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25 Jul 17

Vucic’s Latest ‘Historic’ Promise: A Deal with Kosovo

Dejan Anastasijevic

The Serbian president has vowed to cut a deal to resolve the Kosovo issue once and for all – but don’t hold your breath waiting for it to actually happen.

Aleksandar Vucic. Photo: Darko Vojinovic/AP

Former Prime Minister and now President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic likes to describe himself in Promethean terms.

Whatever he does, be it opening of a stretch of railway, or embarking on a state visit, it’s always “for the first time in recent history”.

He uses this phrase so often that it has become a joke that people tend to utter when they are about to do something trivial, like opening a can of beer or taking out the garbage.

This week, however, he promised to do something truly remarkable: to solve the issue of Kosovo, which has been plaguing Serbia since the early 20th Century and caused it to become the first European country ever to go to war with NATO – and lose, in 1999.

Vucic made his pledge on Monday, July 24, in a lengthy op-ed piece in Belgrade daily Blic. Judging by an abundance of mixed metaphors, misguided analogies, and convoluted sentences devoid of any substance, he likely wrote it himself, instead of engaging a speechwriter.

(Example: “It is therefore important, or more important than ever, to look at ourselves in the mirror, with courage, to clearly see all the scars, wounds, and defects on our own face, but also to attempt to heal what can be healed, in despair, without giving up on ourselves in front of the problems we’re facing.”)

Vucic quotes late Israeli PM Shimon Peres and American author Ambrose Bierce. It’s not an easy read, and parts of it are quite frustrating.

In a nutshell: Vucic claims that Serbs have been keeping their heads in the sand over Kosovo, ostrich-like, for far too long, and that it’s time to break the silence and cut a final deal with the ethnic Albanians who comprise over 90 per cent of Kosovo’s population.

He emphasises the importance of negotiations and warns that silence is dangerous, because frozen conflicts pass the danger of war on to the next generations.

He admits that the Serbs, throughout history, have failed to understand the Albanians, their strength and aspirations, and treated them roughly, but notes that the Albanians made the same mistake whenever they had major powers on their side.

He also claims that Serbia, under his rule, is politically and economically stronger than ever, and is therefore in a good position to negotiate. That is why he intends to start an “internal dialogue” about Kosovo in September in order to forge a commonly-agreed Serbian platform.

Unfortunately, Vucic is quite vague about the future deal with the Kosovars.

On one hand, it should be “a lasting solution, which would exclude the possibility of confrontation, and would be beneficial for the whole region”.

On the other, Serbs “should be realistic, because they can’t afford to lose or surrender what they already possess, nor spend the time waiting to take back something they have lost long time ago”.

The format of the internal dialogue seems equally unclear.

On a television show late Monday night, Vucic announced that he intends to consult leaders of Serbian political parties, high priests of the Serbian Orhodox Church, and members of the Academy of Science and Arts.

That is nice, but why would Serbian opposition leaders, who he repeatedly brands as “scum”, “thieves”, and “traitors”, accept a seat at his table and share the blame if the deal goes wrong?

No wonder that so far, only a few fringe politicians accepted the call.

The Church is ultra-conservative, but so dependent on government subsidies that it will probably bless whichever proposal Vucic lays down.

And as for the Academy of Science and Arts, its members are so deeply divided on a number of issues (the theory of evolution included) that they can hardly be expected to make a useful contribution.

So the internal dialogue will probably be conducted primarily in Vucic’s own head.

Given his ultranationalist past – he was Slobodan Milosevic’s Minister of Information during the Kosovo war – it will likely resemble the internal dialogue of Gollum/Smeagol in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

“Those nassty Albanians took away our preciouss Kosssovo. They have to be punished,” Gollum would hiss.

“Let’s try to be nice to them and maybe they’ll give some of it back,” Smeagol would reply.

But let’s put cynicism aside and imagine that Vucic really intends to make a breakthrough over Kosovo. What would that imply?

In real life, Serbia has very little space for manoeuvre on the issue, at least as long as it wants to join the European Union.

The EU-backed Brussels talks between Belgrade and Pristina have been going on for years, with mixed results, but the member states, led by Germany, have made it abundantly clear what they want to see at the end: a mutual contract, based on the arrangement reached by the two Germanys during the Cold War, which would fall short of formal recognition, but allow both countries to coexist peacefully.

The United States prefer full mutual recognition, but would probably accept the German model. Any other ideas, such as the partition of Kosovo or annexing the Serb entity in Bosnia as compensation for Serbia, are likely to be instantly rejected by both Kosovo and the West.

Bsides, Vucic is probably aware that his engagement in the Brussels dialogue on Kosovo is the main reason the EU is ready to tolerate his rising authoritarianism and illiberal policies at home.

By rushing to cut a deal, this leverage would be removed, and he would likely face increasing pressure on other issues, such as the rule of law in Serbia and his cosy relations with Russia. It is highly improbable that he would put himself in that situation.

So those who are expecting a final resolution this autumn are likely to be disappointed.

Instead, they’ll get another piece of high drama, scripted and directed by Vucic, with him in the leading role.

It will almost certainly be full of sound and fury.

Don’t hope for much else.

Talk about it!

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