The last time Europe thought it was close to brokering a deal between Serbia and Kosovo, it didn’t end well.
In August 2018, Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci and Serbia’s Aleksander Vucic surprised everyone firstly by sitting next to each other on a panel in Austria, and then by confirming that bilateral talks to end two decades of estrangement were producing results.
An additional bombshell was that part of the talks “might include border correction”, which could see Serb majority areas of northern Kosovo handed to Serbia in return for ethnic-Albanian parts of Serbia. Kosovo is home to around 120,000 Serbs out of its population of 1.8 million.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters that “whatever outcome is mutually agreed will get our support,” which was widely interpreted to mean she supported land-swaps. She also announced talks between the two men in Brussels the following month.
Thaci did not waste any time rolling back his comments, telling a press conference days after the Austria event that the claims he supported land-swaps was “fake news”.
The international response was swift. German Chancellor Angela Merkel described any talk of redrawing borders as “dangerous”, while three former high representatives for Bosnia and Herzegovina came out against the idea in an open letter to Mogherini.
Days before Vucic and Thaci were due to meet in Brussels, the talks were abruptly cancelled.
Then came the equally abrupt - and ultimately bizarre - intervention by U.S. President Donald Trump, who dispatched his envoy, Richard Grenell, to the region. In June 2020, the Washington Agreement was signed at the White House by Kosovo’s Avdullah Hoti and Vucic, flanked by a beaming Trump, who appeared to believe the two countries were still involved in open conflict.
The deal took European negotiators by surprise, but it was privately acknowledged that it contained little substance and got the two countries no closer to normalisation. It provided no solution to the two main issues: Serbia’s refusal to recognise Kosovo’s 2008 independence declaration and the future of Kosovo’s Serb minority in a Kosovar majority state.
By this time Mogherini had moved on and the EU had dispatched Miroslav Lajčák to the region as special representative for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue. The dialogue had been underway since 2008, but had produced few tangible results. It was hoped that Lajčák, a Balkans veteran, Serbo-Croat speaker and former Slovak foreign minister, could break the impasse.
Now Lajčák is confident that progress in normalising relations between Kosovo and Serbia - which fought a bloody war in 1998-99 after Serb forces invaded the ethnic-Albanian majority province - is realistic, even imminent.
There was a change of government in Washington, bringing President Joe Biden to power, but also in Kosovo, where Albin Kurti won a landslide in February 2021. It marked a changing of the guard in Kosovo, especially coupled with Thaci’s resignation as president over war crimes charges dating from his time with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
At first, Kurti’s election didn’t look good for the dialogue. He has called for an apology and war reparations from Serbia while his government is pursuing charges of genocide against Belgrade for the murder and displacement of ethnic Albanians. Vucic, meanwhile, has not shied away from nationalist rhetoric that presents Kosovo in its entirety as an essential part of Serbia.
Nonetheless, Lajčák told Euronews he is optimistic, pointing out that what both politicians say in public and what they say around the negotiating table is different. Both Vucic and Kurti know, he said, that their only path to the EU membership - which both covet - is via the dialogue.
As for the role the Washington Agreement will play in the coming talks, Lajčák was guarded.
“It didn’t help, it didn’t hurt,” he said.
“We see it as an act that is not linked to the process and what is really important for us is the dialogue facilitated by the European Union. This is the dialogue that is based on European values, norms and standards and of course on the future of European membership.”
Lajčák is clearly relieved to see Biden in the White House, a man with a storied history of his own in the Balkans, and particularly Kosovo. Biden was an advocate of the NATO bombing campaign that forced Serbia’s withdrawal from Kosovo in 1999 and his late son, Beau, has a road named after him in Pristina in recognition of his role in post-conflict reconstruction.
“Biden has visited the region several times, knows the issues, knows the problem, knows the people but also the senior appointments in his administration are people who know the history and who feel the responsibility and also the legacy,” he said.
Unlike his predecessor as Balkan envoy, Lajčák has clearly and repeatedly refused the idea of land-swaps as a solution to the Kosovo-Serbia impasse. Or, indeed, to any political stalemates in the region, such as in Bosnia’s Serb-majority province, Republika Srpska, whose leader Milorad Dodik has openly called for secession from Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Not only is talk of defining nations down ethnic lines dangerous in a region that three decades ago tore itself apart in bloody ethnic conflict, but Europe has committed to helping the nations of the Balkan become more European, he said, and ethnic nationalism is anathema to the European ideal.
