OpEd

Serbia challenges Kosovo

After the past week, it should already be clear that Kosovo cannot, alone, guarantee security in a harsher regional environment or maintain or strengthen its international position without the support of important allies. While Kosovo has proven to have the power to withstand the pressures of friends and enemies in the last two years, the game is changing. Kosovo will not be able to rely only on its own forces in this new and tougher game

Since last week, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have taken a new turn. For over a decade it has been implied that Kosovo's citizenship is stable and indisputable. It is true that Belgrade defended the position that it had not accepted the existence of Kosovo as a sovereign state. But he had limited his campaign against Kosovo to diplomatic initiatives. Now Serbia has changed direction quite dramatically. After, apparently, its involvement in the serious security incident in the north of Kosovo last September, it is now aggressively questioning the existence of Kosovo as a state, alluding to the use of force to reintegrate the territory.

This development was manifested in the invitation that Serbia made for a special session of the UN Security Council last week. At the meeting, Serbia claimed that Kosovo is carrying out an aggressive campaign against the Serbian community there, especially in the north of Kosovo. Moreover, most of the presentation of the Serbian president, Alekandar Vučić, was focused on building an alliance of states committed to the doctrine of territorial integrity, therefore, opposing Kosovo's citizenship. At the same time, his presentation, alongside the supporting presentation of the Russian Federation, alluded to the use of force against Kosovo.

President Vucic claimed that the Government of Kosovo, or in his words, the "Temporary Institutions of Self-Government in Pristina" had created unbearable living conditions for Serbs in Kosovo and that they were now carrying out "widespread and systematic attacks on Serbian civilians". This is code used to claim that crimes against humanity have been committed by the Kosovo authorities — the very concept that describes the atrocities committed by Serbia against the people of Kosovo under the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. There is absolutely no indication that Prishtina has engaged in practices that could even resemble them.

President Vucic added that this situation, if it were to continue, would create "irreparable damage to the survival of the Serbian people in Kosovo and Metohija". This is a reference to proceedings before the International Court of Justice seeking transitional measures of protection in relation to allegations of genocide against the Russian Federation in Ukraine, Myanmar in relation to the Rohingya population and Israel in relation to Gaza. The argument is that if the Security Council does not act decisively to stop the alleged crimes against ethnic Serbs in Kosovo, others will be forced to act to prevent irreparable damage. This could include the use of force to save populations at risk from inevitable destruction, or even genocide. This would allow Serbia to later say that it gave the UNSC one last chance to take action. The lack of measures without guesswork from the UNSC would make intervention from Serbia inevitable.

This reference can also be seen as an ominous reflection of the Russian Federation's completely baseless claim that Ukraine had launched an attack, even a genocidal campaign against the ethnic Russian population in Donbas. This claim was used as a possible justification for the subsequent occupation of the territory. In fact, at the UNSC meeting last week, the Russian Federation intervened with comments saying that the situation in Kosovo had reached such a level, "that there is a direct threat to the physical survival of the Serbian population in the autonomous region of Kosovo, where the authorities in Pristina are working towards creating unaffordable living conditions that will force the Serbs to abandon their centuries-old homelands forever". This type of argumentation is reminiscent of NATO's reasoning for violent humanitarian action in Kosovo, with the difference that it has no support here.

This serious escalation of rhetoric stems from the repeated reference that Kosovo is perhaps "occupied territory". In 2023, Azerbaijan used force to take back the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been under Armenian control since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 90s. He argued that he had the right to use violence to liberate his territory, which had been occupied for decades.

These statements would probably not be preceded by a military invasion of northern Kosovo or all of Kosovo. NATO's presence aims to prevent such a situation. However, these are serious threats and they are threats that are made at the highest level of international diplomacy. They clearly mark a new phase of Serbia's policy towards Kosovo and probably in relation to the West in general. Moreover, beyond the vociferous verbal attacks, Belgrade appears to be resuming its efforts to destabilize the north through direct action. All this should have implications for the behavior of Kosovo. And it should be an indication for the EU and the USA that Serbia, it seems, has given up trying to portray itself as a peace-loving state in search of normalization with Kosovo on the way to EU membership.

Disruption of the tense but stable status-quo

Of course, the UNSC has held regular meetings for Kosovo since its independence in 2008. This time, however, the Council met in emergency session at the special request of Serbia. By taking this urgent action, Belgrade could take advantage of the fact that it is a member of the UN, while Kosovo is not. Therefore, he can call Kosovo to give responsibility before the UNSC, the highest international body for international peace and security, as long as Kosovo cannot do this. Although the claims are completely false, Kosovo was put on the defensive. And it is said that mud can climb.

