Authors: Ekaterina Entina and Dejan Novakovic
In early 2018, negotiations on Kosovo seemed to be progressively moving towards their final stage. Brussels, in its turn, triumphantly reported on some kind of a decision (never actually been publicly presented), which by the end of the year would have allowed to reach a final settlement. Nevertheless, starting from autumn 2018, the bilateral dialogue between Serbs and Albanians was gradually replaced by bilateral provocations, with the final decision, which implies territorial swapping and demarcation, becoming less and less acceptable.
Since 2009, the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade has been transferred from the UN mediation format under the jurisdiction of the European Union. In the eyes of the EU politicians, taking the opportunity to independently resolve security backlogs and tackle all their vulnerable elements was vital in order to overcome the perception of the EU inability to resolve major foreign policy issues.
The Kosovo settlement looked promising in this regard summing up all the factors in play: the nearly hopeless negotiating position of Belgrade, the decisiveness of the Kosovar Albanians, the fact that about 100 UN member states recognized the region’s independence, as well as the centuries-old relations of the leading Western European countries with the region. The bet was made on technical negotiations, in other words, on reaching a compromise on a number of issues considered important for the daily functioning of the region. The plan was to neutralize (to a certain extent) the extremely sensitive political component – Belgrade would recognize the region’s independence, and Pristina acquires all attributes of a sovereign state.
The bet on technical negotiations could not stand the test of practice. Series of actions taken by Pristina in autumn 2018 and their perception by Belgrade as extremely unfriendly actions, which directly threaten the Serbs, actually brought Belgrade and Pristina negotiations to a deadlock, simultaneously exposing the EU’s inability to act as an effective mediator of this process. What Pristina did was the introduction in November 2018 of double customs duties on goods from Serbia as well as from Bosnia and Herzegovina, the announcement of the creation of the army of Kosovo, an extremely rigid negotiation platform for further dialogue with Belgrade promoted by the government of Ramush Haradinaj.
Negotiations are de facto in the process of assembling a wider range of actors. The U.S. does not hide its direct participation. The attempts of France and Great Britain to act independently from the EU are also obvious. Within this framework, Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, as well as a participant in all previous negotiations on the Balkans since the 19th century onwards, has obtained the opportunity to get involved in the settlement of the Kosovo issue. At the same time, it was a good chance to ensure its stance and standing in the region, as a minimum, and to restart the stalled engine of European history, as a maximum.
The Reaction of International Actors on Kosovo during September-December 2018
Letters from Donald Trump to Hashim Thaci and Alexander Vucic — Active Return of the U.S. to the Dialogue
The vacuum created by Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections in 2016 and the following gradual “departure” from Europe was replaced by intensified activities of the American administration in the region in 2018. The latest, so far, round of negotiations on the Macedonian-Greek issue became their first target. The elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina were the next one. Despite the fact that Milorad Dodik is on the US sanctions list, Washington expects greater consistency in the presidium than before and openly sends signals about the possible punishment for those who will inspire the “dysfunctionality” of the Bosnian state. And their final target is Kosovo.
Trump’s letters to A. Vucic and H. Thaci contained, on the one hand, a call to continue the dialogue; on the other hand, the US proposal to assume the key role of a mediator. An exceptional overture was made in the message of the American president addressed to the two Balkan presidents: it contained an invitation “to visit the White House and celebrate the historic agreement together.” Active US involvement could reduce the influence in the Balkans not only of the EU, but also of Turkey and Russia. It will lead to the establishment of the one and only dominant force in the region. In addition, such changes in the format of the process could also snatch the negotiations from under both the UN and the EU while weakening the credibility of the international legal systems and the world order, which is what the American president is always keen to do. To a certain extent, this purely regional issue could give Washington the opportunity to regain its status of the “guardian of world order”, largely lost at the beginning of this century.
Brexit and the intensification of the UK policy in the Balkan region
Historically, Britain used its position in the Balkans in such a way as to avoid the strengthening of continental Europe, in particular Germany and Russia. That is why the unstable and moderately manageable situation in the region is more in the interests of London. Therefrom came the unequivocal support for the creation of the Kosovo army, as well as for the Kosovo independence itself and the desire to act as an independent actor in working out the Belgrade and Pristina agreements (according to some sources, A. Vucic and H. Tachi’s secret meeting in the Vatican on the formation of the Kosovo army in early November 2018 was organized by the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Alexander Soros). In addition, the British traditionally and quite reasonably believe that in the eyes of Serbian political class, German and Russian policies are more acceptable, and, therefore, the British prefer to rely on the Albania. Gaining influence among the Albanian population is one of the prime factors which ensure the inviolability of the British zone of interests in Greece and Cyprus. The return of the British fleet to the Mediterranean reflects Britain’s desire to gain a foothold in Africa and Libya. Over the past couple of years, London has been actively expanding its influence in the non-governmental organizations sector (in particular, through Tony Blair’s and several other British politicians’ consultations with representatives of the Serbian authorities) and renders the NGOs support in the framework of KFOR.
