Conflict with Kosovo: An obstacle to Serbia’s EU candidacy

Sabine Freizer
Today's Zaman / ICG

Turkish-Serbian relations have never been better. For the third time in as many months, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu met his Serbian counterpart, Vuk Jeremić, in Belgrade this week before attending a meeting of the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative (SECI).

Sabine Freizer, Today’s Zaman

In addition to discussing bilateral Turkey-Serbia issues and the Muslim majority region of Sandžak in Serbia, it is highly likely that the pair talked about Serbia’s EU candidacy and Serbia-Kosovo relations, the main obstacle in the way of next month’s EU decision on Serbia’s candidacy bid.

The ongoing conflict between Serbia and Kosovo escalated on July 25, 2011, when Pristina sent police to two customs gates along the border with Serbia to reassert control over a boundary on which they had maintained no presence since independence in 2008. Local Serbs surrounded the police and forced them to retreat. One officer was killed in an ambush and a border post was burned. Since then, Kosovo Serbs have blocked the EU Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) from using most roads leading to the border through northern Kosovo, preventing the mission from helping Kosovo officials to reach the customs points by road and forcing them to be airlifted. As the Crisis Group explained in a report published yesterday, titled “Kosovo and Serbia: A little goodwill could go a long way,” the dispute over customs is only a symptom of Serbia and Kosovo’s disagreement over sovereignty, especially with respect to the North. Belgrade is loath to take steps that could be interpreted as recognition of its southern neighbor, making normalization extremely difficult. Pristina feels Serbia has increased its influence over the North since Kosovo’s declaration of independence, despite a 2010 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that the declaration did not violate international law. Consequently, Pristina believes it needs to demonstrate now that it controls its borders, lest partition take root. Northern Kosovo Serbs do not want to live under Pristina’s authority, whose declaration of independence they consider to be unilateral and anti-constitutional. They see the deployment of customs officials and police as the first step toward dismantling their institutions and way of life.

In December, EU member states imposed three conditions on Belgrade in order to qualify for candidacy status in March which, on the eve of parliamentary elections, will be a serious test for Serbia’s pro-European government. Serbia has not yet met those conditions a month before the meeting of the EU heads of state and severe tensions remain in northern Kosovo.

Treating Kosovo like a normal country

The EU expects Serbia to treat Kosovo like a normal country and reach certain agreements with it, even if Serbia has not formally recognized Kosovo. For instance, Kosovo is not even allowed to be a member of SECI, which Davutoğlu traveled to Belgrade to participate in this week. Brussels is facilitating technical talks between Kosovo and Serbia and one of its conditions for Serbian EU candidacy is that the two countries agree on a compromise that would allow Kosovo to participate in regional meetings like SECI and sign official documents. Serbia and Kosovo must implement previous agreements on customs, cadastres, university diplomas and freedom of movement. Belgrade should also show that it is actively cooperating with EULEX and the Kosovo Force (KFOR), the NATO mission on the ground. It will be difficult to measure whether Serbia has met these conditions in full by the early March meeting of EU member states. Instead, it will become a question of degree: Will Serbia have done enough to demonstrate its political will to make agreements with Kosovo and begin normalizing relations? Some countries, especially Germany and the United Kingdom, want Belgrade to take clear steps to show its commitment.

A year ago, the EU was not expecting Serbia to show much willingness to normalize relations with Kosovo in order to get candidacy status. This was expected in later stages of accession. Instead, the focus was on domestic reform and full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the arrests of fugitives Ratko Mladić and Goran Hadžić, conditions that were fulfilled in 2011. But developments on the ground in Kosovo since July have changed the calculations of EU member states and they want to make sure that Serbia contributes to stability in Kosovo and does not support any local troublemakers.

As a close friend of both sides, Turkey can help by encouraging Serbia to be flexible and move beyond the past. Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo’s independence and supports its economic and political development. But Serbia’s EU candidacy is also important for Ankara, where Serbia is considered Turkey’s bridge to the EU. Economic cooperation, trade and freedom of movement of goods and people are all essential elements in Turkey-Serbia relations. Yet there is not much that Turkey, whose own more advanced EU membership negotiations are stalling, can do directly in this case.

Serbia has taken steps scarcely imaginable in the immediate aftermath of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, but often at the last minute, under intense EU pressure and with the appearance of doing the minimum necessary. For its own sake, Serbia needs a new approach. An inability to treat Pristina with respect raises doubts about how far Serbia has embraced European ideals. Belgrade needs to focus on implementing what has been agreed in the bilateral technical dialogue and show that it is willing to make compromises to meet the other EU conditions. Belgrade should not only talk about wanting broader political talks to start with Kosovo, but should also help lay the groundwork for them in order to achieve a peaceful transition in the North and normalization and recognition between Serbia and Kosovo. If the EU refuses to confer candidate status in March, this would risk the wider strategy of using membership prospects and negotiations to encourage regional stability — a strategy that has had reasonable success in the western Balkans since the late 1990s. For Serbia, like the EU, the demons of the Yugoslav wars have not yet been completely tamed and moving beyond the era of conflict in northern Kosovo is still essential to fulfilling Serbians’ hopes for a more optimistic future.

Sabine Freizer is the Europe Program Director at the International Crisis Group

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