OpEd

Kosovo citizenship challenges ahead

On February 17, 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. It was a day full of joy and hope for a people who suffered from atrocities such as ethnic cleansing, genocide and rape by Serbian forces during the Kosovo War.

Kosovo is now internationally recognized by more than 100 countries and has become a member of several international organizations. During this time it has also consolidated itself as one of the most functional and vibrant democracies in the Balkans.

But Serbia does not recognize the state of Kosovo, and the ethnic Serbs living in the north of the country have largely rejected Pristina's state authority. Thus, in 2011, the EU and the US included both countries in the framework of the dialogue for the normalization of relations mediated by the EU.

The talks initially yielded results and several agreements were signed that were considered historic. The Brussels Agreement of 2013, for example, set the conditions for large-scale decentralization of northern Kosovo and paved the way for Kosovo's EU membership.

But, since then, the unclear language, lack of mechanisms and trust between Kosovo and Serbia has caused these agreements not to be implemented.

The withdrawal of Serbia to the West

The interruption of the dialogue was used by Serbia to undermine the position of Kosovo as a sovereign state. Serbia has strengthened its parallel structures, a group of institutions run by Belgrade in northern Kosovo, lobbied against Kosovo's bid to join UNESCO and Interpol, and orchestrated an aggressive campaign to withdraw recognition of Kosovo's independence. Kosovo.

Instead of normalizing relations between Pristina and Belgrade, it seems that the dialogue mediated by the EU has turned into a mechanism to normalize the relations of the West with the president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić.

Concerned about Serbia's potential to destabilize the Western Balkans, Brussels and Washington have applied a somewhat soft stance toward Vucic, aiming to distance Serbia from Russia's influence. Russia's war in Ukraine and its possible implications for security in the Balkans, where Serbia is an old ally of Moscow, has, contrary to all expectations, reinforced this approach which aims to accommodate Serbia in the Western alliance.

The efforts of the Government of Kosovo to extend state control to the Serb-majority municipalities in the north of Kosovo have been criticized by the EU and the US as uncoordinated and destabilizing. About two weeks ago, the Central Bank of Kosovo limited all cash transactions anywhere in the country to euros, effectively banning the Serbian dinar.

But the accommodative approach of the EU and the US towards Serbia seems to have given President Vučić room to intensify his efforts to undermine Kosovo. Serbia has used Kosovo Serbs living in the north to fuel tensions and make the north ungovernable from Pristina.

In June 2023, three Kosovar police officers were arrested by Serbian forces who accused them of illegally crossing the border. Tensions between Kosovo and Serbia rose sharply last September when a heavily armed group launched an attack in northern Kosovo, killing a Kosovar policeman and three Serbian paramilitaries. Milan Radoicic, a Serbian politician connected to Belgrade, has claimed that he was the sole organizer of the attack.

The international community condemned the attack and called for further investigations and to bring those responsible to justice. However, there has not yet been any official public assessment by the partner countries for the attack, nor have sanctions been imposed on Serbia. Meanwhile, the EU is maintaining sanctions against Kosovo, accusing the government of not taking steps to mitigate the crisis in the Serb-majority municipalities in the north.

Other priorities

This Western approach to the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia is likely to continue in 2024. Although the West seems to have lost patience with Vucic's autocratic approach to Serbia, for Brussels and Washington there seems to be no better alternative than to continue of cooperation with Belgrade. President Vucic is perceived in the West as someone with enough popular legitimacy to sell the Serbs a final solution with Kosovo.

Kosovo's concerns about the current approach to dialogue are legitimate given Serbia's actions in the past. However, Kosovo does not have much room for maneuver. The number of recognitions of independence has stagnated in the country. In fact, Israel is the only country that has established diplomatic relations with Kosovo in the last six years.

Stopping Serbia from further sliding towards autocracy would be the best option for achieving peace, stability and containing Russia's influence in the Balkans. But that would require time and a total overhaul of the current dialogue format.

Difficult mountain for Kosovo

With the war in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas conflict putting the West's military and financial resources under pressure and political tension rising between the powers, Brussels and Washington will seek to put out any possible flare-ups in the Balkans. It is likely that the current administrations in the US and the EU will push Kosovo to give in to their demands and give President Vučić something in return that he would be happy with.

Prishtina has already agreed on a form of self-government for Kosovo Serbs. And, with European Parliament and US presidential elections on the horizon, where anti-establishment parties appear on track for major victories, current leaders in the West may rush to hammer out an imperfect deal between Kosovo and Serbia.

There is also the possibility that the EU and the US will find themselves stuck managing crises elsewhere in the world if the war in Ukraine and the Middle East continues to cause ripples of tension across their borders. Thus, Kosovo may find itself in the difficult position between meeting the demands of the international community to give more sovereignty to the Kosovo Serbs and a possible abandonment by its partners if it does not meet their demands.

Whatever he chooses, the consolidation of Kosovo's citizenship will remain a difficult mountain.

(Analysis published by British media The Conversation)