Kosovo-Serbia dialogue: A catch-22 or a dead-end

Astrit Istrefi

22 April 2022

Over a decade since the beginning of the EU facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia the process appears to have reached a point of a catch-22 situation, or a dead-end, making the successful conclusion less predictable and less possible.

Progress and stagnation in the dialogue process have largely depended on individual leaders–rather than leadership–representing the highest political institutions in both countries. Whereas the EU facilitators, other key stakeholders, and elections (early or regular), predominantly affected the pace and course of the dialogue, EU and global developments have also been detrimental. The most recent examples include the Washington Agreement and enlargement fatigue faced by the EU which affected the progress of the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue in different ways. However, Russia’s unprecedented military aggression against Ukraine is a defining moment in history and poses an imminent threat to freedom, peace and democracy around the world. It also encourages Putin’s proxies in the Western Balkans who may seek to maximize their gains during these turbulent times.
This is likely to profoundly affect the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue and lead to other consequences, further jeopardizing the fragile peace and stability in the Western Balkan region.

At a time when these global developments are shaping the future of the world, short-sightedness and inactivity, instead of vigilance and agility, will only harm the dialogue and further aggravate relations between Kosovo and Serbia as well as between Albanians and Serbs in both countries.
While there are fundamental differences in terms of the political agenda, ambition, and benefits from the dialogue, there are clear commonalities between those vested with political responsibility to lead the dialogue. Even though for different reasons, both governments are demonstrating that a lingering
dialogue process is not only acceptable, but desirable, and potentially beneficial. The government of Serbia seems to pursue a policy that ensures a deadlock which arguably provides greater leverage for elections, in the EU integration and accession processes, and further positioning and strengthening its role and influence in the region and internationally. The government of Kosovo seems to be comfortable and satisfied with the current state, and is not showing any other significant aspiration than EU integration and accession, regardless of how distant that may be.

One thing is clear, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Kurti and Serbia’s President Vučić did not begin nor will they conclude the dialogue. A successful conclusion of the dialogue that commenced in 2011 will require more than just two leaders. It will require firmer support and resolve from the EU institutions and their Member States, as well as from the UK and the USA. It will also require a new impetus.

Whether Russia will have a say in Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, will largely depend if it is defeated in Ukraine. The evidence so far shows that Russia has been condemned by the world; that it has lost the allies that it had before its aggression and atrocities committed in Ukraine; and that Russia will need a century to recover from it, no matter if it considers its aggression a victory.

It’s also clear that the world is rapidly changing, and that global developments will have implications for both Kosovo and Serbia. The question is whether current governments in both countries are apt to grasp the momentum and genuinely interested in creating a more enabling environment for both societies which deserve a more promising future.

At present, the dialogue has reached a point of a catch-22 situation, or a dead-end, making any successful conclusion less predictable, and less possible. Any conclusion to the current dialogue process, therefore, is likely to be the beginning of another long-term dialogue between the two countries. As it stands, its legacy will haunt future generations. Reliance on two leaders, as has been the case since the beginning, in 2011, is not sustainable. Whether today or in the future, only progressive, visionary leadership will break the impasse and build more democratic, peaceful, and prosperous societies.

This op-ed is originally written in English.

The 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.