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[EWB Interview] Joseph: Failure of the Serbia-Kosovo agreement would be a failure of Brussels and Washington

During the past month, Belgrade and Pristina first accepted the European plan in Brussels, and then on March 18 they agreed on an Annex concerning its implementation. European officials hailed the deal as a historic step forward, and now all eyes are on implementation.

About the current relations between Belgrade and Pristina, the implementation of the agreed obligations and the role of the USA and the EU in that process, we talked with Edward P. Joseph, professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advance International Studies. Joseph has 12 years of experience in the Balkans, including as Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo. 

European Western Balkans: What is your opinion on the recent developments in the Belgrade – Pristina dialogue? Do you think the agreements from Brussels and Ohrid are a step in the right direction?

Edward P. Joseph: The most recent developments in Brussels – the meetings with the negotiators Petar Petković and Besnik Bislimi – may, hopefully, indicate that the situation is not as bleak as it appears.  Reports state that there is an agreed declaration on missing persons, as well as initial progress on self-management or the long-demanded and agreed Association or Community of Serb majority municipalities.

We need to keep the context for this agreement in mind.  The parties were unable to agree on key details such as the sequence of steps. At Ohrid on 18 March, the EU and the US might have said, ‘we have more work to do’, as they did on 27 February in Brussels. Instead, they declared that the Basic Agreement and Annex were agreed, and legally binding, despite ambiguity and gaps.

On the other hand, the EU is empowered to make such a judgement, by authorization of the UN, a step backed by Serbia. And the Brussels-Ohrid Agreement, unlike the Washington Agreement under Trump, is a coherent text designed to move relations ‘towards normalization’, not just a list of projects and commitments. So it is true that there is an Agreement.

But the difficulties in “closing the deal”, and the negative posturing in the aftermath are very problematic. This is not the stance that Athens and Skopje took after the Prespa Agreement. We needed to see gestures of good faith, such as Serbs returning to Kosovo institutions and all parties participating in local elections, not burning of cars with license plates – along with positive rhetoric from Pristina.

This is especially imperative from Belgrade because it is Pristina that has the first big obligation, over the Association.  Imagine if Vučić had said immediately “I encourage Kosovo Serbs to rejoin Kosovo institutions and encourage all parties to participate in local elections. Of course, if the obligations under the Brussels-Ohrid Agreement are not fulfilled, then that cooperation will be re-examined.”

That would be a stance like Tsipras and Zaev – a genuine step towards implementation that would have made hesitation or criticism from Kurti blatantly unacceptable.

EU and US leaders praised Vučić and Kurti for “political courage.” But neither shows it the way that Tsipras and Zaev did, on extremely difficult and unpopular commitments. 

EWB: What should the EU and USA do to make sure that the agreements are indeed implemented, having in mind previous problems in implementation within the EU-facilitated dialogue?

EPJ: As I wrote in my article in Foreign Policy, ‘Kosovo Has a Deal – if the West Can Save It’, the EU and US have their own obligations to make this agreement work. Brussels and Washington can no longer rely on their favorite phrase when it comes to the Dialogue, “it’s up to the parties.”

This is not true, first, because the EU and US elected to declare that there is satisfactory agreement, and discard the need for another round of negotiations.

Second, the terms of “The EU Proposal” were drafted and promoted by the EU with the US, with threats of consequences for not agreeing. That is beyond the act of a “facilitator”, as the EU likes to call itself, or a “supporter”, as the US likes to call itself. The EU and US are co-owners of this Agreement. Indeed, the EU itself has several, critical explicit obligations under the Agreement.

I have long experience in the region not just as an analyst, but as an official – working with the parties to negotiate and implement hard-won agreements. It is imperative that the EU and US adopt a different mind-set, as co-owners of this Agreement.

EU and US credibility is on the line at a time when Russia and China are joined together, including on the Kosovo question. If the Agreement fails, it will be a failure not just of Belgrade and Pristina, but Brussels and Washington as well.

EWB: Some analysts have argued that the current political situation in Serbia and Kosovo is not conducive to reaching a lasting agreement. What is your view on this, and what do you think needs to happen in order to create the condition for the successful normalization of relations?

EPJ: I think it’s stating the obvious to say that the political situation is not conducive to reaching a lasting agreement. That’s not the point. The point is that there is an Agreement – with both potential benefits and risks – and the focus should be on how to implement it.

One of the obstacles is this question about whether there is an agreement and, if it is, “legally binding.”  In my Foreign Policy article, I recommend that the EU put an end to this question by immediately registering the Agreement with the UN Secretariat – as the UN urges done in all international agreements.