Serbia clearly relied on its sponsor in the UNSC, the Russian Federation, which spoke strongly in support of Serbia's challenge to Kosovo. Moreover, Serbia tried to unite conservative states around the principle of territorial unity under International Law. It relied on the fact that many third countries have their own internal issues that lead them to defend this doctrine whenever it is challenged. This also includes the five EU member states that have not recognized Kosovo yet. China, another permanent member of the UNSC, alongside the Russian Federation, has special concerns regarding Taiwan. Many neutral or non-aligned states share these concerns. A number of sources have recently come out against the so-called "Western" views of International Law and the international order on the basis of human rights, the rule of law and self-determination. Kosovo's independence is seen by many as a derivative of this policy during the period of Western domination of the first two or three decades.

The weakening of the consensus regarding the status of Kosovo

However, at least since the Opinion of the International Court of Justice in 2010, according to which the declaration of Kosovo's Independence was not contrary to International Law, the basic fact that Kosovo is a state remained more or less unchallenged. More than half of the members of the UN have recognized Kosovo. Those who have not done it would not doubt that the citizenship of Kosovo is a fact which, regardless of the perspective, cannot be undone. Serbia was content to keep its claim against "KosMet", not being too aggressive.

This was reflected in the UN General Assembly Resolution that recognized the ICJ Opinion. In it, the Assembly called on the EU to facilitate the negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia with the aim of normalizing relations between them. So, the status of Kosovo as a state was no longer examined, but as a process for the normalization of relations between two states.

Since then, however, Kosovo lost focus and Serbia embarked on a very well organized and professionally implemented campaign to undermine Kosovo's status. This also includes the attempt to restore the balance between the recognizing states and those that have not recognized it. At the meeting of the Security Council last week, Serbia was happy to mention the fact that less than half of the members of the UN have diplomatic relations with Kosovo, as a result of the campaign of derecognition which it had implemented in the last ten years.

The isolation of Kosovo

Kosovo not only failed to oppose this campaign, but allowed itself to be placed in the inappropriate position of a non-cooperative party in the Brussels Process, mandated by the UN, for the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. This was strange, because Serbia was the party with a structural disadvantage in those talks. Ultimately, at the end of the process, it would be forced to recognize the existence of Kosovo in a legally binding normalization agreement under the patronage of the EU. In other words, he would be forced to recognize Kosovo. This result of the normalization dialogue would be a key condition for Serbia's possible accession to the European Union.

Since its inception a decade ago, the Brussels Process has produced a couple of dozen agreements aimed at addressing issues of mutual interest. When the Government headed by Albin Kurti was elected, Kosovo began to emphasize that the Brussels Process should henceforth be "with recognition at the center". So that the dialogue would have to move from tactical agreements on practical issues to the big, substantive result that the dialogue would have to bring to the end. What was understood as a success in Kosovo, this formulation ("with recognition at the center") was adopted by the American Government in support of the EU process, as well as by the European Parliament.

However, Serbia succeeded in overturning the structural disadvantage under which it had been operating. It focused on only one aspect of the earliest Brussels agreements, reached by the then Government of Kosovo, in 2013. The first agreement, followed by another more detailed but not ratified in 2015, provided for the establishment of the Association/Community of municipalities. with a Serbian majority.

This agreement was actually the result of an initiative from Kosovo itself. The Association/Community was intended to provide an alternative to the Serbian-sponsored parallel government structures in the predominantly Serb-populated municipalities in the north. In exchange for the abandonment of these structures, Kosovo would accept the formation of an Association/Community between municipalities with a Serbian majority population to coordinate actions within their competences. The condition was that this would not create the third level of power between the central institutions and those of the municipalities or that the north would be transformed into an autonomous region, in the full sense of the word, in Kosovo.

However, the aspect of bypassing parallel power structures was forgotten over time. Instead, Serbia managed to focus the Brussels dialogue a decade later more or less solely on the topic of establishing the Association/Community. This presented difficulties for the newly arrived Government of Prime Minister Albin Kurti, who had promised iron opposition to the establishment of the Association/Community before and after the elections. For him, the Association/Community was a tool for the division of Kosovo and eventually the secession of the north. The strange insistence of Kosovo's western partners to implement the Association/Community — a kind of fetish for the most radical wing of the ruling party — suggested an international conspiracy to hand over the north to Serbia to resolve the matter once and for all.

From this moment on, Kosovo, not Serbia, seemed to be blocking the normalization process, due to the resistance it showed to the establishment of the Association/Community. Instead of dealing with this issue proactively, for example by adopting its own version of a soft version of the Association/Community, Kosovo allowed itself to be backed up against the wall on this issue. This freed Serbia from the pressure it would face, because Belgrade would not be in a position to agree on the full normalization of relations with Kosovo, including recognition.

