Negotiating Amidst Turmoil: Analyzing the Interplay of Dialogue and Conflict in Kosovo-Serbia Relations

In this conversation with assistant editor Lorena Drakula, Bodo Weber, a Senior Fellow at the Democratization Policy Council in Berlin, discusses the current situation, as well as the complex dynamics of the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, unpacking its democratic implications, challenges, and opportunities.

Lorena Drakula: This year we have witnessed attempts at normalizing relations between Kosovo and Serbia, and also a significant escalation of the tensions between them. At the time of our conversation, June 29th, 2023, there has been no breakthrough in easing these tensions around the border for almost a month. The topics surrounding the signing of the normalization agreement in February have been pushed to the side. First, how would you describe the current status of the Kosovo-Serbia negotiations? Which issues have remained particularly contested, and why has it proven so difficult to overcome these tensions and conflicts?

Bodo Weber: That’s a very fundamental question – what the status dispute of Kosovo and Serbia is about, where it stands, and basically about the history of the EU-led political dialogue, which is now already 11 years old. It has been a decade since the so-called April Agreement of 2013, the first agreement on the full normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, has been signed. Maybe we can start with the current escalation in the north of Kosovo. I would, first of all, insist that…

this is the most serious crisis within the decade of political dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, and you can take the situation in the north of Kosovo as an indicator.

As I said, the political dialogue started with a change of regime in Serbia, from the post-October 5th, 2000 government led by the parties that were in opposition to the Milošević regime in the 1990s, and back to the nationalist parties that were ruling in the 1990s, with a reverse relationship with the socialists, Milošević’s SPS as a minor party, and the successor, or breakaway, SNS in the leading role. The dialogue started right after government formation in the autumn of 2012. There’s been one agreement, and numerous side agreements, implementing agreements, or minor agreements on individual aspects in this period.

In the last year we have seen the new phase of negotiation on the so-called German French initiative/EU plan, which led to the, it gets complicated, the declaring of an agreement on a basic agreement, and the declaring of an agreement in March in Ohrid, North Macedonia on implementation of it. So, within this year, we have seen something we have never seen, in a negative sense, throughout the whole history of the political dialogue.

In parallel with negotiating over an agreement and signing an agreement, which would normally be the beginning of the implementation stage, there was a continuing deepening escalation of the situation on the ground in the north.

It started with the so-called license plate issue last summer, followed by the first escalation with the barricades in the north in the end of last year, and then Serbs directed by Vučić – mayors, counselors, officers, and, most gravely, police and judiciary – left the Kosovo state institutions they had joined as a result of the April 2013 agreement. And then, what was originally termed as a step towards returning Serbs to those institutions, there were municipal elections in the north in April this year with the, again, basically extended arm of Mr. Vučić in the Serb majority municipalities – resulting in a Belgrade directed last minute drop out, with the political party on the so-called Serbian list and other Serbian parties being forced to boycott those elections. This ended with the electing of ethnic Albanian mayors by maybe 3% to 5% of voters – all non-Serbian and with the May 26th push of Prime Minister Kurti for seating those mayors by force with the help of police into the mayor’s offices and buildings. That led to the May 29 violence seeing 50 Kosovo policemen being injured and continuing protests and violent incidents on both ends.

To sum this up, this is happening in parallel with a new negotiating phase and declaring agreement on an agreement and an implementation annex. Now the situation in the north concerning status is probably worse than it was before the establishment of the political dialogue. Unlike the political dialogue phase, we don’t have Kosovo police and judiciary from the north. But now, for the first time, we have de facto no police and judiciary because, until the signing of the April Agreement in 2013 and implementation of the judiciary and police part, we at least had Serbian state police and judiciary. They were not doing their job, they were there more as a simulation, but at least they were physically and institutionally existing. So currently there is a complete institutional rule of law vacuum.

But taking this together, one has to insist and conclude, as I said at the beginning, this is by far the deepest crisis in the political dialogue since its establishment in 2012 and in Kosovo-Serbia relations, probably even since the serious barricades, violence, and clashes between Serb protestors or organized gangs, and KFOR in summer 2011.

So now, to your question, what is the root cause? I see the major responsibility of this original dialogue with its incremental approach – already starting as a process with some clear principles and red lines, though informally declared. For example, no discussion about border changes anymore. That was de facto a precondition, expressed as a statement by then Chancellor Merkel, to enter into those negotiations. And the entire principle of Serbia de facto recognizing that Kosovo was gone through gradually making steps towards normalization of bilateral relations in return for progressing on its EU membership aspiration path.

