28 April 2013, 11:00

'Our common aim is normalizing Kosovo-Serbia relations' - Balkans expert

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (C) poses with Serbia's Prime Minister Ivica Dacic (L) and Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, at NATO headquarters in Brussels
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (C) poses with Serbia's Prime Minister Ivica Dacic (L) and Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, at NATO headquarters in Brussels
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (C) poses with Serbia's Prime Minister Ivica Dacic (L) and Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, at NATO headquarters in Brussels
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Voice of Russia correspondent meets Blige Yabanci – an expert on the Balkan policies from the University of Bath in the UK – to discuss the current situation between Kosovo and Serbia, in an exclusive interview 

I personally think it’s a surprising development, especially since earlier this month Catherine Ashton who led the negotiations suspended the talks when Serbia for the third time rejected the offers on the table. And I don’t think anybody was expecting such a quick return by the sides to the negotiation table and a final deal because there have been talks going on between Kosovo and Serbia under the EU leadership since March 2011 and at no stage these negotiations were straightforward.

We know that the entire rounds of negotiations were initiated with one common aim – to normalize the relations between Kosovo and Serbia. But both sides avoided any discussion regarding the status of Kosovo and claimed that the entire talks were only technical. And for these reasons previously parties agreed on a so to speak relatively easier topics, like integrated border management, recognition of university diplomas and Kosovo’s membership in regional organizations. So, these were relatively soft issues for them to discuss.

Of course, after some agreements reached by Pristine and Belgrade on relatively easy topics, there were only two paths I think in front of parties – either to carry on discussing sensitive but crucial matters concerning the status of Kosovo and the rights of Kosovo Serbs, and their integration into Kosovo or to stop talks and keep ignoring each other, and to see both of their EU membership desires decay.

So, I must say that the EU used the incentive of closer ties and ultimate membership prospect for both parties very well to push them for a compromise. It was not surprising of course that the EU pushed both sides until they reached an agreement because it was expected, it was the EU who initiated these talks and opened the way for direct talks after the failed negotiations, the Vienna negotiations under the UN leadership, before Kosovo declared independence.

But I’m not sure we should call this as a historic deal or a landmark agreement, as it is named by high ranking voices in Brussels. I think before quickly concluding that the deal is landmark, we should look at its content. Surely it is a commendable development, but I don’t think it is conclusive and sufficient to normalize relations soon because talking briefly about the content, the agreement has 15 points and in this sense it is precise and it is compact. It concerns two areas that the parties have always felt sensitive and difficult to conceit in the past.

The first one is Kosovo status, recognition by Serbia. The other one is the status of Kosovo Serbs. The second issue, the Kosovo Serbs, is covered by the agreement directly and explicitly, I should say, because the first two points and most of the agreement is about their status rights and autonomy. And in this sense the agreement gives Kosovo Serbs, especially the ones in the north, the four municipalities bordering Serbia, the right to establish their own association or community among themselves. And this agreement will be protected by Kosovo law and the Kosovo Constitution. And this association or community will have competence to handle their cultural, educational and health policies. And it will be represented at the central level in Pristine.

And at this part of the agreement I don’t think it brings a complete novelty because these rights were already granted by the Ahtisaari Plan to Kosovo Serbs. And it kind of reaffirms those rights. We know that Kosovo already unilaterally committed to implementation of Ahtisaari Plan which was the result of the Vienna negotiations. And Serbia rejected this plan, actually. And in this sense it reaffirmed what was on the agenda already and what was nominally committed by the Government in Pristine.

The novelty of the agreement concerning Kosovo Serbs on the other hand is the dismantling of the so-called parallel structures in security and justice sectors and the integration, adsorption by Kosovo. And in this sense Serbia we can say accepted the integration of Kosovo Serbs in the north into Kosovo. So, the parallel structures that were financed by Serbia throughout these years since 2008 nominally ceased to exist and integrated into Pristina authority.

