2. The Balkans are still taken care of
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*The European Union wants to show it still cares about the Balkans, but not everyone is feeling the love.
Both sides start from diametrically opposed geopolitical orientations. Almost 90 percent of Kosovars have a positive attitude toward NATO, while in Serbia the total is 3 percent. How can these viewpoints be reconciled? Six years of negotiations sponsored by Brussels have yielded meager results.
A new phase and format of the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue was launched on August 31, with the goal of achieving a full reconciliation within three years. The likely outcome would be for Serbia to recognize Kosovo’s independence, allowing the former to join the EU, and the latter to become the newest member of the United Nations.
In a speech to the European Parliament, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said one of his top priorities was executing “the strategy for a successful EU accession of Serbia and Montenegro as frontrunner candidates in the Western Balkans.” However, Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner overseeing enlargement, said during a visit to Belgrade that this was conditional on settling the Kosovo problem – which the EU “doesn’t want inside the Union.”
Looking forward to 2019, there seem to be at least two plausible scenarios.
Option 1: Accepting Kosovo
The most likely scenario is that Serbia finally comes to terms with post-2008 realities. By recognizing Kosovo – if not now, at least within the next two years – Belgrade would win its release from a century-old problem and unblock its Euro-Atlantic future. Secure in his five-year presidential term, Mr. Vucic has time to let the “internal debate on Kosovo” steer public opinion toward a more realistic approach. At present, the only thing that is still “Serbian” about Kosovo is its place in the preamble of Serbia’s constitution. And Mr. Vucic, for all his popularity, may find it hard to persuade two-thirds of the country’s parliament to amend that document.
Along with his own Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), the president can count on scattered support from the opposition, including Cedomir Jovanovic’s Liberal Democrats and Nenad Canak’s Social Democratic League of Vojvodina. Within the ruling coalition, he has even picked up support from the nationalist Serbian Renewal Movement, whose leader Vuk Draskovic had earlier called on Serbs to “accept and recognize the reality in Kosovo as the basis for a sustainable solution.”
Given the sharp divisions over Kosovo among Serbian political parties, even within the government coalition, President Vucic can only hope to build a national consensus by winning over two key opinion shapers: the Serbian Orthodox Church (which still regards Kosovo as “Serbia’s heartland”) and the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences.
The latter institution has traditionally been identified with a hard-line orientation (the SANU memorandum drafted by 16 academy members in 1986 is sometimes regarded as a blueprint for Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s strategy during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s), but it has recently taken a moderate stand on the Kosovo issue.
After a difficult national debate, and if Mr. Vucic succeeds in securing broad public support and the necessary parliamentary votes, the preamble could be amended in 2018, along with other constitutional changes (on the judiciary and the rule of law) that Brussels requested during the EU accession talks.
Mr. Vucic’s plan is still to cut Kosovo loose, removing the key obstacle to Serbia’s EU accession path. If Serbia accepts the loss of Kosovo by amending its own constitution, Russia could hardly veto its admission to the United Nations – especially after Vladimir Putin’s famous comparison of Crimea’s right to self-determination to Kosovo’s.
The EU-sponsored dialogue would conclude in 2019 with legally binding documents signed by both sides. Formal diplomatic recognition of the Republic of Kosovo would follow in 2020, when Belgrade would begin negotiating the final chapters of the EU acquis. It would be a win-win for both sides, ending a century of historical enmity. Aleksandar Vucic could triumphantly conclude his presidential term, having done for Serbia what De Gaulle did for France by ending the Algerian quagmire.
But does Mr. Vucic really want to pull it off?
Pressure from the U.S. and the EU explains much – but there are important economic considerations, too. So long as the Kosovo conflict creates political and legal uncertainty, no serious foreign investment inflows (except from China and Turkey) can be expected. Serbia is counting on outside help to build up its auto industry (anchored by the Fiat assembly plant in Kragujevac and Michelin’s tire operation in Pirot) and is also trying to lure German investors into its troubled energy sector.
The Berlin Process for EU enlargement in the Western Balkans promised funds to build a highway running from the Serbian city of Nis to Merdare, on the Kosovo border. During the Balkan Wars, Serbia had to fight for access to the sea, but this year Durres was the site of the first meeting between Kosovo’s and Serbia’s prime ministers to take place outside the “Brussels Dialogue” format.
Durres will only become more important after the signing of a Greek-Bulgarian memorandum to build a new Thessaloniki-Ruse railway, bypassing Serbia. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama saluted Mr. Vucic’s realism, adding that his only reasonable option is to recognize Kosovo.
Option 2: Territorial swap
The less likely scenario would be a territorial exchange.
Under this approach, three ethnic Serbian districts in northern Kosovo (Zvecan, Leposavic and Gazivoda) would be transferred to Serbia, and three Albanian-majority districts in southern Serbia (Presevo, Bujanovac and Medveda) would go to Kosovo. Serbian Foreign Minister Dacic has been an advocate of partition, even though he acknowledges it will require giving up some Serbian territory.
But there are several complications. First, a territorial swap involves broader security consequences, because borders are always a military issue in the Balkans. Border revisions would also inevitably require the involvement of outside powers. Most of the international community is opposed to any changes, as Greg Delawie, the U.S. ambassador to Kosovo, recently made clear. The proposed territorial swap is “unacceptable” and “a threat to Balkan stability,” according to Enver Hoxhaj, Kosovo’s former foreign minister.
Just as President Vucic must build support for recognizing Kosovo, Mr. Dacic would also need broader Serbian acceptance for exchanging territory. This seems like a very long shot. One of the most difficult aspects would be Serbia’s requirement that the Patriarchate of Pec, the spiritual seat of Serbian Orthodoxy, be given an extraterritorial status inside Kosovo similar to the Vatican in Rome or Mount Athos monastery in Greece. This model of a “state within a state” would surely be rejected by the authorities in Pristina.
If this municipality were transferred to Serbia, the regional economy and agriculture could be threatened with collapse. On the other side, the Presevo Valley in southern Serbia, home to about 100,000 Albanians, contains the main north-south motorway that links Belgrade with Thessaloniki – a transportation artery known in the EU as Pan-European Corridor X. This route is vital to the functioning of Serbia’s economy.
These difficulties seem to strengthen President Vucic’s case for diplomatic recognition. Not only would it avoid a partition of strategically vital areas, but it would strengthen Serbia’s transport grid by opening a new route to the Adriatic along the EU-funded Merdare-Nis highway and on to Durres.
Blerim Reka is Pro-Rector for International Relations at the South East European University and was Ambassador of the Republic of Macedonia to the European Union from 2006 to 2010.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at :
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