That is why the first agreement was called the ‘first’ agreement, meant to start a process where the endpoint was known to both sides: full normalization as full bilateral relations, including, in the end, full formal recognition of the independence of Kosovo by Serbia.

In that intermediate period in which Serbia would still not formally recognize Kosovo, this meant dismantling the parallel structures in the Serb majority municipalities, i.e., removal of institutions of the Serbian state on Kosovan soil and integration of Kosovo Serbs particularly in the north. This was the roadmap of the political dialogue. Unfortunately, it got lost in translation due to the lack of a long-term strategy and master plan. This was then skillfully exploited by the political players in Kosovo and Serbia. It ultimately led to a complete deadlock in the implementation of the dialogue. A second agreement got deadlocked, by no coincidence, over the still unresolved hot issue of the so-called Association of Serb Majority Municipalities.

You already mentioned how the Kosovo-Serbia negotiations progressed since the dialogue was initiated and you mentioned some of the major agreements that have been made did not progress any further. What were the key obstacles that have been encountered along the way?

The various phases of the dialogue started very promisingly, I would say even historically, in the sense of a breakthrough towards a sustainable solution to the Kosovo-Serbia status dispute. So, why did it then get stuck already around 2015 and why was reversed into its opposite with a leading role of Western officials between 2017 – 2020 in the so-called land swap negotiating phase? Why then, in 2020, went this phase thankfully ended with failure, we had a kind of intermediate period, 2020 to 2022, in which no serious negotiations could take place? This was more of a simulation of negotiations under the new EU special representative for the dialogue, Mr. Lajčak. And then, why have we seen this attempt by Berlin and Paris to restart the dialogue by getting back to the core issue – the status issue?

I mean, one has to stress again, as I already noted, that recognition of Kosovo at the end of the process was known to both sides when they entered the dialogue, and they did not refuse to enter it under that de facto condition. This is important to recall when we talk about the dispute between Mr. Kurti and Mr. Vučić on what is de facto in the new basic agreement, with Mr. Kurti’s insistence, which is correct, that this is a de facto recognition. The April Agreement was already a de facto recognition of the independent Kosovo by Serbia. Some constitutional orders back then in Serbia even insisted that this was for them also a de jure recognition, but of course, that is open to legal interpretation. Through the April Agreement, Kosovo got the SAA agreement despite five non-recognizers – a major breakthrough which showed that

…if there is leadership within the EU on the issue, the formal division over Kosovo does not have to block the EU being an important decisive actor.

Serbia got an opening of accession negotiations. So, this was a pretty different phase. The question of whether Serbia was influenced by the old parties of the 1990s was still an open issue, including on internal developments, democracy, and the rule of law. Because, as I said, there was a new government coming in, with an anti-corruption narrative, though coming from the old nationalist war policy background.

It was Mr. Vučić who agreed on the path towards solving the Kosovo issue. This should not be forgotten. In retrospect, if you look at the authoritarian or autocratic transformation of Serbia under Vučić and this messy state of what is left of this dialogue, it all looks pretty different.

As I said, this was a process that had an implicit roadmap and an implicit endpoint, but one which was not written down anywhere. The issue of a long-term strategy, of the intermediate steps to get to the endpoint, was crucial, and there was none. That was one of the key problems in the whole fabric of the dialogue, despite its historic beginning.

One has to also take into account that the April Agreement signing was a result of major actors, intensely negotiating with both sides over nine months from September 2012 to April 2013, including Washington, London, and Berlin particularly. The formal leading role was in the hands of the EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Chief Ashton, but the key power actors were in those three Western capitals. Nine months of intensely dealing with small Kosovo and Serbia was decisive, but it was not a recipe for leading a process that might take 10 years. So, that meant handing over the process, the operational side, to Brussels, where the Common Foreign and Security Policy is still not on a level to lead such a process institutionally and politically wise. So, that is why a master plan or a long-term strategy defining the sequencing was so important and that plan did not exist.

It seems no coincidence that around 2014/15 the process started to fall apart and then definitely became deadlocked in 2015 over the issue of the Association. In 2014 we had the annexation of Crimea, so the attention of Western capitals, starting with Berlin, shifted somewhere else and was not able to maintain the same intensity.