That means Kosovo Serbs are given extensive autonomy in handling their security and justice affairs since police and judiciary staff will be nominated by Kosovo Serbs and composed of Kosovo Serbs, and they will enjoy a wider autonomy outside Pristina. And this was the real novelty of the agreement.

The other sensitive topic is Kosovo’s international status and its recognition by Serbia, it has been only implicitly and partially dealt with in the agreement. Point 14 only states that neither side will block the other side’s progress in pursuing closer ties with the European Union. And we know that this point was much below what Kosovo has expected and demanded throughout the negotiations. Kosovo demanded this point to refer to international organizations which would actually mean the United Nations.

But we know that Serbia did not accept it and point 14 was only limited to the European Union. So, in practice Serbia still did not directly recognize Kosovo and it can steal object and block Kosovo’s international legitimacy, international recognition at the UN level by just objecting its direct recognition at the international level.

Both parties, they are all quite unhappy about this agreement. And strangely enough, both parties say that this amounts to treason.

Well, I think we should look at the three different publics in a way. There are Kosovo Albanians, there are Serbs living Kosovo and there are Serbs in Serbia. Of course, it’s quite early to judge the implications for them but I think we can still explain why they are so serious about it. First of all, I think this agreement concerns Kosovo Serbs and it will have the biggest implications for them. And we know that, although they have been sensual in any deal to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia, they were not part of the talks at all, at any time.

And moreover, they increasingly feel abandoned by Belgrade since the negotiations with the EU have started in 2011. And they already declared, right after the agreement was reached, that the agreement was forced on them and they don’t accept it. Honestly speaking, Belgrade could not achieve a better deal for them because of course neither Kosovo nor the EU and the rest of the international community would have allowed them to secede from Kosovo.

And moreover, the 15 point of the agreement legalizes what has been practiced since 2008 – they elected their own assembly already, they established their own municipalities and had control in health, education, security, justice. And it actually just legalized their autonomy and self-rule. But of course they are still uncomfortable being excluded from the negotiations. Under these conditions it is difficult to expect that the implementation would be straightforward.

And actually, we should also understand their objections because they never considered themselves as citizens of an independent Kosovo. And in the past and we know that Serbia pursued quite a strict nationalist policy towards Kosovo Serbs, declared that they would never abandon Kosovo Serbs, they would never abandon Kosovo. But of course Belgrade, since the negotiations have started, reads the whole agreement and the negotiations in line with its own membership desires into the European Union because the leadership of Serbia has declared that it’s going to open up the way to the European Union for Serbia. And their concern is not about how Kosovo Serbs will see the agreement.

If you look also at the Kosovo side, Kosovo leadership, they also read the agreement in the light of their own concerns. And the Prime Minister Thaci of Kosovo stated that the agreement filled the recognition of Kosovo by Serbia, it confirmed its territorial integrity and so on. You can see how both main parties, the leadership in Belgrade and Kosovo, try to interpret the agreement, try to adopt a narrative, how to mark it that the internal domestic level.

In that sense the agreement talks about Kosovo Serbs and their rights, but Kosovo Serbs have not been part of the deal. I understand that the intentions of the EU were good, to normalize the relations between Kosovo and Serbia, and in that sense the agreement foresees to give some rights to Kosovo Serbs and confirmed their right, but of course sometimes good intentions are not enough. Sometimes good intentions should be accompanied with right procedures in order to make sure that it will be accepted and implemented by the real stakeholders.

I think the real problem with Kosovo Serbs is that they don’t accept it because they feel excluded by the European Union, by the Kosovo leadership and Belgrade increasingly. They relied too much on Belgrade and of course they were not given their own voice at the negotiations table. So, in the end they feel abandoned.

On the other hand, if we look at the public in Kosovo, I mean the majority of Kosovo Albanians in Serbia, there are different reactions because I think also among Albanians there are different factions. The most nationalist movement Vetëvendosje – the self-determination movement – we know that it was expected that they would object it because they were already against the European Union’s involvement in Kosovo and the Kosovo’s ongoing dependency on external aid etc. So, I think they were in line with the hardliners in there were more in line with forced integration of Kosovo Serbs, and not in favour of abroad autonomy for Kosovo Serbs, but for a strict centralized state.

