There is a phenomenon like a veil that inhibits us from reaching any consensus or mutual agreement in any process related to Kosovo and Serbia. In my early professional days, one foreign official made a statement that has haunted me through to my professional maturity: Throughout history, peace in Kosovo was attained only when one group dominated the other. The “control” is a law of the land and all the fights, turmoil in northern Kosovo, KFOR, EULEX, Kosovo Police theatre performances in the north, riots, barricades and all other incidents are simply consequences of this doctrine, with the people of northern Kosovo cast in the role of experimental subjects. Even in the event that it is possible to find peers on the opposite side of the ring, those more willing to accept a different opinion, or at least accept the right of someone to hold a different opinion, any debate proves to be futile by its end. Even if the debate might come to the shared conclusion that cooperation based on market-driven solutions would be more profitable for all parties, and a far more plausible basis for reconciliation that iron-fist control, the observation is that as soon as constructive debate ends all participants retreat back to their corners, where they would be reset to the factory default mode.
Internal dialogue launched by the President of Serbia created a competitive atmosphere among political experimentalists in Serbia, each desperately competing against the other to present the solution. The ultimate price of this competition is, what? Well, that depends on the stake, on the outcome. who is the client, or who hopes to attract which client? The correlation of opinions or propositions with the interest base is readily evident, without exception. I’m not claiming that financial capital was poured to influence the process, but the capital comes in forms other than money. In effort to be concise, in the propositions so far put forward, I find competing commitment, a lack of courage and integrity, plentiful in their eloquent expression of nothing, and a great deal of self-promotion and all agreed that frozen conflict is unattainable.
Proposals can be graded from the extremely rigid to the ambitiously creative, and have included, in various forms: the reinstitution of Serbian sovereignty in Kosovo; maintenance of the status quo / frozen conflict; the partition of Kosovo in exchange for some form of recognition; sign the comprehensive agreement and leave everything as it is. To the best of my knowledge, no one has explicitly recommended recognition of Kosovo by Serbia, or if they have this information was not released to the public. In spite of my strong personal opposition to this kind of the proposition in its raw form, if there was no discussion on this option it has to be argued that the internal dialogue is futile and meaningless and the participants are not reflecting the credible sample of opinions. A pragmatic and honest approach and, if you will, an academic rigorous approach would have to evaluate all possible alternatives, no matter how undesirable they might be. Presenting that option would inevitably redirect the course of the debate and its possible outcomes. I will elaborate on this later.
A while ago, I participated in one scenario-building panel with a diverse group of peers. Despite a few hundred years of experience in the room, it was impossible to develop a win-win scenario. Indeed, we were unable even to reach a zero-sum scenario for Kosovo-Serbia. The product of the process was a series of graded versions of possible futures, and all of them were terrible. As a Serbian from northern Kosovo, part of my personal and professional platform is to improve the livelihood of the Serbian community to a level that is comparable with that of anyone else in the region. My proposition to the scenario-building forum was made on the premise that integration of the Serbian community into the Kosovo system and structures must be a rational choice, rather than the current situation of an imposed infringement on liberties. Asking for any more provisions of concessions for the Serbian community is not a realistic option, it will be rejected on point of principle. This “red line” was evidenced repeatedly throughout the discussions. In the context of this, one participant offered a highly insightful observation: “It is strange to accept that likelihood of war is higher than the likelihood of giving the Serbs more rights and to have peace”. I take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank this person for his objective remark.
Enough about the deconstruction of people’s integrity or ideals, credibility and futility, and let us indulge ourselves by attempting to be a bit more radical.
I can summarize my reasoning for this text as follows: Hunter Thompson said in explanation of his “Hell’s Angel” book, “the people become obsolete and that the people that got affected by this are the ones least capable to understand the reason for it”. The same definition can be applied to all of us in this troubled region. I have seen the evidence of existing people on both sides that do understand the reasons but they have no voice, or their voice is compromised with the sense of “greater good”.
