Serbia and Kosovo Restart Dialogue After 18-Month Pause

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 104

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (Source: Getty Images)

On June 16, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti met in person in Brussels to restart talks between Belgrade and Pristina after 18 months of interruption. The meeting followed a virtual summit on June 10, hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, and video talks between the two Balkan leaders two days later (B92, July 16; EurActiv, July 13).

The European Union has stepped up efforts to settle relations between Belgrade and Pristina after a planned White House meeting between the Serbian and Kosovo leaders on June 27 fell apart when Kosovar President Hashim Thaçi was charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes by the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague (Balkan Insight, June 24). The United States president’s special envoy for Kosovo and Serbia negotiations, Ambassador Richard Grenell, has been pushing for a deal between Vučić and Thaçi that could score a quick international win for the White House. The proposed solution may have included a controversial land swap deal between the two states (Exit News, June 19).

But Thaçi had to withdraw from the negotiation process altogether; and with that exit, any potential territorial exchange between Serbia and Kosovo, championed mainly by him in Kosovo, became even less feasible. The land swap deal—exchanging Serbian-populated territories in northern Kosovo for Albanian-populated municipalities in southern Serbia—was seen by some in the US administration as a potentially successful resolution of the stalemate that has endangered stability in the Western Balkans. Although initially supported by the former EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, Germany and other EU member states strongly opposed any territorial exchanges and border adjustments that could set up a dangerous precedent in the Balkans and elsewhere.

After the US administration failed to involve the Europeans in laying the ground for resuming talks between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU Council appointed former Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajčák as EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. Lajčák expedited an agreement between the two parties on the main elements of negotiations and re-launched the dialogue in July. Europe has thereby taken charge of the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, prompting the EU’s foreign policy chief, High Representative Josep Borrell, to remark at the Brussles meeting on July 16, “I am glad to see that the European Union is back in the driver’s seat of the process” ( , July 16).

The ultimate goal of these negotiations would be a legally binding agreement establishing functional relations between Belgrade and Pristina as well as opening the doors for Serbia’s EU membership and Kosovo’s accession to international organizations. Logically, this goal is only attainable if Kosovo and Serbia agree on mutual recognition as independent states. However, Belgrade has avoided public discussions on potentially recognizing the independence of Kosovo, which broke away from Serbian control after Belgrade’s campaign of mass murder and expulsion of the majority-ethnic-Albanian population in 1999 led to a military intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Kosovo proclaimed its independence in 2008 and was recognized by the US and the majority of European states. Serbian leaders have refused to recognize Kosovo as a state.

Kosovo’s independence is currently acknowledged by over 100 states, but Serbia has pursued a campaign to convince a few developing countries to reverse their diplomatic recognitions (Prishtina Insight, March 5). Belgrade also aims to derail Pristina’s admission into various international bodies, including the United Nations and Interpol.

In June, the newly appointed Prime Minister Hoti announced the lines his government will not cross in negotiating with Serbia: the territorial integrity of Kosovo is non-negotiable and any agreement with Serbia must be based on the country’s constitution. “An agreement without mutual recognition is meaningless, and not temporary mutual recognition, but mutual recognition that provides us with a seat at the UN and provides us with recognition from the five EU countries that have not yet recognized us,” Hoti stated (Exit News, June 10).

Hoti laid down these fundamentals at the online summit hosted by France and Germany on June 10, stating that a “comprehensive peace agreement between the Republic of Kosovo and the Republic of Serbia should result in mutual recognition” (Balkan Insight, June 10). However, Vučić expressed dissatisfaction with Pristina’s position, stating that Serbia would not accept “Pristina’s ultimatums” (B92, July 10). He also said that Europeans have unrealistic expectations for any breakthrough. Earlier in June, during his visit to Moscow, Vučić asserted that EU membership is insufficient compensation for Serbia to recognize Kosovo and allow it to enter the UN (EurActiv, June 19).

Although reportedly in agreement about the topics for their first meeting on July 16, the two parties have different priorities. Vučić said that the talks will be about economic matters, missing and displaced persons from the 1999 conflict, and unresolved property matters. Hoti indicated that Kosovar Albanians will demand war reparations, the return of property titles, and the recognition of Kosovo’s independence (IBNA, July 16).

EU representatives have insisted that the two parties should place the dialogue above domestic policy, formulate their positions and prepare their publics for an outcome that would inevitably include compromises. At the same time, the EU plans to accelerate the negotiations and not allow more years to pass before a resolution is achieved. The Serbia-Kosovo dialogue started ten years ago; but despite some early successes, the Brussels Agreement of 2013 has not been fully implemented. The EU has underscored that all previous commitments must be respected, but their shortcomings should also be addressed (IBNA, July 16).

The Serbian president, whose ruling Progressive Party won a land-slide electoral victory on June 21, appears to be in a stronger position than his Kosovar counterpart. Hoti, the candidate of the Democratic League of Kosovo, was nominated prime minister in June, following the collapse of the governing coalition led by Albin Kurti, the leader of Vetevendosja and the largest party in parliament. With his strong mandate, Vučić has the chance to achieve a historic peace agreement with Kosovo and leave a lasting legacy for his country and the Balkans. Although he faces protests and a growing COVID-19 pandemic at home, his two biggest problems are enduring Serbian nationalist claims toward Kosovo and Russia’s opposition to Kosovar statehood. Kosovo on the other hand, although appearing politically fragmented and divided about the process of negotiations, has the advantage of political and social unity on the two most significant questions—independence and European integration.