Kosovo’s special place in Serbian identity
It is not easy to grasp the unending Serbia-Kosovo conflict. If you are not familiar with the history dating back to the 1990s, you will find it difficult to interpret the developments. On the other hand, if you have knowledge about Serbian history and the special place of Kosovo in this history, your job will be easier. Starting in 1804, the Serbian revolts against the Ottoman Empire occupy a very important place in Serbian history books. If you have not studied the 1st Serbian revolt or the 2nd Serbian revolt well, you will not graduate from high school. The defeat of the Serbs by the Ottoman army in Kosovo in 1389 has an exceptional place in the development and strengthening of Serbian identity. Serbian citizens attribute to this war a significance and meaning far beyond what it deserves. As a result, the year 1389 became a mystical and legendary source of pride for the Serbian nation. When nationalist sentiments in Belgrade were at their peak, militants began to write 1389 on the streets and walls. Serbia under Milosevic’s leadership lost Kosovo militarily in 1999 and politically in 2008 (declaration of independence). However, 15 years later, Serbian public opinion has not yet accepted and digested the loss of Kosovo. While the struggle against the Ottomans was the main factor in the emergence and development of Serbian identity, Kosovo, where the Serbian Orthodox Church was born and developed, has always been a part of this identity. Just as the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is sacred to Muslims, the historic Serbian Monastery in Peç, Kosovo, is sacred to Serbs and carries a similar meaning. Taking these facts into account, it is reasonable to assume that the 15-year timeframe is not a sufficient period for Serbian public opinion to digest Serbia’s loss of Kosovo.
The EU has supported Kosovo from the very beginning
It has been 15 years since Kosovo declared its independence. The majority of Western countries, Turkey in particular, recognised Kosovo without delay, within 3-5 weeks. The number of recognisers increased rapidly in the first years and reached 120. In the last few years, Serbia, supported by Russia, has somehow persuaded a significant number of countries (especially in Africa) to withdraw their recognition. We can say that the number of recognising countries has stabilised around 100.
The European Union (EU) has been supporting Kosovo since the day it declared its independence, making every effort to ensure that the people of Kosovo adopt European values, and spending significant amounts of money in this direction. We remember that in the 1990s, when the soldiers of Milosevic’s Yugoslavia committed massacres in Kosovo, the EU countries stood by the oppressed people of Kosovo. Emotions and attitudes are not one-sided: European Union membership is the official goal for Kosovo, and has been adopted as state policy. However, despite the fact that the EU is the protector of Kosovo together with the USA, 5 EU countries continue not to recognise Kosovo. It is imperative to convince Serbia, which refuses to recognise Kosovo, in order to solve this knot that disturbs and worries the whole region. Belgrade will probably adopt a solution if the 50,000 or so ethnic Serb Kosovo citizens living within Kosovo’s borders (North Mitrovica) are granted a reasonable autonomy model in terms of local administration. However, the Kosovo leadership considers that the autonomy granted to North Mitrovica would be a chain to be tied around Kosovo’s feet. It fears that Northern Mitrovica will become Kosovo’s “Republika Srpska”. These concerns have become a deep-rooted obsession in Kosovo nationalist circles.
Belgrade and Pristina have frustrated the region and the Western world with their intransigence
EU officials have been making serious efforts for 10 years to resolve this conflict, which hinders the progress of not only Serbia and Kosovo but also other Balkan countries on their way to the EU, but no results have been achieved. Since the summer of last year, there has been talk of a new plan for the solution of the problem. The proposal, which was reflected in the press as the Franco-German plan, was presented to the parties as the EU’s new solution proposal during the EU-Western Balkans summit held in Tirana last December. EU and US officials, fed up with the intransigent behaviour of Belgrade and Pristina and with the North Mitrovica crisis that erupts every now and then, have taken the matter much more seriously this time. In Belgrade and Pristina last January, a five-member delegation consisting of representatives of the EU, the USA, France, Germany and Italy visited both leaders (Vucic and Kurti) and explained to them that the proposal was the last chance and that if it was not accepted, the EU accession process of both countries would be suspended, EU aid would be frozen and investments would be halted. They implied that patience had come to an end and that in the absence of an agreement the ties would be severed. They stipulated that the EU proposal must be signed in Brussels on 27 February.