Failure of de facto recognition

The German-French 2022 initiative was aimed at breaking the impasse. It officially offered de facto recognition of Kosovo in exchange for accelerated approval of the Association/Community. This initiative was based on the example of the successful Basic Treaty from 1972 between East and West Germany. The de facto agreement would mean that the two entities would treat each other as sovereign states under the principles of International Law and the UN Charter as a matter of fact, with no formal agreement on status. This would pave the way for wider international recognition of Kosovo, as well as further membership in international organizations.

It was the EU mediators who suddenly broke this agreement, at the moment when Kosovo was ready to accept it. Both sides had emphasized in the meeting held on February 27 last year in Brussels that they had agreed with the formulation of a new basic agreement according to the German model. At the next meeting, in Ohrid, on March 18, 2023, the parties were to formally approve the Basic Agreement and the Implementation Annex, possibly followed by a formal signing conference to be held in Paris. However, from the beginning of the Ohrid meeting, Serbia declared that it would not sign anything with Kosovo under any circumstances.

Instead of insisting on signing and putting pressure on Serbia with this goal in mind, as Kosovo had expected, the EU simply accepted this request. The interlocutors from the EU found a way to declare that Serbia had at least approved the text in relation to the EU. Serbia, therefore, could insist that it had not agreed on anything in relation to Kosovo. Moreover, instead of admitting that the treaties should be respected in their entirety, President Vučić warned that he would choose which of the alleged obligations he would implement, if they existed. Kosovo, on the other hand, would have to first fulfill the issue of Association/Community.

But the lack of signatures of both parties in the agreement eliminated the essential element of the agreement on which Kosovo had relied — the promised de facto recognition with the establishment of relations between the parties on the principles of the UN Charter, as was clearly stated in the agreement. This was key for Kosovo, because de facto recognition by Serbia had to unlock recognition by the five non-recognizing EU states that have not yet recognized Kosovo. This, in turn, would have been a prerequisite for Kosovo's campaign for EU membership sometime later.

As had happened earlier in the Ahtisaari process, Serbia deposited the obligations contained in the agreement towards Kosovo without giving what was expected from Belgrade — acceptance of Kosovo's existence at least as a fact — in return. Shocking Kosovo, the EU accepted this scheme and seemingly accepted Serbia's claim that it had no obligation to the agreement, while Kosovo somehow did. Instead of insisting on the clarification of Serbia's position — whether it had obligations towards Kosovo and in relation to all the elements of the Agreement or not — Kosovo submitted to pressure.

The result was that Kosovo, once again, was seen as the guilty party, because it did not move towards Association/Community — an issue that was now included as an urgent matter of the Brussels Agreement and the Annex which Kosovo apparently accepted on its own. Even though Kosovo complained about the mismanaged Brussels process, the pressure turned on Kosovo to implement the Association/Community, not on Serbia to sign the agreements.

Kosovo's movements in the north

Kosovo managed to increase this effect. With several steps, the Government set out unilaterally to establish or strengthen its authority in the north. This movement was driven by the feeling that the organized international community in the form of the UN, the EU, the OSCE, and even NATO, even a quarter of a century after the end of hostilities with Serbia in 1999, never took real action for them. supported the extension of Kosovo's power in those territories. In fact, as noted above, there was some fanciful fear that international actors were conspiring with Serbia to detach these territories from Kosovo and hand them over to Serbia.

There were already several episodes of international tensions that were written about Kosovo. Even before Prime Minister Kurti took office, Kosovo had approved punitive taxes on Serbian products. In fact, it was an act of reciprocity, seen as an unjustified disruption of regional development. Then Kosovo had insisted that its citizens in the north should have license plates of Kosovo and not of Serbia. Further tensions occurred with local elections in the north when they were boycotted by Serbian parties, likely at the behest of their sponsors in Belgrade. The inevitable result was the election of the mayors of the municipalities by the remaining voters - a small number of Albanian voters in those three. It was clear that these were not representatives of the Serbian majority population.

Kosovo insisted, however, that Serbia should not benefit from the boycott of the elections it had inspired. The Kosovo government resisted pressure to simply order the newly elected Albanian presidents to resign. In addition, special police units were used to clear municipal buildings for them, opening the way for riots and violence. NATO forces and some of the protesters suffered. These included armed bandits, allegedly organized by the Government of Serbia or local Serbs loyal to Serbia. Kosovo started a campaign for their arrest or their deportation to Serbia. Police actions and arrests caused tension with both the local population and international observers, and Kosovo bowed to pressure to release those arrested.

However, the Government did not give up its campaign to drive out the thuggish elements who were terrorizing and intimidating their fellow Serbs in the north, to fight organized crime and the illegal production of cryptocurrencies, and to reduce the influence and the control exercised by the Government of Serbia over that region. Kosovo's allies accepted that these steps could be legitimate, but opposed them, because they were uncoordinated with them, and, according to them, often seemed provocative.

