How to Relaunch the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue
How to Relaunch the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue
Report 196 / Europe & Central Asia

Kosovo’s Fragile Transition

Kosovo has taken first state-building steps, but the inter­national community has not met its commitments to provide adequate support.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Kosovo has taken first state-building steps, but the inter­national community has not met its commitments to provide adequate support. A rule-of-law mission (EULEX), the EU’s biggest ever European security and defence policy (ESDP) operation, was agreed in February 2008 but has only started to deploy. The International Civilian Office (ICO), projected to supervise independence, is a shell. The UN still functions in part as an interim administration, negotiating arrangements for Kosovo Serbs with Belgrade. The Ahtisaari plan, on the basis of which 47 states have recognised Kosovo, has been undermined by the international organisations meant to help implement it. The EU and U.S. are struggling to come to terms with Russia’s attempts to portray its support for breakaway regions in Georgia as a mirror image of what they did in Kosovo. Most urgent now is for the EU to make EULEX fully operational before year’s end and use its leverage with a Belgrade government that wants membership to begin to make pragmatic accommodations to Kosovo’s new status.

Major violence has been avoided, €1.2 billion in aid pledged and the first tentative measures to produce effective statehood taken. But the calm surface is deceptive. Divisions between Albanian and Serb areas have widened, and prospects for a unitary state are evaporating. If a de facto partition hardens, the future of the two thirds of Kosovo’s Serbs who live south of the River Ibar division line will be problematic, pressure to redraw borders on ethnic lines throughout the former Yugoslavia will mount, and perspectives for EU membership for countries in the region will further dim.

Serb defiance has entrenched north of the Ibar, where Kosovo courts, border and customs posts do not operate, and Kosovo Serbs continue to refuse to cooperate with Kosovo institutions or the EU. On 11 May Serbia held elections in Kosovo that introduced new municipal authorities in Serb areas, against the explicit instructions of the UN Special Representative. Pristina reacted with restraint, expecting the EU to roll back the developments, but its expectations are too high.

EULEX has only a quarter of its planned 2,000 international staffers on the ground. Unwilling to face hostility in Serb areas, it has kept a low profile throughout Kosovo to avoid contributing to a geographic division of international operations. The EU and UN may have greater success brokering compromises with Belgrade’s new, more EU-friendly government, but Kosovo Serb leaders are close to Serbia’s now opposition DSS and Radical parties, and President Tadic has limited room for manoeuvre.

After months of indecision, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced in June the start of the UN Mission in Kosovo’s (UNMIK) reconfiguration, opening the way for a handover of UN assets and premises. On 23 July discussions began between UNMIK and Belgrade on six areas of governance in Serb areas of Kosovo, including police, courts and customs. The UN is somewhat optimistic about the talks, but there has already been too much delay. Now that UN/EU reconfiguration technicalities were agreed on 18 August, the EU needs to deploy fully into Kosovo and become operational by 1 December, start working in the north under the UN umbrella, and make Peter Feith, its special representative (EUSR), the authoritative international figure as ICO head.

The most sensitive area is north of the Ibar, where all sides should agree on transitional arrangements which would be reviewed no later than early 2010 when the International Civilian Representative’s (ICR) powers are up for evaluation. This would amount in effect to temporary suspension of the constitution in part of Kosovo’s territory, while EULEX works under a UN umbrella as an intermediary between Kosovo Serbs and Pristina; supports re-opening courts which would temporarily apply UNMIK law; continues UNMIK’s policing model there; and oversees administration of customs without Kosovo symbols under a revenue-sharing arrangement between Pristina and the four northern municipalities that gives the latter an incentive to uphold the arrangements.

Since July Serbia has had a new government with conflicting priorities. President Tadic wishes to build upon the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) that the EU signed with him two weeks before the May election to make quick progress towards membership candidacy status and visa liberalisation. But his government, while softer in tone and more inclined to diplomatic methods than its predecessor, may be equally determined not to lose Kosovo. It wants a UN rather than an EU presence in Serb areas of Kosovo, and has not adequately accepted, defined or controlled its southern border. It is pressing the UN General Assembly to request an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legality of Pristina’s independence declaration. The contradictions are ultimately untenable. Belgrade and Brussels must address Kosovo soon if they are serious about Serbia’s EU prospects. In those talks, the EU should make strategic use of Serbia’s accession process to secure deployment of its field missions Kosovo-wide and prepare Serbia to accommodate itself to, if not formally recognise, its former territory’s new status.

Kosovo is proving to be a difficult test for EU security and defence policy. The political will mustered before the February joint decision on the deployment of EULEX and a EUSR is dissipating. At a time when the EU is engaged in tough talks with Russia about the deployment of a new ESDP mission to Georgia, it would be dangerous to show lack of resolve so close to home.

The effects are not yet clear on Kosovo of recent events in Georgia, where Russia has cited western actions in Kosovo as part of its justification for unilaterally recognising the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent. Moscow may be more ready than ever to demonstrate its blocking capacities in the UN and tempted to encourage territorial fragmentation in the EU’s backyard; or it may be more ready to show its cooperative side after having demonstrated its new and troubling self-confidence. There is more need than ever for the EU to muster a strong foreign and security policy in its immediate neighbourhood.

Pristina/Brussels, 25 September 2008

How to Relaunch the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue

Online Event to discuss Crisis Group's report "Relaunching the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue", in which we discussed what currently stands in the way of a new status quo and what it will take to relaunch the process with the Pristina elections in view.

Thirteen years after Kosovo broke away from Serbia, the two countries remain mired in mutual non-recognition, with deleterious effects on both. The parties need to move past technicalities to tackle the main issues at stake: Pristina’s independence and Belgrade’s influence over Kosovo’s Serbian minority.

In this conversation, we discussed what currently stands in the way of a new status quo and what it will take to relaunch the process with the Pristina elections in view.

How to Relaunch the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue (Online Event, 28th January 2021)

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.