Letter from the President of France Macron to Hashim Thaci
The celebrations of the centenary since the end of the First World War were held in Paris. At the event, Hashim Tachi, the head of a country that did not even exist during the war, stood right behind the Russian president, while Alexander Vucic, the head of the victorious nation, was pushed backwards, placed somewhere in the last rows. After the ceremony, and the cancellation of Macron’s visit to Belgrade (due to the “yellow vests” protests), there was a feeling that France had missed a chance to actively engage in Kosovo negotiations, which seemed a priority at the beginning of Macron’s Presidency. Macron’s letter to Hashim Thaci concerning the presence of the latter at the ceremony in Paris looked more like a sign of support, rather than an attempt to “book” a certain role. However, it is Alexander Vucic who was actually counting on some support from Paris. It is important for Vucic to show that the Serbs are not alone in this turbulent moment. Therefore, France will certainly try once again to become an essential actor in the Kosovo process in the near future.
Berlin’s attitude towards Kosovo’s independence
Angela Merkel’s decision to withdraw gradually from the German political scene has a direct impact on the Kosovo process. In fact, it opens up even more widely the avenue for the United States to be actively involved in the negotiations. The role that Germany played in the process of gaining independence not only by Slovenia and Croatia, but also by Kosovo is well known. Besides, being an essential component for the criminalization of German society, the Albanian factor itself plays a significant role in the country’s politics. Originally, Germany was against the territorial demarcation plan, which continues to influence the prospects for reaching an agreement between Vucic and Thaci. However, with personal influence of Angela Merkel declining, the possibility of Berlin’s impact on the outcome of the negotiations is notably reduced.
The Turks keep silent
It is noteworthy that Turkey, an extremely important regional actor as well as one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo’s independence and to establish both diplomatic and economic relations with it, in no way articulated its position this time. Most likely, this is due to the positive progression in the relations between Erdogan and Vucic and also due to the fact that the Turks give the priority to the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean directions of their foreign policy. In any case, there is no reason to expect an independent and more substantive inclusion of Turkey in the Kosovo process. However, in the context of the growing number of its participants, the prospect of Turkey joining the process together with some other player, for example, with Russia, looks both possible and desirable.
Official comments made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia
The comment of the Russian Foreign Ministry, condemning the creation of the Kosovo army, was presented in the Serbian media as an open support for Belgrade from Moscow. Obviously, the representatives of the ruling parties (in particular, Ivica Dacic, the head of the Serbian Foreign Ministry) also used this, saying that if the United States was included in the negotiations on the Pristina side, Belgrade would ask Russia to join in on the Serbian side. Such maneuvers by the Serbian authorities who got used to taking advantage of the “Russian card” whenever possible to solve various domestic political problems, creates the effect of “unrealistic expectations from Moscow.” This effect is reinforced by some Russian expert political circles reporting of the need to strengthen Moscow’s military presence in the region in order to balance American incursions. But it takes place under circumstances where it is evident that the geographical location (the country is cut off from the sea) and the geopolitical environment of Serbia (all of its neighbors are members of NATO) will not allow this to be done without an official request from Belgrade, which is in a state of war.
In addition to the listed above, the pro-Western media are actively taking advantage of the gap between expectations and the actual practices in cooperation between Belgrade and Moscow, highlighting what the expectations of Russian support amounted to for Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Thus, Vladimir Putin’s state visit to Belgrade on January 17, 2019 was backed up with such a basis, that the room for any maneuver was markedly narrowed. There is no one who would doubt that Moscow would actively engage in the negotiation process, or at least declare its intentions. And in doing so, it will definitely take the Serbian side. This circumstance raises the visit of the Russian president to Belgrade to the level of a “historical event.”