Now, what that meant for the first process and why it got stuck in the April agreement is the following. Two issues deadlocked or killed the process, or this incremental approach. One is, while the April Agreement had some kind of an implementation plan that was far more detailed in terms of sequencing and timelines than the Ohrid agreement this year, negotiators and the team in Brussels from the beginning made a major mistake that opened the path for the players in Belgrade and Prishtina to undermine and instrumentalize the process for their interests. They allowed Belgrade grade to the working groups on the technical details of the implementation of the agreement very early on. So, this was the beginning, signaling weakness and an opening for the parties to undermine and slow down implementation.

That was also a lesson for Prishtina later. Other techniques and elements were also added by Vučić and Thaçi. For example, they practiced what I call election ping pong. For many years in the dialogue, almost annually, you had either regular elections in one country and early elections in the other one, or vice versa. This meant that the whole dialogue process was suspended for a year.

Actors on both sides draw legitimacy towards the domestic audience from this cooperation with the West while, at the same time, undermining and postponing implementation of the obligations down the road.

The other part of that dynamic is that the so-called constructive ambiguity approach of Brussels backfired. What does that mean? Already in the April Agreement, particularly on the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities, but also other issues, they practiced the so-called constructive ambiguity approach. In the case of concretely defining the competencies of the Association, as there was no agreement between Belgrade and Prishtina, the EU decided to postpone dealing with the problem, papering it over with some vague definitions and formulations. Now, you can do this if you have a long-term plan, but as the EU did not have a long-term strategy, at some point this fired back. That is exactly what happened over the Association – because you delayed solving or deciding that point in 2013 when the April agreement was signed, or in 2014, you got into real trouble at the beginning of 2015, because you had no progress on the issue, and you had a dichotomic confrontation between Prishtina and Belgrade who filled the void with mutually exclusive political positions.

Belgrade wanted executive competencies for the Association, which meant a kind of third layer of governance, or regional ethno-territorial autonomy. Of course, this was unacceptable to Prishtina and should be to the West. And Prishtina wanted no executive competencies, basically turning the Association into a kind of NGO. Come 2015, there is no progress. The implementation of the other elements of the April agreement – transfer of local elections, mayors and councilors, police, and judiciary into the Kosovo system had been achieved very early on. So, this issue remained.

That was also the year when the EU wanted to open the first accession chapters with Serbia, but it couldn’t, so they made an intermediate agreement in August 2015 on the Association, just to be able to open chapters at the end of the year. But again, not solving or not addressing the core issue.

The problem was all the legal complications – Serbia signed an international agreement that de facto recognizes Kosovo, which is a violation of its constitution where Kosovo is a part of its country. So, you could not recognize this agreement as an international agreement, which is exactly what, under political pressure, the Serbian constitutional court later decided. Kosovo went the other way around in 2013, declaring it an international agreement, which is then outside of the scope of the constitutional court. However, they failed to prevent the opposition from sending the August 2015 agreement to the constitutional court, which resulted in a ruling declaring that part of the August 15th agreement related to the Association was anti-constitutional, and this is where the process got deadlocked.

How would you comment on the role of international presence in the Kosovo-Serbia negotiations? There has been significant criticism about how the international community failed to establish effective governance in the region. The argument is that the international community’s involvement in Kosovo, particularly through the organizations like the United Nations and the European Union, often focused on achieving stability rather than promoting democracy. So to what extent have international actors genuinely empowered this dialogue?

I would completely agree with that criticism in both countries, though more related to Serbia in the last 10 years than to Kosovo.

However, I think it is important, from a scientific point of view, to make one point clear. There is a contradiction which is crucial to understanding the ethnonationalist politics in the Balkans. If you take their ideology and the political positions at face value, then these movements or projects are about solving the ethnic question – that means defining the state in an ethnoterritorial sense. For example, on the Serbian side, solving the Kosovo issue means getting Kosovo under the control of the Serbian state. Same on the Kosovo end. As long as this issue is not resolved, and the north exists in a kind of twilight zone, both states remain unfinished, in a kind of provisional state.

Now, the political functioning logic of these ethno-nationalist regimes is exactly the opposite. These nationalist movements live on instrumentalizing this nationalist question. We’ve seen this, for example, in the case of Croatia – once you have solved “the national question”, the regime comes to an end. Because the regimes need permanent mobilization on the national question, on not having reconquered or finalized the nation-state territory.

