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Serbia and Kosovo: the west’s ill-fated push to heal the divide

Veteran Balkan politicians know better than to be enthusiastic about deals made under pressure in diplomatic back rooms. But the events of March 18 gave Visar Ymeri, a former leader of Kosovo’s ruling party, reason to be optimistic.

“We have a deal,” the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said as he wrapped up a marathon summit in Ohrid, North Macedonia. “Kosovo and Serbia have agreed on the . . . normalisation of relations.”

Ymeri was overjoyed, he recalls over coffee in a swanky new shopping mall in Pristina. Such a deal had been decades in the making, and might see Serbia finally recognise his homeland as a sovereign nation — a goal Kosovo had sought since its ethnic Albanian leaders declared it a republic more than three decades ago, sparking years of conflict and tensions.

That recognition would open the floodgates of investment, sorely needed in one of Europe’s poorest corners. But more importantly, it would pave the way for Kosovo, Serbia, and the rest of the western Balkans to join Euro-Atlantic alliances such as the EU and Nato, stabilising the entire volatile region at a crucial moment.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine cast a new light on the western Balkans, where Serbia dominates. Belgrade has refused to join European sanctions against Russia, its traditional Slavic ally, and a vocal Serb minority has openly sympathised with Moscow’s war. The US fears that Serbia’s regional influence could cause any instability to metastasise.

So western diplomats have attempted to steer Serbia away from the gravitational pull of Vladimir Putin, promising money and a quicker EU membership in return for compliance, and threatening with isolation and divestment otherwise.

France, once reluctant about EU enlargement in the western Balkans, switched gears and teamed up with Germany for a powerful diplomatic tandem that would drive the process alongside the rest of the EU and the US.

Serbia began to move, expanding ties to non-Russian energy sources which could potentially deprive Moscow of its most important channel of influence. The pivotal issue of Kosovo, however, remains. Russia has won Serbia over in part by backing Belgrade over Pristina in international forums like the UN. If the west can help defuse those tensions, it will remove leverage from Moscow.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz told both Kosovo premier Albin Kurti and Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić “this is the moment when you have to show leadership”, a German diplomat says.

The Ohrid summit suggested that moment had come — to Ymeri, at least. “I was one of the few enthusiasts in Pristina,” he says. “Everybody was very cynical about the agreement, but I was really hoping the interest from the EU and the US had really come back to the region because of security issues, and we’d see [an] improvement.”

Yet within a month, Ymeri had joined the cynics. A key election in Kosovo’s Serb-majority north, seen as the first test of the agreement, had gone awry. Instead of making peace with its former province, Serbia would keep shackles on Kosovan politics as long as it could, he was convinced. Equally disturbing to him, Kosovo was also unwilling to compromise.

“After Ohrid everything went quiet,” he says, drawing sharply on an e-cigarette. “It gave me the impression that the idea was to have an agreement on paper, not to implement it. Which means nothing.”

The next time Vučić and Kurti met, at a summit in Brussels on May 2, the deal looked all but dead. Kosovo’s Kurti tore up the resolution proposal and put forward an alternative vision with ethnic Serb representation defined as non-territorial, and under the strict financial oversight of Pristina. Vučić said he could not proceed like this.

A day after those talks, the chief US negotiator in the region, deputy assistant secretary of state Gabriel Escobar, urged patience in a reply to FT questions.

“It’s only been a month and we are now discussing the implementation,” he said. “We had a small level of progress . . . the EU needs to continue . . . to bring the two parties together to start looking for compromise solutions.”

Escobar insists the Ohrid agreement is legally binding for both sides, and says the US, along with the EU, is fully committed to hammer out a compromise.

EU foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano told reporters Brussels would keep working towards a deal, adding that Kurti had “violated the letter and spirit of the dialogue agreement”.

This was little surprise to Jovana Radosavljevic, executive director of New Social Initiative, a rights group in northern Kosovo. The deterioration of relations between Serbia and Kosovo has a long and tortuous history that defies easy breakthroughs, no matter the amount of pressure from the west.

