Now is the time for Serbia to accept the Kosovo reality

 

Screenshot 2018-03-10 17.23.54

After eight years of talks between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU, Serbia and Kosovo seem to be gearing up for finding a comprehensive settlement. This is good news, neither can Serbia join the EU without clarifying its relations with its neighbor, nor can Kosovo move forward to the EU without an agreement that would also pave the way for recognition by the EU’s non-recognizers. The Brussels dialogue has lost a lot of its initial dynamism from earlier years, and it is a good time to be more ambitious. It is also a risky moment, as the stakes are higher and the risk of tensions and spoilers increases. In Kosovo, any compromise with Serbia will be strongly challenged by the opposition, most of all Vetevendojse. In Serbia, the opposition is too weak to mount a challenge; the risk is more that some in the government hope to drive a hard bargain and make a good “deal” with Kosovo.

While President Aleksandar Vučić has been hinting that any normalization would require some unnamed benefits for Serbia, his coalition partner and Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić has been suggesting for years that border changes would be the best solution. However, such a solution would be dangerous and irresponsible. The only form of border changes that would be imaginable would be consensual, if both Kosovo and Serbia agree, as unilateral border changes would not be acceptable and close the door to EU integration and other forms of partnership. However, even an agreed border change would be a source of problems. First, it is hard to image that any government in Kosovo would agree to a border change without compensation, such as Preshevo. However, drawing new borders in Serbia would be a major problem and certainly that most Serbs in Preshevo would not want to join Kosovo. If there was no compensation, opposition in Kosovo to any compromise would be strong, with negative consequences. Most Serbs in Kosovo live South of the Ibar and would not live in Serbia, no matter how the border is redrawn. These Serbs are mostly horrified of border changes: They would become a smaller minority in Kosovo and one that might be easily more resented again if borders are changed. The Kosovo government agreed to the far reaching minority rights, because it was able to declare independence and it included the entire territory. It would be hard to maintain this level of minority rights, if the size of the Serb minority would be reduced by more than a third. This will put Serbs in the South in a more vulnerable position and would in effect be Serbia trading territory for supporting its minority. In a partitioned Kosovo, voices calling for unification with Albania will be strengthened. While it seems currently difficult to imagine a merger of the two, the constitutional guarantee that Kosovo gave at independence not to join Albania would be more easily abandoned in the case of border changes. It is needless to say that a small Serb minority in Gračanica, Štrpce and other towns and villages in Central Kosovo would become completely marginal in such a scenario. Thus changing the borders might be what benefits the Serbs in the North of Kosovo, but not most Serbs of Kosovo. Furthermore, Serbia would emerge with a few more square kilometers and a few more thousand Serbs living in it, but it would jeopardize its ability to be a constructive and partner for other countries in region, as it would be seen as a bully seeking to gain territories from its neighbors, if they are (eventually) coerced to consent.

It is the worry for broader regional repercussions that the EU and the governments have excluded such as an option. Redrawing borders, even if agreed, would encourage others to redraw borders, from Macedonia to Bosnia and this would be destabilizing for the region. The idea launched by Milorad Dodik that Serbia should support his cause in exchange for a deal on Kosovo is even more ridiculous. The territorial integrity is guaranteed by the Dayton Peace Agreement and the only reason the RS exists is because of Dayton. Abandoning Dayton effectively challenges the existence of the RS. A change of borders in Bosnia will trigger a conflict and the 200,000 Croats and Bosniak in the RS will overwhelmingly reject leaving Bosnia. Thus, changing Bosnian borders is a recipe for deasaster. Not least, the district of Brčko is a separate unit of Bosnia, recognized in the constitution (with the support of the RS) and thus, the RS is divided in two parts. No change of the borders could take place here in a peaceful and legal manner.

Thus, opening the question of borders is one of great risks, major moral problems, offering not more, but less stability, including for Serbs. Only the reckless would take this road.

So what “compensation” is possible for Serbia? The idea that Serbia should be rewarded for normalization is already a flawed premise. Serbia rejected Kosovo independence more than a decade ago, yet the far reaching autonomy and minority rights protection of Serbs that was offered in the Ahtisaari Plan was still implemented. Then in the Brussels agreement, Serbia gained additional influence in Kosovo and Serbs achieved additional protection. Thus, Serbs in Kosovo gained extensive rights, especially considering their small size, despite Serbian intransigence. Now it is time for Serbia to embrace the reality of Kosovo. At the end of the day, the live of Serbs in Kosovo will improve most, if Kosovo and Serbia co-exist as two friendly states where they are not forced to choose loyalty or hedge their bets. As the murder of Oliver Ivanović showed, it is also the best interest of Serbs in the North, if the lawlessness of North disappears and rule of law emerges that protects citizens from criminals. All of this can only happen through normalization–meaning Serbia living with an independent Kosovo, not trying to stop its effort to join international organizations and making petty and rather silly celebrations out of stopping Kosovo were it could. This has been the biggest flaw of the Brussels dialogue: despite the agreements, there has been no rapprochement. Of course, the responsibility lies with both, but Serbia would do well to accept that Kosovo as a country is an irreversible reality and that a prosperous and successful Kosovo is in Serbia’s best interest. What an agreement can achieve is to formalize the main agreements set between the countries over the past decade and also to establish links between the countries and formalize cross-border relations, like the bodies established between Northern Ireland and Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, when the Republic of Ireland in exchange removed its claim to the entire island from the constitution. The only way real normalization will emerge in a way that opens the door to EU accession is to move beyond the zero-sum game, where every loss for Kosovo is gain for Serbia. Only if both governments start seeing their future relations in these terms, is there room for a genuine agreement.

This article was first published in NIN, 8.3.2018

 

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