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Resolving the Kosovo-Serbia dispute: The key to limiting Russia’s influence in the Balkans

Western Balkans / COMMENTARY
Berta López Domènech

Date: 28/02/2023
While Serbia’s interests and future unequivocally lie in the European Union, Belgrade relies on Russia’s diplomatic support to defend its interests vis-à-vis Kosovo. An EU-brokered deal to fully implement the 2013 Brussels Agreement and resolve the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo is key to bringing stability to the region. The ‘Agreement on the path to normalisation between Kosovo and Serbia’ to which Serbia’s President and Kosovo’s Prime Minister agreed on 27 February could be moving in that direction. Ultimately, the resolution of the dispute between Pristina and Belgrade would not only allow the two sides to move towards EU membership, but it would also weaken Russia’s main mechanism of influence in the Western Balkans.

For years, Serbia has successfully straddled the fence between Moscow and Brussels. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has managed to strengthen its partnership with Vladimir Putin while continuing the EU accession process. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine shook the political game board, making it complicated for Vučić to continue playing on both fronts. 

Since the outbreak of the war, Serbia has condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the annexation of Ukrainian territory in the UN General Assembly. However, under its alleged neutrality, Serbia refused to impose sanctions on the Kremlin, and according to the latest polls, more than half of the population believes Russia is the country’s closest foreign ally.

In the last months, pressure for Serbia to choose between Brussels and Moscow has intensified. The European Parliament called for halting accession negotiations with Serbia if the country failed to align with the EU sanctions against Russia and, right before the 2022 Berlin Process summit, Germany stepped in by warning Serbia that it was time to pick sides.

Serbia’s strategic and economic interests lie in the EU. However, Belgrade relies on the Kremlin’s diplomatic support to isolate Kosovo internationally, especially given Russia’s influential position in the UN Security Council. Over the years, Russia has successfully used this card to strengthen its influence and pursue its strategic objectives in the Western Balkans, maintaining instability in the region to prevent it from advancing on its Euro-Atlantic integration path.

Stability at the expense of democratisation

Over the past decade, the EU has fallen short of its promise of a realistic European perspective for the Western Balkans. The lack of agreement on enlargement among EU capitals and the instrumentalisation of the accession process by member states for their domestic agendas have left the Western Balkan aspirants in a permanent hold mode.

The EU’s wavering on enlargement has also allowed political leaders in the region to justify their lack of commitment to reforms and has taken a heavy toll on public opinion in the Western Balkan countries. While the EU still enjoys great support across the region, citizens have become increasingly sceptical about the prospects of becoming EU members. Russia taps into the region’s disillusionment with the EU to try to derail the Union’s plans to move the Western Balkans into its fold.

By backing disruptive leaders, Russia has managed to fuel ethnic tensions, maintain political instability, and promote territorial conflicts in the region. Since the early 2000s, Moscow has capitalised on the Serbs’ resentment over the 1999 NATO bombing, exploiting the old narrative of the Slavic brotherhood to sow anti-Western sentiment across the region.

Since the end of the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, the EU has pursued peace and stability at any cost. At times, this has led to appeasing autocratic leaders, who have long benefitted from the permanent status of instability. While promoting domestic and regional unrest, these leaders came forward as the guarantors of stability, extracting concessions from the EU. Western actors have repeatedly fallen into this trap, compromising on their accession criteria (i.e. by allowing countries with questionable democratic credentials but critical to the stability of the region to advance towards the EU). This has had a negative impact on the region’s democratic transformation and has weakened the EU’s transformative power.

The war in Ukraine has now opened the EU’s eyes to the geopolitical importance of being present in the Western Balkans, not only as a conflict mediator but also as a longstanding partner. The last months of 2022 saw several breakthroughs, including increasing efforts to facilitate an agreement between Belgrade and Pristina. 

Moving away from ethnic-based politics

Normalising relations is an essential requirement for Serbia and Kosovo’s EU accession. Since the launch of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue in 2011, Brussels has tried to facilitate a compromise between the two sides. However, while the signing of the Brussels Agreement in 2013 opened the door for accession talks with Serbia and the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) negotiations with Kosovo, a decade later, the implementation of the Brussels Agreement remains incomplete.

The creation of an Association/Community of Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo is one of the most contentious aspects of the 2013 Agreement, and the debate about its nature is the main stumbling block in moving forward. In 2015, the entity’s functions and principles were agreed, but the vague description of its competences has left room for interpretation on whether it should be conferred executive powers or not. On 27 February, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić approved the EU-brokered plan to normalise relations. Nevertheless, the deal wasn’t signed, since there was no agreement on its implementation. The so-called Franco-German proposal represents a step forward in resolving the dispute between the two sides but still fails to address the nature of the Association/Community of Serb-majority municipalities. 

EU facilitators should stop using ambiguity as a tool to get both sides on board with proposals. While this method might help with reaching agreements on paper, reality has shown that it precludes implementation on the ground.

Granting executive powers to the Association/Community of Serb-majority municipalities would de facto create a sub-level governance based on ethnic lines and dominated by one ethnicity. The example of the Republika Srpska proves that the chances for such a body to deepen sectarianism and compromise Kosovo’s functioning are high. 

Furthermore, the main Serb party in Kosovo, Srpska Lista, backed by Vladimir Putin’s party, is directly controlled by Belgrade. In this context, an entity of this kind would most likely become an instrument for Serbia to continue exerting control over the Kosovo Serbs and interfering in Kosovo’s domestic matters. This would, in turn, strengthen Russia’s position, which has long assisted the Kosovo Serbs, for instance by sending aid during the barricades’ erection in 2011.

The entity should serve the interests of the Kosovo Serbs and function as a platform for reflecting the diversity of voices within the community, beyond Srpska Lista’s monopoly of the Kosovo Serbs’ political representation. It should act as a bridge between the local governments and the central institutions. Moving away from sectarianism, safeguarding minorities’ rights, and ensuring equal rights for all citizens should be the cornerstones of any agreement.

Resolving the conflict between Belgrade and Pristina is an essential first step to solving other open disputes in the region and keeping Russia at arm’s length. Not only in Kosovo and Serbia but across the Balkans, the EU urgently needs to regain people’s trust and restore its transformative power. This can only be achieved by offering the Balkans a realistic pathway to EU membership. Helping the region advance towards the EU will also limit Russia’s influence, thereby curbing growing illiberal trends and anchoring stability at Europe’s doorsteps. 

Berta López Domènech is a Programme Assistant in the European Politics and Institutions programme at the European Policy Centre.

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