The open national question is the raison d’ etre of legitimizing authoritarian anti-democratic rule. So, they live off the opposite of what they claim their aim is. They live off the national question remaining internally unsolved and being the potential for permanent mobilization.

In that sense, one could criticize the political dialogue intervention by the West as very undemocratic – yes, it is undemocratic. But, this goes to the question of whether you can solve conflicts where there are no democracies and bring democracies through democratic means. I think we can. This is very meaningful for a sustainable solution to the conflicts and enabling democratic transformation in the countries of the Western Balkans. Because, unlike in the Eastern block in the 1990s, in the post-Yugoslav areas or countries you had an opposite transformation, i.e., an authoritarian, not a democratic transformation. So, this is a challenge that remains since then.

So, in a way, intervening here, in a dialogue that is a bit fake by its official defining terms – dialogue, facilitation through conditionality, and through using Western leverage, not by military intervention in this case like in the 1990s – is crucial. Because, and this is also important…

…since the independence of Kosovo in 2008, a) the entire political elite in Serbia, from the very right to the very left, knows very well that Kosovo is gone, and b) there is no one more to blame than Serbian politics of the last three decades.

Now that awareness, if you leave the region to its own, or if you go on a facilitation dialogue where the West is a neutral mediator, would not lead to a solution because, like in all politics, it is very unpleasant to tell an unpleasant truth to your citizens. At opinion polls in Serbia, when you ask citizens a cost-free question: if you have to choose between Kosovo and the EU, what would you choose? Of course, they would choose Kosovo, even though they know very well that Serbia lost Kosovo, and 80% or 90% of Serbs in proper Serbia have never traveled to Kosovo, and they don’t care about it when compared to bread and butter issues. So, this is an obstacle for the Serbian political elite in making the final step to solving the issue of Kosovo and it is one where they will not go for the conformism inherited in Balkan politics. It’s something you can use for this permanent nationalist mobilization, which drives or enables undemocratic power. So, in that sense, the dialogue was a perfect move by the West to create what I call a necessary precondition for sustainable democratic transformation, both in Serbia and Kosovo.

The tragedy is, it started with an initial approach of trading democracy for the dialogue. The problem is that it left this long-term master plan and strategy and led to a reversal of the initial dynamics in which, in the end, the local players outsmart the international EU and US players and make it work for them, not the other way around.

The West ended up very much empty-handed after a decade, both on the dialogue and on democracy.

It enabled, in a way, which was less serious, the continuity in Kosovo’s Thaçi dominance, up until he ended up in the Hague. And this damage to democracy was done by this non-strategic trading democracy for the dialogue, which was not sustainable and lasting in Kosovo. But in Serbia, through the manipulation of the dialogue, it enabled this transformation of the Serbian Vučić government’s regime into an authoritarian autocratic regime, which was unseen, I would say, even in comparison to the Milošević regime.

Yes, in that sense, the West here started with the political leadership on the unresolved Kosovo-Serbia issue, which could have meant a sustainable structural solution to this status dispute and democratic transformation of Serbia, and with it wide regional repercussions in a positive sense. But, it led to the opposite process of, like in the 1990s with Milošević, local authoritarian or autocratic leaders exploiting our lack of strategic policy and political weakness, and using this for an anti-democratic transformation, I would even say unprecedented in the region post-20th century.

You talked about how the potential of Serbian EU accession was one of the key reasons why Serbia even entered into these negotiations. Do you think that if the potential for EU expansion had remained more significant, the direction of the negotiations or the intensity of the negotiations would have fostered more success?

Regarding the dialogue with its original incremental approach getting lost in translation due to lack of a strategy – it was not written in stone that the process had to fail. It was written in stone that it had to hit a wall. But even with complications, if there’s political will, there could have been adjustments. However, the process was prolonged because of the priority of development in the West and the European Union, and that is what you are partly referring to.