In the end, Kosovo was not only faced with international criticism and condemnation, but also with sanctions in the form of EU "measures", in addition to the limitation of cooperation between Kosovo and NATO. Kosovo was in danger of isolation even from its closest allies.

Justifying its position, Kosovo had emphasized not to let go of Serbia in the direction of removing its parallel structures and the close relations between Belgrade and Moscow. It argued that Belgrade was playing the role of a Trojan Horse in Russia's efforts to destabilize Eastern Europe and the Balkans in order to divert attention from its own military campaign in Ukraine. However, it was this very fact that increased the loss of patience of the Western allies, led by the American Government, with Kosovo.

If there was a risk of the spread of Russia's sphere of influence in the region, or even a conflict that would involve NATO in Kosovo, then it was very important that Serbia not be provoked and that Belgrade not be pushed even more President Putin's throat. In fact, efforts should be made to entice Serbia away from Moscow and closer to the Western camp, moving towards EU membership.

Kosovo's approach appeared to be blocking progress in the normalization dialogue, which derailed this strategic goal. Moreover, the allies had the impression that Kosovo was behaving erratically and irresponsibly, offering Serbia a pretext for inciting military tensions in the region. In fact, Serbia reacted several times by increasing the number of its troops at the border and increasing the level of preparedness. This also forced NATO to increase its presence in Kosovo, at a time when it was believed that all attention should be turned from Ukraine.

Armed actions of Serbia

Kosovo's claim that Serbia was an aggressive agent of a Moscow expansion plan began to gain credibility after the capture of three Kosovar policemen on Kosovo territory in June 2023. It turned out that they had been captured by the special units of the Serbian police. However, they found themselves before a regular Serbian court, which confirmed Belgrade's official involvement in the event.

Later, in September, a significant infiltration of fighters, weapons and other materials was noted in the village of Banjské, in the north of Kosovo. A Kosovo policeman was killed. The attack, which was repulsed, turned out to involve a Serbian Orthodox monastery as a scene. Large quantities of weapons were confiscated, along with equipment that indicated a larger-scale attack was being prepared. This appeared to confirm Kosovo's narrative that Serbia aimed to destabilize the north of Kosovo with a campaign of irregular war, with the aim of seizing the territory by force.

The discovery and failure of this operation, which could hardly have been carried out without the involvement of Serbia, clearly put Belgrade on the tail end of diplomacy for a while. For the leadership of Kosovo, this event was a kind of Zeitenwende (turning point, vp) that Germany had experienced at the time of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. There was no longer room for doubt about Belgrade's intentions: it was about confrontation, not normalization. Whatever concessions would be made to Serbia were in vain, because there would never be positive results of a progress "with recognition at the center". Instead, it was believed, the original course to further establish Kosovo's power in the north was vindicated.

After a disastrous meeting between EU envoy Miroslav Lajcak and Prime Minister Kurti that same September, the main EU governments took control in an attempt to get the normalization process back on track, despite the heavy atmosphere . In an effort to return Kosovo, they reiterated that the Basic Agreement would undoubtedly have to produce the de facto recognition of Kosovo. This more or less restored the situation that existed before the Ohrid debacle

No response to the acceptance of all conditions by Kosovo

Kosovo immediately reacted by saying at the October meeting with key EU governments, as it had done in Ohrid, that it was ready to sign the Basic Agreement and the Ohrid Annex with Serbia there and at that moment. However, in a new development, Kosovo also declared that it was ready to accept the Association/Community Statute that had meanwhile been drafted and presented by the EU.

This was a very big turn. Now Kosovo had done everything that the USA and the EU had asked of it — the acceptance of the Basic Agreement, the Implementing Annex and even the acceptance of the Association/Community in a very specific form as drafted by the EU.

Instead of starting a protracted process to negotiate the Association/Community Statute, Pristina was simply accepting what the EU had produced as its own vision of a balanced compromise of the issue. This rested on the assurance that the Statute itself would not create a third tier of power or provide executive power to Association/Community bodies. A review by the Constitutional Court of Kosovo was expressly foreseen to ensure constitutionality.

This was no diplomatic pretence. Kosovo had accepted the Association/Community Statute without ambiguity and without any change in it as part of the package that had to be signed by both parties. Prime Minister Kurti announced to the Assembly of Kosovo his decision to support the Association/Community Statute, provided that both parties would sign the agreement, with a political price that he had to pay. However, the benefits of this decision were not reaped.

After all, Kosovo had to regain the diplomatic initiative. Kosovo had accepted everything that was put on the table, including the painful concession of the Association/Community. Now, the burden would have to fall on Serbia to sign the Basic Agreement or the Annex. But Kosovo failed to use this opportunity to turn the diplomatic game in its favor. It had to insist many times that it had fulfilled all the demands of its international partners and of the Brussels dialogue. The only obstacle remained the unwillingness of Serbia to sign it alongside Kosovo.

