PRISTINA, Kosovo – Repeated border roadblocks, shootings and attacks on journalists have jeopardized months of EU-led negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia.
Over the past week, a long-running dispute between the two countries has again reached a tipping point, with new barricades being built and Serbia moving its troops to a high level of readiness after Kosovo deployed the police in its Serb-majority northern regions.
While Serbia announced on Wednesday evening that the new barriers would be removed within 48 hours, sources of friction remain – and doubts are growing over whether an EU-facilitated deal between the two countries will be finalized before the tentative deadline of March 2023.
“I think that solved the problem, but the tensions remain high. The level of mistrust is higher than ever before,” Miroslav Lajčák, the EU special representative for Belgrade-Pristina dialogue and Western Balkan issues, told POLITICO.
“What is really important now is not to let the situation slide back into another crisis, and it is important that the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia start to create an atmosphere conducive to productive discussions on the normalization of relations,” added Lajčák, who works with the United States and NATO on diplomatic efforts.
Lajčák insisted those efforts would not stop, saying the March deadline was meant to relay the seriousness of reaching a deal. The international community feels an increased urgency to resolve the issue as Russia’s war rages nearby and the Kremlin has long sought to hijack the Balkans from the EU.
For now, however, a deal seems a long way off.
“At the moment, it is difficult to imagine a positive outcome of the negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina,” said Maja Bjeloš, political analyst at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy.
“Crises in Kosovo and violent responses to the political stalemate seem to have normalized,” she added.
The latest flare-up began in early December when Kosovo sent police to the Serb-majority north after elections were announced in the region to replace Kosovo Serb officials, who resigned en masse in November.
In response, the Kosovo Serb community – which largely pledges loyalty to Belgrade – has erected around 14 separate barricades and roadblocks.
Although officially part of independent Kosovo, these northern regions have not fully integrated into the country, and Serbia still runs basic services there, such as healthcare and education.
Kosovo Serbs are also refusing to take part in new elections until their demands have been met. These include implementing an EU-facilitated deal that would give them greater power in the country.
Among the Balkan countries, Kosovo and Serbia have the most strained relations, with Belgrade refusing to recognize its former province’s 2008 declaration of independence.
The EU has been facilitating meetings between the two governments since 2011, trying to foster agreements on outstanding issues, such as the registration of license plates, which apparently sparked a wave of tensions in July.
“This crisis is the most serious and intense to date because it undermines the essence of dialogue, which is the integration of the Serbian community into the legal and political system of Kosovo,” Bjeloš said. “Mistrust between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo has worsened as a result of the crisis.”
Western leaders hope more engagement will change that and bring Serbia and Kosovo into the fold.
However, Serbia continues to plead for the derecognition of Kosovo’s independence. And although more than 100 members of the United Nations have recognized Kosovo, full recognition has yet to be achieved. Five EU members do not recognize it as an independent nation, straining Kosovo’s relationship with Brussels.
Russia has also been a significant obstacle to Kosovo’s full international integration, blocking Kosovo-related resolutions in the UN Security Council.
Moreover, Serbia refused to join the EU sanctions against Russia and only partially condemned its aggression against Ukraine.
All of this turned EU and US attempts to strike a deal between Kosovo and Serbia into a high-flying act.
“The two leaders are ready to meet – the problem is the result,” said Lajčák, who has chaired most meetings between Kosovo and Serbia in recent years. “The last two meetings were OK in terms of atmosphere, but the visions of the two leaders did not overlap.”
“There are always high expectations for these meetings,” he added.
Lajčák pointed out that this repetitive cycle of pushes followed by temporary solutions forces negotiators to engage in “firefighting, because you can’t focus on normalization in a crisis.”
So while the last crisis “is now over as we speak”, he said, “hopefully a week from now we won’t face another crisis – or we can forget normalization “.
Administrative powers involved
The biggest hurdle between the two governments is Serbia’s insistence on implementing a 2013 agreement that would grant Kosovo Serb representatives the institutional power to manage certain aspects of life on their own, such as the local economy and local government. ‘education.
Kosovo is reluctant to embrace this new structure, saying it would make the north even more susceptible to Serbian – or even Russian – influence.
Brussels argued that all previous agreements must be implemented, and that Kosovo will benefit as it will increase government control over day-to-day affairs in the north.
Lajčák insisted that the current moment is ideal for a resolution of the Kosovo-Serbia issue and that if the moment is missed, the dispute could drag on for decades.
“Right now, we have a very favorable setup: we have the attention of the highest leaders of the United States and the European Union, and we have exemplary cooperation between the EU and the United States – that’s is therefore the real window of opportunity, until December 2023 or early 2024,” he said.
Elections to the European Parliament and a US presidential election are both set for a “super election year” in 2024.
“If things are not done by then, we will have to start from scratch,” warned Lajčák. “If we go back to the crisis and the clashes, then we can forget the deadlines.”