One element in there is, of course, the crisis of the EU’s enlargement policy that already started before the political dialogue. It started with the beginning of the EU’s crisis decade, with the Euro crisis in 2009. In that sense, this leadership by Chancellor Merkel on Kosovo-Serbia relations began with her typical reactive leadership approach. She did not decide to and did she want to lead on either the Kosovo-Serbia issue or on the enlargement. She did it as a reaction to the 2011 barricades in the north, and the coincidence that we had a German KFOR commander and Serb extremists were shooting on German soldiers. That is a very coincidental context that led to Merkel ultimately taking leadership. But this happened already in this crisis decade and enlargement fatigue of the EU, with attention being permanently on the top priority – the EU crisis. It was saving enlargement from completely being dead. So in that sense, Ms. Merkel entered 10 years of pushing enlargement, from basically the beginning of the Euro crisis to her ending her mandate in ’21, and saved enlargement from completely dying already early on.

But the problem became bigger. And this is, I think, where there is a historical coincidence, with the mentioned 2015 dialogue hitting a wall on the Association issue. This happened in the context of the triple crisis of the West in 2015/16. First, we had the European refugee crisis.

The European refugee crisis, when we go back to the issue of what happened to democratic transformation in the Balkans, particularly in Serbia, showed to the leaders in the region, starting with which Vučić, that the EU needs them more than Serbia needs the EU.

So this changed the power dynamics too.

Second, we had the Trump victory in the presidential elections, which meant that all the nationalist leaders and ideologues returned to their nationalist agendas unfulfilled due to the post-1990s Kosovo interventions, Western democratization and state building, and conflict resolution policy in the region. And third, this is as important – the Brexit referendum. With the Brits on their way out of the EU, Germany lost its main partner among the big four in pushing enlargement and in the dialogue forward. This is crucial because this meant two things.

With the Brits out, Berlin was hoping to replace London with Paris, but they met President Macron who was anti-enlargement. So, the German position and the path towards membership went protend because the basic unity over the perspective of membership for Western Balkan countries was gone with Mr. Macron. And that was symbolized in his 2018 blockage of opening accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, despite the commission stating that they had fulfilled core conditions.

At that end, you see the EU exporting instability through the migration issue to the region – so, no sticks and the carrot broke.

And I would say that if you look into the transformation of the Vučić regime, that was the decisive point of no return on the path towards an authoritarian or autocratic transformation. So, this parallel is no coincidence.

The final element is very important as a consequence, and this is something one cannot highlight enough, because it’s not being reflected enough in European foreign and security policies, let alone in science. When the incremental approach broke down over the Association in 2017, we got a new phase in the dialogue declared in the summer of 2017 under new EU Foreign and Security Policy Chief Ms. Federica Mogherini, and that was the so-called negotiations on the final and comprehensive agreement.

That made sense very much because, if you cannot uphold the incremental process, it would have meant freezing Serbia’s accession negotiations because this was part of the incremental process: progressing in the dialogue with Kosovo meant that the Serbs are progressing in parallel in accession negotiations.

If you cannot save that process, the only way out is jumping to the endpoint, and that means a final and comprehensive agreement in which you pack all the open issues – status issues, integration of Kosovo Serbs into the Kosovo state and society, and all the bilateral disputes. However, we got exactly the opposite – we got a mockery of negotiations of a final and comprehensive legally binding agreement.

We got the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy Chief together with her four-member team colluding with the two leaders, Vučić and Thaçi, hijacking the EU’s dialogue process, privatizing it, shielding it away from member states, capitals, and governments, and entering into dangerous negotiations behind closed door first, and then later made public. This was opposite to the aims of the dialogue, democratic values and principles, and lessons learned from the 90s in the Western Balkans – an agreement on an ethno-territorial division, colluding with the Trump administration which was very close to those nationalist agendas.

That process went on for three years and failed, thankfully, due to resistance from the region, from Kosovo against the president, from civil society within the West and in the Western Balkans, and from the capitals, starting with Berlin and London. It was then revived by Mr. Trump’s envoy Ambassador Grinnell for another year, which also failed, but it left behind, and this is also something one should stress as much as possible, the toppling of a democratically elected government in Kosovo, the first Kurti government, by US administration, i.e., the first toppling of a democratically elected government on European soil in the 21st century by Washington. So, this is important to understand the context.

It is a context in which, on the one hand, we have waning leverage by the EU because of this lack of unity over policy aims and strategy towards the region, and on the other hand, we have an undermining of the EU’s prime values within the Union and in the region, signaled or symbolized by EU officials in Brussels and partly in the field.

