OpEd

Serbia's great challenge to Kosovo

After last week it must also be clear that Kosovo cannot, alone, guarantee its security in a harsher regional environment, or maintain or even enhance its international position without the support of important allies. While Kosovo has been able to display resilience in the face of the pressures it has experienced from friend and foe alike over the past two years, the game is changing. Kosovo will not be able to rely on its own strength alone in this new, rougher game

Since last week, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have taken a new turn. It was taken as read for well over a decade that Kosovo's statehood is stable and beyond question. True, Belgrade always maintained that it had not accepted the existence of Kosovo as a sovereign state. But it had limited its campaign against Kosovo to diplomatic initiatives. Now, Serbia has changed gear quite dramatically. After its apparent involvement in the serious security incident in Northern Kosovo of last September, it is aggressively questioning the existence of Kosovo as a state while hinting at the threat of the use of force to reintegrate the territory.

This development manifested itself in Serbia's summoning of a special session of the UN Security Council last week. At the meeting, Serbia alleged that Kosovo is waging an aggressive campaign directed against its ethnic Serb community, especially in the North of Kosovo. Moreover, much of the presentation by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic focused on building an alliance of states committed to the doctrine of territorial integrity and hence opposing statehood for Kosovo. At the same time, the presentation, along with the supporting statement by the Russian Federation, hinted at a threat of the use of force against Kosovo.

President Vucic alleged that the Kosovo government, or in his words, the 'provisional institutions of self-government in Prishtina,' had created unbearable living conditions for Serbs in Kosovo and were now carrying out 'widespread and systematic attacks against Serb civilians.' This is code for an allegation of the commission of crimes against humanity 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 ever engaged in practices that could be considered remotely similar.

President Vucic added that this situation, if continued, would create 'irreparable harm to the survival of the Serbian people in Kosovo and Metohija.' This is a reference to the proceedings in the International Court of Justice seeking interim measures of protection in relation to the allegation of genocide against the Russian Federation in Ukraine, Myanmar in relation to its Rohynga population, and Israel concerning Gaza. The argument is that unless the UN Security Council acts decisively now to arrest the alleged crimes against ethnic Serbs in Kosovo, others may need to act instead to forestall irreparable damage. This may include the use of force to rescue a population threatened with imminent destruction or, indeed, genocide. It would allow Serbia to claim later that it gave a final chance to the UN Security Council to take action. The absence of decisive measures taken by the Council would have made an intervention by Serbia unavoidable.

This reference could also be seen as an ominous mirror image of the entirely unfounded claim by the Russian Federation that Ukraine had launched an attack and even a campaign of genocide against the ethnic Russian population in the Donbas. This claim was invoked as a purported justification for the subsequent invasion of the territory. In fact, at the Security Council meeting last week, the Russian Federation chimed in, asserting that the situation in Kosovo had reached such a scale that a 'direct threat to physical survival hangs over the Serbian population of the Kosovo autonomous region, with Prishtina authorities working to create intolerable living conditions to force them to leave their ancestral homes forever.' This kind of argument is reminiscent of NATO's justification for its forced humanitarian action in Kosovo, except that there is no factual basis for it in this instance.

This serious escalation in rhetoric follows on from the repeated reference to Kosovo as supposedly 'occupied territory.' In 2023, Azerbaijan used force to recapture the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh, which had been held by Armenia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. It argued that it was entitled to use force to liberate its own territory that had been occupied for decades.

These statements will presumably not actually precede an armed invasion of Northern Kosovo, or of Kosovo altogether. NATO's presence is meant to prevent such a contingency. Still, these are serious threats, and threats made at the highest level of international diplomacy. They quite clearly mark a new phase in Serbia's policy vis-à-vis Kosovo, and potentially in relation to the West in general. Moreover, in addition to more high-pitched verbal attacks, Belgrade seems to be reigniting its attempts to destabilize the North through direct action. All this must have implications for the way Kosovo conducts itself. And, it should also indicate to the European Union and the United States that Serbia has, it seems, given up on its attempt to portray itself as a peaceful state seeking to achieve normalization with Kosovo on the way to joining the European Union.

Undoing the Tense but Stable Status Quo

Of course, the UN Security Council has held regular meetings on Kosovo since its independence in 2008. This time, however, the Council met in emergency session at the special request of Serbia. In bringing this urgent action, Belgrade could exploit the fact that it is a UN member, while Kosovo is not. Hence, it can call Kosovo to account for alleged offenses before the Council, the highest international body concerned with international peace and security, while Kosovo is unable to do so. Even if the allegations are entirely spurious, Kosovo is placed on the defensive. And mud will stick, as they say.

