A new framework for the old dialogue

Stefan Surlić

06 April 2022

The dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina has not been working for a long time. A step forward for the missing is followed by a step backwards, with the missing agreement on holding elections. The outcome is well known – there is no indication that any agreement will be reached soon. International pressure is no longer effective. It is obvious that the dialogue requires a new framework. However, before devising an innovative solution, it is necessary to confront several myths that have been hampering the Brussels process for more than a decade.

The first is to treat the elections in Serbia and Kosovo as a turning point and an opportunity to reset relations. On several occasions in the recent past, it has been shown that a solution is lacking despite politically stable governments. The calculation is simple, none of the political actors wants to make a move that would cost them significant support. As long as the existing narratives rule, there will be no major political steps forward.

Another myth is the claim of mutual recognition as the final outcome of the process. As a UN member with a distant prospect of EU membership, Serbia does not need recognition from Kosovo. The government in Pristina insists that status is not an issue and that dialogue with Belgrade is not on the priority list. At the same time, great efforts are being made to have Kosovo’s statehood accepted by 5 EU members, i.e., 4 NATO members. This fact that shows that the entire dialogue on the normalization of relations is actually a hostage to  the demand for full international recognition of Kosovo. It is expected that the agreement on normalization should be sufficient to open even a hypothetical opportunity for Kosovo to apply for NATO and EU membership.

The third myth is that the normalization of relations will necessarily mean reconciliation between Serbs and Albanians. The reality is different, the political readiness to recognize the victims, accompanied by a change in the ruling narratives, with a political agreement can only begin a difficult and long process of reconciliation.

The steps that should be taken to revitalize the dialogue or redefine it completely are as follows:

The first is the obvious need to have a direct meeting without European and American mediators. Belgrade and Pristina are avoiding this possibility not only because of their status, but because such an event would mean taking responsibility. A direct meeting, if not of the leaders, then of technical teams would be to take ownership of the process and thus responsibility for the outcome. If that does not happen, the dialogue will continue to be presented in both societies as an involuntary and harmful activity, which is taking place due to great international pressure.

The second step is to relativize the status issues until a final agreement has been reached. Current positions are such that even the issue of license plates boils down to a debate over whether Serbia has recognized Kosovo or humiliated Kosovo as an unequal actor. Setting a policy of reciprocity in all spheres with Serbia, the country on which international recognition of Kosovo depends, has limited effects. Firstly, without an agreement with Belgrade, Kosovo persists permanently with its disputed status in a drawer along with frozen conflicts around the world. Secondly, any reciprocal measure primarily endangers the Kosovo Serbs, and not official Belgrade. Non-tolerance of the determination of Serbs to live in “two worlds” in the long run means a mono-ethnic Kosovo with a permanently disputed statehood.

A more flexible attitude towards status issues would mean relief from the pressure to which Serbs in Kosovo are currently exposed. In addition to Pristina, this also applies to Belgrade, which in the field demands from the Serbian community integration into Kosovo institutions and loyalty to Serbia and the policy of status neutrality.

The third obligation in the dialogue is the institutional dealing with the past in order to stop further political instrumentalization. Manipulation of the past requires the formation of a joint commission that will lead to the official recognition of victims through a detailed census. The mistakes of both Belgrade and Pristina are especially noticeable on this topic. The government of Albin Kurti began its mandate with self-victimization, promotion of the term genocide, which is not recognized by any international court, ignoring the Serbian list and stigmatizing the entire ethnic community. On the other hand, the government in Serbia also promotes self-victimization by featuring Serbs as the exclusive victims, and Albanians as terrorists. The dominant narrative in which Pristina is presented as an arch-enemy, and any agreement with Pristina as an act of betrayal, leaves no room for agreement.

The fourth step is to set internal priorities that would encourage the success of the dialogue. For the government in Pristina, it is the integration of the Serbian community, respect for their cultural heritage, and encouraging the aspirations of young Serbs to live in urban areas and be full-fledged members of Kosovo society. The government in Belgrade has an obligation to demonopolize the right to represent Kosovo Serbs, to insist on economic and infrastructure projects in which the authorities in Pristina will be present as an equal partner, including the Open Balkans initiative supported by the EU and the USA.

Finally, the war in Ukraine heightened rumours of possible incitement to a new conflict in the Western Balkans. Although NATO guarantees security in Bosnia and Kosovo, this does not prevent irresponsible actors from securitizing existing disputes in the region. The instrumentalization of global fear of possible new conflicts requires more than ever a formal joint statement by the two sides that lasting peace is at the core of the entire process of normalization of relations.

This op-ed is originally written in English.

This op-ed is supported by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Pristina. The opinions are of the authors and do not reflect the views of Balkans Policy Research Group and the donor.