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Uneasy neighbours: Serbia and Kosovo need to mend fences, but remain wary after accepting EU deal

Kosovan Albanians walk past the newborn monument changed to "No New Broken Republic" in Pristina on February 27, 2023.
Kosovan Albanians walk past the newborn monument changed to "No New Broken Republic" in Pristina on February 27, 2023. Copyright AFP
Copyright AFP
By Una Hajdari
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Both countries want to join the European Union, but have to repair and normalise their own difficult bilateral relationship first.

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For once, Kosovo’s Serb and Albanian communities -- historically found on disparate ends of any political issue -- seem to agree on something.

The mood in their respective countries after Monday’s meeting in Brussels between Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti was notedly sour.

“There were protests both in Pristina and Mitrovica ahead of the agreement. Everyone seems to be confused and let down by the process,” explains Donika Emini, a political analyst who has followed the developments between the two countries for years.

“The actual impact this document but also the negotiating process is going to have, the ways it could improve their lives, is unclear to the wider population so people are not sure how they should react to it at the moment,”  Emini tells Euronews.

Bulldozer diplomacy returns to the Balkans

Monday’s meeting in Brussels was the culmination of months of negotiations, paired with not-so-subtle arm twisting from the United States and NATO, meant to produce an agreement that would bring the two closer to establishing diplomatic and formal bilateral relations than ever before.

“The ongoing war in Ukraine has made the unresolved issues in the Balkans a security priority for the US, and the US always reacts swiftly and strongly when they sense a major security issue,” explains Vjosa Musliu, assistant professor of political science at Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

For many, this diplomatic onslaught harkens back to the 1990s, when figures like acclaimed US diplomats like Richard Holbrooke would negotiate Balkan leaders into submission, often referred to as “bulldozer diplomacy.

Senior American diplomats focused on Balkan issues made several visits to the region. The EU’s Special Envoy Miroslav Lajčák has made at least 10 trips to Kosovo since September.

The European External Action Service, the Union’s foreign policy body, published the official agreement at the end of the day, despite being reserved about its impact in a statement right after the meetings.

“I hope the Agreement can also be the basis to build much-needed trust and overcome the legacy of the past. Much-needed trust,” the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security policy, Josep Borrell -- also the official chair of the dialogue -- told journalists.

“Further negotiations are needed to determine specific implementation modalities of the provisions,” he continued.

Virginia Mayo/AP
Kosovo's Prime Minister Albin Kurti, left, shakes hands with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell prior to a meeting in Brussels, Monday, Feb. 27, 2023.Virginia Mayo/AP

Why is the relationship so fraught?

Kosovo and Serbia were wartime belligerents at the tail end of the bloody conflicts marking the disintegration of former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and have been locked in an often-contentious dialogue masterminded by the European Union to resolve their differences.

Chief among the disputes is Serbia’s refusal to recognise Kosovo’s independence, declared in 2008. Serbia’s official line is that Kosovo is part of its territory -- as it was for most of the 20th century -- despite the country having its separate government and institutions for more than two decades.

“There was no scenario where Kosovo and Serbia would sit down and solve these otherwise fundamental issues. Even the most basic exchanges could not have taken place without international mediation,” says Vjosa Musliu.

Yugoslavia breaks up

The countries that gained independence after the fall of Yugoslavia, such as EU members Croatia and Slovenia, and candidate countries like North Macedonia, were also republics within the socialist federation. Kosovo was not.

“The war and the decade before it can not be decoupled from the anti-Albanian bigotry that has been present in Serbia for a long time,” explains Musliu. 

Ethnic Albanians were stripped of political and civic rights starting in 1989, as former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević gained in power, which lasted for a decade until the conflict erupted.

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Then, in an unprecedented move that continues to spark debate to this day, NATO decided to launch an aerial bombing campaign on what was left of Yugoslavia at the time -- Serbia and Montenegro -- and Kosovo as Serbia’s province, too.

“The NATO bombing in 1999 removed Serbia’s control from Kosovo and installed an overarching international presence. It became clear that Kosovo was going to become an ethnic Albanian-run state, and this created further animosities and a sense of disbelief in Serbia,” Musliu continues.

“Second-class citizens would be granted rule over what Serbia considered the cradle of its nation,” she emphasised.

Darko Vojinovic/AP
An activist repaints a part of a mural depicting maps of Kosovo painted in colours of the Serbian flag, in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023.Darko Vojinovic/AP

Deal brokered by Nobel Peace Prize laureate

Kosovo officially became a UN protectorate, and while it was allowed to have its own government and hold elections, the UN had final say. They also tried to facilitate a precursor to the ongoing dialogue and come up with some sort of framework for Kosovo to become fully independent, which was eventually brokered by former Finnish President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari.

