The ‘Dialogue’ Between Belgrade and Pristina

Is it doomed to another long-term ‘provisional solution’?

20 May 2022

The dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo has recently entered its twelfth year.

Besides dealing with highly sensitive issues, burdened with a troublesome historic legacy, probably the main reason for such a long, painstaking process is that the leaderships of both sides look at dialogue as an imposed process rather than as an instrument for bringing genuine prosperity to their citizens. One of the major consequences of this perception has been a lack of transparency in the process, with citizens inadequately informed about it. 

This lengthy endeavour — marked by numerous setbacks — has been practically at a halt for two years, since the Kosovo government introduced an embargo on Serbian goods and has produced a few dozen agreements regulating a wide array of issues. 

Overlapping Disinterest in Talks

Both sides have been repeatedly delaying the implementation of these agreements. The Serbian government’s procrastination has been motivated by the overwhelming rejection of the recognition of Kosovo’s independence by the Serbian public, as well as by the belief that time can be bought due to Western powers’ perception that the Vučić regime — having nationalistic credentials — strong grip on power and the ability to control the narrative, is indispensable for bringing the normalisation process to its conclusion. 

Similarly, the Kosovo government’s position has been influenced by the dominant public perception that after being recognised by more than 100 countries, including major Western powers to which Kosovo is unequivocally strategically oriented to, as well as due to the ICJ opinion on the declaration of independence and concessions made to its Serbian minority dialogue is unnecessary. 

In addition, since Albin Kurti, who has built his political career on opposing the dialogue with Serbia, became prime minister, the Kosovo government has adopted a rather inflexible approach marked by the belief that the precondition for resolving pending issues is mutual recognition. 

Thus, the political interests of both Serbian and Kosovar political elites for delaying the process have overlapped, particularly as historic legacy — not genuine citizens’ interests — seem to be the main driving force of both sides’ current leaders — Vučić and Kurti. 

Tit-For-Tat Flair-Ups in Tension

Consequently, the process has been marked by the periodic fuelling of tensions aimed at strengthening both governments’ nationalistic credentials, frequently aimed at covering up for previously made concessions.

The recent examples illustrating such behaviour are Pristina’s ban on Kosovo Serbs voting both on constitutional changes in January and April elections in Serbia, as well as the renowned licence plate dispute. Thus, both sides have been practically keeping each other hostage. 

Despite all the setbacks and delays in the implementation of agreed issues, the Dialogue, particularly after the signing of the Brussels Agreement in 2013, has resulted in the normalisation of relations both between Belgrade and Pristina, as well as in Kosovo itself. 

The EU as a Vehicle Toward Conciliation

In addition, the EU accession process was unblocked for both sides: Kosovo signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement the same year, while Serbia started the accession negotiations in early 2014. The Dialogue has also contributed to creating new regional cooperation mechanisms, such as the Berlin Process, which resulted in various positive outcomes. 

With the concepts of partition and border correction being seemingly off the table, the central issue and main stumbling block for reaching a compromise has become the creation of the Association of Serbian Municipalities, the Kosovo Government has been persistently refusing to implement. 

Faced with such a situation, Serbia has fostered a constructive approach both towards Western countries’ business interests as well as towards strengthening regional cooperation considered of paramount importance for bringing stability, security and prosperity to the Western Balkans. 

Open Balkans Transcending Ethnic Divides

Rather parallel than complementary to the Berlin Process, Serbia has become a champion of the Open Balkan initiative, particularly emphasising its ‘local ownership,’ representing at the same time a genuine regional answer to the apparent deadlock in the European integration process. 

Originally labeled as ‘Mini-Schengen,’ with the underlying idea of making borders in the region irrelevant, the two countries that are the driving force of the initiative, Serbia and Albania, also put an emphasis on the reconciliation dimension of the process. 

With Kosovo staying out of the Open Balkan initiative on formalistic grounds and with the ever-increasing cooperation between Serbia and Albania, the dialogue has increasingly acquired political clout, rather than being interethnic. 

If Kosovo’s government continues with its doctrinaire approach, it could well lead to self-isolation and losing the moral high ground by increasingly becoming a factor of instability in the region, similarly to the government of the Republic of Srpska. 

With the process of international recognition and becoming a member of international organisations practically stalled, it should be in the best interests of Kosovo to unblock dialogue with Serbia. At the same time, in order to accelerate the sluggish EU accession process, which Serbia declared its strategic goal, Belgrade needs to reach a final deal with Pristina. 

A necessary precondition for leading to the successful conclusion of the process is that both sides transform their existing narratives from the ones that support the status quo into ones that highlight positive changes that a breakthrough would bring. 

Is the Invasion of Ukraine a Catalyst for Dialogue?

Rather unexpectedly, the war in Ukraine and tectonic geopolitical shifts this war has caused, combined with clear incentives coming from the EU and the United States, could possibly open up a space for reaching the final deal and stabilise the region further.

Recognising this opportunity, the two major Western international players have launched a diplomatic offensive in the aftermath of the super elections held in early April in Serbia both by sending high level delegations to the Western Balkans: Miroslav Lajčak, Special Representative of the European Union for Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina; Christine Lambrecht, German Minister of Defense; German Bundestag and U.S. Senators’ delegation and last but not least, Karen Donfried, U.S. Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs.

By inviting to Germany Serbian President Vučić and Prime Minister of Kosovo Kurti for a meeting with Mr. Lajčak. The latter event has practically marked the revival of the Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina.

The desired breakthrough could be only reached after the new Serbian government is created — a process that President Vučić will probably intentionally extend till the constitutional limit sometime mid-summer. However, this final solution might be yet another ‘long-term provisional solution’ — a term used several years ago by NATO for the regulation of the air traffic control over Kosovo.

Regardless of the nature of the final solution, it should be clearly presented to both sides, particularly their citizens, that the positive outcome would bring various tangible benefits, while a huge price would be paid for not reaching a deal.

This article is part of the Western Balkans Futures project supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

Picture: Miroslav Lajčák


Jovan Jovanović

Jovan Jovanović is a Special Advisor to the Global Town Hall (FPCI) he was an MP Parliament of the Republic of Serbia (2016-2020) as well as Serbian Ambassador to Indonesia and ASEAN (2011-2014).


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