There is no reason for any party, including Serbia to object to this. After all, Serbia initiated the entire UN General Assembly process that led to the EU mandate over the Dialogue. So the EU would simply be following through on this Belgrade-promoted process.

Registration would show everyone, including Russia and China, that the EU, backed by the US, are serious about this Agreement, despite gaps and ambiguities in certain provisions.

EWB: Do you believe that the Brussels and  Ohrid agreementcould change or soften the attitude of EU member states that do not recognize Kosovo, which is necessary to move Kosovo on its path to the EU?

EPJ: This is certainly the hope, as was stated by none other than US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a formal hearing at the Senate. It is noteworthy that he was asked directly about this by Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a prominent figure on Balkans issues in Washington.

I am especially pleased to see this, as I have been writing since May 2021 about the centrality of the non-recognizers in the entire struggle in the Balkans. Everyone who wants to see Serbia return to the democratic path should hope that, beginning with Greece, the non-recognizers will change their position on Kosovo.

As I wrote in my SAIS Review article in February, this will change Belgrade’s strategic calculus, leading to a full-scale commitment to join the EU and NATO as well.

EWB: In your SAIS Review article, you stated that Ukrainian recognition of Kosovo could prompt five EU member states to reconsider their stance. Why do you believe Ukraine’s recognition would have this effect, and do you see any potential risks for Ukraine in taking this step?

I came up with this idea for Ukraine to recognize Kosovo by reflecting on the position of non-recognizers like Spain. At its root, the position is based on fear: “if we recognize Kosovo, then we create a precedent for Catalonia.” In fact, the precedent already exists.

But we don’t see the contagion from this “precedent” that former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić warned about when he proposed that the UN General Assembly ask the International Court of Justice for its opinion on Kosovo’s independence.

The Serbian government did not like the answer it got back, yet Jeremić’s prophecy has not held true. Neither Kosovo’s independence nor the Court’s Advisory Opinion about it have led to any contagion.  Indeed, two neighbors with ethnic Albanian population – North Macedonia and Montenegro – recognize Kosovo. If any countries would see contagion, it would be those. Yet, instead of creating “Greater Albania”, Kosovo’s independence has not fuelled separatism.

Serbia says that the Court’s opinion is “narrow” because it only addressed independence, and not Kosovo’s sovereignty. Yet Belgrade has refused to take this challenge back to the Court. Why does Serbia fail to challenge Kosovo’s statehood if it truly believes that there is a violation of international law? Perhaps this is because Belgrade will have to address the facts, including the removal of Kosovo’s autonomy and repression from Belgrade — not just theoretical legal positions. President Vučić is very well acquainted with these facts.

Spain and the other non-recognizers have avoided looking at the facts – the drivers of Kosovo independence – because of these dubious legal claims and the fears that underly them.

But there is no country in Europe that faces greater threats to its sovereignty and territorial integrity than Ukraine. Like Spain and the other non-recognizers, Ukraine has feared that it will create a “precedent” over Crimea or other territory annexed by Russia.

But what basis is there for this fear? If Ukraine recognizes Kosovo, will Russia annex Crimea or the Donbass again – a second time? Will the International Court of Justice rule that Russia has the right to annex Crimea because Ukraine recognized Kosovo?

These fears are absurd – and ordinary Ukrainians understand that, according to Oleksiy Goncharenko, a prominent Ukrainian member of Parliament who urges that his country recognize Kosovo.

If Kyiv recognizes Pristina, then Madrid and the other countries will have some explaining to do. Is Barcelona a more formidable threat than Moscow? How many nuclear weapons do they have in Catalonia?

In other words, Ukraine’s recognition of Kosovo will open the way for a more rational examination of the Spanish (and other) position on Kosovo. This is urgent for Spain, especially to do, because Russia is the country that is actually promoting secession of Catalonia and, according to reports, even sponsoring letter bomb attacks on the highest Spanish officials.

Unity among the four NATO non-recognizers will bring an end to the stand-off between Serbia and Kosovo – which will end any legal or other hypothetical issue regarding the Kosovo case. Ukraine can be the catalyst for a unified position on Kosovo across NATO, and later the EU. Serbia and Kosovo will indeed normalize relations…and the people across the Balkans will achieve long-overdue normalcy as both of these countries move towards the EU and NATO.

Why would Ukraine recognize Kosovo? Because Kyiv’s recognition would finally unify NATO on the issue, ending Putin’s ability to exploit the issue. Instead of allowing Russia and Serbia to claim that Kosovo’s independence is proof of their victimization at the hands of the West, Ukraine would be affirming the opposite: that ethno-national disputes must be settled through democratic means, not aggression, unilateral removal of autonomy, repression, mass expulsion and other acts of violence.

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