“The internationals bit off more than they could chew,” she says. “The relationship is so complex you cannot make a clean cut.”

Vučić had foreseen this might be the case. Speaking in January during the most intense period of talks, he told the FT that the sides were so far apart on Kosovo that a mutually agreeable compromise was impossible. “[Both sides] will be equally satisfied if they are equally dissatisfied,” he said.

The deal that wasn’t

Kosovo had never been a sovereign nation before declaring independence. The former province is the cradle of Serb culture, important for national and religious sentiment.

Ethnically it has always been mixed, with Albanians forming the largest group in the area for over a century. Kosovo fought a war of independence in the late 1990s against what was by then a diminished Yugoslavia and eventually broke away from Serbia in 2008.

After decades of decline, Serbs today comprise just 5 per cent of Kosovo’s population, about half of them occupying four districts in the north of the country where they are a big majority. Most consider themselves Serb citizens and many resist Pristina’s efforts to issue Kosovo IDs or car licence plates; attempts to enforce those led to strong and sometimes violent resistance last year.

The solution proposed in Ohrid in March was a quid pro quo. Kosovo would allow the formation of an association of Serb-majority municipalities (ASMM), which would have certain local executive powers and be allowed to maintain ties to Serbia. Belgrade, meanwhile, would not object to Kosovo membership in international organisations.

It was a difficult proposition. Pristina feared that the ASMM might become an uncontrollable platform, a state within a state advancing Belgrade’s interests. And Serbia was asked, essentially, to pave the way to recognise Kosovo as a sovereign state — the ultimate political sacrifice for Belgrade.

From last August to January, “we put pressure on both sides equally, measure by measure, point by point,” a European official says. “Each side got a little and gave a little. We were trying to satisfy each side.

“At one point, [French president] Macron delivered a hard message to Kurti: you need to make this a priority if you want things to advance,” the official adds. “He also told him that Kosovo could not keep coming back on or changing its positions.”

In the end, the Ohrid agreement contained both elements, each watered down a little. Kosovo was ready to sign it, but Serbia was not, with Vučić citing red lines like the recognition of Kosovo and its UN membership.

“I did not sign because Serbia is an internationally recognised country and for me, Kosovo is not,” Vučić said in a televised address, adding he wanted no legal agreement with “a so-called Republic of Kosovo”.

Signed or not, the deal had the tentative backing of both sides and should be the basis for future negotiations, the EU and the US insisted. Yet within weeks, the Ohrid agreement began to unravel.

The first test came on April 23, when Kosovo’s four Serb-majority districts held elections to restaff much of the public sector; thousands quit last year in protest at Pristina’s rule.

The situation was desperate: mayorships, city councils and about 5,000 public jobs — police, judges, healthcare, school and sanitary workers — were vacant in an area of just 40,000 inhabitants.

But local Serbs demanded the increased municipal autonomy laid out by the Ohrid agreement as a precondition of participation in the vote. Kurti countered by insisting on recognition of Kosovo and saying the Ohrid deal “must now be implemented — fully and immediately. No partial implementation; no delays.”

The Serbs announced they would boycott the vote.

“Working for a deal that leads Serbia towards de facto accepting Kosovo as a state brings no benefits to any Serbian leader,” says Milos Damnjanovic an analyst at the BIRN consultancy in Belgrade. “Vučić has little rational reason to genuinely work towards that kind of deal.”

The atmosphere was tense on election day. At voting precinct 2806B, a crew of special forces arrived shortly after the station opened at 7.30am, holding long-barrel automatic rifles. Local Serbs detest them, seeing them as a tool of oppression by Pristina. “This is going to be a long day,” said the election monitor, a woman in her thirties from the nearby town of Leposavic.

But little oppression would happen that day, perceived or otherwise. The armed officials soon left, and the precinct recorded zero votes.

