The Belgrade-Pristina dialogue ten years on: What’s next for Kosovo and Serbia?

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Persisting disagreement

A recent study of the International Crisis Group states that during the last 10 years Kosovo and Serbia “have agreed on many points but disagree on the most significant matter that divides them: Kosovo’s independence”. The country was granted independence from Serbia in 2008 as a direct result of the continuous atrocities and genocide inflicted on its population by Milosevic’s regime in 1998-1999, and as an indirect result of its people being killed, raped, or forced to leave their homeland during hostilities that go back to 1990.

Serbia’s continued refusal to recognise Kosovo as independent is symptomatic of what some see in the region as an insufficient capacity to deal constructively with the past. In the chapter  ‘Balkans: Teleology of a Region’ of his 2017 volume Balcani, Europa: violenza, politica, memoria, historian Petri Rolf suggests that compared to Germany and Western Europe after the Second World War, the Western Balkans are far from developing a “critical memory”. In terms of recognition of their own responsibilities in the region, these countries are not yet mature, and Serbia seems to lag behind the rest.

Regrettably, Serbia’s refusal to accept Kosovo’s independence is a continued obstacle on the path of the whole Western Balkans Region to the European Union.

Some achievements, but the past lies too heavily

There have been numerous achievements between the two countries in the framework of the first phase of the Berlin Process (2014-2018), but they have  been limited to “soft” areas such as youth and civil society organisations, people-to-people connectivity and culture.

The Berlin Process has operated mainly on the basis of voluntary engagement by participating governments in bilateral disputes, given the absence of any structured steering and reporting mechanisms. There have not been significant achievements since April 2013, when the historic Brussels Agreement mediated by the EU was signed between the two countries. The final objective for Kosovo remains to obtain Serbia’s recognition of its independence; for Serbia, it would be to achieve full EU membership.

The Belgrade-Pristina EU-led dialogue has been ineffective, forestalled by the two countries’ history of ethnic conflict. Dialogue is impossible where “each side still believes that its gain can only come at the loss of the other”. The Serbian side does not seem to accept Kosovo’s independence as an irreversible reality.

We can expect that both parties will continue to agree on “soft measures” or second-hand issues without tackling the heart of the matter. However, the return of war refugees, the recognition of war crimes and atrocities, of mass rapes of girls and women and of massacres of entire families will continue to haunt the dialogue, remaining as unresolved questions, as ghosts from the past.

State of play

The EU has continued to support the fraught Dialogue, even when talks between Belgrade and Pristina stalled from 2018 to 2020 due to Kosovo’s introduction of 100% tariffs on goods from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The EU’s efforts to reconcile the two parties recommenced in July 2020, aided by a vague agreement signed in Washington in September 2020 by the parties, under the auspices of then-President Trump and Richard Grennell, his US Special Envoy for the Pristina-Belgrade Dialogue. Grennell had been accused of bringing down Kosovo’s government in March 2020: the government, led by the left-wing party Vetëvendosje, apparently had contrasting views with the Trump administration on the future of the Region. However, following the agreement, Israel recognised Kosovo’s independence.

In April 2020, the European Union swiftly retaliated, appointing the former Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák to the position of the European Union Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues.  2021 started with the visit of High-Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Joseph Borrell to Kosovo in January in support of  Lajčák.

What’s next

All eyes are now on the United States, as it seems that the new Biden administration will add much new impetus in the Western Balkans, especially to the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. Everybody expects, at least, that the recent competition between the EU and the US to influence the process will stop, as it benefits neither party.

There is a lot of hope that the EU will continue to push forward the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue, but also that it will pressure the five EU member states—Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania, and Greece—that still have not recognised Kosovo’s independence. These countries need to accept the International Court of Justice’s 2010 decision proclaiming Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence legal and sui generis, reasoned from the massacres and ethnic cleansing inflicted on its population by Serbian militia during the conflict.

European countries do not need to fear parallel demands for secession at home, nor worry about maintaining balanced relations with Serbia and its supporter, Russia. Until now, postponing recognition of Kosovo’s independence has left the whole region a hostage to the past. Kosovo’s  new government, elected just yesterday on 14 February, has a long road ahead of diplomatic pressure and international lobbying in this direction.

Dr Klodiana Beshku is currently a Jean Monnet Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. Her work has a strong focus on geopolitics, European integration and the Western Balkans.