That is a policy we see continuing – such backdoor untransparent transactionalist deals, which mean colluding or appeasement with ethnonationalist agendas. Since the land swap negotiations have failed, we see this through so-called election law reform negotiations led by the EU and the US administration in 2020/2021 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and we see this through figures like Chief Operational Officer of Ms. Mogherini Angelina Eichhorst in the AAs, or Mr. Orban’s EU Enlargement Commissioner Várhelyi, or some other people on the ground. So, this goes way beyond what you were asking about, the impact of the weakening of the current EU enlargement approach on the region and its leverage, both on the dialogue and on democracy.

What implications did the Russian escalation of war against Ukraine have for regional stability and the negotiations? How has this changed the situation? Have Western organizations, and in what way, altered their agenda as a consequence?

Well, we have said in the beginning that something is profoundly wrong with the current negotiations and the current agreement if it does not lead to a diffusion of tensions, but an escalation. It’s important to follow up on that issue.

The framework of the German-French initiative was launched in the summer of ’22, more or less half a year into the Ukraine War and around the time when the EU decided to extraordinarily lend candidate status to Ukraine. First of all, it is significant they managed to agree on a membership perspective at all, as there was no agreement on that before the Russian invasion. Secondly, to agree on going outside the merit-based procedure, again because of the threat to a values-based Europe, a democratic Europe, means this was an extraordinary political decision based on the defense of our liberal democratic values against Russia.

Now, one would have hoped, if not expected, that this will give a new boost to strengthening the same values in our enlargement policy towards the Western Balkan region. And, I would have hoped that, with the Ukraine war, nobody came under more pressure than Serbian leader Vučić with his policy of maneuvering between the East and the West, Russia, China, the EU, and the US, or the so-called policy of sitting between two chairs, and the pressure of the material basis of that policy – access to cheap Russian energy sources. This would have been a perfect basis for the West to shift course, using that maneuver opportunity to seriously pressure the Vučić regime to finally reorient towards the West, to end this manipulative, tactical balancing in between one or the other and playing one against the other, and for a decisive shift in the dialogue.

Unfortunately, with this German-French approach, basically the ‘Lajčak proposal’, we can see exactly the doubling down on the transactionalist, values-free enlargement policy. It is enlargement on bureaucratic autopilot, based on faking progress through EU bureaucracy and transactionalist negotiations.

So, what happened with Kosovo? First of all, this agreement and this initiative were going back to the status issue, but they are also a departure from negotiations on a final and comprehensive agreement. This is not a final and comprehensive agreement, and it was not meant to be. It is a kind of very vague intermediate agreement.

When it comes to the region, even if Berlin and Paris act jointly, it’s always on Germany’s initiative, as France is not that proactive on the regional enlargement. So the question is: what is the motivation? Germany was once very much fighting against the land swap negotiations, insisting on an agenda of a real, sustainable final and comprehensive agreement. So, why did the German government depart from that, at least for the time being, within the context of the Ukraine War when we had new opportunities and leverage towards Belgrade?

They did it out of a lack of political will or leadership, and they did it based on the wrong conclusion that our leverage over Serbia and Vučić was too weak to go towards a decisive step, because of the weakening of the EU enlargement perspective. Now, that might not be entirely wrong, but still, if we talk about Serbia’s balancing between the East and the West, one needs to mention that…

…would Serbia be pressured, to have to make a choice, there would be no two options. They can only continue the path towards EU integration. There is no integration with Russia – economically, physically, politically – there is no basis. So, this would be a choice between European and Western integration, or self-isolation and chaos.

So, even though the EU enlargement currently might be objectively weakened, the leverage is still sufficient and even more so in the context of the Ukraine War. When we declared our leverage much less than it is, we declared the political strength of Mr. Vučić visavis the West much stronger than it is and then based our whole policy on appeasement towards Vučić. That created an ethnic imbalance in the process against Prishtina where we had a government of Mr. Kurti and his party VETËVENDOSJE! that insists on being based on liberal democratic values, democracy, and the rule of law. Basically, Berlin departed from its original position. We previously tried to win over political parties during the land swap episode in Kosovo to side with us.

We ended up in a very unfortunate process in which the West declared the Kurti government as the problem, to a large part because they were defending the negotiation principles and values that should be ours, and not Kosovo’s only, and remaining uncritical towards Belgrade.

