Put away the carrots and take out the sticks

By Daniel Serwer

Yesterday’s EU-hosted meeting between Serbian President Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Kurti ended without signature of a “normalization” agreement. That ranks as a failure, especially after months of built-up expectations. But let’s take a closer look, based on the criteria I outlined yesterday: improved state-to-state relations, reciprocity, and international engagement.

Assessing the unsigned agreement
  1. Improved state-to-state relations: Articles 1-2 score high in this category, as they would require recognition of each others’ sovereignty, equality, independence, territorial integrity, symbols, and documents. Article 3 would also apply the UN Charter provisions on the use and threat of force, which apply to sovereign states. Together they amount to mutual recognition as sovereign and independent states, in all but name. This is virtual recognition.
  2. Reciprocity: Article 4 provides that neither party can act on behalf of the other or represent the other internationally. This rates high in the reciprocity category. It also provides that Serbia will not block Kosovo’s membership “any” international organization, which presumably includes the United Nations. That is not reciprocal, but it need not be, since Kosovo has not tried to block Serbian membership. Article 5 applies mutual “non-blocking” specifically to the EU. Article 6 requires both parties to continue the dialogue with the goal of a “legally binding agreement on comprehensive normalization of their relations.” That doesn’t say mutual recognition. But it is close, especially when read in conjuntioin with Article 8 for exchange of permanent diplomatic missions.
  3. International engagement: Article 9 promises international financing and investment. Article 10 provides for an EU-chaired implementation committee. Article 11 provides for an implementation roadmap to be negotiated in future dialogue sessions. There is no mention of recogntion by any of the five EU nonrecognizers. Nor are there any specific financial commitments.

Not bad I’d say: maybe an 8 out of 10, if the parties had signed it. It is a shame Vucic was unwilling.

The rub

Article 7 is the rub. I quote it in full:

Both Parties commit to establish specific arrangements and guarantees, in accordance with relevant Council of Europe instruments and by drawing on existing European experiences, to ensure an appropriate level of self-management for the Serbian community in Kosovo and ability for service provision in specific areas, including the possibility for financial support by Serbia and a direct communication channel for the Serbian community to the Government of Kosovo.

The Parties shall formalise the status of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo and afford strong level of protection to the Serbian religious and cultural heritage sites, in line with existing European models.

These are non-reciprocal provisions intended to satisfy the Serb population of Kosovo, without any comparable arrangements inside Serbia. The first paragraph replaces provisions in the 2015 Brussels agreement for an Association of Serb-majority Municipalities (ASM). Instead of presuming that institutional form, it instead outlines the functions Belgrade wants from such an Association: “self-management” for the Serb community, “service provision” partly financed by Serbia, and a “direct communication channel” with the Kosovo government.

This is a major step in the right direction. There are many ways, other than an Association that could pose a threat to Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, to meet these functional objectives.

The second paragraph requires a law on the status of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which will be controversial because of property issues but in the end doable.

Kurti yes, Vucic no, EU moves ahead, US should reevaluate

Prime Minister Kurti said he was ready to sign this agreement. It moves the dialogue in a good direction: toward recognition, toward reciprocity, away from the ASM, and toward more even-handed international engagement. President Vucic refused to sign. That puts the monkey on his own back. It also demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the many inducements he has been granted up front to get him to sign.

The EU decided to move ahead in the dialogue anyway on the basis of the unsigned agreement. This is the best they could do. Next step will be the implementation plan.

It won’t be easy to get Vucic to drop the ASM or proceed with any of the other provisions that move in Kurti’s direction. But Kosovo’s officials have an opportunity to shift the momentum of these talks on the basis of this unsigned agreement. In the meanwhile, the Americans and Europeans need to admit their appeasement strategy vis-a-vis Vucic has failed. Put away the carrots and take out the sticks.