Success of the dialogue requires a new narrative and more honesty from both governments

Nikola Burazer

5 April 2022

Serbia and Kosovo have been engaged in the EU facilitated dialogue for 11 years. According to the UN General Assembly Resolution that launched the dialogue, its goal was to “promote cooperation, achieve progress on the path to the European Union and improve the lives of the people”. The endgame of the dialogue process was later designated as a “legally binding agreement on comprehensive normalization of relations”.

Many agreements, disputes, and crises later, the two sides have made significant progress in normalizing their relations, but appear to be as far from the final solution as in 2011, when the process started, or 2012, when it was elevated to the highest political level. Moreover, we have seemingly forgotten why the dialogue was launched in the first place and what were its main objectives.

Starting after both Serbia and Kosovo failed – Kosovo to gain universal recognition and achieve full sovereignty, and Serbia to prove Kosovo’s independence illegal and reverse it – the dialogue had two main goals. The first one was to achieve “normalization” on the ground. This foremost had to do with the position of Kosovo Serbs, whose institutions needed to be integrated into the Kosovo legal system. As one of the creators of the dialogue Robert Cooper noted, the goal was “not to change the reality but instead to bring it under the rule of law“.

The second main goal was for both Serbia and Kosovo to achieve progress towards EU membership. This goal, no matter how much status talks were avoided throughout the dialogue process, is directly linked with the issue of status. Serbia cannot join the EU with unresolved territorial disputes, and Kosovo cannot even receive candidate status without the approval of the 5 EU member states not recognizing its independence.

The term “legally binding agreement on comprehensive normalization of relations”, which first appeared in January 2014 within Serbia’s EU negotiating framework, is the endgame regarding both of these goals. That means resolving both practical issues, mostly related to the rights of Kosovo Serbs, and the issue of status in a way that would enable both sides to join the EU.

After 11 eleven years, political elites have done nothing to prepare their citizens for this final agreement and the compromises it entails. In Kosovo, the endgame of the dialogue was interpreted as “mutual recognition” and the current government even claimed that it would discuss nothing else. As PM Kurti recently said, it is a “dialogue on the relationship, not on our being or our status, because that is done”.

In Serbia, the dialogue was presented as a struggle to preserve Kosovo as a part of Serbia and the question of the epilogue was entirely avoided. It appeared that the space for an open discussion was finally opened in 2017 after the “internal dialogue” was launched, but this episode ended very quickly.

As a direct result of these narratives, today in both societies we see very low levels of support for any realistic normalization scenarios. Citizens support the dialogue in principle, but generally reject compromises, thus mirroring their political elites’ positions. In turn, political elites use these citizens’ opinions as an excuse for not showing more willingness for compromise.

If we are to ever reach this agreement, some things will have to be done. Most importantly, political elites will need to honestly present it to their constituencies. Serbian political elites will have to publicly acknowledge that the dialogue aims at having Kosovo as an EU member state. Kosovan elites will need to stop pretending that the agreement does not require internal reforms in Kosovo to accommodate Kosovo Serbs’ and Serbia’s interests.

What is also needed for this agreement to be reached is a change of narrative. Governments act like they are in a boxing match where one wins and the other loses, and both sides claim that they are on the winning side. Public discourse is saturated with hate-speech, prejudice, warmongering and self-victimisation, and research shows an alarming ethnic distance between ethnic groups. In these circumstances, why would the citizens be willing to support any compromises?!

The focus should shift to what both Serbia and Kosovo would gain by engaging in good faith in a dialogue aimed at resolving open issues to the benefit of all citizens. Also, both governments should show readiness to at least acknowledge the suffering and the crimes committed against the other ethnic group in previous decades and help at least some of the open wounds finally heal. While this may be just wishful thinking, then the same goes for the idea that we will ever achieve comprehensive normalization. The alternative is not so hard to imagine, because we are all currently living in it.

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.