Serbia relied very evidently on the support of its own sponsor in the Security Council, the Russian Federation, which spoke strongly in support of Serbia's challenge to Kosovo. Moreover, Serbia attempted to unite conservative states behind the international law principle of territorial unity. It relied on the fact that many third states have their own issues driving them to defend that doctrine wherever it is challenged. This includes the five EU member states that have withheld recognition from Kosovo thus far. China, another Permanent Member of the Council along with the Russian Federation, has special concerns in relation to Taiwan. Many neutral or non-aligned states share these concerns. A significant number of them have recently argued against the allegedly 'Western' liberal views about international law and international order, based on human rights, the rule of law and self-determination. The independence of Kosovo is widely seen by many of them as an outgrowth of this policy during the period of Western dominance two to three decades ago.

Rolling Back the Consensus on Kosovo's Status

Still, at least since the ruling of the International Court of Justice of 2010, which found that Kosovo's declaration of independence had not been in violation of international law, the basic fact that Kosovo is a state had remained more or less unchallenged. Well over half of the membership of the UN recognized Kosovo. Those who failed to recognize in the main would not have doubted that Kosovo statehood is a fact which, even if inconvenient from their perspective, cannot be reversed. Serbia contented itself to maintain its claim to 'KosMet,' while not pursuing it very aggressively.

This was reflected in the UN General Assembly Resolution acknowledging the ruling of the International Court of Justice. In it, the Assembly called upon the EU to facilitate negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia with the aim of normalizing their relations. That is to say, there was no longer a question on the status of Kosovo as a state, but rather the process of normalizing relations between two states.

Since then, though, Kosovo has lost focus while Serbia engaged in a highly organized and professionally executed campaign to undermine Kosovo's status. This includes the attempt to reverse the balance between recognizing states and those that have not recognized. At the Security Council meeting last week, Serbia reveled in the fact that now, less than half of the UN membership maintains diplomatic relations with Kosovo, in consequence of its de-recognition campaign conducted over the past decade.

Kosovo's Self-isolation

Kosovo not only failed to mount an effective counter to this campaign. Instead, it allowed itself to be placed in the role of the awkward, uncooperative party in the UN-mandated Brussels process of negotiations on the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. This was odd, as Serbia was the party at a structural disadvantage in that process. After all, ultimately, at the end of the process, it would have to acknowledge the existence of Kosovo in a legally binding normalization agreement achieved under EU auspices. In other words, it would have to recognize Kosovo. Such an outcome of the normalization dialogue would be the key condition for potential admission of Serbia to the European Union.

Since its launch well over a decade ago, the Brussels process has resulted in some two dozen agreements aiming to address issues of mutual interest to both sides. With the election of the government under Albin Kurti, Kosovo started to emphasize that the Brussels process would from now on need to be 'recognition-centred.' That is to say, the dialogue should move from tactical agreements on practical issues to the major, substantive outcome the dialogue was meant to achieve in the end. In what was seen as a success for Kosovo, this wording ('recognition-centred') was adopted by the US government supporting the EU process and the European Parliament.

Nevertheless, Serbia managed to overturn the structural disadvantage it had been laboring under. It focused on one single aspect from the early Brussels agreements, reached by a previous Kosovo government in 2013. This first agreement, followed by a more detailed but unratified text of 2015, foresaw the establishment of an Association/Community of Serb-majority Municipalities.

This agreement was in fact the result of an initiative of Kosovo. The Association/Community was meant to offer an alternative to the parallel structures of government sponsored by Serbia in the mainly ethnic Serb-inhabited North of Kosovo. In exchange for abandoning these structures, Kosovo would accept the formation of the Association/Community among ethnic-Serb majority municipalities to coordinate action within their competencies. The condition was that this would not create a third layer of government between Kosovo's central institutions and the municipalities, or constitute the North an autonomous region in its own right within Kosovo.

However, the aspect of removing the parallel structure of government was somehow forgotten with time. Instead, Serbia managed to focus the Brussels dialogue a decade later more or less exclusively on the establishment of the Association/Community. This posed difficulties for the newly incoming government of Prime Minister Albin Kurti, who had pledged his ironclad opposition to the establishment of the Association/Community before and after the elections. To him, the Association/Community was a tool to divide Kosovo and eventually separate it from the North. The odd insistence by Kosovo's Western partners on implementing the Association/Community—a kind of fetish it seemed to the more radical wing of the governing Party—was suggestive of an international plot to hand the North over to Serbia, to resolve this issue once and for all.

From this point onwards, it was Kosovo, not Serbia, which appeared to block the normalization process, given its resistance to the establishment of the Association/Community. Rather than addressing this issue pro-actively, for instance by adopting its own version of a tame version of the Association/Community, Kosovo allowed itself to be cornered on this point. This released Serbia from the pressure it would ordinarily have faced as Belgrade would not really be in a position to readily agree to full normalization of relations with Kosovo, including recognition.

The Failure of De-facto Recognition

The German-French Initiative of 2022 was meant to overcome this deadlock. It formally offered de-facto recognition for Kosovo, in exchange for its accelerated adoption of the Association/Community. This initiative was based on the example of the successful 1972 Basic Treaty between East and West Germany. De facto recognition would mean that both entities would treat each other as sovereign states according to the principles of international law and the UN Charter as a matter of fact, without coming to a formal legal agreement on status. This would open-up the way to more widespread international recognition of Kosovo and membership in further international organizations.