So, this is at the core of why this process is wrong from the beginning, and why I always expected it not to function. It also created a lot of additional problems. For example, the contentious issue of the establishment of the Association is particularly difficult to implement within, as it is a particularly hot topic with Kurti and his government because of some dogmatic ideological traits in his policy linked to Kosovo Serbs. In this sense, it was always the understanding that the only framework within which this can be realistically implemented with the Kurti government is in the context of recognition and a final and comprehensive agreement.

Was it not that, before Kurti, it was imagined that the Association would come before the recognition and the recognition would come as a reaction to the Association?

Well, as I said, the Association was always planned to be part of the first agreement, so, of course, in that sense, it would be way before any recognition. The problem is that they didn’t solve the issue of its substance and its competencies. The whole process broke down over it, and then we jumped from that to officially declaring the 2017 negotiation on the final and comprehensive agreement.

All the issues related to the Association or the fear on Kosovo’s side, for good reason, that this will lead to at least a nucleus of a later ethno-territorial secession of part of the Serb majority municipalities, can only be confronted seriously in the context of Serbia recognizing Kosovo – in the context of a final and comprehensive agreement.

If you would insist that they have no executive mandate, you cannot get an agreement with Vučić, and that is what we are currently seeing. The whole basic agreement is currently trying to circumvent that issue. In the escalation and the conflict with Prishtina, the US Ambassador Hovenier, for example, has stated that the Association will not have an executive mandate, but we have never seen implementation because that is not consent with Belgrade. And I don’t see how you can get Belgrade to agree on that point in a vague intermediate agreement. So, all kinds of complications come with an intermediate-step agreement instead of moving to real negotiations on a real final and comprehensive agreement.

It is no coincidence that the original framework of the dialogue in 2012/13 hit the wall over the Association and it is no coincidence that this vague, wrong approach of an intermediate agreement already basically collapsed over the same issue.

Because it is putting up and front, as a top priority, and allowing even Vučić to make as a top priority an issue that has never been resolved. Importantly, why do we have the Association in the April 2013 agreement at all? This was something that Belgrade requested. There are very strong ethnic minority rights and protections within the Kosovo constitution, within the Ahtisaari Plan that is part of the constitution. It could theoretically not be stronger than what is already in the constitution, and Belgrade knew that. So, this was not about defending the minority rights of Kosovo Serbs, this was meant as a face-saving tool for Belgrade in 2013 to de facto recognize Kosovo through the April agreement. And it was meant as a tool for Belgrade which, after three decades in which it told Kosovo Serbs in the north that they are part of Serbia, was forced to tell them: ‘Okay, we’re sorry, but after three decades you might probably end up in Kosovo’. So, that is where this thing started. But, as a face-saving tool, it, at the same time, simulated something to Kosovo Serbs by its very form – that it cannot be a Republika Srpska.

So, that is the structural dilemma and problem with the Association. That was not solved by the EU within the incremental approach because they never had a plan. They accepted it, but never had a plan for what to do with its structural problems. Now, that it has become so controversial and contentious over the years, how do you deflect the fears by Prishtina that this will be a tool of something that could end up like Republika Srpska? I do not see a way how you could do that in an intermediate agreement in which you establish this Association, but have not solved the status dispute or do not even have a plan, and that is even worse with this current agreement.

There is, again, no master plan behind it on what the steps are from that agreement, even if it was implemented, up to a final agreement and a recognition of Kosovo by Serbia. Without formal recognition, the Association will always be a danger to the territorial integrity, functionality, and sovereignty of the Republic of Kosovo.

Currently, we are in the stage where it is not at all about implementing the basic agreement, it is about stopping the escalation.

But the hope should always be in the back of the minds of the negotiators, like Mr. Lajčak and Borrell, that we need to clear down the path for implementing this agreement. I would, as I said, insist that this agreement is unimplementable for political reasons, because it entailed the wrong approach from the very outset. That is what makes the current situation so difficult. We might be able, or the West might be able, with a very strong engagement, to reach, for the time being, a restabilization of the situation on the ground, and no more protests and violence by special police of Kosovo in the north towards Kosovo Serb citizens. But, even if we reach that there’s no sustainable path to the solution currently.

This agreement must ultimately fail for the West to make a new start with a serious or sustainable approach, so there are many years of instability ahead of the process, let alone ahead of the developments in Serbia when it comes to democracy.  

The text was edited for length and clarity.

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