Author: Daniel Serwer, peacefare.net
Anyone who thought, as The Economist and others have reported, that Serbia was softening its position on Kosovo and would yield to sweet reason has to be disappointed today. The Belgrade platform for negotiations on Kosovo represents a giant step backwards in Serbia’s position, as it pretends to meet international community demands for dismantling of illegal Serbian institutions in Kosovo by legalizing and unifying them, with the entire “autonomous” province under Serbian sovereignty. Serbs in Kosovo would gain not only separate and equal institutions, but also a legislative veto, their own justice and police systems and many other powers. This would apply not only to the northern bit of Kosovo still under Serbian control, but also south of the Ibar river to communities that have at least partially accepted and integrated into Kosovo government institutions.
What Belgrade has failed to do is come to terms with the independence and sovereignty of Kosovo. This is not surprising, but it is still important: it means that Kosovo will need to equip itself for a future in which Serbia continues to claim sovereignty over the entire territory. I don’t envy Pristina. To my knowledge, no two countries that fail to recognize each other and establish a clearly demarcated border have an untroubled relationship. Serbia is Kosovo’s most powerful and threatening neighbor, its largest potential market and its historical metropole. Good neighborly relations would be a big plus for Kosovo. It isn’t going to happen based on the platform Belgrade has written for itself.
Belgrade has also failed to apply a simple but critical equity test to its own propositions: how much of what it proposes would it be ready and willing to offer to Albanians in southern Serbia or Bosniaks in Sandjak? Almost none of it. It is profoundly sad, and risible, that Belgrade claims for Serbs who have left Kosovo (including their descendants) the right to return when such rights have been blatantly violated by Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I’ve heard few in Belgrade bemoaning that (I hasten to add that those few are wonderful people).
International community reaction at this point is important. There will be an enormous temptation for the European Union and the United States, having waited long for this platform and no doubt tried to influence its contents, to try to see at least parts of it in a favorable light, or at least as a basis for negotiation. That would be a mistake. This platform stops just short of a declaration of war on Kosovo’s institutions and on the international community’s at least partially successful efforts to build democratic institutions in Kosovo. There is precious little in it that I would advise Pristina to discuss. Washington and Brussels should be profoundly disappointed and say so.
So what now? Belgrade is unhappy with the technical talks that it pursued with Pristina for more than a year, as they view them as having encroached on political issues. They are correct. While Belgrade celebrated each and every agreement as a Serbian triumph, the technical talks were gradually establishing Belgrade and Pristina as equal negotiating partners. That was the intention in both Brussels and Washington. But the talks were also reaching the limit of what could be achieved without deciding on Kosovo’s status: is it an autonomous province of Serbia, as Belgrade continues to want to claim, or is it a sovereign state, as half the UN General Assembly now recognizes? There really is no doubt about the answer to this question, but the EU has to tiptoe around it because of its five members who don’t recognize Kosovo.
Pristina should of course continue to be willing to meet with Belgrade on an equal basis and expect all agendas to be reciprocal in both letter and spirit. If Belgrade wants to discuss governance in northern Kosovo, it has to be willing to discuss governance in southern Serbia. That’s a non-starter, so there is no need for Pristina to discuss Kosovo’s own internal political arrangements with Belgrade. They are spelled out clearly in the Ahtisaari plan for a Comprehensive Peace Settlement that both the EU and the U.S. adhere to. Pristina has shown good faith in trying to implement them.
A note to non-recognizers of Kosovo: if you thought that your non-recognition was in any way helping to soften Belgrade’s stance or promote a negotiated solution, Belgrade’s platform for the negotiations should be enough to convince you otherwise. The best possible response to this gross overreach is to recognize and establish diplomatic relations with Pristina.
A note to Albanians: I can well imagine how angry this Serbian document will make those of you who have worked hard to establish serious democratic institutions capable of treating Serbs and other minorities correctly. The right response is a peaceful one, no matter how strong the passions. Anything else will play into Belgrade’s narrative that the Balkans won’t be safe from violence if Kosovo is sovereign and independent.
A note to Serbs: Kosovo is lost to Belgrade’s sovereignty. Protection of Serbs in Kosovo is still a legitimate interest. That’s what the talks with Pristina should be about, not about Kosovo’s status, which has been decided in a political process foreseen in UN Security Council resolution 1244. You did not like the result, but that will not change it. You can block UN membership for Kosovo, but it would be a mistake to try to change the facts on the ground. The effort to ensure that Serbs are governed only by Serbian majorities on their own territory has led Belgrade into war several times in the past. It is a profound error to stick with it. Go visit Kosovo: see for yourselves the reality. Then come back and tell me whether you want to continue living in Fantasyland.