bridge in Mitrovica Bridge over the Ibar river in Mitrovica, separating the Serbian and the Albanian communities. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Serbian President’s rhetoric since July 2017 has been suggestive of a compromise deal – but, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica, the future is still uncertain  

Last week, Kosovo’s authorities failed to publish their promised draft statute for the Community of Serb Municipalities (ZSO) i.e. for the several tens of thousands of Serbs concentrated in north Kosovo on the border with Serbia. This was meant to be a key milestone in the so-called ‘normalisation’ of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, but there is now renewed scepticism about the future.

In reality, though, the latest setback is just one of a number since the start of talks in 2011. This is largely because the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo involves a tense conflict over political power which is fraught with historical legacies.

Historical legacies

Ever since the Balkan Wars of 1912-3, when Serbia expanded southward at the expense of the Ottoman Empire and its neighbour Bulgaria, Belgrade has claimed Kosovo as Serbia’s ‘cradle’, the seat of its medieval state before the Ottoman conquest. However, the inconvenient truth is that by modern times Kosovo had an Albanian majority that did not wish to be ruled by Belgrade. Except for brief interludes in the twentieth century, however, it was. And as a result, Serbia’s rule was characterised by the harsh oppression of a people who yearned to rule themselves.

The oppression became particularly bad during the wars of Yugoslav succession in the 1990s. Slobodan Milošević’s brutal policies to put down an insurgency by the Kosovo Liberation Army created an internal refugee crisis.

For a variety of reasons largely to do with NATO’s new, expansive role in Eastern Europe after the Cold War, the West led by the US decided to pursue a so-called ‘humanitarian war’ to drive Serbia out of Kosovo.

NATO protectorate

Indeed, the 1999 war – NATO’s very first – brought about the definitive end of Serb rule in Kosovo. Since then, Kosovo has been a de facto Western ‘protectorate’, denied a presence in international organisations – like a seat at the UN – by an intransigent Serbia, leaning periodically on Russia for help.

While most Albanians greeted NATO intervention as liberation, the record of Western intervention in Kosovo has not been positive. Internationally, it paved the way for a host of interventions without prior UN authorisation – with disastrous consequences, particularly in the Middle East.

Locally, too, it has not been a success. Many Serb inhabitants were driven out of Kosovo as Serb security forces withdrew, while the new Kosovo state was riven with allegations of corruption and mafia links. It continues to suffer from massive levels of unemployment.

By 2007, Kosovars had voted out a moderate political force in favour of radical change, in the shape of a coalition dominated by former KLA commanders. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence.

Similarly, by 2012, Serbs had turned away from politicians most associated with the popular overthrow of Milošević in 2000 to more hardline nationalists.

From the declaration of independence to the normalisation of relations

The return of hardliners by the turn of the decade appeared to bode ill for the future. But Belgrade and Priština started the process of ‘normalisation’ three years after Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008.

Between 2011 and 2013, sponsored by the EU, the normalisation talks led to agreements in principle on various issues. This agreement, entitled the Brussels Agreement (2013), provided for the creation of an Association of Serb Municipalities, the unification of the Kosovan police and judiciary, discussions on energy and telecoms, and an agreement by both sides not to block each other’s entry into the EU.

The major premise of the negotiations, though never explicitly stated, was that Serbia would in effect accept Kosovo’s independence in return for some kind of autonomy for Kosovo’s Serbs in the north. Curiously, it was the rise of the hardliners on both sides that allowed for ‘progress’.

In Kosovo, the dominant personality since 2007 has been former KLA leader Hashim Thaçi. In Serbia, it has been Aleksandar Vučić, the former spokesperson of the far right Radical Party, now running an effectively pro-Western, centre-right party.

Both appeared to have had enough credit in nationalist circles to make tentative gestures of reconciliation. But both also continued to play to their nationalist constituencies, which helps explain some of the ups and downs in the normalisation talks.

Obstacles on the road to normalisation

Backed by the West, Kosovo has been particularly keen to make headway in the talks. But it is reluctant to give the Kosovo Serbs autonomy until it sees concrete signs of compromise from Serbia. It knows that Serbia wants EU accession, while Kosovo counts on the EU and the West to get the globally recognised statehood it has so far been denied.

The current Kosovan government has made it clear that it is prepared for compromise. It managed to come to an agreement on its border with Montenegro, which was decried by both the moderate and more nationalist parts of the opposition as a sell-out. It has also held joint exercises with NATO in April 2018, which envisaged domestic unrest rather than external aggression as its major challenge, suggesting how it sees its priorities.

Meanwhile, Serbia’s government is under pressure from two sides. One is from the West: the Western powers want to bring the rest of the Balkans into NATO and the EU in order to close it off to Russian influence – but this ultimately entails getting Serbia to capitulate to Euro-Atlantic integration.