It was the EU Mediators who suddenly overturned this bargain, at the point when Kosovo at least was ready to accept it. Both sides had indicated at a meeting on February 27 of last year in Brussels that they agreed on the wording of a new Basic Agreement following the German model. At a follow-on meeting in Ohrid of March 18, the sides were meant to formally endorse the Basic Agreement and an Implementation Annex, perhaps to be followed by a formal signature conference to be held in Paris. However, at the outset of the Ohrid meeting, Serbia declared that it would not sign with Kosovo under any circumstance.

Rather than insisting on signing and pressing Serbia with that end in mind, as Kosovo had expected, the EU simply accepted this demand. Its interlocutors found a way to argue that Serbia had at least endorsed the text in relation to the EU. Serbia could therefore insist that it had agreed nothing in relation to Kosovo. Moreover, rather than accepting that treaties must be kept in their entirety, President Vucic announced that he might pick and choose which of his supposed obligations he might implement, if any. Kosovo, on the other hand, would need to deliver first on the issue of the Association/Community.

But the absence of signatures of both parties on the agreement removed the essential element of the bargain Kosovo had relied on—the promised de facto recognition through establishment of relations of both sides on the basis of the principles of the UN Charter, as was clearly stated in the agreement. This was the key for Kosovo, as de facto recognition by Serbia was meant to unlock recognition by the five EU member states that had failed to recognize thus far. This, in turn, would be a requirement for Kosovo's campaign to join the EU eventually.

As had happened before during the Ahtisaari process, Serbia therefore banked the commitments contained in the agreement for Kosovo without giving what had been expected from Belgrade—acceptance of the existence of Kosovo at least as a matter of fact—in return. To the consternation of Kosovo, the EU went along with this scheme and apparently accepted Serbia's claim that it was not really bound by the agreement, while Kosovo somehow was. Instead of insisting on clarity of Serbia's position—was it bound in relation to Kosovo and in relation to all elements of the Agreement or not—Kosovo came under pressure.

The outcome was that Kosovo was, again, seen as the guilty party, as it failed to move on the issue of Association/Community—an issue that was now also included as an urgent priority in the Brussels agreement and Annex which Kosovo had seemingly accepted on its own. Although Kosovo cried foul in relation to the mishandled Brussels process, the pressure was on Kosovo to deliver the Association/Community, and not on Serbia to sign the Agreements.

Kosovo's Moves in the North

Kosovo managed to amplify this effect. In several steps, its government moved unilaterally to establish or enhance its governmental authority in the North. This was driven by the sense that the organized international community in the shape of the UN, EU, OSCE and even NATO had over the quarter of a century since the conclusion of the hostilities with Serbia in 1999 never taken any real action to support the establishment of Kosovo authorities in those areas. Indeed, as noted already above, there was a perhaps somewhat fanciful concern that the international actors were conspiring with Serbia to detach these areas from Kosovo and hand them over to Serbia.

There were several episodes of international tension attributed to Kosovo at this time. Already before Prime Minister Kurti took office, Kosovo had imposed punitive tariffs on Serbian imports. While this was in fact a reciprocal act, it was still widely seen as an unwarranted disturbance of regional development. Then, Kosovo insisted that its citizens in the North would need to display Kosovo, rather than Serb, car license plates. Additional tensions developed when local elections in the North were boycotted by the Serb parties, apparently at the insistence of their sponsors in Belgrade. The inevitable outcome was the election of local mayors by the remaining voters—the quite small number of ethnic Albanian voters in those regions. These were evidently not representative of the majority ethnic Serb population.

Kosovo insisted however that Serbia should not profit from the boycott of the elections it had inspired. The Kosovo government resisted pressure that it should simply order the newly elected, ethnic Albanian mayors to resign. Moreover, special police forces were used to clear municipal buildings for them, leading to unrest and some violence. Both NATO forces in the area and some local protesters became casualties. These included armed thugs allegedly organized by the government of Serbia or local ethnic Serbs loyal to it. Kosovo engaged in a campaign seeking to capture them, or to push them back into Serbia. The associated police raids and arrests also caused tension with the local population and international observers alike and Kosovo faced pressure to release those it had captured.

Still, the government persisted in its campaign to expel thuggish elements terrorizing and intimidating their own ethnic Serb compatriots in the North, to remove organized crime and illegal crypto currency mining, and to reduce the influence and control exercised by the government of Serbia over the region . Kosovo's allies accepted that such steps might be legitimate, but objected to the uncoordinated, and in their view often provocative, shape of these actions.

In the end Kosovo faced not only international criticism and condemnation, but also sanctions in the shape of EU 'measures,' along with steps limiting cooperation between Kosovo and NATO. Kosovo was at risk of isolation even from its closest allies.

