By Maruša Benkič
In an extraordinary meeting on 17 February, 2008, the Assembly of Kosovo adopted the Declaration of Independence that proclaimed Kosovo to be an independent and sovereign state. In the streets of Pristina, thousands of people were celebrating the birth of a new state with fireworks. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Serbs filled the streets of Belgrade in massive rallies to demonstrate against what the then Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica called a “false country.”
Five years later, in April 2013, Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, announced that talks between Serbia and Kosovo in the EU-facilitated Dialogue had been concluded. The agreement initialled by Serbia’s Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci was praised as historic and ground breaking. What happened in these five years? How has the EU managed to stabilize relations between the two countries, crucial for stability and prosperity of not only the Western Balkans but of the EU as a whole?
Failed diplomatic efforts on Kosovo status
Kosovo is inherent in the Serbian national identity as a cultural myth representing the ancient core of Serbian civilization and is thus perceived by the Serbs as integral part of Serbia. In the late 1980s when Slobodan Milošević gained political power by awakening Serbian national sentiment towards Kosovo in the context of growing animosity between Serbs and Albanians; the latter represented almost 90 percent of the province’s population. Repressive measures against the Albanian population provoked the Kosovo Liberation Army’s (KLA) attacks on Serbian police and army troops. In 1998, violent answers by the Milošević regime escalated into a war that was ended in 1999 with NATO airstrikes on Serbia. Kosovo came under the jurisdiction of the United Nations (UN) according to the Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1244 while NATO-led peacekeeping Kosovo force (KFOR) was deployed to ensure a secure environment.
First direct talks between the two sides were launched in 2006 in Vienna under the auspices of the UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtissari. Ahtissari’s final proposal anticipated an independent Kosovo with the areas populated by the Serbs in the north of Kosovo being granted a high degree of autonomy, including the right to preserve limited connections with Serbia. The plan was endorsed by Kosovo but rejected by Serbia, and finally Russia blocked its authorization in the UNSC.
Talks were reopened in 2007 under the so-called Troika of international negotiators representing the EU, the United States and Russia; the Troika process, however, did not reach status settlement. After failed international diplomatic efforts to reach a compromise solution, Kosovo declared independence in February 2008.
The Serbian government called for regain of sovereignty over the newly independent territory and initiated the procedure for the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The Court delivered its long-awaited opinion in 2010 and, contrary to Serbian expectations, concluded that Kosovo’s declaration of independence did not violate any applicable rule of international law. Once a legal argument vanished, the Serbian government was finally ready to sit at the negotiation table; the so-called Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue was launched in March 2011 with the EU as a facilitator of the talks. But there was another powerful reason for Serbia’s sudden willingness to negotiate: the growing aspirations for its European future.
Serbia’s path of Europeanization started with the fall of Milošević in 2000 presidential elections when the political dialogue with the EU was renewed after a decade of the Yugoslavian wars. The first milestone came with a declaration adopted at the 2003 EU-Western Balkans Summit in Thessaloniki, affirming that the future of the Western Balkans lies within the EU. Two years later, Serbia was granted a status of potential candidate for EU accession and started negotiating its Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA). The SAA between the EU and Serbia was supplemented with two specific conditions: first, the cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and second, regional cooperation.
It was the lack of cooperation with the ICTY that led to suspension of the SAA negotiations by the EU less than a year later. The negotiations were resumed at the beginning of 2007 and the SAA was signed at the end of April 2008, despite the continuous conclusions of the ICTY reports that Serbia was not fully cooperating with the Tribunal. The unprecedented decision of the EU to offer its powerful carrot in absence of Serbia’s compliance with an essential condition for membership derived from concerns over the potential victory of nationalists in parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2008.
The calculation aimed to strengthen domestic pro-European political forces proved to be successful; the reformist pro-European Democratic Party won the elections. The party was not, however, able to form a majority government and the new coalition was joined, ironically, by the Socialists, the party formerly led by . Only three months after the elections, the former Bosnian Serb leader and one of the two most wanted ICTY indictees Radovan Karadžić was arrested in Belgrade. Karadžić’s extradition was praised by EU leaders as a strong message of the country’s determination to continue moving closer to the EU.
Launch of the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue
The European Union’s political conditionality proved to generate important domestic changes. In 2010, Serbia sent first signs of willingness to compromise on the Kosovo issue with the UN resolution abolishing its demand to reopen negotiations on Kosovo’s status. In May 2011, Ratko Mladić, the former Bosnian Serb military leader was extradited to the Hague Tribunal. The arrest meant that Serbia’s cooperation with the ICTY, the essential condition for EU accession, was fulfilled and it was largely presumed that Serbia’s EU candidacy had a clear outcome. However, Serbia’s enthusiasm was soon diminished as the EU Progress Reports continued to push on the government to reach workable relations with Pristina. After symbolical catharsis about the warring past it became clear that Serbia’s way to Brussels will lead through Kosovo.
The EU-facilitated talks between Serbia and Kosovo were launched in March 2011 in Brussels. The main objective of the talks was to find concrete solutions to improve the everyday life of Kosovo citizens rather than to reach a definitive solution for disagreement about Kosovo status. The talks were hindered in the summer of 2011 when Serbs in Kosovo confronted KFOR troops. When two German soldiers were wounded by a sniper later in November, German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted that the Serbs need to dismantle the parallel structures, i.e. the four Serbian municipalities in the north of Kosovo de facto belonging to the Serbian local government system, before being eligible to obtain EU candidacy.
It was Germany that pressured the European Council to postpone Serbia’s association process at the December 2011 summit. Three new conditions were outlined for Serbia to obtain candidate status. The most important condition was to reach an agreement allowing both Serbia and Kosovo to participate in regional meetings. The second condition concerned common management of border traffic and the third condition required active cooperation of Serbia with the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) and KFOR. The Council’s conclusions recalled that the Dialogue remains of crucial importance for both Serbia and Kosovo and urged them to intensify their work.
Milestone deal: A step closer to Europe
Both sides did their homework. On 24 February, 2012, two months after the European Council’s postponed decision, Serbia and Kosovo concluded an agreement on integrated management of crossing points and an agreement on regional cooperation. The negotiating teams agreed that Kosovo will be represented at regional meetings with the denomination Kosovo* and a footnote stating that “this designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSC 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo Declaration of Independence.” One week later, the European Council granted Serbia candidate status.
In April 2013, after 10 rounds of dialogue in Catherine Ashton’s office, the EU-facilitated talks were concluded with the agreement that subjects four Serb municipalities in the north of Kosovo to the Kosovo law and lists provisions on organization of administrative, judicial and security structures in the area. Most importantly, both parties have agreed not to hinder the other’s EU accession efforts. In June 2013, the European Council opened long-awaited accession negotiations with Serbia while starting negotiations on the SAA with Kosovo.
In 1994, looking at the incapability of the EU to take the lead in efforts to end the Bosnian War, Hodding Carter came to a bitter conclusion that “usually, little good has resulted even when Europe has tried to do the right thing.” 20 years later, in February 2014, Catherine Ashton addressed the audience at the Munich Security Conference panel discussion, sitting side by side with Dačić, once Milošević’s spokesman, and Thaçi, once a political leader of the KLA. And although Ashton recalled that the Dialogue is not “a process that has ended” but “the work that is ongoing,” it seems that this time Europe has done the right thing well.