Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Train to Nowhere – is Dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo approaching its Final Station?

Photo: Twitter/UNPOintl 

With 1 March 2017, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, started a Balkan tour of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia. The tour ended on March 4 and Mogherini is expected to brief EU foreign ministers on the visit at the Foreign Affairs Council on March 6. The Western Balkans is thus after long time receiving increased attention from the members of the EU. This is a good opportunity to look at the state of the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia that was once considered a historic success of the EU, but is now facing a stalemate.

On 14 January 2017, a first train in 18 years left Belgrade and was planned to enter the city of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo. However, the long-awaited train connecting Kosovo and Serbia did not reach its final destination. It was stopped near the borders, in Raska. The reason was simple – the train was painted in the national colours of Serbia and it was written all over in 21 languages “Kosovo is Serbia”. The train provocation was connected to the coming presidential election in Serbia; however, the tension has been rising since December, when the Kosovo Serbs started to build a concrete wall near the bridge across the Ibar River in North Mitrovica. The train incident in many respects symbolises the process of normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. Much like it happened with the train, there are doubts if the EU-mediated dialogue will ever reach its final destination – the actual normalisation of relations. With Serbia progressing in its EU accession talks (two new chapters opened in February) the pressure for this result will rise.

When the so-called Brussels process started on 8 March 2011, it was a considerable achievement itself. For the first time, Serbia agreed to address the issue of its former province outside the UN framework (where it enjoyed the support of Russia). The EU-facilitated dialogue was quickly considered as a vehicle that could succeed to bring about the normalisation of the relations between Kosovo and Serbia. On 19 April 2013, the EU celebrated a historic success in its role as mediator: the signing of the First Agreement on Principles Governing the Normalisation of Relation between Kosovo and Serbia. It was the first agreement between the two adversaries, i.e. not between just one of them and an international actor. However, four years have passed since the First Agreement was signed and the question about the real effects of the Brussels dialogue is more pressing than ever.

A closer look at the Brussels process would reveal that although important agreements were reached and relations on political level were eased; the reality is not as bright as the European Commission’s 2016 Report on Serbia and European Commission 2016 Report on Kosovo would suggest. The train incident is just one example of the state of affairs between the two former adversaries. Even when Pristina and Belgrade have agreed on something, the implementation dragged with both parties interpreting the agreement differently. Ambiguous language of mediated agreements that so creatively enabled initial contact and negotiations is also providing a space for both parties to understand them as they wish. 

There are many things that can be criticised on the EU-mediated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. Ambiguity in language of the agreements, weak pressure on the signatories of the agreements, divisions among the EU members on the question of Kosovo statehood are just some of the main the problems. The truth is, if Kosovo and Serbia are not genuinely intent to normalise their relations, the EU cannot force them. Unfortunately, this intention from the sides of both adversaries seems to be lacking in the first place. The political will and power of both Kosovo's and Serbia's leaders is crucial for the success of the normalisation efforts.

Having said that, the implication that the EU mediation has not brought about any results is incorrect. Thanks to the dialogue, representatives of Serbia and Kosovo are speaking directly to each other, Kosovo has a dialing code, and life for ordinary citizens of Kosovo is somehow eased. Thanks to the EU, there is a dialogue that most probably would have otherwise not existed at all. Serbia and Kosovo lack internal motivation for normalisation and the allure of EU membership is the main thing that keeps them negotiating with each other.

After the presidential election in Serbia in April 2017, both sides will have to agree on the future of Association/Community of Serb Municipalities, an autonomous structure for the Serb majority municipalities in the north Kosovo. The agreement on Association/Community polarises public opinion in Kosovo and caused increased tension in the past. The negotiations about its future represent make-it-or-break-it moment for the whole dialogue.

The Brussels dialogue has not reached its final destination yet, but its continuation must be supported to bring about greater results. The distance between Kosovars and Serbs must be bridged and the whole dialogue must gain the legitimacy it needs the most. The civil society and citizens should be involved more in parallel actions that promote reconciliation and cooperation. In that way, the dialogue can be revived and have a chance to safely travel all to way up to its final destination. 

The article is part of the wider research supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society as part of the project “Building Knowledge of New Statehood in Southeast Europe: Understanding Kosovo's Domestic and International Policy Considerations" whose findings will be published soon.

Miroslava Kuľková

1 comment:

  1. The key sentence in this blog pertains to the EU's lack of power vis-a-vis the normalization of Serbian-Kosovar relations. They are beholden to the goodwill of the two states and that is an inauspicious prospect, to say the least.