Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get

Kosovo prime minister Albin Kurti and Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić met separately with senior European leaders on the margins of the European Council in Brussels last week for discussions on a new US-EU plan to normalise their relations.

Although the talks failed, the US-EU proposal, which would require mutual compromise and promises mutual gains, is likely the best deal both sides will get. They should embrace it, and the EU should hold parties to it, leveraging its enlargement policy and its financial aid as tools.

Kosovo fought to break away from Serbia in the late 1990s and declared its independence in 2008. But Belgrade has never recognised Pristina, and tensions between the neighbours — never good — have flared this year over demands for autonomy by ethnic Serbs living in northern Kosovo.

In February, Brussels announced that Kosovo and Serbia had agreed to a plan on a "path to normalisation". In truth, they only pretended to agree. Since then neither has budged on implementing any of its main provisions. And in September, a Serb paramilitary group clashed with Kosovo police.

Belgrade and Pristina have many disagreements but two of them stand out. The first is about Kosovo's relations with other states and its membership in international organisations. Serbia sees Kosovo as a breakaway province rather than an independent state and pressures others not to recognise it or admit it as a member.

Five EU member states — Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain — withhold recognition from Kosovo. Spain won't even accept its passports.

The second is about Kosovo's Serb minority. This numbers about 100,000, about half living near the Serbian border in northern Kosovo. While Serbia formally claims all of Kosovo as its own, it only really wants the northern four municipalities where Serbs are a large majority.

Belgrade and Pristina both perform sovereign functions in this territory in an unstable and increasingly dangerous equilibrium. Kosovo runs the police, while Serbia runs the schools. Kosovo operates the border posts, while Serbia runs the hospitals and clinics. Both operate municipal governments. Serbia spends much more than Kosovo on the area and the population is loyal to it.

The newly-proposed normalisation plan (a slight variation on the EU's February 2023 plan) deals with both major disagreements. It asks Serbia to act as though it recognises Kosovo: to stop opposing other governments' decisions to recognise it or admit it as a member of international organisations, including the UN.

For its part, Kosovo must make good on earlier commitments to give its Serb minority a degree of self-government and access to Serbian services.

Recent escalations raise the spectre of a return to conflict and thus make acceptance of this plan by both parties more urgent.

The key fault line in the latest intensification of hostilities lies in Pristina and Belgrade's overlapping claims to the northern municipalities.

Since Kurti became prime minister in 2021, he has been trying to end this overlapping sovereignty by using Kosovo police, including heavily armed special police, to push Serbia out and make the northerners respect Pristina's authority, while at the same time ignoring the Serbs' legitimate grievances. Too often Kurti's policies gave Kosovo's Serbs the impression that the government was not their ally and that they may not be safe there.

The Serbs have been resisting, at times violently. In May, Serb rioters battled Nato peacekeepers protecting Kosovo municipal officials, with many wounded on both sides.

In September, a Kosovo police officer and three Serbs died in a clash between police and a Serb paramilitary group, and police found a large cache of military-grade weapons. Milan Radoičić, a local politician and businessman with close ties to president Vučić, has taken responsibility for the clash; he is already under US and UK sanctions and the EU might similarly consider imposing an asset freeze and travel ban.

The newly proposed scheme, presented by five European and US envoys in separate meetings with Kurti and Vučić, would end the unstable and violence-prone situation of Serbia and Kosovo asserting overlapping sovereignty in northern Kosovo. In its place, Kosovo's northern Serbs would largely govern themselves within the broader Kosovo framework.

The northern Kosovo Serbs are the key to the success or failure of this agreement. If the self-governing institutions it provides for them work well and meet their needs, their community can thrive.

Belgrade and Pristina would have to cooperate in providing schooling, medical care, a safe and secure environment, jobs and social security, among other things, with Belgrade providing resources and respecting Kosovo's jurisdiction.

Mutual dislike

Reciprocity and cooperation should be the glue that holds the rest of the agreement together: it will be easier for Belgrade to respect Kosovo's international personality if Kosovo respects its Serb minority.

But if the two sides baulk, relations between these neighbours will remain in the deep freeze, the Kosovo Serb community will suffer and decline, and Kosovo will languish in international limbo for years to come. The risks of further deadly violence — and perhaps armed conflict — will continue.

Kurti and Vučić dislike one another intensely. There is no question of mutual trust. They will only agree with strong pressure from the EU, especially its bigger member states, and from the US.

That pressure needs to be accompanied by credible assurances that there will be consequences for backsliding from agreed commitments.

The EU can also promise rewards for implementation, such as lifting the punitive measures it imposed on Kosovo for past intransigence and forwarding Kosovo's membership application to the European Commission for review. Serbia, already in membership talks, would welcome promises of investment by member states.

Even that may not be enough. If further talks succeed, Belgrade and Pristina may not be willing to do more than pretend once again to agree.

The challenge for the EU then will be to do what it can to prevent escalation while pushing the parties to accept whatever modest improvements are in reach. If nothing else, the present deal will at least keep alive the hope that different leaders in tomorrow's Kosovo and Serbia might finally find a way to get along.

This article was originally published in the eu observer.

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