Too many distractions

Perhaps it was hoped that, after all, it would be possible to avoid the implementation of the Association/Community, with all the acceptable form that had been developed in Brussels. However, Kosovo allowed itself to be distracted by less weighty issues. It still refused to implement the Constitutional Court's ruling from 2016 to give a relatively small piece of land to the Serbian Orthodox Church's (SOC) Dečani Monastery. This problem continues to be very controversial between the population and politicians of Kosovo. But the question is not whether it would be fair to transfer a few hectares of land to him. The issue is about the rule of law. The Constitutional Court of Kosovo has had its say. No government has the right to reject the implementation of the highest court in the land, whether it agrees with it or not.

This action now endangers Kosovo's admission to the Council of Europe. Key states have unblocked this process as a reward to Kosovo for its willingness to accept the Basic Agreement and other issues. However, the report of the CoE rapporteur on the rule of law in Kosovo will be released soon, and some predict that it may be negative because the decision of the Constitutional Court is not implemented — an issue that Kosovo could and should have done before many years.

The eventual failure of Kosovo to join the Council of Europe would disrupt the effort to have representation in other international organizations. Besides being important in itself, membership in the Council of Europe would be an important step forward and a strong signal in the face of the success of the de-recognition campaign that Serbia has developed.

The case also allows Serbia to say that Kosovo is not honoring its obligations in relation to KOS, monasteries and other properties in the territory. In fact, these locations are heavily protected under the regime of Special Protected Areas administered by international agencies. KOS, perhaps under pressure from Belgrade, has stubbornly refused to discuss how the position can be improved within the current legal framework.

The newest derangement of reports

Kosovo also derailed efforts to mend relations with allies in other spheres. Key EU states were gradually accepting the path chosen by Kosovo on the issue of mayors in the north. As mentioned earlier, Kosovo had refused to ask these presidents to resign, which quickly opened the way to new elections. Decided that this process of new elections should be done according to the laws of Kosovo.

The Serbian community that felt unrepresented with the results of the elections had to express its position with the "petition for dismissal", as foreseen by the Kosovar legislation. This meant that the Serbian representatives had to try, at length, to demonstrate a willingness to act according to Kosovo's legislation and to cooperate with the Kosovo authorities — an issue that the Government of Kosovo wanted to highlight. The process would be difficult and long and could even fail, if not enough votes were collected. Therefore, instead of enabling the rapid "escalation" of tensions in the north that the USA and the EU had requested, the solution of the issue remained on the agenda. Furthermore, it is not clear whether Serbian parties and voters will participate in new elections, given the current circumstances and Belgrade's approach, even if the petition proves successful.

However, Kosovo's international partners accepted the dismissal petition route that Kosovo had requested. At the same time, the license plate issue was quietly resolved without any public attention. Tensions regarding the mayors of the municipalities eased and Kosovo withdrew part of the police force. It seemed to the Government of Kosovo that it had made its intention clear. He would insist on strengthening power in the north while taking steps to ease tensions.

But even this success was now broken. The warning regarding the use of the dinar, the currency Serbia uses to pay institutions and individuals in the north, was sharply criticized by Kosovo's closest friends. Again, the allies actually recognize that this step is necessary to stop illegal transfers of funds, organized crime and even terrorism. The harsh criticism concerns the fact that the local population has not been consulted or informed, and they have not been given enough time to adapt. The move surprised even Kosovo's closest friends.

This episode gave Serbia a chance to win the diplomatic initiative and present the Serbian population in Kosovo as a victim of the arbitrary power of the Pristina authorities.

Little support from allies in the Security Council

In the emergency session of the Security Council, Kosovo held its own. While President Vucic would have intended to put Kosovo on trial, as an accused party, Prime Minister Kurti managed to balance the process. But despite the fact that Serbia used the approach of the Security Council against Kosovo and seemed to allude to the possible use of force with the support of Russia, it is noteworthy that the key allies of Kosovo did not oppose Belgrade's behavior as it could have was expected.

The USA emphasized the fact that the EU process in Brussels should remain the main place to address the issues of Kosovo. However, along with the EU states, he textually joined all the members of the Council to oppose the way Kosovo, in a unilateral form, had imposed its decision on the dinar.

What is the truth, Pristina's friends have not contested her right to make the decision. But it was the lack of warning and forethought that caused them concern. It seemed like a wrong and unpredictable move that was calculated to further destabilize the already tense situation. It was seen as another example of Kosovo's irresponsibility in relation to the north at a time when the US, NATO and the EU were trying to focus on opposing the Russian Federation over Ukraine.

