Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and the Russian Factor: Opportunity for Cheap Points

In the Balkans, negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina were initially successful through the so-called technical talks and the landmark First Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalisation of Relations concluded in the spring of 2013. However, this supposed dialogue sponsored by Brussels and supported by the US has recently been turning into two monologues.

The main reason for the deadlock appears to be the question of Kosovo Serbs and the status of Serbian-majority North Kosovo region. While Belgrade has so far proven certain willingness to make concessions on important matters such as the integration of Serbian run North Kosovo’s security forces and judiciary into Kosovo (Republic of Kosovo) governmental and legal structures, no real progress in establishing Association/Community of Serb majority municipalities has been achieved. In fact, the Association/Community represents the cornerstone of the Brussels Agreement from 2013 as six out of its fifteen points relate to the matter directly. In its essence, the deal was meant to ensure self-governance for Kosovo Serbs as well as their representation vis-à-vis Pristina and Belgrade. In exchange for that, Belgrade was supposed to de facto recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty over its entire territory.

While North Kosovo security and judiciary structures were at least formally incorporated into the Kosovo system and Serbs from the North were encouraged to participate in Pristina-run municipality elections (often by highly non-democratic methods), the majority opinion of Kosovo Albanians and Pristina powerholders is essentially rejecting their obligation to establish the Community/Association. The issue even caused mass protests and long-lasting political crisis in Pristina, where the Serbian word “zajednica” (Community) entered the public debate as a symbol of Serbian separatism. The talks also had a serious impact on the Serbian political scene, which sensitively reflects the current geopolitical cleavages in polarized Europe.

A new impulse for the debate on mutual relations emerged in the summer of 2018 by presidents Aleksander Vučić and Hashim Thaci who gingerly suggested a possible land swap between Kosovo and Serbia. However, such an idea goes directly against the desires and dreams of domestic nationalists. On top of that, it is also against the will of some representatives of Western liberal circles, including the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who want to see Kosovo as a multi-ethnic democracy – exactly what it is not. Besides, the north of Kosovo inhabited by Serbs is much less strategically important than the transport corridor of Presevo Valley (Albanian majority territory in southmost Serbia, in Albanian discourse Eastern Kosovo), which connects Serbia with southern Balkans and the Aegean Sea. Given these reasons, the exchange of territory seems a bit unrealistic. 

Recently, disappointment has been growing in Serbian political circles. It is perceived that the talks are a zero-sum game, where there is nothing to gain and Serbia is only being forced to recognize the Republic of Kosovo as an independent state. The truth is that such a perception is probably not far from reality. On the other hand, in the current geopolitical reality, Kosovo and its Western protectors don’t have enough strength to force Serbia to officially recognize the independence of the newborn state. As a result of that, we can observe a ‘dialogue for dialogue’ in which the form is more important than the essence and where new rounds of talks are only being convened to please the EU. At the same time, the power holders in Kosovo and Serbia are focusing on staging a reality show for their domestic audiences, including mutual provocations such as the iconic train penetration, the arrest of minister Marko Djuric, the Gazivode Lake incident and similar. 

 

The Only Real Ally of Serbia

Setting aside the idea of a traditional alliance between Orthodox Slav brothers Serbs and Russians, the 1999 US-led NATO intervention in Yugoslavia and Kosovo’s proclamation of independence in 2008 represent powerful mementos for Russian foreign policies towards the West and the US in particular. Since these two events, the Kremlin has developed a much more assertive foreign policy, especially in the widely defined near abroad.

Russia proved to be a firm supporter of Serbia and Serbs living beyond Serbia’s borders on various international forums including the UN Security Council. In fact, Russia was for a long time the only important ally of Serbia vis-à-vis the Western drive for Kosovo’s independence. Furthermore, it has positioned itself as an alternative to the neoliberal global order imposed by the West. In the case of Kosovo, Russia pushes to guarantee the security and territorial integrity of Serbia, in opposition to the EU and US stance. Moscow runs a policy of almost entirely ignoring the official Pristina institutions (insisting on UNSC resolution No. 1244), successfully irritating not only Kosovo Albanians but also the West. 

More importantly, the Kosovo issue provides a great opportunity for Russia to gain relatively cheap points among the Serbian public and a part of the political class that isn’t very keen on the so-called Euro-Atlantic integration. High-ranking representatives of Russia and Serbia regularly discuss the Kosovo issue during their meetings and Russia is always there to vocally support Belgrade in case of occasional incidents such as the ones mentioned above. Whenever possible, Moscow publicly expresses unconditional support for Belgrade’s policies regarding the Kosovo question, including any possible form of dispute resolution acceptable for Serbia. In response, Serbian officials have developed a peculiar thanksgiving ritual for the support on Kosovo, regularly practised when meeting their Russian counterparts, even on occasions such as business forums.

The news about this strategic friendship are spread using soft power tools: Russian financed media (especially popular is Sputnik), Serbian state-run or quasi-independent TV stations and other media platforms, various pro-Kremlin and anti-Western think-tanks, political parties (including representatives of ruling SNS and SPS) or simply by the word of mouth, as Kosovo’s independence and the idea of Western dominance is not welcomed by most Serbs. It is widely believed that Russia together with China could be an alternative to the EU in terms of economic relations and that Moscow can provide security guarantees for Serbia and even for Serbs living outside its borders. For example, Russia already has an inscrutable multipurpose base located strategically in southern Serbia close to the border with Kosovo. However, disregarding the official rhetoric of the Kremlin, Serbia and the Balkans still serve only as a bargaining chip in Russian foreign policy game, ready to be used when it comes to possible deals with the US and the EU in the near abroad, i.e. former Soviet territory.

 

 

This article was written as part of the project ‘Western Balkans at the Crossroads: Assessing Non-Democratic External Influence Activities,’ led by the Prague Security Studies Institute.

About author: Daniel Heler

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