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Comment 13 Nov 17

The Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue is Just ‘Lose-Lose’

Both countries, and both peoples, stand to lose out in the long term from a ‘dialogue’ that has never advanced beyond leaders shaking hands and photo opportunities in Brussels.

Haki Abazi
Kosovo President Hashim Thaci and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic with the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini. Photo: Twitter/Federica Mogherini.

In the international school of diplomacy, dialogue and negotiations are approached from a “win-win” theory.

However, despite the terrible wars and conflicts that the Balkans have experienced, the EU has not learned any such lessons about or from the region.

When one says negotiation and dialogue, in the Balkans what that usually means is talk and travels – no actual work. At best, it is something that the local Balkan elites use as an excuse to buy time, under the excuse that they are working on an issue while their thugs back home get richer and citizens suffer even more.

And when one says “win-win”, in the Balkans the phrase means – as the Kosovo and Serbian Presidents Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic have shown often during the EU-led talks on normalizing relations – staying in each other’s throats in the eyes of the public while taking smiling pictures in Brussels.  

In reality, nobody is “winning” here, and no agreement is being implemented. Everything has become stranger, more difficult and more estranged from citizens.

Of the two of them, Vucic seems to winning more in the short term, however. Kosovo is still part of Serbia, according to the Serbian constitution, for example, although that was supposed to have been removed few years ago.

Vucic has created an impression that he is doing more about Kosovo, compared with his predecessors.

Yet, he has done nothing of substance; he has advanced in terms of entrenching the relationship with the Serb-run northern part of Kosovo, to the point where Northern Kosovo is becoming a de-facto stateless territory. The EU just watches. It is not even able to demand justice for one of its personnel killed there.

And, using the naiveté of Kosovar delegation, Serbia has also made the planned association of Serbian municipalities in Kosovo the big issue. He has also obtained great leverage for the Serbian Lista Srpska party. A key player in the formation of the latest Kosovo government, it can now prevent any constitutional changes from being made.

State building in Kosovo has, in practice, stalled.

However, the one thing Vucic did not calculate is that, in the long run, every Serbian leader who prioritized Kosovo over internal reforms and development and people’s prosperity has ended up on the wrong side of history.

The time for leadership through myths is over, has in fact been over for decades, though the politicians seem the last to understand this.

Dealing with Kosovo might have given Vucic some room for maneuver, and bought time for Serbia not to join Western sanctions imposed against Russia over Ukraine.

But Vucic has also miscalculated. Either that, or his advisors forgot to remind him that, as NATO members, Albania and Croatia are neighbors controlling the entry switch to the EU. 

On the other side, Kosovo’s Thaci, for all his “prodigious” ideas about how to get out of the trouble over the Special Court [set up to try Kosovo war crimes], has ended up accepting a court formed only to hunt down members of one ethnic group. Thaci himself could end up on the bench.

He has also agreed to place an asterisk over Kosovo’s name – again questioning its independent status, long after Kosovo declared independence in 2008, and after Kosovo received a positive advisory opinion on that from the International Court of Justice, issued in 2010.

There is a saying in the Balkans: “Nobody’s pumpkin stays afloat forever”. What was considered a grave opened for others is becoming one in which Thaci, and some of his closest people, will end up in.

So the region is up for fun times; a failing political class in Serbia and a fiasco of a political class in Kosovo.

While both have 180-degree different narratives of what has happened in Brussels, the EU has tolerated them telling lies to their people and mis-guiding them towards a space filled only with hot air.

Only one fact is true. The lives of people on both sides of the border are not improving; young people are leaving or trying to leave, and the battle with the “brain drain” is being lost.

Economically, both countries are in a state of near-collapse and foreign investors shun them, seeing the rule of law there as almost medieval.

Perhaps the one working, uninterrupted unwritten agreement between them is the cooperation between their criminal networks and illicit economies.

In summary, five years of dialogue and negotiation, millions spent: Vucic feels that one day the EU is going to ask Serbia to recognise Kosovo, as the EU cannot bear to have another Cyprus inside it. Thaci, meanwhile, believes he has been betrayed, as he accepted everything demanded of him.

