Serbia Prepares to Change Course on Kosovo

For more than a century, peace in the Western Balkans has depended on relations between its two biggest peoples: the Albanians and the Serbs. Their territorial dispute over Kosovo, which has raged since Serbia annexed the territory at the end of the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), has created a permanent condition of instability.

But a decade after Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia (under cover from a United Nations mission and the NATO-led Kosovo Force-KFOR), the first signs of a realistic approach are coming from Belgrade. Last summer, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic called for a “broad national debate on Kosovo,” which could make for a hot political winter.

It appears that Serbia’s state elite has finally understood that the Kosovo case should be closed, either by a historical agreement between the Kosovo Albanians and Serbia (the more probable scenario) or through a territorial exchange (less likely). Both possibilities will have geopolitical consequences.

Serbia’s political leadership began to prepare public opinion for this opening last summer. In July, President Vucic explained to the popular tabloid daily Blic that Serbia had underestimated Albanian national aspirations since the League of Prizren, founded by Albanian activists in 1878. It was time for Serbia “to stop burying its head in the sand” on Kosovo and start “an internal dialogue,” Mr. Vucic said in the interview, because “we must try to be realistic – not lose or give away what we still have, but not expect to get back what we lost long ago.”

The 80 percent solution

Armed with a fresh five-year mandate, and with impeccable nationalist credentials, the Serbian president could afford to touch the sore spot in much the same way that Cold Warrior Richard Nixon could go to China. Albanians and Serbians should look for a deal, Mr. Vucic said in an August television interview, because “if we achieve peace between the two biggest nations, we will solve 80 percent of all problems for the next 100 years.”

Assuming this is not just talk, President Vucic can count on support from the European Union and the United States. EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini praised Serbia’s “constructive” attitude in the Brussels-facilitated Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, which aims to have a final Serbia-Kosovo agreement by 2019.

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, however, while acknowledging that “Serbia’s policy on Kosovo has failed,” argued publicly in August that what was needed is a territorial partition – an option that he said would be supported by Russia. This made clear that Mr. Vucic’s “internal debate” would involve outside powers and determine Serbia’s place in the international system – aligned with Russia or with the West.

The timing for President Vucic’s demarche appears to have been inspired by his July trip to Washington, where he met with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. Mr. Vucic was clearly feeling the pressure after German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned, earlier in the year, that Serbia could not join the EU without normalizing its relations with Kosovo.

Two visions

The Serbian president’s brainstorm, which came at a time of increased U.S.-Russian tensions over the Balkans, was that resolving the Kosovo dispute would free him from dependence on both Washington and Moscow. Belgrade had already tried a two-track policy – applying for EU membership but also relying on Russian support for its claim to Kosovo – and that approach had failed.

Moscow still sees Belgrade as a key ally in the Balkans, and Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin declared during a trip to Moscow in August that his country “will never join NATO.” Serbia’s military regularly participates in joint maneuvers with Russian forces, is seeking deliveries of MIG-29 fighter jets and helicopters from Russia, and hosts a “Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center” at Nis that is regarded as potentially the opening wedge for a direct Russian military presence. Indeed, the U.S. recently warned Belgrade not to extend diplomatic status to this center.

NATO, meanwhile, discussed the future of its KFOR mission at the mid-September meeting of its Military Committee in Tirana. The Committee’s chairman, Czech General Petr Pavel, became the first senior NATO official to state publicly that Kosovo, as a sovereign state, could have its own army.

Unless the conciliatory rhetoric is a smokescreen to deceive foreign observers, this winter could see a struggle over which vision prevails in Serbia – Mr. Vucic’s orientation toward Europe, or Mr. Dacic’s embrace of Slavic brotherhood. Yet Serbia’s biggest strategic dilemma is how to rid itself of both entanglements: Kosovo and Russia.

Diplomatic toolbox

Both sides start from diametrically opposed geopolitical orientations. Almost 90 percent of Kosovars have a positive attitude toward NATO, while in Serbia the total is 3 percent. How can these viewpoints be reconciled? Six years of negotiations sponsored by Brussels have yielded meager results.