The new challenge from Serbia

This result is bad news for Kosovo. At the UNSC meeting, Serbia was launching a campaign to revive its claim to Kosovo as its own territory, denying the existence of Kosovo as a state. And he did this against the background of at least an indirect threat of the use of force, repeated by the presentation of the Russian Federation. Obviously, there was no basis for the claims related to an alleged campaign of violent ethnic cleansing caused by Kosovo in its northern municipalities. However, even Kosovo's friends seem to have appreciated that there was an element of truth at the heart of Serbia's complaint. No delegation spoke in defense of Kosovo, despite the very baseless and absurd accusations made by Serbia and the Russian Federation. This should be a very important remark for Kosovo.

We can assume that Serbia will expand its diplomatic campaign in this direction. This is a direct challenge to Kosovo's identity as a state, as well as (which suits Moscow) a direct challenge to NATO, which is responsible for Kosovo's security.

This is coupled with the new determination demonstrated through a campaign of active measures in the north. This week ethnic Serbs mobilized in a campaign that appears to have been supported by instructions from Belgrade on how to provoke violent incidents. Chances are, it can be expected more than that. Perhaps it will be intended to provoke a reaction from the Kosovo authorities that can be portrayed as repression against the local population, presumably to justify a request for intervention from Serbia. This, after all, is the same tactic that the KLA had implemented in the war against Serbian forces in 1998-1999, prompting NATO's intervention.

Kosovo must react and focus on the essentials

Kosovo must face this new reality. What is the truth, this government has proven that it knows how to resist international pressure. It can impose its will, up to a limit, within Kosovo, regardless of the point of view of the USA, the EU or others. EU measures have had little effect, while resistance to what are seen as instructions from Washington or Brussels seems to have a good effect on the electorate. Whatever may be seen as a provocation by the Government of Kosovo, will not force NATO to give up its commitment to secure the territory of Kosovo against an attack from outside. Kosovo remains an important, however small, strategic point in an unstable region.

But after the past week, it should be clear that Kosovo cannot, alone, guarantee security in a harsher regional environment or maintain or strengthen its international position without the support of important allies. While Kosovo has proven to have the power to withstand the pressures of friends and enemies in the last two years, the game is changing. Kosovo will not be able to rely only on its own forces in this new and tougher game.

NATO's strange reaction to the kidnapping of three policemen in the north last June, when it refused to confirm that they were taken on Kosovo territory, was a first observation. To this day, the UN has refused to come up with an official position on the responsibility of the September attack in Banjska, despite the clear facts from the ground. These are indicators of the erosion of diplomatic support for Kosovo, in addition to the reduced number of recognitions. And this now increases with the international silence before the theater of Serbia's absurd accusations in the Security Council.

A consequence of this is that Kosovo must finally focus on what matters most. This includes steps to rebuild trust with friends and allies. Without their support, Kosovo will have a hard time resisting the campaigns that will come with the aim of weakening its international position, in addition to additional actions with the aim of destabilizing the situation in the north. In order to resist these developments, Kosovo itself must act as a source of stability, and not as a source of crisis in relation to its allies, if it wants to rebuild the partnerships it needs.

This does not mean that Kosovo should return to a policy of unopposed obedience to international demands. But it should be done rationally and in dialogue with allies. It must have a longer-term strategy on how to fight the challenge set by Belgrade, have allies close by, consult them and avoid surprises, inciting unexpected crises.

Elements of strategy

A more sustainable strategy would have five key elements:

1. Return to stable partnerships, while strengthening control over the north

Kosovo's allies recognize that Kosovo has the right to secure its own territory and to try to ensure that its power extends to the northern municipalities as well. Where possible, this should be done in cooperation with Serbia through mediated dialogue. Where it is clear that this road is being undermined by Belgrade, as it seems to be the case now, unilateral action can be supported. But it should be undertaken in coordination with friendly governments, keeping in mind the advice and avoiding surprises. The rebuilding of trust must be done with sincerity and Kosovo must accept that friendly governments will want to see evidence of a change in approach before they take it for granted and react positively.

2. Strengthen cooperation in security

NATO is seen as the main guarantor of stability, especially in the north. Kosovo cannot exercise its function alone. But NATO cannot be expected to make this important contribution if it is exposed to the obligation to clean up the consequences of what it sees as a dangerous and unpredictable action by the Kosovar authorities. Close cooperation with NATO is not giving up Kosovo's sovereignty. In fact it is an attribute of sovereignty that other states would like for themselves. This is the first step towards membership in the Alliance for which Kosovo has aspirations. Therefore, after some achievements in these spheres, consultations, sharing of intelligence information, joint planning and exchange at all levels can be developed further.