From my personal perspective, all possible outcomes would fall under two high likelihood alternatives.
Signing a comprehensive, legally binding normalization agreement
The EU has defined this milestone requirement for Serbia’s accession to the Union, and apart from this narrow purpose the benefits to both sides are not so clear. My Albanian friend defined this agreement a while ago as “Everything-short of recognition”. At the time of his definition, this was a desirable outcome for Kosovo, but I’m not sure that today he’d be willing to stand to defend his words because he is working for the Government of Kosovo. I do not think that for Kosovo this would be sufficient since there are no incentives to give Serbia an open door toward the EU, and the timetable for this agreement is far too optimistic. Even if the agreement could be reached, my argument is that Comprehensive Agreement without recognition would merely perpetuate a mutated form of “frozen conflict”; Serbia would remain a credible threat to Kosovo statehood in the regional and international arena. Mathematically speaking:
Comprehensive, legally binding normalization agreement = Frozen Conflict
And that’s it.
My personal belief is that this course of action could pave the way for another conflict, as non-recognition, partition or other half-way options would remain a latent and permanent threat to Kosovo statehood ambitions. The “frozen conflict” would merely shift to other areas such as energy, trade, economy, environment and beneficiary use impairment of shared resources (air, water, Ibar river basin). The options are endless, restraint of populism in political discourse is not feasible in this region.
Evidence in support of this argument can be found in one of the main provisions of the Brussels Agreement, active Serbian participation in Kosovo electoral processes. Ask any MP from Kosovo Albanian parties to compare cooperativeness of Srpska Lista nowadays with SLS in the past. All answers would fall within the category of “Be Careful What You Wish For”.
To conclude, if the objective is to attain stability and peace in this region, this alternative would not work!
Full recognition of Kosovo (not necessarily by Serbia)
Kosovo’s statehood ambitions face indefinite stagnation. For any motion forward for Kosovo, one of the two players would need to make a radical step:
- Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo would void UNSC Resolution 1244, Kosovo obtains full sovereignty.
- Russia and China, for their own interests, cease to oppose Kosovo’s international recognition and UN membership.
It was stated many times by the various people smarter than me, a signed Comprehensive Agreement between Belgrade and Pristina would have no weight on Russia’s or China’s geopolitical interests or their execution within the context of the UN. UN membership for Kosovo will be decided in the realm of global tradeoffs. An idealist might believe that the Kosovo supporters would come to its aid again, but the price to be paid for Russia not to wield its UNSC Veto has risen since the 1999 NATO bombing to the 2003 Iraq invasion. What is the price today when the “West World” is doing everything to isolate Russia? I’ll not be wrong if I say that all the capital of Kosovo would not be sufficient to compensate the cost.
Serbia statehood is undisputed in the world. The EU membership path being tied with the Belgrade-Prishtina dialogue is at this point the only major impairment in this process. Even with the readily apparent difficulties, it has to be conceded that in comparison with the immediate region, Serbia is doing just fine. Serbia currently has the diplomatic and political leverage to keep Kosovo at a disadvantage in any aspect of regional and international dynamics, for as long as it takes. As long there is lack of consensus within the EU concerning Kosovo, Serbia’s path toward EU membership will be slow but safe, while Kosovo’s EU membership future is questionable at best. The status quo suits Serbia far more than it suits Kosovo. The ball is currently with Kosovo and its supporters, who have need to change the game. It is for this reason that Frozen Conflict is a desirable outcome for plenty of right-wing patriots in Serbia.
But, let’s try to stay on the track here for a while. Would recognition work? It depends. In this form, with the acceptance of “reality” unlikely, the frozen conflict is much more appealing to the general public and the political leadership.
Kosovo shapes the political environment in Serbia, and has proven to be a slippery slope for many governments so far. In the next year or two, apart from the ever-present risk of “unforeseen developments” in Kosovo, whether they be new laws, trains, whatever, here are some of the more imaginable challenges:
- The current government in Serbia might fail, and its leading party might implode in consequence of its inability to attain some their own objectives in respect of Kosovo status.
