Farewell to failure

By Daniel SerwerMay 9, 2024

State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Escobar and EU Special Representative Lajcak, both with mandates for the Western Balkans during the past three years, are saying their farewells in Washington this week. These are two experienced diplomats who know the Balkans well. They have collaborated without much friction. The biggest visible issue has been American support for “Open Balkans,” a scheme for facilitating trade. The Europeans rightly viewed it as unnecessary and duplicative of their own efforts in what is known as “the Berlin process.”

But Lajcak and Escobar failed to produce the political normalization between Kosovo and Serbia that they made their top priority.

What went wrong?

Escobar and Lajcak started badly and ended worse. They promised Belgrade that they would prioritize the creation of the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities inside Kosovo. They ended without significant progress on that mistaken priority.

Prishtina had committed to the Association in a 2013 Brussels agreement. But Escobar and Lajcak neglected to get Belgrade to deliver the quid pro quo. In addition to the Association, the Brussels agreement acknowledges the validity of the Kosovo constitution and justice system in its entire territory, commits the Serbs to participating in Prishtina’s governing institutions, and pledges that Kosovo and Serbia will advance to the EU without interfering with each other.

Belgrade has reneged on all those commitments. It has maintained de facto governance over the Serb population in the Serb-majority communities of northern Kosovo. It organized the boycott of municipal elections there. Belgrade also withdrew Serb officials from the police and courts. And Serbia has done everything possible to hinder Kosovo entry into the Council of Europe.

Belgrade then went on the offensive

Frustrated with the failure of the EU and US to deliver the Association, Serbia last year decided to make things worse. It kidnapped two Kosovo police from Kosovo territory, rented a mob to attack NATO peacekeepers inside Kosovo, and organized a terrorist attack that was supposed to provide the excuse for a Serbian military intervention.

By the end of last year, Serbian President Vucic was expressing hope for changed geopolitical conditions, including Trump’s reelection, that would enable Serbia to retake part or all of Kosovo. The newly inaugurated Serbian government includes vocal supporters of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the leading advocate of the “Serbian world,” a euphemism for Greater Serbia.

Policy needs a reset

Clearly, Western policy towards Serbia is not working. Washington and Brussels aren’t doing much better with Kosovo. Prishtina has refused to move on the Association, despite costly European “consequences” and vituperative US denunciations. Only if Belgrade implements the other provisions of the 2013 Brussels agreement will Prishtina respond in kind. Vucic is in no mood to do that.

Success requires a reset. The more political dialogue the 2013 agreement initiated has demonstrably failed for more than a decade. The more technical dialogue that preceded it was far more successful. It focused on issues that could produce demonstrable benefits to the citizens of both countries. Despite spotty implementation, the results were substantial. Even today, Pristina and Belgrade have done better with practical issues like license plates and identity documents than political normalization.

That is the right direction for the future. Political normalization for now is a bridge too far. Serbia won’t be interested in surrendering its sovereignty claims in Kosovo until the war in Ukraine ends Russian annexations there. Kosovo won’t be interested in forming the Association until it is confident that Serbia accepts its sovereignty and territorial integrity. But both Belgrade and Prishtina can welcome smoothing movement through their mutual borders and enabling more licit trade and commerce.

Prishtina has rightly begun to insist on use of its official currency, the Euro, in transactions within Kosovo. But that is creating problems for the Serb communities, which receive subsidies from Belgrade in Serbian dinars. This is the kind of practical issue the EU and US should focus on. Belgrade and Prishtina need to agree on transparency for Serbia’s subsidies to the Serb communities inside Kosovo, which would help resolve the currency issue. That is the practical direction in which prospects for success lie.

Farewell to failure requires getting the priorities right.