In justification of its stance, Kosovo had pointed to the intransigence of Serbia over the removal of parallel structures and to Belgrade's close relationship with Moscow. It argued that Belgrade was acting as the stalking horse for Russian attempts to destabilize Eastern Europe and the Balkans in order to distract from its own military campaign in Ukraine. However, it was precisely this fact which led to increasing impatience of the Western allies, led by the US government, with Kosovo.

If there was a risk of Russian expansion of its sphere of influence in the region, or even of conflict involving NATO in Kosovo, then it was all-the more important to avoid provoking Serbia and driving Belgrade further into the arms of President Putin. Rather, decisive efforts should be made to tempt Serbia away from Moscow and into the Western camp, moving towards EU membership.

Kosovo's attitude seemed to block progress in the normalization dialogue, which disrupted this strategic aim. Moreover, the allies felt that Kosovo was acting erratically and irresponsibly, offering Serbia a pretext for the ratcheting up of military tension in the region. Indeed, Serbia responded several times by increasing its forces on the border and placing them in a higher state of readiness. This forced NATO, too, to bolster its presence in Kosovo, when it was felt that all attention should be directed at Ukraine.

Serbia's Armed Actions

Kosovo's claim that Serbia was an aggressive agent of Moscow's expansionist plan gained some credence after the capture of three Kosovo policemen on Kosovo territory in June of last year. It appeared that they had been captured by Serbian special forces. In any event, they found themselves in front of a regular Serbian court, confirming Belgrade's official involvement in the affair.

Later, in September, there was a significant infiltration of fighters, arms and other material at the village of Banjska in Northern Kosovo. A Kosovo policeman was killed. The attack, which was beaten back, appeared to involve a local Serbian Orthodox monastery as a staging post. Large quantities of weapons were seized, along with equipment suggesting that a larger attack was being prepared. This appeared to confirm Kosovo's narrative that Serbia was aiming to destabilize the North of Kosovo through a campaign of irregular warfare, potentially seeking to detach it forcibly.

The discovery and failure of this operation, which could hardly have been undertaken without the involvement of Serbia, clearly put Belgrade on the diplomatic back-foot for a while. For Kosovo's leadership, this event was the kind of Zeitenwende that Germany had experienced in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Now, there was no longer any room for doubt about Belgrade's intentions: It was confrontation, not normalization. Any concessions made in relation to Serbia would be wasted, as there would never be a positive outcome of a 'recognition-centred' progress. Instead, it was felt, the original course of asserting Kosovo's authority ever more strongly in the North, was vindicated.

After a disastrous meeting between EU Envoy Miroslav Lajcak and Prime Minister Kurti that September, key EU governments took over, to try and bring the normalization process back on track, despite this difficult atmosphere. In an effort to bring Kosovo back on board, they reiterated that the Basic Agreement would indeed need to deliver de-facto recognition for Kosovo. This rather resets the situation to that which had existed before the Ohrid debacle.

No Response to Kosovo's Acceptance of all Conditions

Kosovo immediately responded by announcing at the October meeting with key EU governments, as it had done at Ohrid, that it was ready to sign the Basic Agreement and the Ohrid Annex with Serbia there and then. However, in a new development, Kosovo also declared itself willing to accept the Statute for the Association/Community, which had in the meantime been drafted and presented by the EU.

This was a very major turnabout. Now, Kosovo had done everything the US and EU had demanded of it—acceptance of the Basic Agreement, the Implementation Annex and even acceptance of the Association/Community in the very specific form the EU itself had developed.

Instead of having to conduct a protracted process of negotiating a statute for the Association/Community, Prishtina was simply accepting what the EU had produced as its vision of a balanced compromise on the issue. This was based on the assurance in the Statute itself that it would not establish a new, third layer of government in Kosovo or assign executive powers to the bodies of the Association/Community. A review by the Kosovo Constitutional Court to ensure constitutionality was also expressly provided for.

This was no mere diplomatic feint. Kosovo had accepted the Statute of the Association/Community unambiguously and without any changes to it as part of the package to be signed by both sides. Prime Minister Kurti reported his decision to endorse the Statute of the Association/Community, should both sides sign the agreement, to the Kosovo Assembly, at some considerable political cost to himself. However, the benefits of this decision were not reaped.

After all, at this point, Kosovo should have regained the diplomatic initiative. Kosovo had accepted everything that was on the table, including what was a painful concession on the Association/Community. Now, the burden would once more rest with Serbia to deliver its signature under the Basic Agreement or Annex. But Kosovo failed to use this opportunity to reset the diplomatic game in its favor. It should have insisted, and insisted again, that it had now fulfilled all the requirements demanded by its international partners and the Brussels dialogue. The only obstruction left was Serbia's unwillingness to sign along with Kosovo.