A new phase and format of the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue was launched on August 31, with the goal of achieving a full reconciliation within three years. The likely outcome would be for Serbia to recognize Kosovo’s independence, allowing the former to join the EU, and the latter to become the newest member of the United Nations.

In a speech to the European Parliament, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said one of his top priorities was executing “the strategy for a successful EU accession of Serbia and Montenegro as frontrunner candidates in the Western Balkans.” However, Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner overseeing enlargement, said during a visit to Belgrade that this was conditional on settling the Kosovo problem – which the EU “doesn’t want inside the Union.”

Successful EU mediation of the Kosovo-Serbia talks will probably be impossible without support from Washington and a strong American presence. It is therefore desirable that the latest round of talks include the U.S. No Balkans crisis will be resolved without active American engagement.

Looking forward to 2019, there seem to be at least two plausible scenarios.

Option 1: Accepting Kosovo

The most likely scenario is that Serbia finally comes to terms with post-2008 realities. By recognizing Kosovo – if not now, at least within the next two years – Belgrade would win its release from a century-old problem and unblock its Euro-Atlantic future. Secure in his five-year presidential term, Mr. Vucic has time to let the “internal debate on Kosovo” steer public opinion toward a more realistic approach. At present, the only thing that is still “Serbian” about Kosovo is its place in the preamble of Serbia’s constitution. And Mr. Vucic, for all his popularity, may find it hard to persuade two-thirds of the country’s parliament to amend that document.

Along with his own Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), the president can count on scattered support from the opposition, including Cedomir Jovanovic’s Liberal Democrats and Nenad Canak’s Social Democratic League of Vojvodina. Within the ruling coalition, he has even picked up support from the nationalist Serbian Renewal Movement, whose leader Vuk Draskovic had earlier called on Serbs to “accept and recognize the reality in Kosovo as the basis for a sustainable solution.”

But other key players – such as the right-wing Dveri Movement, the Democratic Party and the Socialists (who are inside the government coalition) – are adamantly opposed to recognizing Kosovo.

Given the sharp divisions over Kosovo among Serbian political parties, even within the government coalition, President Vucic can only hope to build a national consensus by winning over two key opinion shapers: the Serbian Orthodox Church (which still regards Kosovo as “Serbia’s heartland”) and the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences. The latter institution has traditionally been identified with a hard-line orientation (the SANU memorandum drafted by 16 academy members in 1986 is sometimes regarded as a blueprint for Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s strategy during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s), but it has recently taken a moderate stand on the Kosovo issue.

After a difficult national debate, and if Mr. Vucic succeeds in securing broad public support and the necessary parliamentary votes, the preamble could be amended in 2018, along with other constitutional changes (on the judiciary and the rule of law) that Brussels requested during the EU accession talks.

One quid pro quo Mr. Vucic may expect for recognizing Kosovo’s de jure exit from Serbia (18 years after the fact) is that Serbia will be allowed to retain a special relationship with Republika Srpska. In Washington, the Serbian president got a clear message not to plan any reunification with the Bosnian Serbs. Nevertheless, together with Republika Srpska’s President Milorad Dodik, Mr. Vucic declared in August his intention to draft a “declaration on the preservation of Serbian national identity” in the other former Yugoslav states. The initiative was backed by Russia, which hosted a meeting of Serbian political parties in Moscow to discuss the initiative.

Mr. Vucic’s plan is still to cut Kosovo loose, removing the key obstacle to Serbia’s EU accession path. If Serbia accepts the loss of Kosovo by amending its own constitution, Russia could hardly veto its admission to the United Nations – especially after Vladimir Putin’s famous comparison of Crimea’s right to self-determination to Kosovo’s.

The Serbian president’s timetable assumes a two-track dialogue with Brussels and with his fellow citizens, explaining why the “loss of Kosovo” is necessary. If the process of amending the constitution begins next year, we could expect a relaxation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. There would not yet be diplomatic recognition, but Belgrade could stop blocking Kosovo’s membership in international organizations such as UNICEF and Interpol.