Similar scenes played out across the northern districts. By the end of the day, barely a few dozen Serbs and a few hundred Albanians had voted in all four counties. With no participation threshold, the counties all elected Albanian mayors and assemblies.

With a deadlock all but certain as Serbs rejected the results of the vote, the European Commission issued a terse statement the next day. The election process was legal, it said, but “is not and cannot be considered business as usual”.

The Ohrid deal was the “right platform” to find solutions, the commission added. “There is an urgent need for a serious dialogue between the government of Kosovo and Kosovo Serbs in the north to this end. So far little progress has been made.”

‘Stabilocracy replaced democracy’

Serbs in Kosovo say they are willing to talk — but feel as if both Pristina and Belgrade exclude them from discussions about their future.

Nenad Rašić, an ethnic Serb who serves as minister for communities in Kurti’s government, says he has asked in vain for years to be included. “You want to integrate the Serb community, and you don’t involve us in the negotiation process? That is bizarre,” he says.

Rašić thinks that the international community wants to sweep the region’s disagreements under the rug. “Stabilocracy replaced democracy,” he says. “Especially now with the war in Ukraine, the west just wants stability, and Vučić will keep placating them for years if that’s how he hangs on to power. He will never stop using Kosovo Serbs for his politics.”

The younger generations are angry at the western powers, says Aleksandar Arsenijević, a local politician in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica. “They don’t listen to the needs of the Serbs,” he says. “This is not the right time for this kind of election. There is no democracy now. The system is broken.”

If they are to participate in democracy, citizens first need financial stability, he adds. “Nationalism festers on an empty stomach.”

Marko Jakšić, who once worked as a lawyer at the local courthouse but quit last year, takes it a step further as he sits down for an early evening coffee on the main drag in Mitrovica. “Give me something to show that Kosovo is my future! We can only bend so far before we snap, and either leave or take up fighting, for real, with weapons,” he says.

These undercurrents of anger against the west risk feeding local support for Russia, already highly visible on the streets of Mitrovica. Murals adorning the city’s walls equate Serbian claims on Kosovo with Russian claims on Crimea, and giant posters call Putin an honorary citizen of the nearby town of Zvečan.

This kind of imagery is often used to portray the region as being in Putin’s pocket, says Jakšić, but it’s not the case. “I support Ukraine. We know Russia is dangerous if it’s too close. We don’t want to be a Russian colony either. But the international community is nervous because of Ukraine and they are rushing the Kosovo deal. Well, as in every job, a rush job is a bad job.”

The west has hardened its resolve, according to European and American diplomats. They want both sides to stick by the Ohrid deal, and are unafraid to apply pressure.

Brussels is seeking to bind Vučić’s hands in particular by adding the Ohrid promises to the long list of EU accession milestones. Without normalising ties with Kosovo, Serbia will probably never gain membership of the bloc. “It’s everything or nothing,” says one official involved in the negotiations.

For Kosovo, the EU is more blunt about its leverage. “They have no other options but us,” says another official.

In the long term, both Belgrade and Pristina may see the logic in softening their positions. The Serbian president has no choice but to move west, says Damnjanovic of BIRN. But he can only do it slowly to preserve his political base.

“He keeps up his balancing charade but behind the scenes he anchors himself in the western camp,” he says. “Russia is far away and weak while the west is omnipresent and can inflict pain, so to save political points domestically he does nothing publicly against Russia, but appeases US demands by baby steps towards the west.”

Pristina may also do well to play a long game and grant Serbs more rights, says Ymeri, the former ruling party leader in Kosovo. If it can help turn Serbia into a pro-western country and away from Russia, that in turn will make it easier to get Kosovo the liberties it seeks.

“Kurti has to be more strategic in understanding the benefits of this huge geopolitical turn,” he said. “We cannot help that process but we should not prevent it . . . If it doesn’t happen we go back to square one.”

Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels, Guy Chazan in Berlin and Leila Abboud in Paris

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