Security on the Line in Kosovo-Serbia
Security on the Line in Kosovo-Serbia
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Security on the Line in Kosovo-Serbia

The situation between Kosovo and Serbia has just become a lot more insecure. Last week, EU Special Representative Catherine Ashton announced it was the last time that she was meeting Kosovo and Serbia prime ministers formally in the context of the mediation effort she has led since October 2012. Serbia said that it rejects the European proposals. Unless some form of talks continue, tensions will rise, and the EU's credibility as a conflict resolution actor will suffer another serious blow.
After years of posturing, punctuated by outbursts of violence in 2009 and 2011, Kosovo and Serbia first agreed to take part in EU facilitated talks in March 2011. They clinched agreements on trade relations, participation in regional meetings and recognition of one another's diplomats. Ashton then took up the reins of the dialogue to focus more broadly on the political challenge of normalizing Kosovo-Serbia relations and transforming Belgrade-financed institutions in Serb majority northern Kosovo into ones that could fit into Kosovo's jurisdiction.

This is where the sides failed to agree. Different proposals to deal with local administration, police, courts, electricity and telecommunications in the north were tabled. Pristina wants these institutions to fit within its existing constitution, with no separate Serb decision-making bodies on its territory. Belgrade seeks broad autonomy for the Serb population, including a regional government with some form of responsibility for local courts and police. The two visions moved surprisingly close but did not meet.    

The sides had clear motivations to reach a deal. Belgrade wants to start formal EU membership negotiations. Pristina seeks a preliminary association agreement (SAA) with the EU. Both need the European Commission to give a green light on April 16, ahead of a meeting of EU member states in June on enlargement issues. Without a deal, the commission's report can't be positive and skeptical states won't approve the start of membership talks for Serbia. Germany needs at least eight weeks to get the parliamentary approval to start the EU talks in June. Time is running out.

After June, a series of elections in the second half of 2013 and in 2014 -- in member states and EU institutions -- makes it highly unlikely that Kosovo and Serbia's issues will be on political leaders' agendas again until late in 2014.

Clearly aware of this timeline, even after refusing the current EU proposals, Serbia has requested the urgent resumption of the dialogue with Pristina, with EU mediation, which some in the Kosovar government are also seeking. The mood in Pristina is however that they have met their part of the deal and there is no need for them to make any further compromises.

Worst case scenario

But there is. A complete collapse of the talks now would be the worst possible outcome. After April, the EU membership carrot may become weaker for Serbia, but normalization should be a Serbian goal in its own right to assure its security and boost economic development and investment. Kosovo too needs to find a peaceful solution to integrate its Serb population, especially those living north of the Ibar River. Recognition or memberships in international organizations were never part of the talks, and they most probably will have to be put on the table if Serbia wants Kosovo to give even more autonomy to the Serbs living in the north than what the EU has proposed.   

If talks are suspended, the implementation of agreements made so far may stop all together. Even though jointly managed border posts were agreed in December, Kosovar and EU police are still being airlifted to carry out their duties and avoid Serb roadblocks. The setting up of liaison offices in Belgrade and Pristina has similarly been held up.             

It will be much worse if Kosovo and Serbia again try to change realities on the ground instead of at the negotiating table. A repeat of the July 2011 events, when Kosovo sent heavily armed police units to secure two border posts in the Serb-controlled north of Kosovo and causing one death, is possible.  Similarly, the Kosovar Serbs in the north may try to seal themselves from the rest of Kosovo, eject the limited EU police presence and put an end to any integration efforts, like the work of a small Pristina administration office or the joint border posts. Kosovar Serbs may organize a new round of local elections in defiance of Pristina and declare their own autonomy. The credibility and legitimacy of extremists unafraid of using force on both sides will increase.

The EU's role

The EU's credibility as a conflict resolution actor is also on the line. The talks' failure put into question its mediation and the ability of enlargement to promote conflict resolution. As Lady Ashton pointed out on Monday, she has met the Serbian and Kosovar prime ministers eight times, sometimes in sessions that lasted more than thirteen hours. This effort should not be thrown away if Kosovo and Serbia ask for her help.

If the EU is seen as having failed, the ability of its over 2,000-strong rule of law mission (EULEX) to operate firstly in Serb areas, but then also in the rest of Kosovo where its mandate is up for an extension in June 2014, may also be compromised.    

It's a crucial moment when the EU's, Kosovo's and Serbia's leaders should step up and demonstrate to their people that the only positive outcome possible is an agreement -- ideally in the coming weeks to meet EU member state deadlines, but if not, then later in the coming months. The two former warring parties have already gone a long way toward resolving their differences. Neither has said that the process is over; it cannot be over for the EU either.

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