Too Many Distractions

Perhaps there was the hope that it might be possible to escape from having to implement the Association/Community after all, even in the acceptable form that had been developed by Brussels. In any event, Kosovo allowed itself to be distracted by less relevant issues. It still refused to implement a decision of the Kosovo Constitutional Court of 2016 to award a relatively small parcel of land to the Decani monastery of the Serbian Orthodox Church. This problem admittedly remains highly controversial among the Kosovo population and politicians. But the point at issue was not really whether it would be fair and right to transfer a few hectares of land. The issue was one of the rule of law. The Kosovo Constitutional Court had spoken. No government is entitled to refuse to implement the decision of the highest court in the land, whether or not they agree with the ruling.

This action now places at risk the process of admission of Kosovo to the Council of Europe. Key states had unblocked this process as a reward for Kosovo's willingness to adopt the Basic Agreement and other matters. However, a report of the Council of Europe Rapporteur on Rule of Law in Kosovo is due any moment and, it is predicted by some, it may be negative on account of the failure to honor the ruling of the Constitutional Court—an issue Kosovo could and should have addressed easily years ago.

A failure to achieve Council of Europe membership would disrupt Kosovo's attempt to achieve representation in a host of further international institutions. While important in itself, Council membership would be an important stepping stone and strong signal in the face of the success of Serbia's de-recognition campaign of Kosovo.

The issue also allows Serbia to claim that Kosovo is not respecting its commitments in relation to the Serbian Orthodox Church and its monasteries and other assets on its territory. In fact, these sites enjoy very strict protection under the regime of Specially Protected Zones administered by the international agencies. The Serbian Orthodox Church, perhaps under pressure from Belgrade, has persistently refused dialogue on how its position can be improved further within the existing legal framework.

The Latest Disruption of Relations

Kosovo also disrupted its own success in repairing relations with its allies somewhat in other areas. Key EU governments were gradually accepting Kosovo's chosen avenue to address the issue of the majors in the North. As was noted above, Kosovo had refused to require the affected mayors to resign, which would have quickly cleared the way to fresh elections. Instead, it agreed that the process of arranging for fresh elections would take place according to Kosovo law.

The ethnic Serbian community that felt unrepresented by the electoral outcome would need to express that sentiment in a 'recall vote,' as provided in Kosovo legislation. This would require considerable effort by local Serb representatives over time, and a willingness to act within the law of Kosovo and in cooperation with the Kosovo authorities—a point the Kosovo government was keen to make. The process would be cumbersome and drawn out, and might actually fail, should the necessary votes for the recall not come together. Hence, rather than providing for the rapid 'de-escalation' of tensions in the North that had been demanded by the US and EU, resolving the issue that remained on the agenda. In addition, it is of course not clear whether the Serbian parties and voters will participate in a fresh round of elections, given the present circumstances and the attitude in Belgrade, even if a recall vote succeeds.

Still, Kosovo's international partners accepted the route of a recall vote demanded by Kosovo. At the same time, the license plate issue was resolved calmly and without much public notice. Tension around the mayors offices subsided, leading Kosovo to redeploy some elements of its special police. To the Kosovo government, it seemed as if it had made its point. It would continue to insist on enhancing its authority in the North while quietly proceeding with steps to de-escalate tension.

Still, even this success has now been undone. The announcement concerning the use of the Dinar, the medium through which Serbia channels its payments to institutions and individuals in the North, has been sharply criticized, even by Kosovo's closest friends. Again, the allies are actually accepting that this step might be necessary as a means of stopping illegal transfers of funds, organized crime and even terrorism. Their vigorous criticism concerns the fact that the local population has not been consulted and informed and given sufficient time to adjust, and that the measure surprised even Kosovo's closest friends.

This episode offered an opportunity for Serbia to regain the diplomatic initiative and present the ethnic Serb population in Kosovo as the victim of arbitrary rule by the authorities in Pristina.

Little Support from the Allies in the Security Council

At the recent emergency session of the Security Council, Kosovo held its own. While President Vucic may have intended to hold court over Kosovo as the accused, Prime Minister Kurti did manage to balance proceedings. But despite the fact that Serbia exploited its access to the Council against Kosovo, and seemed to hint at the possible use of force with the backing of the Russian Federation, it is noteworthy that Kosovo's key allies did not object to Belgrade's conduct as might have been expected.

Rather, the US pointed to the fact that the EU Brussels process should remain the primary venue for addressing the Kosovo issues. Still, along with the EU states, it joined literally all other members of the Council in objecting to the way in which Kosovo had unilaterally imposed its decision on the Dinar.

True, Kosovo's friends did not question Pristina's right to take this step. But it was the lack of warning and prior discussion that gave cause for concern. It appeared erratic and unpredictable behavior calculated to destabilize the already tense situation yet further. It was seen as a further example of irresponsibility of Kosovo when dealing with the North at a time when the US, NATO and the EU were attempting to focus on opposing the Russian Federation over Ukraine.

