Image courtesy of the White House, via Flickr

The week when nobody won

In this post, Alejandro Esteso Pérez examines negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia— including summits in Washington and Brussels—and argues that neither country has much to celebrate.

Ever since its unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, Kosovo has strived to cope with its limited international recognition and the resulting obstacles. The country consummated its secession de jure against the will of its parent state, a move that aggravated the already-strained relations between both parties and triggered an unprecedented case of normative polarisation vis-à-vis international law. Attempts at overcoming the situation of political impasse between the two states have been manifold and have dragged on throughout the years, predominantly under international auspices—yet to very little avail.

After putting an end to a twenty-month deadlock in the process of normalising relations between Belgrade and Prishtina, this year has witnessed a fork in the road. In September alone, over the course of barely a few days, two high-level meetings between the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo were convened, albeit in very different scenarios and, indeed, under very different circumstances. On the one hand, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti—heading their countries’ delegations—convened at the White House in Washington D.C. on 3 and 4 September at a summit put together by Donald Trump’s Balkan appointee. Three days later, on 7 September, both leaders met again in Brussels for a new round of European Union (EU)-mediated talks.

A year of transatlantic competition

Diplomatic confrontation between the US and the EU has grown substantially over the past year in the framework of the dialogue for the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. The EU-sponsored dialogue process, consisting of meetings held in Brussels on a relatively regular basis since 2011, reached a political standstill in the end of 2018 after Kosovo’s decision to impose a 100 per cent trade tariff on goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Such a move was called upon as a countermeasure to Serbia’s foreign lobbying campaign against Kosovo’s accession into international organisations.

After over fifteen months of deadlock, things took a twist in early 2020. A successful no-confidence vote in the Kosovo Assembly in March of this year stripped the governing coalition, led by left-leaning former premier Albin Kurti, of power. He supported the removal of the tariff only in a gradual fashion, to the stark disapproval of the US and the EU. The ensuing administration, headed by incumbent Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti, unconditionally dropped the tax as soon as it took office, enjoying the validation of Western actors. Throughout the domestic political struggle for the removal of the tariff, American leverage developed enormously and awarded Washington D.C. a prominent role in the dialogue process, alongside the opportunity to take over its leadership—a position implicitly reserved for Brussels. In this clashing context, leading the talks between Belgrade and Prishtina became a source of competition for the US and the EU, in the light of which respective summits were convened.

The meetings at Washington and Brussels, though only three days apart, were held against remarkably contrasting backdrops. The two-day discussion at the White House was relatively spontaneous and ad hoc; it did not stick to any broader diplomatic framework of negotiation and was hastily reconvened following a failed meeting attempt in June. The Brussels encounter, on the other hand, was foreseen as an integral part of the more consistent EU-led ‘dialogue on the comprehensive normalization of relations between Belgrade and Prishtina’, as it has been commonly termed. This meeting, hosted by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell and EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Prishtina Dialogue Miroslav Lajčák, was the second of its kind since the end of the tariff deadlock.

Empty pledges, pyrrhic victories

Regardless of their contextual differences, little, if anything, has changed in the light of these talks. President Vučić and Prime Minister Hoti were summoned to Washington at the behest of US Special Representative Richard Grenell, an encounter that aspired to culminate with an agreement on ‘economic normalisation’ between both parties. While the attendance of Donald Trump had been a conundrum until a few moments before the signing of the deal, his final appearing at the agreement table left no doubt that the meeting had awarded a poor role to the sides in question.

Indeed, judging strictly by the content of the two-page accord, Belgrade and Prishtina pledged commitment to a series of shaky commercial oaths with no further specification on when and how they would be undertaken. Both delegations also agreed on an array of disconnected ideological matters that very little had to do with the direct settlement of the bilateral conflict through economic means—for instance, the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, the push for homosexuality decriminalisation in seventy countries, and the prohibition of using 5G equipment supplied by “untrusted vendors”.

The clear nod to Trump’s foreign policy camouflaged among these pledges became all the more evident once the most unexpected party to the agreement made its entrance, albeit indirectly: Israel. As per the deal, Kosovo agreed to mutual recognition and thus to the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Middle Eastern country, while Serbia committed to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv, where it currently sits, to Jerusalem. The controversy sparked by this point of the agreement was swiftly channelled by the EU which, against the backdrop of both Kosovo’s and Serbia’s EU membership bids, remarked that such a move meant stepping out of Brussels’s common foreign policy stance on the status of Jerusalem.

Hardly three days after their Washington ordeal, Hoti and Vučić discussed in Brussels the political normalisation of relations between their countries under the auspices of High Representative Borrell and Special Representative Lajčák. As it was only the second encounter after the resumption of the EU-facilitated dialogue, progress was expectedly timid and little was disclosed after the meeting—which allegedly had revolved around the issues of missing and displaced persons, the settlement of mutual financial claims on property, and the establishment of the Community of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo.

At the end of the day—or, rather, of the week—neither Kosovo nor Serbia has anything to celebrate. In Washington, the countries pledged commitment to an agreement that has tangled the process of normalising relations more than it has contributed to its success. As a non-binding deal, where either side was given a different document to sign, it is devoid of legal significance and adherence to its principles is all but unconditional. Perceived more as a diplomatic setup to please a hasty mediator that had been pushing for a deal at any cost—rather than as a proof of true engagement with their bilateral dialogue—Prishtina and Belgrade bowed to Trump’s political dictates. Kosovo has done so in exchange for Israel’s recognition, a pyrrhic victory in comparison to the huge political loss that stepping out of the EU’s foreign policy stance entails. Serbia, less concerned about displeasing Brussels, obtains nothing in return—if only, perhaps, the approval of the proto-authoritarian American and Israeli leaderships.

As a consequence, the meeting at Brussels was smeared with an awkward feeling of diplomatic failure. The thawing of relations between Kosovo and Serbia since the resumption of the EU-led dialogue is slow and potentially bound to founder given the counterparts’ refusal to budge over the political aspects of the process – to which the perceived Pax Americana made a poor contribution.

Alejandro Esteso Pérez is an International Research Fellow at Group for Legal and Political Studies in Prishtina, Kosovo. His research focuses on EU enlargement, corruption, elections, and party politics in the Western Balkans.

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.