The frozen conflict between Serbia and Kosovo has come dangerously close to heating up again in recent weeks. First, an armed standoff between Serb gunmen and Kosovo authorities in the north of the country left three assailants and one police officer dead. Then, just a few days later, the White House warned of an unprecedented buildup of Serbian troops along the border with Kosovo, raising concerns that war might be about to return to the Balkans.
Washington vaguely warned Belgrade that it could face possible punitive measures if it didn’t withdraw its forces. Fortunately, the response was immediate and Serbia’s often stubborn president, Aleksandar Vucic, wasted no time in pulling back his military.
This wasn’t the first time that the Serbia-Kosovo dispute led to a troop surge, and Vucic often uses this as a scare tactic when the EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina isn’t going his way. But what was noteworthy this time was how quickly he followed orders when they came from Washington, which is a stark contrast from the foot-dragging and feigned compliance that he usually shows Brussels, which doesn’t tend to issue threats and warnings the way Washington does. What this shows is that, when the United States slams its fist on the table, Vucic listens.
Although this proved useful last month, this episode should set off alarm bells in the European Commission. Over the course of this year, Brussels has sought to inject greater urgency in the stalled Serbia-Kosovo dialogue and push the two sides toward normalizing their relations, which would in practice require Serbia to de facto recognize Kosovo’s independence and cease campaigning against its entry into international organizations in exchange for a degree of self-rule for ethnic Serbs in the north of the country.
The bloc’s newfound determination seemed to initially yield results, when Vucic and his Kosovar counterpart, Prime Minister Albin Kurti, agreed on how to implement an 11-point EU plan setting out a process for normalization in March. But it didn’t take long for intransigence to set in on both sides, and while Brussels showed some authority by sanctioning Pristina for failing to honor its commitments to the agreement and for stoking tensions with ethnic Serbs in the north of the country, it ultimately failed to force compliance, and recent events suggest that the dialogue has actually gone backward.
This should worry the EU for a number of reasons. First, it doesn’t seem to have much control over events in its own backyard. Second, the next U.S. presidential election is fast approaching, and Brussels could end up finding itself completely sidelined in the Balkans if the Republicans end up retaking the White House. Indeed, this came dangerously close to occurring three years ago, when rumors emerged that the Trump administration was open to approving a controversial land-swap proposal between Belgrade and Pristina that would see the Serbia-Kosovo border redrawn along ethnic lines by transferring the Serb-majority north of Kosovo to Serbia in exchange for an ethnic Albanian portion of southern Serbia.
The EU managed to torpedo the proposal by bringing war crimes charges against Kosovo’s then-president, Hashim Thaci, but it was fortunate in that then-U.S. President Donald Trump failed in his reelection bid several months later. The Biden administration has been happy to take a back-seat role—compared to the Trump administration—and allow Europe to take the lead in Balkan affairs. But this is unlikely to be the case if Trump or any other norm-defying MAGA Republican wins next year’s election.
The Serbia-Kosovo dialogue remains stalled because Belgrade prefers the status quo to any other proposed solution barring, perhaps, border corrections.
Border corrections will undoubtedly be back on the table, and although this would be the most straightforward solution to the conflict that would also make Kosovo a more politically coherent state, it would almost certainly prove more divisive than the status quo in practice. So, for that reason, Brussels and Washington would be well advised to move quickly, while the Democrats are still able to control events. But this might require a drastic change of approach.
The main reason the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue remains stalled is because Belgrade prefers the status quo to any other proposed solution barring, perhaps, border corrections. Indeed, Vucic has made this very clear, and there is no sign that the new plan agreed to this year has actually changed anything. In fact, Vucic has openly mocked the EU on Serbian television, claiming that he didn’t sign the aforementioned proposal, termed the Ohrid Agreement, because he has an “excruciating pain” in his right hand that is “expected to continue for the next four years.”
Inevitably, there have been calls to sanction Belgrade, but Vucic’s critics tend to overestimate how much leverage Brussels has over him. Whenever Vucic is seen as undermining Western values and interest in the Balkans, Serbia hawks usually propose that the EU suspend the country’s accession process and cut the significant financial support it receives from Europe. But it’s questionable how effective such an approach would be, and neither method is a silver bullet that would yield quick results.
Firstly, there is little reason to believe that Vucic’s government is serious about leading his nation into the bloc anymore. His decade in power has been marked by constant democratic backsliding, and Serbia, which has become increasingly authoritarian, looks less like an EU-style state with every passing year.
The country’s opposition has been completely neutered, while almost all media outlets come under the control of government-aligned oligarchs. This drift shows no signs of abating, and the government is currently in the process of amending public information and media laws in a way that would allow state-owned entities like the national telecoms provider, Telekom Serbia, to issue its own media licenses, which would inevitably lead to the emergence of even more pro-government voices in a country that barely has a free press anymore.