Serbia's New Challenge

This result is bad news for Kosovo. At the Security Council meeting, Serbia was essentially launching a campaign to reawaken its claim to Kosovo as its own territory, denying Kosovo's existence as a state. And it did so against the background of at least an implied threat of force, mirrored by the presentation of the Russian Federation. Of course, there was absolutely no basis for the allegations concerning the supposed campaign of violent ethnic cleansing mounted by Kosovo in its northern municipalities. Yet, even Kosovo's allies seem to have judged that there was at least an element of truth at the core of Serbia's complaint. Not a single delegation spoke out in defense of Kosovo in the face of the quite unfounded and absurd allegations put forward by Serbia and the Russian Federation. This should be a significant warning sign for Kosovo.

One may presume that Serbia will amplify its diplomatic campaign in this direction. This is a direct challenge to the identity of Kosovo as a state and also (conveniently for Moscow) a direct challenge to NATO, which to this day underwrites the security of Kosovo.

This is coupled with the new assertiveness through a campaign of active measures in the North. This week, ethnic Serb constituents were mobilized in a campaign that appears to have been supported with guidance from Belgrade on how to provoke violent incidents. More is likely to come. There may be an intention to trigger a response from the Kosovo authorities that could be portrayed as repression directed against the local population, supposedly justifying a demand for intervention from Serbia. This, after all, was the very tactic employed by the KLA in its fight against Serb forces in 1997/8, eventually triggering NATO intervention.

Kosovo Needs to Respond and Focus on the Essentials

Kosovo will need to face this new reality. True, its government has proven that it is resilient in the face of international pressure. It can enforce its will, to an extent, within Kosovo, whatever the views of the US, EU and others. EU 'measures' have had little effect, and resistance to perceived instructions from Washington or Brussels appears to play well with the electorate. Whatever the perceived provocations on the part of the Kosovo government, NATO will not give up on its commitment to secure the territory of Kosovo against external attack. Kosovo remains an important, albeit small, strategic outpost in an unstable region.

But after last week it must also be clear that Kosovo cannot, alone, guarantee its security in a harsher regional environment, or maintain or even enhance its international position without the support of important allies. While Kosovo has been able to display resilience in the face of the pressures it has experienced from friend and foe alike over the past two years, the game is changing. Kosovo will not be able to rely on its own strength alone in this new, rougher game.

NATO's odd response to the abduction of the three policemen in the North of last June, refusing to confirm that they had indeed been taken from Kosovo territory, was an initial warning. To this day, the UN has refused to adopt a formal view on responsibility for the Banjska attack of September, despite the clear facts on the ground. These are indications of the erosion of diplomatic support for Kosovo, along with the dwindling number of recognitions. This is now amplified by the international silence in the face of Serbia's theater of absurd allegations in the Security Council.

One consequence is that Kosovo must now finally focus on what really matters. This includes steps to rebuild trust and confidence with its friends and allies. Without their support, Kosovo will find it difficult to resist the coming diplomatic campaign further to undermine its standing at the international level, along with additional action aiming to destabilize the situation in the North. To resist these developments, Kosovo itself must act as a source of stability, and not as a source of crisis in relation to its own allies, if it wishes to rebuild the strong partnerships it needs.

This does not mean that Kosovo will need to return to a policy of unopposed compliance with international demands. But it needs to act predictably and in dialogue with its allies. It needs to have a longer-term strategy on how to address the challenge posed by Belgrade, bring its allies on board, consult them and avoid surprises, triggering unexpected crises.

Elements of a Strategy

A more consistent strategy may consist of five key elements:

1. Return to stable partnerships while strengthening control over the North. Kosovo's allies accept that Kosovo is entitled to secure its territory and to try and ensure that its authority also extends to its Northern municipalities. Where possible, this should be done in cooperation with Serbia through mediated dialogue. Where it has been clearly demonstrated that this route is being frustrated by Belgrade, as seems to be the case now, unilateral action can be warranted. But it should be undertaken in coordination with friendly governments, taking into account advice and avoiding surprises. There is a fair way to go in re-building trust and confidence, and Kosovo will have to accept that governments will first want to see some evidence of a change in attitude, before they believe it to be real and respond positively.

2. Enhance Security Cooperation. NATO is expected to be the ultimate guarantor of stability, especially in the North. Kosovo cannot exercise this function on its own. But NATO cannot be expected to make this important contribution if it is exposed to having to mop up the consequences of what it sees as reckless and unpredictable action by the Kosovo authorities. Cooperating closely with NATO is not an abandonment of Kosovo's sovereignty. Instead, it is an attribute of sovereignty that many other states would wish for. This is a stepping stone towards the membership in the Alliance that Kosovo aspires towards. Hence, after some recent advances in these areas, consultation, intelligence sharing, joint planning, and exchanges at all levels can be developed even further.