The other form of pressure on the Serbian government is from below. The population of Serbia opposes NATO, unsurprisingly given the 1999 war. Opinion polls show a consistent 80% of Serbs against joining. Moreover, many saw (and see) the Kosovo issue as part and parcel of the everyday humiliation they have endured at Western hands: Western sanctions in the 1990s, and then Western-style marketisation and privatisation in the 2000s.

For Serbia to recognise Kosovo, Serbian ruling circles want, in effect, the equivalent of a ‘bribe’ that guarantees EU accession, a large chunk of EU structural funds and the like. The government also wants strong autonomy for Kosovo’s Serbs in the north, so as to fend off the inevitable allegations of betrayal should a deal be done.

Indeed, the fear of popular reaction is real. Like Kosovo’s authorities, the Serbian government sent a message to its own population earlier this year, holding a military-style police parade in Belgrade in late May, to showcase its crowd-control potential.

Moreover, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has already started making noises implying Serbs should be ready for major policy changes. In July last year, he stated that Serbia should hold a public debate about Kosovo, though without explaining how or with what aim.

He has continued to make statements such as ‘everyone knows Kosovo is lost’, while also continuing to call Kosovo a ‘province’ and reassuring Kosovo’s Serbs that Serbia under his rule will not tolerate any assault on their rights or violence against them.

He has also allowed his ministers to make more belligerent statements claiming that Serbia is preparing for war and that Serbia wants to partition off northern Kosovo with its Serb population. These statements have often been strategically timed for elections or the onset of a new round of ‘normalisation talks’.

Kosovo’s gamble

This is also probably how we should read Priština’s latest move delaying publication of the draft statute for the Community of Serb Municipalities (ZSO).

Kosovo’s authorities fear that, with Serbia’s accession to the EU not due until 2025, they have no guarantee that Serbia’s elites will respect Kosovo’s territorial integrity. After all, a government could come to power in Belgrade that turns its back on both the EU and a deal on Kosovo.

To add to these fears, the presidency of Donald Trump – whose son-in-law recently discussed partition of Kosovo with Serbia’s foreign minister – and in particular Trump’s apparent desire for détente with Serbia’s long-term ally Russia have raised the possibility that wider geopolitical reconfigurations could stiffen Serbia’s terms of settlement.

This is why Kosovo’s rulers have decided to put the ball back in Serbia’s court and to wait and see how Serbia reacts under Western pressure. This pressure is real: Serbia’s elite wants desperately to join the EU and knows it cannot do so without a deal on Kosovo.

Recently, Serbia’s president has announced a major speech on Kosovo in September.

Nationalists fear a humiliating compromise. The Serbian Orthodox Church – given its claim to be spiritual guardian of the nation (not to mention its ownership of Serbia’s finest medieval churches and lands in Kosovo) – is already up in arms. In May, its conservative bishops accused Vučić of preparing ‘treason’.

Indeed, there is much speculation in the Serbian media that the president may call a referendum to change the constitution so as to drop references to Kosovo being an integral part of the Serbian state.

Two kinds of recognition: pro-imperialist and anti-imperialist

If neighbouring Macedonia’s referendum on its name deal with Greece is anything to go by, Serbia may eventually be faced with an equally decisive question. In Macedonia, which had to change its name to satisfy the demands of its bigger neighbour, the referendum question states: “Do you support EU and NATO membership by accepting the deal between Macedonia and Greece?”

Similarly, Serbia’s ruling party may try to tie some kind of de facto, but not de lege, recognition of Kosovo with promises to its population of quick EU accession – if it can get Brussels to promise this. This would be unpopular with its base – and certainly its ally Russia.

But Russia has a weak hand to play and may be prepared to swallow Serb accession to the EU if coupled with military neutrality. It would then have an ally inside the EU, rather than outside it. Nonetheless, this is risky, and Vučić still seems unsure whether he wants to go down this road.

What is clear is that he has been preparing Serbs for a deal along these general lines. And while it would be desirable for Serbia to end its nonsensical and punitive policy of opposing Kosovo’s membership of international institutions, it is clear that Vučić’s kind of recognition would be of the pro-imperialist kind: one that stabilises NATO’s role in Kosovo, hastens Serbia’s EU accession and normalises the hegemony of Western capitalism. Indeed, joint NATO exercises are due to take place in Serbia this autumn, even though Serbia is not a member.

By contrast, an anti-imperialist kind of recognition of Kosovo from the left would respect its right to self-determination by ending the policy of opposing Kosovo’s membership of international institutions and announcing its readiness to recognise Kosovo – in return for the corresponding recognition of Serbia and Kosovo as NATO-free zones. While this would be a symbolic move that few in the West would take seriously, it would send a signal to some in Kosovo that there is another way, one where Serbia is a friend ready to recognise its independence and an ally against NATO. It would also effectively be a move against European integration in favour of a Balkan federation.

We are now, however, in the realm of hypothesis. Nothing is yet decided, even as NATO’s grip on the Balkans visibly tightens. It must be the job of the left, however hard the circumstances, to find ways of resisting this in the name of the solidarity of the peoples of the Balkans.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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