3. Integration of the north through positive action

Kosovo will continue with the strategy of integration of ethnic Serbs, including the north of Kosovo. However, by implementing it, he must avoid antagonizing the population he is trying to attract. The steps foreseen to break Serbia's strong control over Kosovo must be designed and implemented in consultation with the local population and must be managed in a way that quickly and visibly improves life in the north. Fighting armed gangs that try to terrorize the population is important. However, the measures implemented for this purpose should be seen as liberating the local population from violence and not imposing violence on them. Moving the special police to less prominent locations is the first step, but must be followed by other steps. Local security committees and close cooperation with international agencies, including the OSCE and KFOR, can help overcome the impression of harsh tactics that could endanger ordinary people. More generally, the negative agenda of removing parallel power structures and intimidation in the north should be transformed into a positive plan that offers good not only to the Serbs in the north, but to all of Kosovo. There must be a positive "offer" regarding the future of the region populated mainly by Serbs. This concerns the strengthening of special agreements for health and education. The Brussels agreement foresaw the commitment of Serbia and Kosovo to regulate these arrangements by channeling the funds through Kosovo's institutions. This would undoubtedly be the best option. But, if Serbia continues its policy of escalation and hostilities, Kosovo must guarantee the functioning of the institutions that are currently financed by Serbia. In this context, given the decision regarding the use of the dinar, Kosovo has much more to do to assure the population that there will be no negative effects. In fact, it should be clarified that the euro offers the kind of stability that Serbia and its currency cannot offer.

But a positive offer is more than an assurance that things won't change for the worse. In this month, Kosovo started to implement an important initiative to subsidize the creation of jobs in the north. More can be done to prevent northern Kosovo from becoming the isolated quagmire that Republika Srpska has become in Bosnia. Kosovo should declare a Rapid Economic Development Zone in the north of the country. This will not create a new geographic or legal entity in the North. In fact, the area would extend beyond the four northern municipalities and include, for example, South Mitrovica. The concept aims to foster the integration and not the separation of the north from the rest of Kosovo. The Rapid Economic Development Zone can attract investment in Kosovo in general. It can be developed with international help, especially from the highly experienced development agencies of Germany and France. Finally, the area can become the main mechanism to absorb the large financial support as well as the international investment envisaged by the Brussels Agreement. If Serbia continues with its negative approach and refuses to implement the Brussels Agreement, and if there is no perspective for cooperation with Serbia beyond the northern border, Kosovo can still develop its own initiative with its partners.

4. The postponement towards Serbia's clear decision towards the dialogue in Brussels

Serbia's current approach does not seem to indicate that it will accept the Basic Agreement and the Annex from last year. On the contrary, he seems to have decided to give up on Brussels in favor of confrontation. Against this turning back, the European facilitators will not succeed if they continue to say that there is a fundamental commitment from the parties for normalization, while Serbia has openly chosen to implement an aggressive policy towards Kosovo. Regardless of what has been said, it seems premature to declare the death of the Brussels Process now. The truth is that there is not much time to revive it, given the elections that will be held soon in the EU and the USA. But it will be a last chance to offer the parties a clear choice whether or not they want normalization with each other. Their approach would tell the EU in a final form about the readiness of Kosovo and Serbia to orient their policy towards the final membership in the EU. The attempt to "restart" the Brussels Process after the Ohrid disaster in March 2023 actually happened, but it seems to have been sunk by other events. As previously stated, with Germany, France and Italy at the helm, the missing element of de facto recognition in Ohrid was brought back into the process at an international meeting held in October. At that meeting, Kosovo again offered to sign the Basic Agreement and the Annex. More than that, Prime Minister Albin Kurti also agreed to sign the Association/Community Statute drafted by the EU, provided that Serbia would sign. With this new element in the country, already approved by Kosovo, it is time to offer Serbia the opportunity to choose the normalization relations with Kosovo according to the original scheme drawn up by Germany and France.

New elements could be added so that the acceptance of the whole package is more attractive. This could include elements for the cooperative establishment of a Rapid Economic Development Zone alongside the promise of substantial foreign funding to create the infrastructure needed to operate on both sides of the border. Key EU states, however, were right to insist that the package should be linked to de facto recognition, as promised early last year. If Serbia wants to claim that it has the right to deny the very existence of Kosovo, as it does now, there will be lasting instability instead of the normalization demanded by the EU and the UN. And Kosovo is right to insist that de facto recognition should consist of the mutual signing of the Basic Agreement and the Annex, or of an associated act of signature by both parties. Whether they sign the same or separate copies of the agreement is less relevant, as long as the expression of agreement establishes the de facto relationship between Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovo cannot accept unilateral declarations that change the text of the Agreement or undermine the value of any signature.

