March 31, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly used the longstanding dispute between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo as justification for his attack on Ukraine. The West allowed Kosovo, which is inhabited almost exclusively by Albanians, secede from Serbia 15 years ago. So now he must, in Putin’s view, allow Russia to “return” territories that supposedly belonged to it historically, such as Crimea or eastern Ukraine. Now, decades later, the West is in a hurry to finally resolve the conflict around Kosovo, in order, among other things, to deprive the Kremlin ruler of this fictitious argument.

The result of the efforts was the German-French conflict settlement plan – a compromise proposal from November 2022, which was presented as the position of the EU at the end of February 2023. The essence of the document of eleven points: both sides mutually recognize their national documents and symbols. Serbia refuses to blockade Kosovo’s membership in international organizations, including the UN. Kosovo, for its part, allows the activities of the Association of Serb Communities in Kosovo (a kind of umbrella organization created to deal with the problems of Serbs in ten municipalities where they constitute the majority of the population. – Ed.), which has been debated for ten years now, and guarantees special protection for numerous medieval Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries.

The US also supports this proposal. Senior diplomats from Brussels and Washington have been making pilgrimages to Belgrade and Pristina for several weeks now to convince Serbia and Kosovo to accept these proposals. And if media reports from the two Western Balkan countries are to be believed, Western envoys have clearly threatened political and economic isolation if their latest offer – as has often happened in the past – is rejected again.

Borrell claims breakthrough

February 27, 2023 Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo’s head of government, Albin Kurti, met face to face in Brussels, mediated by the EU. At the end of the meeting, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell announced a breakthrough: both sides accepted the document prepared by the EU about mediation. The door is now open for a final settlement of this protracted conflict.

Meeting between the President of Serbia and the Head of the Government of Kosovo with the participation of European mediators
Meeting between the President of Serbia and the Head of the Government of Kosovo with the participation of European mediatorsPhoto: Johanna Geron/REUTERS

But after returning from Brussels, politicians in Belgrade and Pristina seem to have forgotten their promises. Serbia will never allow Kosovo to become a member of the UN, President Vučić assured. Prime Minister Kurti swore in Parliament in Pristina that a Serbian association of communities with autonomy and self-government was out of the question, as was the special protection of Serbian cultural property.

Mutually exclusive positions

The behavior of Kurti and Vučić is neither surprising nor bewildering, since Kosovo and Serbia take absolutely incompatible positions on the Kosovo issue. Like the Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East, the two peoples claim the same territory. “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia,” Belgrade claims, referring to historic buildings and medieval battlefields. Albanians consider themselves an autochthonous people in Kosovo – and they have been the vast majority of the population there for centuries.

More importantly, especially in Serbia, the issue of Kosovo has been the most important topic of all political forces for decades. Yes, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, which was later recognized International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia war criminal, used the Kosovo conflict for his political takeoff. Later, democratic politician Vojislav Kostunica ensured that Serbia’s claims to Kosovo were enshrined in the Serbian constitution. Not surprisingly, the Kosovo issue is also one of the main ones during the presidency of President Vučić.

The West does not criticize Vučić

Since the West claims that the current head of serbia needed to reach a compromise with the Kosovo Albanians, Brussels refrains from even the slightest criticism of Vučić’s increasingly authoritarian system of rule. Its key points are the elimination of all independent state institutions, the instrumentalization of the judiciary, censorship of the media and the dominance of people loyal to Vučić in the economic system.

Serbian President Vučić is one of the few Putin supporters in Europe
Serbian President Vučić is one of the few Putin supporters in EuropePhoto: picture-alliance/TASS/M. Metzel

“The myths of the past, and especially the myth that Kosovo is a sacred Serbian land, only prevent us from thinking about today,” Serbian journalist Milojko Pantic criticizes. And opposition columnist Dejan Ilić explains: “For years, Vučić has been running away from any obligations, living off the crisis and playing various performances so that none of Serbia’s problems are solved.” “If Vučić resolves the Kosovo crisis, he will no longer be needed,” the observer is sure.

Something similar can be observed from Kosovo. Prime Minister Kurti began as a student leader and opposition politician, seeking for his country independence from Serbia and equal rights with it. For this position, he spent years in Serbian prisons, and this is clearly his political mission.

Reconciliation of the irreconcilable in Ohrid

On 18 March 2023 Vučić and Kurti will meet again under EU mediation, this time in Ohrid in North Macedonia. Then both sides will have to admit whether they really want to give up their red lines – as Brussels claims. How this will be done is still a mystery. Vučić, for example, will have to give the green light to Kosovo’s membership in all international organizations – and at the same time prevent Pristina from joining the UN.

Head of Government of Kosovo Albin Kurti
Head of Government of Kosovo Albin Kurti Photo: Florion Goga/REUTERS

Kurti will have to allow the Association of Serbian Communities – although he is against any institutional and territorial form of this association and wants to limit the protection of minorities to only individuals. And when it comes to the special protection Belgrade is seeking for Serbian monasteries and churches, the opposition in Kosovo is already saying that in the future, a passport will be required to visit these cultural treasures.

In this situation, obviously, a high diplomatic skill is required to reconcile the irreconcilable. Based on the experience of Western policy in the Balkans in the last decade, one should be afraid that again a compromise will be found in which everyone can find something for themselves, but which will not solve real problems.

See also:

Elections in Serbia: according to Russian or European rules?

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