Dr. Alon Ben-Meir*
New York (The Hawk): It’s time for the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo to come to their senses and accept certain realities that neither can change. They are stuck and should recognize that their conflict will end only through mutual understanding of each other’s aspirations and respect for their sovereignty and territorial integrity.
I condemn in the strongest terms the killing of a Kosovo police officer in the most recent clash that sadly took place in northern Kosovo. Unfortunately, these types of incidents may reoccur due to the fact that tensions between the two sides are heightened as a result of a lack of understanding and distrust between Kosovo and Serbia. In order to prevent this kind of tragic event from reoccurring, it is critical that both sides make every effort to reduce the tension and face certain realities that neither side can change. To further advance the understanding between the two sides, it is critical that both Serbia and Kosovo accept certain realities on the ground that have been created since Kosovo declared its independence.
The realities that are not subject to change
The first is the reality that the northern municipalities are occupied by a majority of ethnic Serbs. Living in a democracy gives them the right to follow their way of life. Neither Pristina nor Belgrade can change this reality and nothing either side or any other power suggests to the contrary can defy this reality.
Moreover, given that both Serbia and Kosovo want to join the EU, they must also adhere to the Treaty of Lisbon (in essence, the EU’s constitution), which enshrines respect for human rights of minorities and opposes any territorial change by “ensuring the territorial integrity of the State.” None of the above however, should or could compromise Kosovo’s sovereignty as long as the ethnic Serbs adhere to Kosovo’s constitution. Second, Vucic must realize that the eventual recognition of Kosovo’s independence is not negotiable now or at any time in the future. However long he may drag his feet on this issue, it is only a question of time when he or his eventual successor will come to this conclusion. Third, although Prime Minister Kurti recognizes that there are nearly 50,000 ethnic Serbs living in the north who are Kosovo citizens, the establishment of the Association of Serb Municipalities, which was agreed upon several years ago, must take place to give them the opportunity to live as they see fit, as long as Belgrade will not under any circumstances exert executive power there. To suggest that the establishment of this Association would de facto sever these municipalities from Kosovo is completely misplaced. Indeed, anyone who thinks that the ethnic Serbs in these areas are stooges operating on behalf of Belgrade is also mistaken.
In reference to the recent violence, the US Ambassador to Kosovo, Jeff Hovenier, stated that “This was not a group of citizens who spontaneously came together to voice their concerns. This was a trained and organized group. This implies that there is some sort of structure behind them, given the training and equipment.” And while Kosovo’s Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla stated that a significant number of heavy weapons, explosives, and uniforms were found after the attack in northern Kosovo, I do not agree with his conclusion that this is necessarily a preparation for a massive assault to come.
The ethnic Serbs in the area know that if such an attack against Kosovo police were to occur, Kurti would be right to, and certainly capable of, sending in significant forces to quell it. Under such a scenario, Kurti would receive the full support of KFOR. Furthermore, Serbia itself is not planning, as some suggest, to wage an open war against Kosovo, as it knows full well it would have to confront NATO forces, which is simply a non-starter and definitely is not in Serbia’s long-term interest. More often than not, these ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo demonstrate a strong affinity to Serbia because of the natural association they have with their brethren in that country. And thus, anything they do or say is immediately attributed to Serbia’s direct influence, which only strengthens rather weakens their ties to Belgrade. This can change if they feel they are being heard as Kosovars. In fact, as far as I know, they want to be free just as much from Belgrade as from Pristina, once they are given the opportunity.
Even though Kosovo agreed several years ago to the establishment of the Association of Serb Municipalities, if the Kurti government is to move toward its implementation, he should expect at the same time some reciprocal steps taken by Belgrade to demonstrate good faith. This may include, for example, allowing Pristina to join other international organizations, recognize its passports and other state-level documents, etc., all of which Serbia previously committed to.
The EU’s indispensable role
Contrary to the views of Prime Minister Kurti, who claims that EU special envoy Miroslav Lajcák has “lost neutrality,” EU mediation remains indispensable. To suggest that the EU is no longer neutral and is operating on the behest of Belgrade is again completely unfounded. The EU is and continues to be committed to Kosovo’s sovereignty and national security. What the EU would like to achieve is putting both countries on the path of mutual recognition.
To that end, as I indicated, compromises on both sides must be made, and that should begin by Belgrade and Pristina agreeing on the above-mentioned reciprocal measures. The EU needs to exert pressure on Vucic, not just Kurti, to fulfil his obligations. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Lajcák need to focus on these two initial steps and ensure that both sides commit to their simultaneous implementation at a mutually agreed upon timeline. Once this is done, they’ll be able to build on such initial steps and take further mutual measures that would also aid both sides in moving ever closer to mutual recognition and to eventual integration with the EU.
Necessary mitigating steps
None of the above can take place unless both sides first reduce the heightened tension by demonstrating their willingness to resume negotiations in good faith, knowing full well that there is no substitute to negotiations to reach any agreement.
To begin with, a new election should be scheduled in the north. As everybody knows, the first election was boycotted by ethnic Serbs, and the current mayors were elected by a mere 5 percent. This in and of itself has created tremendous resentment, and it cannot be rectified unless new elections are scheduled, as soon as possible.
In addition, both sides must end their acrimonious public narrative which otherwise only deepens their distrust and disdain for the other, poisons the political and social atmosphere, and drives both sides to take extreme positions to safeguard their interests, which further complicates their conflict.
Furthermore, they should heed the EU’s recommendations, not only because they need EU support, but also because the EU is the only institution that can help settle their conflict and provide the incentive of integration that Serbia and Kosovo aspire for while moving the process of reconciliation forward. Finally, Vucic and Kurti need to enhance their credibility; Vucic must stop his public pronouncement that Serbia will never recognize Kosovo, and Kurti needs to accept that the Serb-majority municipalities in the north have the right to live in accordance with their culture, religion, and tradition, which are consistent with democracy and Kosovo’s constitution under the umbrella of association.
Peaceful coexistence and mutual recognition between Kosovo and Serbia is not one of many options, but the only option. Their conflict will not end on a zero-sum basis where one party benefits at the expense of the other, but only on a non-zero-sum basis where both sides mutually benefit to ensure the sustainability of any agreement. In the final analysis, both leaders must demonstrate statesmanship and the courage to act, without which both will leave the political scene worse off than when they assumed power.
*Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.