3. Integrate the North through Positive Action. Kosovo will continue its strategy of integrating its ethnic Serb communities, including in the North of Kosovo. However, in doing so, it must not antagonize the very population it seeks to attract into Kosovo. Steps designed to break the stranglehold of Serbia's control over the territory need to be devised and implemented in consultation with local populations and they must be managed in a way that they rapidly and visibly improve lives in the North. Combating armed gangs who seek to intimidate the population remains important. However, measures towards that end must be perceived as liberating the local population from violence, rather than imposing violent action upon it. The re-deployment of special police to less prominent locations is a first step, but others must follow. Local safety committees and close collaboration with international agencies, including the OSCE and KFOR, can help overcome the impression of heavy-handed tactics that put ordinary people at risk.

More generally, the negative agenda of removing structures of parallel government and intimidation in the North needs to be turned into a positive plan, offering benefits both to ethnic Serbs in the North and throughout Kosovo. There has to be a positive 'offer' concerning the prospects of the mainly Serb-inhabited region. This concerns strengthening the special arrangements relating to health and education.

The Brussels agreement provided for a commitment by Serbia and Kosovo to regularize these arrangements channeling the funds through the Kosovo institutions. This would indeed be the better option. However, if Serbia continues its policy of escalation and hostilities, Kosovo needs to guarantee the functioning of the institutions currently funded by Serbia. In this context, given the decision relating to the use of the Dinar, Kosovo has significantly more to do in reassuring the population that there will be no negative effects. Rather, it should be made clear 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 will not change for the worse. Just this month, Kosovo has started to implement an important initiative to subsidize the creation of jobs in the North. More can be done to prevent Northern Kosovo from turning into the kind of isolated backwater that the Srpska region of Bosnia and Herzegovina has become. Kosovo should announce a Rapid Economic Development Zone in the North of the country. This will not create a new geographic or legal entity in the North. Indeed, the zone will extend beyond the four Northern municipalities, including also, for instance, Mitrovica South. The concept is very much to foster integration, rather than the division of the North from the rest of Kosovo.

A Rapid Economic Development Zone can attract significant inward investment for Kosovo as a whole. It can be developed with international support, in particular the very experienced German and French development agencies. After all, the zone could be the principal mechanism to absorb the very significant international financial support and investment foreseen in the Brussels agreement. If Serbia persists in its negative attitude and refuses to bring the Brussels agreement into force, and if there is no prospect of cooperation with Serbia across the Northern border, Kosovo can still develop this initiative with its partners.

4. Forcing a Clear Decision of Serbia on the Brussels Dialogue. Serbia's present attitude does not seem to suggest that it will be willing to breathe life into the Brussels Basic Agreement and Annex of last year. On the contrary, it seems to have decided to abandon Brussels in favor of confrontation. Against this backdrop, the EU facilitators will not succeed if they persist in claiming that there exists a basic commitment of the parties to normalization, if Serbia has plainly opted for an aggressive policy on Kosovo.

That said, it may be premature to pronounce the death of the Brussels process just yet. True, there is not much time to revive it, given the upcoming European and US elections. But there would be one final opportunity to offer the parties a clear choice on whether or not they are willing to pursue normalization with one another. Their attitude would then inform the EU in a definite way on the willingness of Kosovo and Serbia to orient their policy towards eventual EU membership.

The attempted 're-set' of the Brussels process after the Ohrid disaster of last March actually happened, but was seemingly drowned out by other developments. As already noted, with Germany, France and Italy in the lead, the element of de facto recognition lost at Ohrid was introduced once again into the process of an international meeting held last October. At the meeting, Kosovo again offered to sign both the Basic Agreement and the Annex. More than that, Prime Minister Albin Kurti also agreed to sign on to the Statute of the Association/Community drafted by the European Union, should signature by Serbia be forthcoming.

With this new element in place, already endorsed by Kosovo, it is time to offer Serbia the opportunity to opt into genuine normalization of relations with Kosovo according to the original scheme developed by Germany and France. Further elements can be added to make acceptance of the overall package even more attractive. This could include elements for the cooperative establishment of the Rapid Economic Development Zone, along with the pledge of significant international funding to create the infrastructure necessary for its functioning on both sides of the border.

The key EU states were right, however, in insisting once more that the package must be underpinned by de facto recognition, as had been promised at the beginning of last year. If Serbia wants to claim the right to challenge the very existence of Kosovo, as it is doing at present, there will be persistent instability instead of the normalization demanded by both the EU and the United Nations. And Kosovo is right to insist that de facto recognition must consist of a mutual signature on the Basic Agreement and Annex, or an associated act of agreement, by both sides.

Whether they sign on the same or separate copies of the agreement is less relevant, as long as the expression of consent establishes the de facto relationship between Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovo could not accept unilateral statements which change the text of the agreement or undermine the value of any signature just given. Still, other ways of easing the way towards signature can be discussed. The preamble of the Basic Agreement already notes that signature is without prejudice to the views of the parties on the de jure situation. This can be emphasized. In short, a way to bring the Agreement and Annex into force that preserves the views and interests of the sides could be found, provided this does not undermine the nature of the act as a new beginning on the basis of de facto recognition.