The Franco-German proposal was inspired by the 1972 inter-German agreement
What is the latest EU proposal? What distinguishes the final proposal prepared jointly by France and Germany? Consisting of 5 introductory sentences and 11 articles, this relatively short text is modelled on the 1972 agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR, which established good neighbourly relations between the two states, guaranteed their mutual territorial integrity and led to their accession to the United Nations in 1973. The first 4 articles are almost verbatim. Article 8, which stipulates that the parties will establish Permanent Missions in each other’s capitals, was also inspired by the inter-German agreement. The EU proposal prepared under the leadership of France and Germany can be briefly summarised as follows:
Mutual recognition of passports, diplomas, vehicle registration plates and customs seals, and the development of good neighbourly relations. UN objectives and principles will be respected (sovereign equality, self-determination, respect for human rights, territorial integrity, non-threats and non-use of force, etc.). One will not represent the other in the international community, and Serbia will not oppose Kosovo’s membership of international organisations. They will not undermine each other’s negotiations on EU membership. Serbs living in Kosovo will be granted rights and powers similar to those of local self-government as adopted by the Council of Europe. The Serbian Orthodox Church and Serbian religious/cultural heritage will be protected. The parties will open Permanent Missions in their respective capitals. If the proposal is accepted, Kosovo’s recognition problem will be overcome
We can assume that if this new EU proposal is accepted, Serbia will have recognised Kosovo without declaring it. Such recognition decisions (de facto recognition) exist in the law of states. We can rejoice in the assumption that, following the acceptance of the proposal, the five EU countries that have delayed recognising Kosovo until now will also recognise the young Republic, that Kosovo’s UN membership will not be challenged, and that, as a result, the problem that has been vexing everyone will be left behind.
On 27 February in Brussels, was the EU proposal accepted or rejected?
On 27 February, Serbian and Kosovo leaders met in Brussels with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell and EU Special Representative for Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue Miroslav Lajchak. At the press conference following the talks, it was announced that the leaders had accepted the EU text. Following the preparation of additional texts on the implementation of the Agreement, it was suggested that the parties would sign the Agreement together on 18 March in Ohrid, Macedonia. On 27 February, when I read Josep Borrell’s statement, I rejoiced, thinking that the Kosovo problem was finally being resolved. But I was wrong: 2-3 weeks have passed, and Aleksandar Vucic’s statements and Albin Kurti’s statements show that the fundamental problem is still not overcome.
The knot is in the Union of Serbian Municipalities, which Kosovo fears like the boogeyman.
When we look at the EU proposal, we see that the ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo are given the right to local government at European standards. The fact that the proposal does not explicitly state that “The Union of Serbian Municipalities (SBB) will be established in Northern Mitrovica” gives the impression that the EU proposal is intended to facilitate the Kosovo Leader in terms of the acceptance of the EU proposal in his country. While the common understanding was that the status of the SMU should be written down and enter into force on 18 March as an annex to the Agreement, the fact that Albin Kurti claimed after his return from Brussels that Vucic refrained from signing the EU plan and that the Serbian side had not succeeded in getting the establishment of the SMU in Kosovo accepted as a precondition, reveals that the final goal has not yet been achieved, that the “Albanian Stubbornness” has not yet been overcome.
Aleksandar Vucic between two fires
Aleksandar Vucic’s situation is also very difficult. Although he has already said “I won’t sign the EU plan until SBB is realised”, he is under great pressure. He will be labelled a traitor who sold Kosovo by almost all opposition parties. Under these circumstances, it is unlikely that the annexes to the EU plan will be prepared and ready for signature by 18 March. We can summarise the stage reached by saying that the agreement, which has improved the “non-existent relations” between the two Germanies, has not worked to untie the knot between Belgrade and Pristina.
The Union of Serbian Municipalities cannot be equated with Republika Srpska
As is well known, the issue of SBB was resolved under the title of “Community of Serbian Municipalities” with the Agreement “Principles for the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo” signed in 2013 between then Prime Ministers Ivica Dacic and Hashim Thaci under the leadership of the EU. However, Albin Kurti, who came to power by garnering nationalist votes, especially by opposing the establishment of this community, needs to explain how difficult it is for him to step back. The Union, which will be formed by 4 municipalities in Northern Mitrovica, where some 50 thousand Kosovo Serbs live, will have executive powers in the fields of education, health, urban planning and economy, and will have executive powers in the fields of education, health, urban planning and economy, is presented as the Republika Srpska, or Republika Srpska, the problematic entity of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Federation, and in this way, the confusion of nationalist voters does not coincide with the facts. Everyone agrees that Republika Srpska has been a huge constitutional obstacle to the stabilisation of Bosnia for years. But the claim that “SBB equals Republika Srpska” is not a reasonable or acceptable position for Kosovo, which aspires to become an EU member state. US and EU diplomats have a duty to resolve this 15-year-old problem patiently and without pessimism. Miroslav Lajçak, the EU Special Representative for Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, has worked in the Balkans for years. His file is full of successes. I hope he will be successful this time too. On 18 March, in Ohrid, the charming resort city of Macedonia, I sincerely hope that the parties will sign the EU plan and leave the Kosovo knot behind.