The list of his concessions is long. The Special Court, the Serbian municipal association agreement, the demarcation deal with Montenegro, giving Serbia control of the biggest water reservoir in the north – the agreement to some “semi” phone code for Kosovo, allowing Serbia to continue to control the banking code and prevent airplanes from using Serbian airspace to land in Kosovo, the acceptance of Lista Srpska as new political tool for Belgrade to dictate to Kosovo [thus wiping out the indigenous Kosovo Serb party, Srpska Liberalna Stranka], accepting the asterisk, approving an amnesty law to allow all former police members to become part of the Kosovo Police – and, finally, not asking about the fate of over 1,500 people still missing from the independence war.

What did he get in return? The Special Court – and a collective prison. Kosovo citizens are now the only people in continental Europe that cannot travel freely to the EU.

The brief dream of a Nobel peace prize for Vucic and Thaci seems over. It would have been a big paradox anyhow, from leaders of war to leaders of peace and a peace prize. It would have been against all rules, for those who created the problem to be part of the solution. Thinking would have to be turned upside down. 

More importantly than that, the EU needs to stop being so naïve. No Serbian leader who emerged from the cradle of medieval nationalism will ever be able to kill the myth that has been built, and become the spectre haunting Serbia, for decades and centuries.

No matter how powerful Vucic might present himself as, he is powerless to fight the evil he has also helped to build. He cannot now destroy walls that are cemented in the minds of Serbian nationalists, who are not only very much alive but sitting in the Serbian parliament.

The Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj is a living memory of the wars and ethnic cleansing that took place in former Yugoslavia. No project by the EU or US for reconciliation and forgiveness has the same power that Seselj has, to remind people in the Balkans that hate and ethno-nationalism are very much still alive.

Those people who voted for Seselj and his people are enough to keep the trouble going. Of course, not all Serbs were part of the wars of the Nineties. The problem, is, you need only 5 per cent of people to keep a conflict going.

On the other side, Thaci was never sincere about negotiations or reconciliation, either. He only thought that he was the mastermind behind anything and that he would one day be celebrated as a hero.

But deep down he was trying only to create space for his own escape and buy time, stay relevant and important – hoping the things he had done would be forgotten and that somehow he would not have to answer for them.

That has been the case so far. All the support and sympathy the international community felt for Kosovo’s late independence leader, Ibrahim Rugova, Thaci has since harvested. The finale was Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 17, 2008.

Although a political director of the former Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, he has never been accused over the crimes that allegedly occurred during the Kosovo war. Instead, Ramush Haradinaj, now Prime Minister, and Fatmir Limaj who was second to Thaci in his PDK party, were sent to the war crimes tribunal, the ICTY, in The Hague – quite a surprise.

The impression is that it is not by chance that Thaci’s nickname is “snake.” But now it looks like time has come for his pumpkin to sink as well.

Huge opportunities have been missed for the Balkans. All the parties involved in the dialogue process were there for their own benefit.

All the potentially good processes and new emerging leaders have been ignored or pushed aside. The space for civil society has narrowed. Media once created with US and EU funding to fight state control and craziness have become part of the regimes or are controlled fully by them.

The EU started the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue against a backdrop of many failures, in Israel-Palestine, for example, what seemed like failed negotiations with Iran, the horrific crimes conducted in Syria, and with refugees turning oceans into graveyards.

But the pictures of Serbian and Kosovar leaders shaking hands in Brussels was the only measure of success. No care was given to the actual implementation of the agreements that were signed, thereby perpetuating the conflict.

With no vision of long-term, durable solutions, the conflict has, in fact, been only entrenched in the minds of new generations for decades to come.

The question is - can EU accelerate the integration process so the vision and practicality of EU existence succeeds and resists potential earthquakes that geopolitics could create in the region.

There are people on both sides that hope for that scenario, as anything less seems to be grim and too expensive.

The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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