Acting on the commitment already given by Prime Minister Kurti, Kosovo would perhaps need to take further, specific steps in relation to the Association/Community, the very second consent is given by both sides to the package. This might be the anticipated submission of the Draft Statute, duly transformed into a decree, for vetting by the Kosovo Constitutional Court. Kosovo may also seek indications from the present five non-recognizing states within the EU that such an arrangement would indeed be considered sufficient de facto recognition by Serbia to allow them to modify their position.

That said, Belgrade should be confronted with a fair but clear choice. It cannot claim to be a good faith participant in dialogue on normalization if at the same time it denies the existence of its negotiating partner. If Serbia remains unwilling to consent to the agreement in relation to Kosovo (rather than the EU), the EU must have the courage to declare where the obstruction to progress actually lies. If Serbia is unwilling to offer consent and instead pursues confrontation, it will cut itself off from a meaningful dialogue with the EU on accession—an outcome Serbia appears willing to provoke at present.

Kosovo will still wish to collaborate with the EU in approaching the Acquis of admissions criteria for EU membership. In that context, it may well wish to offer some other forms of reassurance to members of all members of communities in Kosovo, including in particular the ethnic Serb community.

Deepening strategic relations. In addition to rebuilding trust and confidence with key allies, Kosovo will need to give meaning to relations with the states that have recognized it. It needs to focus on developing cooperation in fields of mutual interest with recognizing states in a consistent manner. Letting matters rest once recognition has occurred is not sufficient, nor Serbia's success in reversing the recognitions Kosovo has received demonstrates. In doing so, Kosovo will need to rely on the diplomatic support of its core allies. Again, this requires goodwill and a certain depth of cooperation which may have been lost over the past years. The same applies to the campaign to join more and more international institutions. The immediate priority would be to try and rescue the campaign to enter the Council of Europe, particularly where rule of law issues are concerned.

While the road to membership in other international institutions may be blocked for some time, Kosovo can focus on enhancing its regional cooperation. Once more, Kosovo has allowed itself to be somewhat isolated, standing aside from important projects of integration within the region. Personal animosities have hampered relations even with Albania, Kosovo's close ally in the region. These kinds of distractions are unnecessary.

It may also be time to share Kosovo's concern relating to the far more aggressive posture taken by Serbia over the past week with key allies. The presumption that Serbia is in fact still interested in joining the EU and will be restrained in its actions by that perspective may need to be re-evaluated in view of the apparently close alliance between the Russian Federation and Serbia in mounting this aggressive challenge against Kosovo . Key states would need to balance this evidence against the other markers of Serbia's conduct, for instance concerning Ukraine. These are markers which may in the end prove short-lived, even if they are of some practical importance at this particular moment.

The Alternative of Waiting it Out

An alternative for Kosovo would be to wait out the present period of confrontation. It may feel that a new European Commission will bring a new Special Envoy to head the normalization process. A new start may be made, perhaps removing the emphasis on the Association/Community issue. It can then pursue its own policy of addressing the concerns of the communities in Kosovo, in the absence of what is seen as pesky tutelage from Brussels. There may also be changes in the US leadership, bringing new opportunities, although perhaps more likely, new risks for Kosovo.

Of course, playing a waiting game while the other side is engaging with full and aggressive vigor seems rather risky. As always, Kosovo would be condemned to react to circumstances created by others. This is likely to limit its options in the future, rather than broadening its opportunities. The question is whether Kosovo will be able to devise a complex strategy to safeguard its interests and implement it over time, in partnership with others. Clearly, Serbia is banking on the fact that this will not be possible.

For Kosovo, therefore, it is a question of which strategic strain it wishes to pursue in the face of this re-awakened challenge. It can continue to strengthen its authority in the North, probably in the face of unrest and provocations engendered by Serbia. This may feed Serbia's narrative of a policy of repression administered in the North and the threat of further intervention. A policy of assertiveness, pursued unilaterally and without much consultation, will also alienate Kosovo's allies further. This would reduce their willingness to work in close partnership with Kosovo at a time when such support would become more critical.

The alternative is to visibly exhaust the Brussels process. Either Serbia disowns the venture, clearly rupturing the hope still nourished by some that Belgrade can be brought into the Western fold. In that case, Kosovo would have re-gained the advantage and can strengthen its ties with its allies in preparation for the challenges ahead.

If, on the other hand, against expectation and the current aggressive trend of its policy, Serbia changes course and opts into the package on offer in Brussels, Kosovo will have won the de facto recognition it is seeking. It would of course only sign with Belgrade if it is clear that the package does indeed amount to de facto recognition, as has been promised, and that its integration with the international community can proceed in an accelerated way. True, it would then have to follow up on its own commitment to implement the Association/Community. But now the content of its Statute, which Kosovo has in any event already accepted, is known. That makes this venture predictable. According to the Statute, the Association/Community can only be implemented consistently with Kosovo's constitution and the government can control the process of its implementation.

Marc Weller is Professor of International Law and International Constitutional Studies in the University of Cambridge. The views expressed are his own alone and not attributable to any government or institution.