while Spain and Cyprus will have a much firmer stance on this issue.
EWB: There is still no word on the return of Serbs to Kosovo’s institutions. What would need to happen for that process to begin, and do you see any potential problems that would prevent it from happening quickly or easily?
DM: First of all, I must emphasize that the return of Serbs to Kosovo’s institutions will not be easy or simple, it will certainly not be popular in the local community. The conditions for Serbs to return to Kosovo’s institutions are clear, first of all, it is conditioned by the formation of the Association of Serbian Municipalities.
On the other hand, it is clear to everyone that the ASM cannot be formed until elections are organized in the municipalities in the north of Kosovo and local government bodies are constituted. Modalities are currently being sought to resolve this oxymoron, which represents one of the biggest challenges at this stage of negotiations.
The solution can be in the phased return of Serbs to the institutions in a way that workers in local self-governments would return first and elections would be organized, and later the return of policemen and judges would follow. This issue must be resolved quickly, I believe that a compromise will be found at the meeting in Ohrid.
EWB: How do you assess the security situation in Kosovo after the meeting on February 27th? Has there been a certain stabilization or is the danger of conflict still there?
DM: The security situation in Serbian areas in Kosovo is quite complicated, especially in the north of Kosovo, where special police units are stationed. This week there have been several incidents involving special forces, causing unrest among the local population.
There is a fear that the government in Pristina will provoke violent reactions from the local Serbs with repressive measures in the north of Kosovo and thereby prevent any further progress in the negotiations. There are also those in the Serbian community who are not interested in reaching an agreement, so they too can cause incidents that will affect the negotiation process.
There are many challenges in the coming period, it is important to preserve peace because without it there is no agreement on normalization.