The EU-sponsored dialogue would conclude in 2019 with legally binding documents signed by both sides. Formal diplomatic recognition of the Republic of Kosovo would follow in 2020, when Belgrade would begin negotiating the final chapters of the EU acquis. It would be a win-win for both sides, ending a century of historical enmity. Aleksandar Vucic could triumphantly conclude his presidential term, having done for Serbia what De Gaulle did for France by ending the Algerian quagmire.

But does Mr. Vucic really want to pull it off?

Pressure from the U.S. and the EU explains much – but there are important economic considerations, too. So long as the Kosovo conflict creates political and legal uncertainty, no serious foreign investment inflows (except from China and Turkey) can be expected. Serbia is counting on outside help to build up its auto industry (anchored by the Fiat assembly plant in Kragujevac and Michelin’s tire operation in Pirot) and is also trying to lure German investors into its troubled energy sector.

Another benefit of recognizing Kosovo, and improving relations with Albania, would be gaining free access to the Adriatic through the Albanian port of Durres. The Berlin Process for EU enlargement in the Western Balkans promised funds to build a highway running from the Serbian city of Nis to Merdare, on the Kosovo border. During the Balkan Wars, Serbia had to fight for access to the sea, but this year Durres was the site of the first meeting between Kosovo’s and Serbia’s prime ministers to take place outside the “Brussels Dialogue” format. Durres will only become more important after the signing of a Greek-Bulgarian memorandum to build a new Thessaloniki-Ruse railway, bypassing Serbia. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama saluted Mr. Vucic’s realism, adding that his only reasonable option is to recognize Kosovo.

Option 2: Territorial swap

The less likely scenario would be a territorial exchange.

Under this approach, three ethnic Serbian districts in northern Kosovo (Zvecan, Leposavic and Gazivoda) would be transferred to Serbia, and three Albanian-majority districts in southern Serbia (Presevo, Bujanovac and Medveda) would go to Kosovo. Serbian Foreign Minister Dacic has been an advocate of partition, even though he acknowledges it will require giving up some Serbian territory.

But there are several complications. First, a territorial swap involves broader security consequences, because borders are always a military issue in the Balkans. Border revisions would also inevitably require the involvement of outside powers. Most of the international community is opposed to any changes, as Greg Delawie, the U.S. ambassador to Kosovo, recently made clear. The proposed territorial swap is “unacceptable” and “a threat to Balkan stability,” according to Enver Hoxhaj, Kosovo’s former foreign minister.

Just as President Vucic must build support for recognizing Kosovo, Mr. Dacic would also need broader Serbian acceptance for exchanging territory. This seems like a very long shot. One of the most difficult aspects would be Serbia’s requirement that the Patriarchate of Pec, the spiritual seat of Serbian Orthodoxy, be given an extraterritorial status inside Kosovo similar to the Vatican in Rome or Mount Athos monastery in Greece. This model of a “state within a state” would surely be rejected by the authorities in Pristina.

Both areas to be swapped have crucial strategic features. Serbian-majority northern Kosovo contains the Gazivoda Lake, a reservoir that is Kosovo’s main water source. If this municipality were transferred to Serbia, the regional economy and agriculture could be threatened with collapse. On the other side, the Presevo Valley in southern Serbia, home to about 100,000 Albanians, contains the main north-south motorway that links Belgrade with Thessaloniki – a transportation artery known in the EU as Pan-European Corridor X. This route is vital to the functioning of Serbia’s economy.

These difficulties seem to strengthen President Vucic’s case for diplomatic recognition. Not only would it avoid a partition of strategically vital areas, but it would strengthen Serbia’s transport grid by opening a new route to the Adriatic along the EU-funded Merdare-Nis highway and on to Durres.

Blerim Reka is Pro-Rector for International Relations at the South East European University and was Ambassador of the Republic of Macedonia to the European Union from 2006 to 2010.


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