“We can’t have multi-ethnic democracies in our member states and then ethnic states in the Western Balkans. What message would that send? That you cannot live with your neighbours, with whom you have been living for centuries - and at the same time, you claim to be able to live in the wider European family? The idea is wrong from the very beginning,” he said.
“It is very dangerous and it is clearly not European.”
The EU has been criticised for being too soft on Dodik, who currently holds the rotating presidency of Bosnia & Herzegovina, especially given that the U.S. recently imposed sanctions on the nationalist leader. That criticism has been extended to Lajčák personally, whose dealings with Dodik date back to the mid-2000s when he was EU special representative in Bosnia.
He would not confirm whether the EU had considered sanctions on Dodik, but he stressed that the European path for Bosnia & Herzegovina was as a united, multi-ethnic state, of which Republika Srpska is a part. That is a message that has been relayed to Dodik.
“I [met] Mr Dodik recently and I told him what I just told you: That the offer for the European future is for Bosnia & Herzegovina in its current - and also future - [form],” he said.
“I don’t believe that there can be a change to the territorial integrity of Bosnia & Herzegovina and the European Union strongly condemns any divisive - let alone secessionist - rhetoric. This is not what we support and we will never support it.”
The other criticism of the EU throughout the Western Balkans is that almost two decades since many nations began talks over joining the EU, only one - Croatia - had become a member state.
In recent years, hostility towards enlargement from French President Emmanuel Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has further stalled the accession process for Western Balkan nations, while North Macedonia’s bid has been blocked in a row with its neighbour, Bulgaria.
Critics have drawn a line between the failure to join the EU and the rise in nationalist - and often ethno-nationalist - politics across the region, from Dodik in Republika Srpska to Vucic in Serbia to the new government in Montenegro, which includes Serb nationalists and which ousted a pro-European government that had led the country for three decades.
This despite overwhelming support from the populations of the Balkans for European membership, which is as high as 90% in Albania, 80% in Montenegro and over 60% in Serbia.
“I understand their frustration. The process has been long and painful, it is true” Lajčák said.
“But [the EU] is not an administrative or mechanical body. It is a living organism that is dealing with other issues and sometimes the list of priorities are changing, so this is understandable.
“The commitment is there. [This] European Commission and this European leadership have made it very clear that enlargement is one of the top priorities of the European Union.”
He said that it is legitimate and important for existing member states to question whether new additions to the European family will improve the European Union.
“Our partners in the Western Balkans must understand that what we need to see and hear from them is their commitment to reform, not only verbal but in their deeds,” he said.
“They should demonstrate that - in action - when they join [...] they will be fully functional and be able to contribute to the better functioning of the European Union.”
He conceded, however, that there had been an issue of perception of the EU in the region.
“It is important [...] that we don’t blur the European perspective or [...] act as if we are moving the goalposts because the feeling in the region has been such and that does not help us,” he said.
It has been suggested frequently that the EU’s failures in the Western Balkans open the door for other global players, first among them Russia, to exert influence and established powerful proxies. This has been accentuated during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Moscow handing out millions of doses of the Sputnik V vaccine as Europe hoarded its own stocks.
"Look, the European Union does not have exclusive ownership of the Western Balkans. It is legitimate that other countries have identified their interests in the region, which is the case with any region of the world," Lajčák said.
“If we are absent - or if we are seen as absent. If we are seen as not really interested or not really credible then we are creating a void, and of course, the void is filled by third actors. We should not blame them for using the space that we have created by lack of our attention and political presence. This is absolutely in our hands.”
'I want to deliver'
But as a Slovak who witnessed firsthand his country’s accession to the EU in 2004 and the benefits that it has seen since, he believed that Europe’s offer is one that cannot be beaten. The EU remains the Western Balkans’ biggest trading partner, its biggest provider of financial assistance, and the economic benefits of EU membership far outweigh any other options.
“We should not be worried about the influence of third actors. No third actor has an offer that can beat our offer,” he said.
Personally, Lajčák said that it is this personal experience of transformation after joining Europe that drives him in the Western Balkans, where he has spent most of the last 20 years as a diplomat.
His mandate as EU special representative for Serbia and Kosovo lasts another 17 months, and he is hopeful that progress can be made in that time.
“What I am doing right now is not a job, it is a mission. This is how I see it, and I really want to deliver on the mandate and on the trust that I received from the members of the EU,” he said.
“Somehow it happened that I spent the last 20 plus years [...] engaged with the Western Balkans, [and] it has become part of my professional life, but also part of my personal [life]. I feel strongly for the region. I believe in the European future for the Western Balkans.
“I know how much they helped to change my own country and I want to help the people in the Western Balkans achieve the same positive transformation.”