So other ways that would facilitate signing could be considered. The preamble to the Basic Agreement already provides that the signature is without prejudice to the views of the parties on the de jure situation. This can be reiterated. So, a form can be found for the Basic Agreement and the Annex to enter into force as long as it preserves the views and interests of the parties, provided that this does not undermine the nature of the act as a fresh start on the basis of de facto recognition. Acting on Prime Minister Kurti's promise, Kosovo would probably have to take some specific steps in relation to the Association/Community from the moment when both parties would give their consent to the package. This could be the submission of the draft statute, transformed into a decree, for review by the Constitutional Court of Kosovo. Kosovo could also seek an indication from the five non-recognizing states within the EU if this agreement could be seen as sufficient de facto recognition by Serbia to enable them to change their position. However, Belgrade would have to face a fair but clear choice. It cannot say that it is participating in good faith in the normalization dialogue if at the same time it denies the existence of the negotiating partner.

If Serbia remains unwilling to reach an agreement with Kosovo (and not with the EU), the EU should have the courage to say where the obstacle to progress lies. If Serbia does not want to concede and instead insists on confrontation, it will exclude itself from a meaningful dialogue with the EU on membership — an option that Serbia seems to want to provoke now. Kosovo will continue to want cooperation with the EU in order to get closer to the legislation on the criteria for admission to EU membership. In this context, perhaps he would like to offer other forms of security to members of all communities in Kosovo, including and especially the Serbian community.

5. Deepening of strategic reports

Besides rebuilding trust with key allies, Kosovo must give meaning to its relations with the countries that have recognized it. It should focus on developing cooperation in areas of mutual interest with countries that recognize it in a consistent manner. Putting things aside after recognition has taken place is not enough, as Serbia's success in achieving de-recognition proved. Therefore, Kosovo must rely on the support of its core allies. Again this requires goodwill and a depth of cooperation that may have been lost over the years. The same goes for the campaign to join more international institutions. The immediate priority would be to try to save the campaign for membership in the Council of Europe, especially when it comes to the rule of law. While the path to membership in international institutions may be blocked for a while, Kosovo can focus on strengthening regional cooperation. Once again, Kosovo has allowed itself to become a little isolated, staying away from integration projects in the region. Personal animosities have worsened relations even with Albania, the closest ally in the region. These distractions are unnecessary. Perhaps the time has come to share Kosovo's concerns with its allies regarding Serbia's aggressive approach in the past week. The assumption that Serbia is still interested in joining the EU and will be limited in its actions due to this prospect should be re-evaluated given the close alliance between the Russian Federation and Serbia in building this aggressive challenge to Kosovo. Key states would have to weigh this evidence against other signs of Serbia's behavior, for example in relation to Ukraine. These are signs that may prove short-term even if they have practical weight in the moment.

The alternative of waiting

An alternative for Kosovo could be to wait for the current period of confrontation to pass. It may be believed that a new European Commission could bring in a new emissary to lead the normalization process. It could start from scratch, perhaps de-emphasizing the Association/Community issue. Then it can push forward its policy by dealing with the concerns of the communities in Kosovo, in the absence of what is seen as the annoying tutelage of Brussels. There may also be changes in the American leadership, bringing new opportunities, or even, in all likelihood, new risks for Kosovo.

Playing the waiting game until the other side has engaged in full aggressive power seems dangerous. As always, Kosovo would be punished for reacting to circumstances created by others. This is likely to limit her options in the future, rather than giving her many opportunities. The issue is whether Kosovo will be able to create a complex strategy to secure its interests and implement them in time in partnership with others. Clearly, Serbia relies on the fact that this will not be possible.

For Kosovo, therefore, it is a matter of which strategic line it wants to push before facing the revived challenge. It may continue to consolidate power in the north, likely in the face of unrest and provocations instigated by Serbia. This could serve Serbia to feed the narrative of the policy of repression administered in the north, as well as the threat of further interventions. A decisive policy, pushed unilaterally without much consultation, will also alienate Kosovo even further from allies. This would reduce their willingness to work in close partnership with Kosovo at a time when this support would be critical.

The alternative is to go all the way with the Brussels process. Or Serbia denies the attempt, clearly dashing the hope still held by some that Belgrade can be pushed out of the arms of the West. In this case, Kosovo would regain the advantage and be able to strengthen ties with its allies, preparing for the challenges ahead.

If, on the other hand, contrary to expectations and the current aggressive trend of its own policy, Serbia changes its course and chooses to accept the Brussels package, Kosovo would gain the de facto recognition it is seeking. Of course, it would only sign with Belgrade if it is clear that the package represents de facto recognition, as promised, and that its integration into the international community can continue in an accelerated form. In fact, it should be guided by its commitment to the implementation of the Association/Community. But now the content of the Statute, which Kosovo has already accepted, is known. This makes this enterprise predictable. According to the Statute, the Association/Community can be implemented in compliance with the Constitution of Kosovo and the Government can control the process of its implementation.

Marc Weller is Professor of International Law and International Constitutional Studies at the University of Cambridge. The views expressed are his own.

Translated from English

©Flaka Surroi