Evgeniy Isaev, Flickr

Don’t let the conflict freeze

The Ukrainian crisis risks becoming a frozen conflict in Europe. For ways out of this stalemate, it may be helpful to think of possible lessons learned from another recent European stalemate: Kosovo. The development of relations between Serbia and Kosovo shows that although fundamental disagreement on the status remains, violence on the ground can be avoided with engagement in negotiations.

The cases of Kosovo and Crimea are very different, as Robert Cooper, a former senior British diplomat, has discussed recently on this blog. Stepping away from the legal allegations made by the Russians, the answer may be with the negotiation process around Kosovo instead.

The different contexts of the two cases are of course striking. Firstly, NATO’s presence in Kosovo means the security balance in the region strongly favours the West – currently an unthinkable scenario in Ukraine. Secondly, Russia’s collaboration with the West was much closer up until 2007 than it has been since. Finally, the EU has significantly less leverage than it had in the case of Kosovo. Nonetheless, the Kosovo conflict was considered in deadlock several times but some key turns in negotiations gave space for constructive engagement of the parties.

The conflict between Kosovo and Serbia in the question of status remains unresolved and improvement has been much slower than both parties and the international community had hoped. However, considering the fundamental disagreement we see between Ukraine and Russia, getting the parties to talk at a level as Kosovo and Serbia would be a huge achievement. Here are a few suggestions as to how this could be achieved:

Encourage multilateralism. Despite the turn in Russian policy and severe difficulties of the UN and EU missions, war has not returned to Kosovo since 1999. Instead, even after the declaration of independence of 2008, both parties engaged with international institutions as for example, Serbia’s request for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and later the EU-brokered Brussels Agreement. Those who follow the development on Kosovo closely know these outcomes were far from perfect. But long-term engagement has shifted the conversation on Kosovo to a constructive language and away from violence.

Avoid a limbo situation without talks. Since the war in 1999, there have been two key situations where the Kosovo conflict was at risk of escalating.  After the war and the establishment of the UN mission, the stagnated situation on the ground stirred frustrations locally. Only when talks with Serbia were taken up again in 2005, however slow they were, did the situation begin to de-escalate. Similarly, during the post-independence stalemate between Kosovo and Serbia, violent escalations against KFOR in the north of Kosovo led to a return to talks, which eventually resulted in the Brussels Agreement.

Focus on concrete outcomes. The process around Kosovo also shows us that Russia happily engages in long-winded talks without allowing for a concrete result. Moscow pushed for more and longer talks on the status question of Kosovo but did not put forward constructive proposals. Thus getting Moscow to talk and engage is actually not the most difficult step. Instead reaching concrete and deliverable outputs is the challenge. The way to reach some progress is to shift the attention away from the big questions to the situation on the ground. There are many opportunities for these step-by-step improvements for the civilian population. The latest progress on Kosovo has prioritised improvement for the population instead of pressing on resolving the big question of status. Deferring that question to ‘higher levels’ such as the ICJ may be a way forward also in the case of Crimea to de-escalate the situation.

The Ukraine crisis could path the way to find a new cooperative security framework with Russia: agree to disagree on the big questions and focus on the improvement of civilians caught in the weak ceasefire agreement, (the last UN reported death toll in March was 6000). The EU needs to take a long-term view on this process, avoid getting caught up with Russia’s ‘great power’ rhetoric and focus on reducing violence that affects the population.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or any of its hosts Hertie School of Governance, London School of Economics and Political Science and Stiftung Mercator.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.