Geopolitics Global Agenda

The agreement on normalisation of relations opens the way for Kosovo and Serbia to join the EU. Russian influence may complicate the outcome of the negotiations

Bianka Niňajová

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti met in Ohrid, Macedonia, on Saturday, 18 March, to negotiate an agreement on the normalization of their relations. The talks were held under the auspices of the European Union, which says that reconciliation between the Balkan countries is a prerequisite for their accession to the Union. However, while EU officials speak of a successful meeting and a verbal agreement on the implementation of a plan, Vucic and Kurti describe the negotiations differently, with the Serbian President stressing that he did not sign any agreement. The fact is, there still needs to be more clarity about the wording of some of the proposals.  

According to Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, there was a verbal agreement, but Kosovo lacked the flexibility, and Serbia refused to sign the document, even though the country said it was ready to implement it. The 11-point document, supported by the European Union and the United States, began to emerge last month. Its implementation should result in de facto (not de jure) recognition between the two states. In simple terms, this means that Belgrade will not recognize Kosovo according to the rules of international law, but it will recognize its statehood. Besides, the authorities should accept the other side’s travel documents, diplomas, car plates and customs stamps. Nevertheless, the essential point for Serbia should be not to block Kosovo’s entry into international organizations such as the EU or the UN.

Discussions on the reconciliation of mutual relations between Kosovo and Serbia have been ongoing for several years. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, almost ten years after the war that ended Serbian rule. Serbia, however, does not recognize the independence of Kosovo and speaks only of a breakaway province. Kosovo’s independence is also not recognized by several European countries, such as Slovakia, Greece, and Romania.

A need for reconciliation between the two Balkan states gained prominence last year in February, shortly after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The tense security situation forced European Union leaders to act as the West feared Russia might also try to destabilize the Balkan region, where Moscow has had historical influence. Besides cultural ties, Russia has been a crucial partner for Belgrade regarding energy and defence cooperation. Moscow has also provided Serbia with military equipment and training for its military personnel. It is thus no surprise that Serbia and Belarus are the only European countries that have not imposed sanctions on Moscow due to the invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin is also an essential ally of Belgrade when it comes to diplomatic negotiations. For a long time, Russia (and China) have blocked any attempts by Kosovo to join the UN.

To sum it all up, finding a solution to the problems of the Western Balkans is a necessary step for recognizing Kosovo as a sovereign country and creating security stability in the whole region. Despite Serbia’s relations with Russia, talks on the possible accession of the Western Balkan countries to the EU have been on the agenda for several years. However, this will only be possible through reconciliation and mutual recognition. For Serbia, overcoming its sense of historical injustice will be challenging, especially if the country continues to be supported by Russia. However, the eventual signing of an EU-brokered and EU-supported agreement with Kosovo could be a signal that Serbia may be willing to at least partially reconsider even its current relationship with Moscow and fully focus on joining the Union.

Nevertheless, Kosovo and Serbian representatives are currently only partially satisfied with the EU’s proposal for an agreement. While Vucic described the Union’s approach as “take it or leave it”, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Kurti spoke of a feeling of lack of trust. The leaders’ dissatisfaction may potentially complicate further negotiations. In addition, the agreement lacks clarity on a number of key points. For instance, it is unclear whether one country could join the EU without de jure recognition of the other. There is also no clarification of dealing with the past issues, especially the 1999 conflict, which significantly impacted both countries. In the case of the commitment that Serbia should no longer block Kosovo’s entry into international organizations, the need for more details is also emphasized. The same goes for the point which commits both sides to honour all agreements from the past. However, generally speaking, if implemented, the agreement provides the basis necessary for resolving the outstanding disputes between the two Balkan countries and for their eventual accession to the EU.

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