Tensions between Belgrade and Pristina have been high ever since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008. 

The EU plays a pivotal role in the dialogue process between Belgrade and Pristina to ensure the de-escalation of tensions between Serbia and Kosovo and bring about peace and stability in the Western Balkans region.

Kosovo, which is almost exclusively inhabited by ethnic Albanians today, used to be part of Serbia, which does not recognize its former province as a sovereign state.

The most recent tensions were originally sparked by the Pristina government’s decision to invalidate old Serbian car license plates, which most residents in northern Kosovo and the surrounding area still use to drive around today. At the end of 2022, following the arrest of a former police officer of Serbian ethnicity on allegations of inciting attacks on electoral commission officials, militant Serbs erected barricades at a dozen points in the region, blocking access roads to two border crossings into Serbia. Under pressure from Western embassies, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti suspended the implementation of the number plate decree. Serbia agreed to stop issuing licence plates with Kosovo Cities’ denominations.

Serbia, as well as five EU member states – Romania, Slovakia, Cyprus, Spain and Greece – do not recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty to this day. The Serbian government, backed by Russia and China, is blocking Kosovo’s integration into international institutions.

Ongoing negotiations: progress or impasse?

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani recently recalled that it was crucial to stabilize the Balkans region, particularly with regard to migration. The issue of migration flows along the Balkan route was “key for Italy,” he said. Many irregular migrants were entering Europe along that route, he added. The Western Balkans route was the most active migratory route in 2022, with more than 139,000 illegal entries being recorded that year.

On the situation between Serbia and Kosovo, Tajani said that “we need a comprehensive and binding deal, otherwise we will always find ourselves mediating in tense situations that calm down for a few months and then start again.” Referring to the dialogue facilitated by the EU, the Italian minister added that “the EU has the responsibility to help solve open issues.”

During last week’s European Council summit, EU leaders adopted a conclusion on the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. The conclusion “emphasizes the urgent need for progress in the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia”, adds that the European proposal is a “historic chance” for the European perspective and calls for the implementation of all obligations, “including the agreements from 2013 and 2015 on the creation of the Association/Community of Serb Municipalities.”

In 2013, under the EU dialogue, Belgrade and Pristina reached an agreement on the establishment of an association/community of municipalities with a Serbian majority, especially intended to facilitate the integration of 4 municipalities in northern Kosovo, from Serbia into Kosovo’s system – the so called “Brussels Agreement”. Currently, the Kosovo authorities do not control 10 municipalities, where the Serbian majority lives. The authorities in those 10 municipalities are under direct control of Belgrade.

On Monday, February 13, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić said that Serbia was always ready for dialogue and would always be there to talk with Pristina, but that the Association/Community of Serb Municipalities had to be established and that this time this had to be the joint position of Serbia and its Western partners – primarily the EU and the US. Kosovo, however, has not yet implemented the association/community.

Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said that he supports the proposal in principle and that it was a good basis for negotiations that should lead to a solution. At the same time, Kurti emphasized six principles. Firstly, the association/community of municipalities with a Serbian majority must exist in accordance with the constitution and laws of Kosovo. Secondly, it cannot be mono-ethnic. Thirdly, it must not have executive power. Fourthly, the principle of reciprocity is applied, meaning that Albanians in Serbia have the same rights as Serbs in Kosovo. Fifthly, the illegal structures of Serbia in the north of Kosovo are to be terminated and all illegal weapons to be handed over. Finally, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić should withdraw the letters he sent to the leaders of the 5 EU member states that do not recognize Kosovo. In those letters, Vučić asked them to reject Kosovo’s candidacy for EU membership.

The president of the Bosnia and Herzegovina entity of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, stated that the Association/Community of Serb Municipalities should have executive powers and resemble the Republika Srpska, which has a high degree of autonomy based on the Dayton Peace Agreement. Said agreement, signed on 21 November 1995, ended the war in Bosnia, preserving the country as one state composed of two entities.

The comparisons to Republika Srpska, in regard to the situation between Kosovo and Serbia, were rejected by international proponents of the formation of an association/community of Serb municipalities in Kosovo. US State Department adviser Derek Chollet said that it was important for the United States of America that the Association/Community of Serb Municipalities be formed in Kosovo, but that it should not resemble the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Belgrade’s dilemma after the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Russia’s attack on Ukraine ended the previous approach of trying to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

Under the leadership of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia negotiated with the European Union, to which he promised reforms. He also had excellent relations with Germany during the time of Chancellor Angela Merkel. On the other hand, he cooperated well with Russia, China and Turkey.

With the Russian attack on Ukraine, the security situation has changed and Serbia has been under enormous pressure to decide which camp it will join. While it is being asked to impose sanctions on Russia – which it still persistently refuses – Russia threatens to recognize Kosovo’s independence if Belgrade joins Western sanctions against it.

A recent German-Franco proposal stipulates, among other things, that Serbia and Kosovo need not formally recognize each other, but should mutually accept each other’s statehood within the current borders. In particular, Serbia should stop blocking Kosovo’s applications to become a member of international organizations – as it has been doing with active Russian support.

At the beginning of February, Vučić told the Serbian parliament that this stipulation in particular was difficult to comply with or even unacceptable from Serbia’s point of view. International negotiators have threatened to stop talks on Serbia’s accession into the European Union, which have been ongoing since 2014, as well as halt foreign investment, if Belgrade does not comply.

Vučić recently stated that Western negotiators had given him two options: Either to accept the plan or to face the termination of EU accession negotiations and the withdrawal of foreign investment. “It is in Serbia’s vital interest to stay on the European path,” the Serbian leader emphasized.

Last week, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said he had invited Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić  to “return to Brussels soon, in a couple of weeks.” Borrell said he wanted to push through the proposed German-Franco agreement for normalizing relations between Belgrade and Pristina, emphasizing the importance of both sides “avoiding any type of escalation” and “working seriously on the proposal” for an agreement.

According to Peter Stano, lead spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, “the work on the EU dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina continues every day. The EU Special Representative Miroslav Lajčák continues to reach out to partners at his level and High Representative Borrell at his top political level.”

Borrell will meet both Kosovo Prime Minister Kurti and Serbian President Vučić in Munich, Germany, over the weekend for separate bilateral talks, “to see how to move the process forward based on the recent EU proposal,” Stano added. Today, the European External Action Service confirmed that Borrell will also meet Kurti and Vučić in Brussels on 27 February.

This article is published Fridays. The content is based on news by agencies participating in the enr.