After starting with great expectations, the EU-mediated dialogue process between Kosovo and Serbia is now stalled after the introduction by Prishtina of custom tariffs on Serbian products and sterile proposals to exchange territories

29/04/2019 -  Majlinda Aliu Pristina

While the EU is striving to reach a Brexit deal with the UK, another peripheral problem – but with potential wider consequences – is keeping EU high officials busy: the stall in the “normalisation” dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, which started 9 years ago, but has managed to deliver only a small part of the great expectations it initially fuelled.

Last November, Kosovo's government dealt a last blow to the process by introducing a 100% tariff on imported Serbian goods, explaining the move as a reaction towards Serbia’s de-recognition campaign and blocking Kosovo’s membership to Interpol. Belgrade reacted immediately, interrupting the EU-mediated dialogue.

“The EU has lost control of the process”, says Florian Bieber, political scientist and professor at the University of Graz, Austria, working on inter-ethnic relations with focus on the Balkans. “The latest developments are part of the ongoing conflict for a final agreement, and things have become increasingly difficult as a result of earlier steps”, he says. “The way the negotiation process was managed was not the right one for reaching a settlement between the parts, which would include some sort of recognition”, says Bieber.

Yet, according to Plamen Pantev, professor of International Relations Theory at the University of Sofia, Bulgaria, the EU has not failed in its long, persistent, and extensive efforts to pacify South East Europe. “Progress depends not only on the top-down activity, but mostly on the bottom-up evolution”, he says, stressing the importance of the EU engagement in the region.

“From a traditional transactional diplomacy point of view, the dialogue has not led to many significant changes, but it has been a considerable success in establishing a new relationship between Kosovo and Serbia”, says former U.S. diplomat and Balkan expert James Hooper. According to Hooper, the Brussels agreement established sufficient trust between political leaders in Belgrade and Prishtina to enable both sides to raise their sights about what could be accomplished.

Have the tariffs threatened Kosovo’s relationship with its most important allies?

When it decided to introduce tariffs on Serbian imports, the Kosovo government acted without prior consultation with its main international allies – a rare move which led to some tensions with the United States and the European Union. According to Florian Bieber “these relations won't be hurt by Pristina showing some degree of independence, expecially having in mind that Kosovo is often eager to adjust to EU and U.S. positions”, but he adds that “Kosovo needs to be careful and skilfull in managing such situations”. “The problem in Kosovo is the huge gap between the Prime Minister and the President: the government seems to be disunited, too, and this seriously weakens Kosovo's credibility on the international stage”, he says.

Former U.S. diplomat James Hooper, on the other hand, appears much more worried about the current political situation in Kosovo. He considers the behaviour of some Kosovo political leaders as a sign of provincialism rather than stubborness. He recalls that since the 2016 elections the US policy has been less committed to support Kosovo. “In this new situation, Kosovars need to work even harder to maintain a strong relationship with the US. But, because of the narrow – in my opinion, provincial – way some politicians look at Kosovo’s interests, they are not able to perceive the dangerous position in which they are placing their country”, says Hooper, who has covered from Washington D.C. the Rambouillet peace agreement 1999. According to Hooper, the US-Kosovo relationship is at its lowest since the NATO-led war against Yugoslavia 20 years ago, and this is a direct result of tariffs.

“100% tariffs are not part of Prishtina's economic philosophy, but are being used as a tool to put pressure on Belgrade”, Professor Plamen Pantev says, adding that it is a clear signal “that bilateral relations need a restart”.

Is partition the solution?

Leaders from both Serbia and Kosovo realised that they were on the threshold of a new phase of the bilateral dialogue when they started to openly discuss the possibility of partition and land swapping, a discussion which was not initiated by the EU, but which Brussels had to eventually acknowledge as an option on the table. However, voices against any border changes remain strong.

“The biggest problem, however, arises from the fact that the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014 reinforced negative perceptions of any territorial change”, says Professor Pantev, adding that the problem is also linked to Moscow's policy towards Serbia, preventing Belgrade from finding a solution to its Kosovo issue in a constructive way. “Russia does not want that”, he says.

Serbia needs an agreement with Kosovo to advance its EU candidacy, and Kosovo needs Serbia to be in the EU, where it will become subject to EU constraints on its military, security, and foreign policy actions, says Hooper. “I see the delineation of the border between Kosovo and Serbia as not only a stabilising factor, but an essential one for the greater stability of the Balkan region. It is important for Kosovars to understand that territory is a means to an end – a greater security for an independent Kosovo, not a goal in itself”.

As the dialogue reaches its final stage, there will be a need for the solution to be legal and in line with international law. The final settlement will have to ensure that it does not endanger regional stability and that it does not negatively affect the communities involved, says Florian Bieber. “These are the key red lines that need to be set. Border changes, though, by definition, are not able to deliver on that, because they cannot provide regional stability and security”. There is a grey zone in which negotiation is possible, but overall, “border changes in the way suggested by presidents of both countries are quite problematic”, says Bieber.

Current EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini is at the end of her mandate, so new negotiations will have to rely on the new European Commission which will emerge after the European elections, scheduled for next May. Probably, the process will not actually resume before the end of 2019.

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