Normalisation between Serbia and Kosovo must come from within

Marta Mucznik

July 2023

The most recent EU-brokered Ohrid agreement offered a glimmer of hope for the long-running dispute between Belgrade and Pristina. But the hopes and expectations the recent proposal created were short-lived as events on the ground quickly degenerated into escalating violence in Northern Kosovo in recent weeks.

The Franco-German proposal, endorsed – but not signed – by Serbian President Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Kurti, in Ohrid last February 27th, offered a roadmap towards the normalization of relations while calling on both parties to engage in a number of confidence-building steps. Yet, while the aftermath of the Ohrid verbal agreement demanded a focus on rebuilding trust, both parties have instead engaged in actions that do the exact opposite.

In this agreement, both parties theoretically expressed commitment to a mutually acceptable solution to the question of Kosovo. Among several other provisions, Serbia committed to not object to Kosovo’s membership in any international organisation. For its part, Kosovo would also commit to ensuring an appropriate level of self-management for the Serb community. Amid the recent escalation of violence, the international community also asked Kosovo to refrain from any actions that might escalate tensions with Kosovo Serbs.

Yet, shortly after both parties endorsed the Franco-German proposal, Serbian President, Aleksandar Vučić announced he would not sign any international legally binding documents that would imply recognizing Kosovo’s independence and effectively voted against Kosovo’s membership in the Council of Europe. Conversely, Pristina’s decision to install its newly elected mayors in an election overwhelmingly boycotted by Kosovo Serbs in Serb-dominated municipalities – clearly sent the wrong signal in clear defiance of the international community’s recommendations.

These two issues lie at the heart of the dispute: Serbian non-recognition of Kosovo’s independence and Kosovo’s international standing, on the one hand and autonomy of Kosovo Serbs and governance of Serb-majority areas in Kosovo, on the other. Unless concrete solutions to address these two underlying divisive issues are seriously considered, little progress can be expected. Competing historical narratives must also be addressed.

The EU-brokered so-called agreement was hailed as a breakthrough, but its broad and vague terms left ample room for misinterpretation by both parties regarding its legal bindingness.

Yet, the problem goes beyond the ambiguity of the agreement. This most recent attempt to revive peace between Belgrade and Pristina serves as stark reminder that no level of international diplomacy can ever replace the genuine willingness of both the people and the leadership to bring about lasting peace. Ultimately a comprehensive normalization agreement must come from within.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that achieving peace is an aspiration that transcends the political tenure of leaders. Short-term goals of securing votes and instigating populations often take precedence over the long-term prospects of peace, stability, and the EU perspective. The prevailing narrative in Serbia denies Kosovo’s right to self-determination while, perhaps as a response, Kosovo’s resistance to grant executive powers to the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities (ASM) hinders peaceful coexistence with its Kosovo Serb minority. As long as fueling animosity between populations continues to serve as the driver of political capital and garnering public support at home in Serbia and Kosovo, genuine concessions and compromises will prove difficult to achieve.

While peace must first and foremost come from within, it´s important to bear in mind that if the EU wants to be perceived as a credible facilitator in the region, its sanctions policy must be fair and balanced towards all parties that bear equal responsibility in escalating the crisis. Currently, Serbia benefits from EU visa liberalization, trade, and integration support being one of the largest recipients of EU pre-accession funds. Yet, to date, the EU has yet to impose punitive measures against Serbia for democratic backsliding and lack of EU CFSP alignment. Imposing political and economic sanctions only on Kosovo for failure to diffuse the crisis while remaining silent on Serbia’s destabilising actions that predate the current crisis is not only unjust but also counterproductive to the cause of peace. Such double standards, even if unintentional, severely undermine the EU’s credibility as a mediator in the region.

Normalisation must come from within, but for their part, the EU and the international community must also show a fair and balanced approach if it wants both parties to return to the negotiating table.

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