Possible Ways of Russia’s Inclusion: Settling Kosovo and Solving Other Balkan Issues
On the one hand, if Moscow supported Belgrade, it would entail nothing but the development of an additional area of confrontation between Russia and the West, while Kremlin’s military and political positions would not be strong enough, and the benefits of representing a particular actor in bilateral negotiations would be unclear. On the other hand, non-participation in resolving the issue, especially in case of receiving a direct invitation from Belgrade, would mean for Moscow the following:
- withdrawal from the Balkans while leaving the US as a dominant actor in the region;
- the final and unchallenged NATO establishment in the macro-region;
- tremendous blow to Russia’s standing and perceptions of its geopolitical influence, which would inevitably affect Russia’s positions in Bulgaria, Greece and, to a certain extent, in Turkey;
- a de facto recognition that Moscow is unable to have a real impact on European processes.
Alternative inclusion scenario
The US activation in the Balkans is expressed in:
- the Macedonian–Greek dialogue;
- Macedonian prospects for joining NATO;
- messages sent to Sarajevo;
- letters from Trump to Vucic and Tachi;
- messages that are openly (through official websites of American embassies, social networks) sent to the region on a regular basis.
All that points to the fact that the United States is becoming the main player in the future settlement of the Kosovo issue. US support for the creation of the Kosovo army also has internal political significance, both for Pristina and Washington. Therefore, the balance of influence between President Tachi and Prime Minister Haradinaj, who has been concentrating in his hands control of the police and other security agencies, is changing. It also establishes a balance between the American security forces in the subregion and the State Department, which is important both for Washington and Pristina and for the Albanian population of the region as a whole.
Correspondingly, in early 2019, the United States is expected to do its utmost to bring the bilateral talks between Belgrade and Pristina to the final point solely through the mediation of Washington. However, even if the mediation is formally preserved for the EU, then, in the face of a change in the administrative cycle in Brussels, this will entail the strengthening of nationalist forces in the region and, as a result, greater destabilization in the Balkans. Thus, Washington, in its turn, will use this kind of situation, both efficiently and with a striking effect, in order to accelerate the pressing inclusion of Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina into NATO.
The situation where Brussels preserves the role of mediator (with covert or open participation of Washington) may also become a prelude towards destabilization in Serbia, following the scenario of October 5, 2000. The EU is indirectly showing readiness for such a turn of events, and the current opposition’s protest actions as well as the protests that followed the election of Vucic as President of Serbia two years ago, are demonstrating that this is a possible scenario.
In this regard, within Serbia’s domestic political scene, the visit of President Putin would be beneficial for all sides. It could balance the mounting pressure exerted on Vucic. At the same time, it could lead to the consolidation of the new pro-Russia political forces (National Center of Velimir Ilic and the Conservative Party, a new one within Serbian political arena). If this does not happen, the “Russian vector” will be highly likely marginalized or will completely disappear from the programs of the Serbian political parties in the next elections.
Within the foreign political scene, the main question is, how could Russia get a leading role in final resolution of the Balkan issues’?
In response to the U.S. attempts to engage in the Kosovo negotiation process waiting for support from Belgrade, Moscow can offer to expand the Kosovo issue into a so called “package solution” format modeled on “Peace conference” (Contact Group 2.0) with a number of following external players: the United States, Russia, China, Turkey, France, Germany, Italy, Great Britain. This would take place within the framework of a continuous negotiation dialogue conducted, for example, in Vienna, or in Brussels. Such a format has been long discussed in diplomatic circles in the Balkans because it allows, through a numerous territorial exchanges as well as various political and diplomatic maneuvers, to find a common solution for all post-Yugoslav issues.
Expanding the format is in the interests of not only the Serbs, but also the Croats, as well as the Albanians (theoretically, it makes it possible through official and legitimate means to resolve three main national issues in the region). Creating a permanent and continuous negotiation format in Vienna or Brussels also allows, on the one hand, to preserve formal mediation for the EU, and on the other hand, avoid “kickbacks” due to difficulties in the domestic political arena in all post-Yugoslav republics and also marginalize the influence of regional criminal groups standing in the way of a comprehensive settlement.
Putin–Tachi meeting in Paris in November 2018 was a good starting point for Moscow to launch a number of foreign initiatives that could give Russian policy in the Balkans a multidimensional nature. These are necessary in order to seize the initiative from the Americans, who seek consistent, pressing, but formal solutions on regional issues with the prospect of destabilizing the Balkans at any convenient for them moment. The initiatives could return to Russia its former status of “the creator of a new world in Europe,” and that would be impossible for the force-based scenarios of democratization to compete with it.
*Dejan Novakovic, President of the Adriatic Council (Belgrade, Serbia)
First published in our partner RIAC