But I think in the Serbia front, the public of Serbia, I don’t think there are big factions against the agreement because I think, especially if Serbia is given a day to open up accession negotiations, I believe the public will soon be calmed down and try to look at the future. Because public knows that Serbia has lost control of Kosovo in 1999 when NATO intervened, and it has been long time. And I don’t think the majority of Serbia’s public is interested in regaining control of Kosovo because they know that it has been already lost. I think the majority of Serbia’s public wants to look in the future and they see that the European Union would be an important prospect in front of them.

From what you are saying I also get an impression that perhaps the European Union itself has acquired a new headache because the agreement still seems to be splitting the parties, I mean there are all kinds of pro and contra, and arguments. So, certain parties might use the agreement in their own interests. And like you said, the agreement itself does not resolve the issue. So, what could be the implications for the European Union itself?

I think the whole process of negotiations was at the elite level. It was not a very transparent process. The governments of Kosovo and Serbia were involved and I know that even the non-governmental groups and the parliamentary groups outside the governments’ circles were complaining that they were not properly informed about the deals, and the assembly was bypassed etc. So, I think of course this was the EU way of pushing the leaderships very closely without making it public that much, so that they can reach an agreement as soon as possible.

And if you look at the agreement, it does not provide specific guidelines about implementation of this agreement. It only states in the point 15 that there will be a joint commission composed of Kosovo and Serbia members with the assistance of the EU to implement the agreement. But how to implement the agreement is not really specified. I think the implementation of the agreement will be based on the good will of both sides and the EU assistance. And I’m not sure how this will work out.

And we know that they already had some problems in implementing relatively technical agreements, like the integrated border management. There were lots of protests from Kosovo Serbs to open up the crossing points jointly between Serbia and Kosovo. So, it’s really difficult.

Of course, there is also another implication for the European Union because there are still five non-recognizing member states. Surely, if Kosovo is freed from Serbia’s intervention in its way to EU membership, it’s five member states which rejected to recognize Kosovo should re-evaluate their positions and adapt to these new conditions.

I think the EU is good as striking deals by using conditionality and its membership prospect very well. But when it comes to implementation, it has a tendency to leave it to the parties on the ground and if they do it well, they will get an extra benefit or whatever, closer relations with the EU. It’s not that the EU just steps back and says – oh, you should carry on with the implementation. But as I said, I want to repeat this point, this agreement was about Kosovo Serbs and Kosovo Serbs were not consulted, and they feel abandoned and isolated from the entire process. And how the EU will convince them about their future within the authority of Kosovo is open to questioning I believe.

And just to sum it up, what do we need to expect in the close future in the Balkans? Do we need to expect more controversy, more unrest?

Well, it depends on what you mean by controversy. Of course, if you ask me if this will really normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia and stabilize the region, my answer will be more affirmative because at the diplomatic level, at the international level I wouldn’t expect any big controversies between Kosovo and Serbia, although Serbia will still be blocking Kosovo’s recognition at the UN level, at the international level.

But I think at the regional level, as the commission declared two days ago, if Kosovo is granted SAA (Stabilization and Association Agreement) and carry on with the membership prospect, and if Serbia starts accession negotiations, I think at the leadership level they will be collaborating more and more.

But at the domestic level or at the individuals’ level, it communities’ level, if you ask me if this contributes to the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, I would say not yet because the reconciliation, normalization of relations at the public level I think starts when they no longer see each other as enemies or oppose each other’s interests. I don’t think at this level true reconciliation has started. And as I said this is a commendable step but it is not a landmark agreement that breaks both parties from the past and you just open up a blank page and start from there. I don’t think it is that easy.

Dr. Yabanci, thank you so much. And just to remind you our guest speaker was Blige Yabanci of the University of Bath in the UK.

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