Serbia and Kosovo, tales of endless tension
Only two months ago, the small, contended, Republic of Kosovo has celebrated an important anniversary: 10 years of independence from its much-despised neighbor, Serbia, whose relationships with Pristina remain tense.
Reasons of frictions are multiple, and all stem from Serbia’s refusal to accept the secession of what was formerly an autonomous province within its Republic. After years of conflicts, 90% ethnic Albanian Kosovo on February 17, 2008, declared its independence, opening a legal and political vulnus in the thorny Western Balkan region, yet not fully resolved.
If the much-debated question of the legitimacy and legal status of Kosovo’s independence has been thoroughly discussed, of interest today is another aspect of the complicated story between Serbia and Kosovo, namely the still disputed border issues between the two countries, which are inevitably intertwined with the question of recognition of the newly born state by Belgrade.
Serbia is, indeed, part of the group of countries that do not recognize Kosovo. In the aftermath of the declaration of independence, Serbia made clear its stance on the issue by threatening to recall its diplomats from all the countries that would have recognized the newly born entity. Similarly, Belgrade refused to deal directly with the Republic of Kosovo, leaving to international intermediaries the difficult task of facilitating the dialogue among the two actors.
The consequences of such an adamant point of view on the matter have had repercussions also on the border issues between the two countries: as Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, the border, depending on which side is asked, is either an inter-state line or merely an “administrative” border.
Of the 120,000 Serbs in Kosovo, one third live in north Mitrovica, establishing a real enclave that, with the support of Serbia, demands for special autonomy and openly contest the leadership of the former guerrilla commander Hashim Thaci, the highly discussed Prime Minister of Kosovo until 2014, and of his successors.
Since the declaration of independence of 2008, clashes and impromptu barricades, like the one in Zubin Potok, immediately popped up in various parts of the northern region. Incidents at the border continued as Belgrade kept supporting “parallel structures” in northern Kosovo that have contributed to keep this area out of the control of the authorities in Pristina. In the summer and fall of 2011, tensions in the North quickly escalated, boosting fears of a wider conflict.
A key role in defusing the tension between the two parties in this potentially explosive situation, has been played by the European Union, extremely active in the region seen as the new frontier of recruitment for new members.
The promise of becoming an EU member in the future and to follow the path of Croatia in 2013, represents the leverage Brussels is using to persuade Serbia to moderate its position towards Kosovo, avoiding any behavior that could provoke reactions in the highly inflammable region and forcing itself to keep up the dialogue with its neighbor. A tit for tat strategy, successful so far as it relies on Serbia’s need to continue the accession talks with the EU to provide a boost to its struggling economy and stimulate the reforms the country needs to comply with EU standards and be ready to become one of its members, presumably after 2020.
The importance that the EU’s accession talks play for Serbia has brought in 2013 the Prime Minister Ivica Dacic to admit that the famous slogan “Косово је наше” (Kosovo is our) was a lie and that negotiations with Thaci were a necessary step for a normalization of the relationship between the two countries. And if the recognition of Kosovo was never on the negotiation table, the resolution of the tensions at the northern border were on the contrary at the center of the Brussels Agreement, brokered by the EU and signed in April 2013 by Dacic and Thaci, that started the rounds of talks to ease the relationship between the two neighbors.
However, although the talks were seen by both parts as necessary – for Serbia to continue the EU accession discussions and for Kosovo to negotiate a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU – the talks have prolonged up to today without any reported progress on efforts to normalize their relations.
A new layer of complexity
One of the reasons of the stalemate in the discussion between Kosovo and Serbia is the narrative used in both countries to frame it over the years. The dangerous cocktail of poverty, corruption and community disengagement has favored the spread of religious radicalization and violent extremist groups in the two countries, adding a new layer of complexity to the interstate dialogue, already hampered by the historical frictions between Pristina and Belgrade. Kosovo, for example, has the highest per capita number of foreign fighters– about 316 Kosovars- who have mainly joined the fight in Syria, and who are now coming back to Pristina, opening a new challenge for the government that has to reintroduce them into the society.
Efforts are made both at a State and International level to counter the radicalization threat by capacity building of involved stakeholders in conducting localized counter-messaging and engaging in the community. The EU, for example, is sponsoring a comprehensive strategy, the Western Balkan Counter-Terrorism initiative (WBCTi), whose scope is to promote regional dialogue and to support all relevant actors, above all non-governmental organizations, religious institutions, and citizen communities.
The seriousness of the problem posed by a hateful narrative in the region is proved by projects like the #YouthAgainstHate project, sponsored by WBCTi and aimed at equipping young Serbs with tools to identify, expose and combat hate speech. Or, even more relevant, the Active Youth for Secure Community project in Novi Pazar, Serbian border town with Kosovo, whose goal was to build trust between young communities and local police and to ensure that young people are a partner in preventing anti-social behavior, including radicalization.
However, despite all the efforts to build a positive narrative and contrast hate speech, the war of words keeps flaming the conflict.
In January 2017, a Serbian train covered with “Kosovo is Serbia” slogan was prevented to cross the border with Kosovo, causing Serbian President Nikolic to accuse Kosovan forces of playing “war games”.
One year later, Oliver Ivanovic, prominent Kosovo Serb politician, has been shot dead outside his party offices in the Serb-run north of Mitrovica. Seen as a moderate, Ivanovic was facing a retrial for alleged war crimes against ethnic Albanians committed in 1999. His assassination has been immediately labelled as an act of terrorism by Serbs, who claimed its rights to join the investigations into the killing.
Serbia-Kosovo: The future at stake
It is clear that the border dispute between Serbia and Kosovo means more than a territorial demarcation line. The issues at the border are the results of decades of fights, hatred and ethnic tensions between the two countries, which are part of the larger Western Balkans’ chessboard of resentments and demands.
If the role of international actors, above all the EU, OSCE and UNMIK, remains pivotal to ease the conflict and to promote the dialogue in the region, a bigger role must be played by local governments and national communities.
Using the Brussels Agreement as baseline for any future step, Serbia and Kosovo should start being more engaged in the implementation of what already agreed upon. For example, by promoting the association of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo, which should provide some autonomy to Serbs in the north for the price of becoming integrated into institutions in Kosovo.
Even more important, considering how quickly tensions escalate in the area, their political elites should abstain from making any provocative statements that could trigger conflict and keep interethnic hatred between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians alive. Hate speeches and radicalizations should not be underestimated in the road to normalization of interstate relationships.
In sum, the solution of the tensions between Kosovo and Serbia is truly a Balkan affair.
For how much the presence of the international actors could be helpful, it will never replace the lack of commitment of Pristina and Belgrade.
At stake there is not only a future of normal relations, but the keys to more prosperity and growth under the auspices of the European Union.