Belgrade has reduced its dependency on the EU over the last decade by diversifying the list of countries that it does business with.
Ending Serbia’s long-stalled accession process is also unlikely to lead to any sort of public backlash that might put pressure on Vucic. Committed pro-Europeans make up only 13 percent of the national electorate, and even the country’s moderate opposition attacks Vucic for having conceded too much ground over Kosovo. As things stand, an overwhelming majority in the country has no interest in normalizing ties along the terms currently being pushed by the West, and the only button that it has left to push is economic sanctions. But this, too, is unlikely to elicit a radical rethink in Belgrade because the inconvenient truth is that Vucic can easily ride out any sort of sanctions until the 2024 election and arguably much longer.
Although Europe is Serbia’s main trading partner and its biggest source of international aid by some distance, Belgrade has reduced its dependency on the bloc over the last decade by diversifying the list of countries that it does business with. The most notable of these include China, Russia, Israel, and the Arab Gulf states. It’s also worth remembering that, unless Vucic invades Kosovo, he’s unlikely to face anything nearing the sort of sanctions that were imposed against Serbia in the 1990s.
These had a crippling effect on the country, yet then-President Slobodan Milosevic still managed to ride out the economic storm for almost a decade before being deposed. Cuts to economic grants and development funds are likely, but there won’t be sanctions that prevent EU members trading with Serbia. Unlike 15 years ago, Serbia has developed new international partners, so the economic situation is unlikely to get so dire that Serbs will protest en masse and threaten Vucic’s rule. This makes Vucic incredibly difficult to coerce.
There aren’t any easy solutions for the Kosovo-Serbia problem. Border corrections remain the quickest path toward resolving the conflict, but even if such a solution were achievable, the window of opportunity has undoubtedly closed now that Thaci has been replaced by a committed nationalist like Kurti who has shown zero appetite for even moderate compromise.
Kurti has consistently resisted Belgrade’s central demand, which is the establishment of an Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM) that would give Serb-dominated areas in the north of the country a degree of autonomy. Pristina initially agreed to this in 2013, but it has dragged its feet on implementation. This has been made even more difficult with Kurti in power because he opposes the ASM in principle, fearing that it would give Serbs the power to act as a fifth column and undermine the central government in much the same way that Republika Srpska, the ethnic Serb entity in Bosnia, obstructs federal leaders in Sarajevo.
There will be no movement from the Serbian side until the ASM is established, a move that the EU supports. The inconvenient truth for Kurti is that Kosovo’s dream of economically viable statehood and U.N. recognition ends the moment that either Brussels or Washington decides to turn off the life support. The West has incredible power to coerce Kurti into compliance, and it would be well advised to use it if it wants to see progress before next year’s election. Pristina should therefore be presented with an ultimatum: Establish the ASM if you have serious ambitions to become a fully independent state.
Such a move would undoubtedly invite strong criticism from the loud chorus of pro-Kosovo voices, who would no doubt argue that Vucic is being “rewarded” for his belligerent behavior in recent weeks. But these people can be easily ignored. Kosovo has no inherent right to exist, and its claims to nationhood are no more valid than those of other unrecognized states around the world. The only difference between them is that Pristina enjoys Western support. If Kurti wants international recognition, he should be forced to accept the risk of Bosnia-style dysfunction as the price of getting it.
Of course, there is every possibility that Belgrade would continue to pursue its usual policy of obstruction even if the West were to do this. With 2024 fast approaching, Vucic is probably gambling on a Republican victory in the hope that it could reopen the possibility of border corrections or other terms more favorable to Serbia. But even if the Democrats do manage to hold on to the White House, there is an argument to be made that Washington should take the lead in the Balkans, even if that would mean quite openly stepping on the Europeans’ toes.
By putting all its bets on Vucic as the solution to the Kosovo dispute, the EU has allowed itself to be painted into a corner. It’s done this by muting criticism of Vucic and standing idly by as he has dismantled the fledgling democracy that was emerging in Serbia in the first decade of this century. That sort of passivity is profoundly useful to Vucic and has allowed him to entrench himself.
The president’s control over state institutions and the media in Serbia has made it impossible for any potential challengers to emerge, which means that there aren’t any alternative partners that the international community can turn to. Changing this will require long-term and potentially quite aggressive action like the sanctioning of Vucic’s inner circle or actively incubating the emergence of a viable political opposition, like the National Endowment for Democracy did in Serbia in the late 1990s.
Civil society effectively needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up after being eroded over the last decade, and the country’s independent media needs help fighting off the threat posed by Telekom Serbia if the free press is to survive. In many ways, what is required amounts to a total state-building project of the sort undertaken in Kosovo. Brussels has shown that it is incapable of doing this, so it might be time for Washington to slam its fist on the table if anything is to change.
Source : Foreign Policy