- Any more dialogue concessions to Kosovo without benefits for Serbia could bring the same result.
- Opposition voices could reconcile the diverse interest to develop a coherent and united political opposition, with focus on the interest of to target the leading party on constitutional change that is in the agenda of this government. The consequence of the failure to deliver the constitutional change would redefine the political environment in Serbia.
To overcome this conundrum, I have to assume that it was the intention of the President of Serbia, in calling for internal dialogue, to seek the answer to the following question: At what price would recognition of Kosovo would be acceptable?
Let me be clear about something: -I am not recommending recognition and I’m not saying that the President of Serbia has that objective. I’m merely proposing the discussion, seeking to identify the limits of possibility, with the objective of peace and stability, that is without doubt the objective of this generation of national and regional leaders.
In Alternative B. Serbia has the leverage to control (or at least shape) Kosovo’s future. Other players would state their claims but they would not suffer or benefit much from the outcome. It is Belgrade and Pristina that will feel the benefit and/or suffering, since our joint destination is clear. Instead of paying fees to middleman we should try to exercise direct cooperation to maximize benefit and minimize suffering. If the cooperative model is accepted, we will need to answer a single question:
WHAT ARE SERBIA AND KOSOVO WILLING TO TRADE IN ORDER TO SETTLE THE DISPUTE?
If Serbia would set its course of action toward this question, it would gain an initiative that could not be ignored domestically or internationally. Kosovo has even stronger incentives to resolve the dispute, and should embrace the initiative, because from Kosovo perspective the current tactics have not worked.
I believe that the answer to this question is the answer to all of our current problems, and it might be property, it might be territory, it might be resources, it might be more prerogatives and rights for Serbians in Kosovo (I personally favor this), it might be cultural heritage preservation, it might be exchange of territory, it might be the partition, it might be anything we agreed on, I don’t know, but I do know that it cannot be that which already is.
Why can it not be that which we currently have? As the Serbian from the north I know well about this. Nearly 20 years of Albanian domination in Kosovo offers nothing good for the Serbians, and not even much for the Albanians. We are living in the intervals between the incidents and our life is shaped by them. Recent events, including the theatrical arrest of Marko Djuric, once again proved that Kosovo society is unable or unwilling to protect civil rights, even for government officials. A few isolated voices have condemned the use of unnecessary force and the degrading parade of the arrested Djuric, but in general there has been no clear articulation of the obvious: this is wrong! In the same week, the incident with Gulenists cause public unrest and strong political comment. The message to Kosovo Serbs is clear: even Turks, foreigners in Kosovo, should enjoy some fundamental rights, which Serbs should not.
I’ve spoken at the “grownups” table a long time ago, and heard what they had to say, and it is incidents like this one, large-scale, small-scale, one-off or daily, that will eventually lead to the drawing of a line along the Ibar River, and that it will not be possible to place the blame solely upon the Serbs..
The moment is ripe and there is an excellent opportunity for greater community engagement with the recently published EU Calls for proposal – EU Facilitated Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina with the minor eligibility criteria’s adjustment: The facilitation ultimate virtue must be courage, integrity, large outreach capacities and grassroots action but it must have local ownership – no outsourcing. As a non-governmental veteran from northern Kosovo, I do not see those qualities in our civil society nowadays. Which brings us full circle to my opening argument, once the nice safe-space discussion is over, all parties retreat to their corners for reset to factory default? If I were writing this ten years ago, I would propose that national televisions would link Belgrade and Pristina, to ensure wider outreach. But today, sorry, I have no proposal.
To conclude this piece with an economics analogy: in any alternative where trends would be managed by the mutated form of frozen conflict, the market price for the peace can be expected to grow. For this reason, it is logical to seek a solution that would acquire the peace at the reasonable market price now.