The Balkans was best known for minority problems. Today, the most bitter conflicts are between parties that appeal to majority ethnic communities. As recent turbulence in Macedonia shows, Eastern Europe could face new dangers if majority populism ends the current stigma against separatism for oppressed small groups.
Tensions with Serbia spiked over Kosovo parliament’s 14 Dec approval of legislation transforming Kosovo Security Force (KSF) into a regular army, expanding its competences and doubling its size to 5,000. Kosovo Serb MPs boycotted session, said army would have no mandate in Serb-majority North Kosovo and that they would challenge vote at Constitutional Court. Serbian President Vučić called army “illegal”, said Pristina had “jeopardized peace and security”. NATO earlier called on Kosovo not to proceed with vote; NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg 17 Dec announced his “regret” over “ill-timed” decision, noting NATO would have to re-examine its engagement with KSF. EU and UN also expressed concern; Russia condemned move, while U.S. said it was “Kosovo’s sovereign right”. Serbia called urgent session of UN Security Council 17 Dec, at which Vučić called on UN to “curb” and “tame” Kosovo and take greater role in normalisation of relations. Tensions also continued over 100% customs tariffs Kosovo imposed in Nov, with Kosovo Serb MPs occupying parliament early Dec in protest. PM Haradinaj and FM Pacolli attended annual EU-Kosovo Stabilisation and Association Council in Brussels 17 Dec, where reportedly tense meeting saw discussions of tariff increase, and Kosovo expressed frustration over delays in EU visa liberalisation. EU foreign policy chief Mogherini convened meeting of five Western Balkan leaders 19 Dec, during which they expressed “strongest support” for Kosovo and Serbia normalising relations, while U.S. President Trump wrote to Thaçi and Vučić mid-month calling for them to reach “historic accord”. Pristina 28 Dec announced extension of 100% customs tariff on imports from Serbia and Bosnia to include internationally-branded goods; EU reiterated its condemnation of tariffs, while Vučić said there would be no normalisation talks until tariffs are withdrawn. Thaçi 26 Dec said “land swap never will be negotiated” as part of normalisation agreement.
Serbia and Kosovo must build on a recent breakthrough in negotiations and extend dialogue to sensitive issues, especially northern Kosovo’s institutions, in order to keep their fragile relationship moving forward.
Kosovo deserves to celebrate today as the international community converts the “supervised independence” it achieved four years ago to full independence, but it must also do more to guarantee full protection of minority rights, especially those of the country’s Serb population.
The dispute about Kosovo’s sovereignty continues to fuel tensions and violent clashes in northern Kosovo, halting Kosovo’s and Serbia’s fragile dialogue and putting at risk Serbia’s EU candidacy.
The dispute between Kosovo and Serbia, which keeps the Western Balkans divided and insecure, is most acute in Kosovo’s northern municipalities.
The development of more realistic, if not yet fully public, attitudes in Kosovo and Serbia suggest a win-win resolution of their dispute is feasible if both sides promptly open talks with the aim of reaching a comprehensive compromise.
Kosovo must bolster its failing justice system and establish rule of law throughout the country if it is to achieve prosperity and greater international recognition.
Political instability keeps growing in the Western Balkans amid geopolitical contests and increased tensions with Russia. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to engage intensively to ensure the political space for avoiding more serious crisis does nto entirely vanish in the Western Balkans.
Originally published in Today's Zaman