Improving Serbia-Kosovo Relations Demands Political Leadership
In April 2013, the prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo met in Brussels to sign a landmark agreement establishing principles for normalizing their relations. Yet, in April 2015, irresolute leadership and institutional opacity continue to impede the agreement’s implementation, presenting persistent challenges to the everyday lives of citizens.
The Brussels Agreement resulted from a series of European Union-facilitated negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina. These negotiations established 15 points for bilateral steps toward safeguarding the full participation and protection of citizens and resolving infrastructural issues. Some of the points include: allowing the free movement of residents and of goods between Serbia and Kosovo; restoring the civil registry and cadastral records; mutually recognizing diplomas issued in Serbia and in Kosovo; forming an association of Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo; and dismantling parallel structures in north Kosovo.
The agreement was rightly heralded as historic — a ‘European solution to a European problem.’ Belgrade and Pristina’s participation in the negotiations required political courage and signaled the commitment of political leaders to circumvent intractable differences in order to reach sustainable solutions for their (actual and perceived) constituencies. Brussels’ mediatory role illustrated the contemporary dual function of the European Union in the Western Balkans – both as a subject promoting stability in its neighborhood, and as an object of aspiration for the countries in the region.
Unfortunately, the implementation of the negotiated agreements has thus far belied the progress signaled by the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. According to an exhaustive civic oversight report issued by civil society organizations in Belgrade and Pristina, just 4 out of the 15 points have been fully implemented. Since the Brussels dialogue sought to establish a better foundation for the normal lives of ordinary people whose interests were marginalized in the prior political deadlock, this failure in implementation has a deeply negative impact on their everyday ability to work, study, travel, communicate, benefit from public services, and participate in their societies.
For example, despite an agreed implementation process, the mutual recognition of academic diplomas has lagged. Members of linguistic minorities in both Serbia and Kosovo often choose to pursue higher education in their native language. In the absence of mutual recognition of diplomas, members of Serbia’s Albanian minority community who finish their degrees in Kosovo or Kosovo’s Serb and Bosniak communities who finish their degrees in Serbia, are unable to work at home legally in their chosen academic fields. Only 5 of 362 diplomas issued by Kosovo universities and submitted for recognition have been accepted by Serbia, and no Serbian diplomas have yet been recognized in Kosovo.
Meanwhile, research into the dismantling of Belgrade-funded parallel institutions and integration of their employees into Pristina-led structures has found a lack of public transparency from both sides in communicating the process and plans for the police force and the civil protection units operating in the four Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo. One civil society representative from northern Kosovo observes the exclusion of these communities’ voices as being ‘on, not at, the table’ in the Belgrade- and Pristina-centric dialogue.
These implementation issues have not gone unnoticed. In their respective progress reports on the implementation of the agreement, both Belgrade and Pristina have proved quick to blame the other side for their failure to implement the agreements, and to use divisive populist rhetoric (i.e. accusations of ‘sabotaging’ dialogue processes, or of ‘tendencies of pushing’ for certain goals). This tone, and the lapses in implementation, stands contrary to the previous progress in political relations between Belgrade and Pristina, which was clearly visible in the recent visit of the Serbian Foreign Minister to Pristina, where he met with his Kosovo counterpart, and the announcement that the Kosovo and Serbian prime ministers have a direct hotline to each other.
The Brussels Agreement was viewed a step toward ensuring the European prospects of Serbia and Kosovo. Two years later, Serbia holds European Union candidate status, and has completed the acquis screening process. Kosovo is expected to sign the Stabilization and Association Agreement, establishing its first contractual relationship with the EU, in the next months.
Serbia and Kosovo have made undeniable progress in improving their political relations – but a long road remains. As both sides move forward in their European integration processes, it is critical that decision-makers renew their commitment to resolve outstanding challenges, seek the full implementation of existing agreements and initiate negotiations on new topics. The continued, meaningful normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina will demand political courage, responsible and responsive leadership, and a close engagement with civil society actors to ensure the protection of citizens’ rights and interests.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.