Explosive tensions in recent weeks have exposed the limits of dialogue mediated by the European Union.
The developing relationship between Kosovo and Serbia, facilitated by the European Union, is facing its toughest test since 2011, when roadblocks across northern Kosovo threatened to spiral out of control. A final agreement is likely to be reached in the next year or so to normalize relations between the two countries, as well as diplomatic interests. But to complement this path towards sustainable peace, the EU must consider how it can harness constructive voices from civil society that have so far been largely ignored. .
Over the past year and a half, Serbs north of Kosovo have been plagued by rising tensions, fueled by concerns over Russia’s war in Ukraine and the stability of the Western Balkans more generally. Last July, Kosovo advanced plans to end the use of car license plates by the Republic of Serbia in the controversial area. At the same time, Belgrade announced that Serbian identity cards would no longer be valid to enter Kosovo, as it had long rejected those issued by Pristina.
The latter dispute was quickly resolved, but the former dragged on. Kosovo resisted repeated pleas from the EU and the US for an extension. As the stakes rose, Serbian President Alexander Vucic repeated calls for the establishment of an “association/community of Serb-majority municipalities”. It was a central element of the Brussels Accords to normalize, but has not been implemented.
Also critical to the agreement was the consolidation of police operations, albeit with a commitment that the commanders of the Kosovo Police in the four northern municipalities would be Kosovar Serbs. The situation he escalated in November, with a mass resignation of Serb police officers. Ostensibly because they refused to impose a warning and imposed fines on their communities.
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They were soon followed by elected officials (mayors and city councilors), judges, public prosecutors, local government officials, and others who have moved into the Kosovo system in the last decade or so. and Pristina dialogue, a key aspect of which is the integration of Kosovar Serbs in the 2013 agreement.
The security vacuum created by the resignation has been partially filled by members of the Special Operations Forces of the Kosovar Police, filled with long-barreled weapons and tactical uniforms. They are professional and well-trained, but not suited for jobs such as traffic patrol. Their numbers are mostly supplemented by Albanian-speaking police brought in from elsewhere in Kosovo.
There were various reports of harassment and intimidation, including attacks on prominent civil society figures. Trust between the local community and the police was broken, and the patrol was fired on several times.
The arrest of a former Serbian police officer on December 10th created a new setback that ultimately left him stranded for about 20 days. A series of incidents followed, including shootings, vehicle arson, and attacks on journalists. His EU Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) reconnaissance patrol in Kosovo was targeted with a stun grenade, leading to widespread condemnation. Barricades have been dismantled, but the crisis is far from over.
The dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina was imperfect, but considerable steps were taken. The presence of Kosovar institutions in the north was becoming more routine.In addition, many Serbs have Kosovar ID cards and even passports. Money flows from public purses in Pristina to northern Kosovo.
The main point of contention remains the Serb-majority municipal association/community. It was formerly treated as a Serbian state in the former Yugoslavia, but was considered as the primary mechanism for consolidating the functions maintained by the Republic of Serbia in Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 after a violent conflict. Education, healthcare and waste disposal, to name just a few, are important services under the jurisdiction of Belgrade.
However, the association/community has been fundamentally opposed by Pristina despite a 2015 ruling by Kosovo’s Constitutional Court mandating its establishment. Some even say they are from Kosovar. Republika Srpska, predominantly Serbs of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who frequently promote segregation. Kosovar Prime Minister Alvin Kurti publicly rejected it.
The EU continues to believe that a significant opportunity exists to finally reach a binding agreement on the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Incumbents in Belgrade and Pristina enjoy the support they need to make difficult decisions. Russia’s war in Ukraine has focused minds across Europe on the need for a lasting solution to the deadlock in the western Balkans. Considering my months of experience, I feel this is ambitious.
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However, recent developments have once again revealed the missing element of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue: the substantive engagement of civil society in Kosovo and Serbia. The process was elite-driven and the negotiations were mostly covert. Almost no transparency. The definitive content of the agreement is still debated and open to interpretation.
“Constructive ambiguity” might be considered necessary to facilitate difficult compromises, but allows for commitment avoidance when it comes to implementation. Some agreements have had fruitless results, with both sides blaming each other for deadlocks and stifling progress. Constructive ambiguity has proven to be a short-term fix with a long-lasting hangover.
In Brussels, ignoring the directly engaged community on the ground is a priority by and between negotiating teams. Many have wondered, sometimes out loud, how they have benefited from more than a decade of negotiations and negotiations that ultimately led to Kosovo’s “supervised” independence.
Twenty years after the war, people’s wishes are rarely given first consideration. Meanwhile, Kosovo and Serbia face common challenges. That is, people migrate and live in different places.
I found that critical voices were intentionally marginalized and ultimately relied on unconstructive muddying. But influential civil society figures are essential in preparing communities for the day after an agreement is reached. A person who helps navigate the implementation pitfalls of promises made, carried out, and then forgotten.
The destabilization resulting from the possible breakdown of the dialogue will severely affect various communities in Serbia and Kosovo. It is therefore imperative to invest resources in those who can manage conflicts in the region and build structures resilient to malicious influences. These voices stand against disinformation and divisive rhetoric and build trust within and between communities.
With the 10th anniversary of the Brussels Agreement approaching and perhaps one of the pinnacles of EU diplomacy, it is appropriate to consider the process and structure of the subsequent dialogue. Kosovo and Serbia’s destination remains largely the same: accession to the enlarged EU. But that horizon is getting further and further away.
To build a real and lasting peace in such a challenging and often unfavorable situation, the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina needs to be open to constructive voices from civil society. They are the ones who can truly represent their communities and articulate their vision for the future without being bound by the diplomatic imperatives and nitpicking felt in Brussels.