The UN then passed the baton on to the European Union, who took over the dialogue and the facilitation of the Kosovo-Serbia relationship. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence -- and the Ahtisaari agreement was embedded in its constitution.

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“Once Kosovo declared independence, Serbia saw it as government policy to obstruct Kosovo’s existence as a state since it claimed it violated its constitution. This is how the frozen conflict we have today ensued,” Vrije Universiteit's Vjosa Musliu says.

STR/AP
FILE: British soldiers serving in the NATO-led peacekeeping mission arrive at the airport in Kosovo's capital Pristina Saturday, May 24, 2008.STR/AP

Long-awaited reality check

The agreement includes important precedents, such as the fact that Serbia will not block Kosovo from applying for membership to international organisations such as the EU and the United Nations.

While Serbia has traditionally used its close ties to Moscow -- it continues to not participate in sanctions against Russia for the ongoing invasion of Ukraine -- for sway in the UN Security Council, Serbian president Vučić confirmed in a TV interview Tuesday night that the agreement does open the path for Kosovo’s entry into the global intergovernmental organisation.

“Yes, it includes it [UN membership]. That’s why I didn’t sign it,” Vučić said during an interview for the national public broadcaster RTS, widely considered to be strongly pro-government.

“I do not know why everyone is being so naïve. Did you wake up yesterday and realise the French and the Germans and the Americans are championing an independent Kosovo?” he asked, referring to the incredulity by some - including opposition parties in Serbia - over the fact that the agreement inclines toward an independent Kosovo. 

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Yet in Serb-majority parts of Kosovo, Belgrade has maintained a strong influence on the local population, including financing and maintaining its education and public health systems.

Many in the north of the country, where most of the ethnic Serbs reside, have called out Vučić for betraying them, including during protests held several times over the past months.

For figures such as Nenad Rašić, a Kosovo Serb who is currently a minister in the Kosovo government and was personally attacked by Vučić for seemingly participating in the institutions of his opponent in the dialogue, this was a long-needed reality check.

“On one hand, we’re really happy it has come to this agreement, as long as it means there will be no more tensions,” Rašić tells Euronews.

Marjan Vucetic/AP
Kosovo police officers guard checkpoint on the road near the northern Kosovo border crossing of Jarinje, along the Kosovo-Serbia border, Kosovo, Friday, Dec. 30, 2022.Marjan Vucetic/AP

Last summer, tensions peaked along the border between Kosovo and Serbia and roadblocks were set up preventing people from accessing the two countries by land. There were several incidents of shootings at police and the NATO peacekeepers, who have been stationed there ever since 1999.

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“People who live in places that are more multiethnic in Kosovo or have the opportunity to regularly meet Albanians have not bought into the tensions,” explains Rašić.

While Rašić is careful to highlight that not everyone in Kosovo agrees with him, he says that the time has come for the delusion that both communities have lived in to come to an end.

“The problem is that for over 20 years, due to the fact that so many Serb-majority areas in Kosovo were isolated and functioned as enclaves or even ghettos, local Serbs have been cut off from the rest of Kosovo,” he said.

Since some form of Serbian government control and presence existed in these communities, an illusion was created that Serbia had a much greater role in Kosovo in the last couple of decades than it did, and that it could one day come back.

“Yet the reality is different. Those are the people who will be disappointed by the agreement. Others will breathe a sigh of relief,” he concludes.

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For the Albanian majority in Kosovo, the idea that the agreement could lead to the formation of the Association of Serb Municipalities -- or a body that caters specifically to the needs of the ethnic Serb population -- has been cause for concern.

Some -- including Prime Minister Albin Kurti when he was in the opposition and presented the dialogue with Serbia as an attempt for Belgrade to continue to maintain influence over its former province -- believe it would be a compromise too far.

“There is this delusion that the Association is not going to be established. So the EU and the US made sure the Association was explicitly mentioned in the agreement to make sure Kosovo can not wrangle itself out of it,” said Emini, the political analyst.

“The lack of readiness from the Kosovo government to have the necessary, sobering discussions with the public about it, try and deconstruct it for people, is worrying,” she emphasises.

Besides fears of a possible spillover of tensions from the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the EU and the US are also aware of the immense popularity of the two leaders in their respective countries.

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Also, both countries have been on the receiving end of development funding from the West, and now, it seems that the West wants to cash in on their investment.

“No other leaders are better suited to sign this agreement," says Enmi. 

"They have an immense electoral mandate and political legitimacy. They have popular support. So they need to be the ones to deliver."

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