After almost two years’ pause, the EU facilitated dialogue resumed on July 12 with a ‘telesummit’ for two delegations and EU dignitaries, followed by a physical discussion in Brussels on July 16 for Serbian President Vučić and Kosovo Prime Minister Hoti.
The disruption of the joint US-EU policy on Kosovo over the last two years has produced a competitive dynamic. It appears that the EU has come out victorious, at least for now. The much-anticipated meeting in Washington DC, announced by US Ambassador Richard Grenell, fell through the cracks, following the announcement of an indictment against President Thaçi and PDK leader Kadri Veseli.
KSC announcement and the Washington meeting’s cancelation effectively passed the baton into EU’s hands. EU’s new diplomatic initiative following with a series of meetings that the EU Special Representative Miroslav Lajčák held in Pristina and Belgrade paid off.
It is to be seen how Lajčák will handle the resumed negotiations and whether the Brussels dialogue process will be revisited, including the renegotiation of the agreements that were not, or were partially, implemented. This renewed process should be based on the principles that are not ambiguous, measurable and have a defined timetable.
Hoti’s crucible, Vučić’s bowling alone
The potential indictment confirmation against President Thaçi has technically left Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti solely in charge of dialogue with Belgrade. For almost a decade, Thaçi carried the weight of the dialogue on his shoulders, first as Prime Minister and then as President. He was considered as the only politician who had the power and strength to deliver a potentially painful compromise with Belgrade and muster necessary international and internal political supports for implementation.
The following months will be PM Hoti’s crucible as a leader. He is entering a dialogue with a divided society and a spike of COVID-19 cases following the re-opening. With a polarizing political scene, he has to navigate the Kosovo ship with a slim majority in the Assembly and questioned legitimacy.
Since he took office, PM Hoti embarked on a quest to build domestic consensus for the continuation of Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. His work has been undermined by vocal opposition from the previously ruling VV. Any success for Hoti has to be based on ensuring collective decision making on the dialogue related issues of main coalition parties, his party leader, Isa Mustafa, AAK’s Ramush Haradinaj, and opposition PDK. As such, he entered the discussion with a relatively clear mandate, but with questionable political backing and political legitimacy.
Paradoxically, the indictment against Thaçi could affix governing parties with PDK. The parties could decide to establish a new coalition government that will elect a new President, if Thaçi resigns, to avoid early elections, where LVV is considered in the strongest position to win the majority support of Kosovo Albanian voters.
In Serbia, with a landslide victory of his party in the June parliamentary elections, President Vučić was furnished with the substrate to deliver on an agreement with Pristina as SNS and SPS won almost ¾ support.
Despite lowering the threshold to lure in some opposition into the parliament, due to boycott of the largest opposition alliance, only one additional party, SPAS, barely managed to enter parliament. According to independent observers and Serbian civil society organizations, elections were marred by irregularities and suspicions of electoral fraud. After years of suppressing the opposition, President Vučić is left bowling alone.
In Kosovo, Srpska Lista, which is backed by official Belgrade, has joined the latest government coalition. This party holds 10 out of 10 guaranteed seats for the Kosovo Serb community in Kosovo Parliament, 10 out of 10 Serb-majority municipalities, a Deputy Prime minister post and two ministries. This party has secured the representation without any opposition.
EU and US in a dialogue rollercoaster
Once coordinated, the EU and US engagement in the dialogue bifurcated over the last year into two parallel processes. US involvement shortly altered the balance of power in the dialogue at the cost of the EU. The Appointment of Ambassador Richard Grenell as Special Presidential Envoy for the Serbia-Kosovo peace talks in October 2019 changed the dynamics, as he opened a new diplomatic track, resulting in tentative pledges to improve connectivity and transportation infrastructure.
Grenell was able to vouch on proximity to the US President, which gave him credibility and clout with Belgrade and Pristina. However, his attempts to bring the sides to the table for more substantive talks were cut short by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers’ announcement of indictment against President Thaçi.
It is questionable whether Ambassador Grenell will give dialogue another try, considering the shortened timeframe ahead of US elections in November. Still, he has recently softened his rhetoric toward the EU-facilitated process, recognizing the EU’s primacy on the political front, while suggesting that the US approach will be focused only on the economy.
On the other hand, the appointment of an experienced diplomat like Miroslav Lajčak as the Special Representative (EUSR) for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue signaled a renewed effort of EU member states to unify their position and enter a new phase of dialogue.
The EU regained its strength with the fallout of 27 June, Washington D. C. meeting, and took the initiative by organizing the Paris Summit on 10 July and the first online meeting between President Vučić and Prime Minister Hoti on 12 July, and the meeting in Brussels on June 16. The sides agreed on the main elements of the process.
However, both Belgrade and Pristina are disillusioned with EU’s ability to deliver its part of the bargain, particularly a credible EU enlargement perspective for Serbia and at least visa liberalization for Kosovo. Before any serious dialogue efforts are made, EU would have to address its contested incentive structure.
That is one of the reasons why US was able to re-insert itself in the dialogue as a seemingly more trusted broker whom Kosovo believes. Pristina is disillusioned with the way that dialogue with Belgrade is progressing, as there was no sense that Kosovo can count that process will end with international recognition. At the same time, there was a sense of injustice, as Belgrade was still making progress in the EU integration process.
Back to basics
Lajčak’s mandate is to achieve a comprehensive agreement on the normalization of relations through signing a legally binding agreement within 12 months. However, the EU will find it hard to reinvent the wheel and completely change the substance of negotiations.
It is up to the EU to revisit the Brussels dialogue process and renegotiate agreements that are not implemented from the technical and political dialogue. Unlike the incremental process of normalization that was guiding principle for early stages of the dialogue, a renewed process would have to be based on principles and elements which are clear and measurable, with a defined timetable.
If a comprehensive agreement is to be reached, it should include resolution of the issue of Kosovo membership in international organizations and provide an incentive for the sides through generous economic development package. The focus needs to be on the Kosovo Serb community rights and implementation of pending agreements reached in Brussels, including the Community/Association of Serb majority municipalities. Also, it will need to focus on the post-agreement democratization of both societies. Last, but not the least, there should not be an agreement without the transitional justice provisions.