Russian President Waldimir Putin has repeatedly used the ongoing dispute between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo as a blueprint for his attacks on Ukraine. The West allowed Kosovo, which is almost exclusively inhabited by Albanians, to split from Serbia 15 years ago. That’s why he must now allow Russia to take back areas that historically belonged to him, such as Crimea or eastern Ukraine, said Putin. In view of this, the West is now hastening to finally settle the Kosovo conflict after decades, in order to take a bogus argument out of the hands of the Kremlin ruler.
The result of western efforts was the Franco-German compromise proposal of November 2022, which was published as an EU position at the end of February 2023. The essence of eleven-point conciliation paper: Both sides recognize each other’s national documents and symbols. Serbia gives up its block on Kosovo’s membership in international organizations including the United Nations. For its part, Kosovo has enabled the establishment of a “community association” for the Serbian minority, which has been controversial for ten years, and guarantees special protection for the many medieval Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries in the country.
The US also supports the proposal. For weeks, top diplomats from Brussels and Washington have been making pilgrimages to the capitals of Belgrade and Pristina to persuade Serbia and Kosovo to accept the proposals. And if the media reports from the two Western Balkan countries are to be believed, the Western envoys threatened political and economic isolation if their latest initiative – as so often in the past – is rejected again.
On February 27, 2023, there was a showdown in Brussels: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti sat opposite each other, moderated by EU mediators. At the end, Brussels’ foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced a breakthrough: both parties had accepted the EU mediation paper. This leaves the door open for the final settlement of this permanent European conflict.
From left to right: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, EU Special Representative Miroslav Lajcak and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti in Brussels on February 27, 2023
But after returning from Brussels, nothing was heard in Belgrade and Pristina about alleged commitments from the EU headquarters. President Vucic assured that Serbia would never allow Kosovo to become a member of the UN. Prime Minister Kurti swore in the parliament in Pristina that a Serbian municipal association with autonomy and self-government was just as out of the question as special protection for Serbian cultural treasures.
Albanian and Serbian positions are mutually exclusive
Kurti’s and Vucic’s behavior is neither surprising nor surprising, because Kosovo and Serbia take positions on the Kosovo question that are not even remotely compatible. Similar to Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East, two peoples claim the same territory. “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia,” argues Belgrade, referring to historical buildings and medieval battlefields. The Albanians see themselves as an autochthonous people in Kosovo – and they have made up the absolute majority of the population there for a long time.
What is even more important: Especially in Serbia, the Kosovo question has been the most important issue of all political forces for decades. For example, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who was later indicted as a war criminal by the Yugoslavia tribunal, used the Kosovo conflict to gain political momentum. Later, the democratic politician Vojislav Kostunica anchored Serbia’s claim to Kosovo in the Serbian constitution. Serbia’s last democratic president, Boris Tadic, also made the Kosovo issue the center of his political agenda. No wonder that it is also the basis of President Vucic’s rule.
No western criticism of Vucic
Since the West claims it needs Serbia’s head of state to reach a compromise with the Kosovar Albanians, Brussels refrains from any criticism, no matter how slight, of Vucic’s increasingly authoritarian system of rule. Its core points are the elimination of all independent state institutions, the instrumentalization of the judiciary, censorship of the media and the dominance of the economic system by loyal followers.
“The myths of the past and above all the myth that Kosovo is a holy Serbian land only serves to prevent us from thinking about today,” criticizes the Serbian journalist Milojko Pantic. And the opposition columnist Dejan Ilic knows: “Vucic has been fleeing every obligation for years, living off the crisis and creating various spectacles so that none of Serbia’s problems are solved.” From this follows: “If he solves the Kosovo crisis, he will no longer be needed.”
Albin Kurti, today Prime Minister of the Republic of Kosovo, at an election campaign event in Pristina on January 14, 2021
Something similar can also be observed on the Kosovo side. Prime Minister Kurti had already acted as student leader and opposition politician to enforce independence from and equal rights with Serbia for his country. He spent years in Serbian prisons for this attitude, it is obviously his political mission.
Showdown in Ohrid
On March 18, 2023, Vucic and Kurti will meet again under EU mediation, this time in North Macedonia’s Ohrid. Then both parties would have to admit whether they really want to give up their red lines – as claimed by Brussels. How this is supposed to work remains a mystery for the time being. Vucic, for example, would have to give the green light for Kosovo’s membership in all international organizations – and yet prevent Pristina from joining the UN.
Kurti should enable the association of Serbian communities – although he opposes any institutional and territorial form of this association and only wants to limit the protection of minorities to individual people. And with regard to the special protection of Serbian monasteries and churches that Belgrade is striving for, the opposition in Kosovo is already saying that in future you will have to show your passport to visit these cultural assets.
In view of this mixed situation, the high level of diplomatic art is obviously required to agree on the irreconcilable. After the experiences of the past decade with Western Balkans policy, it is to be feared that there will once again be a compromise that everyone can identify with – but that will not change the actual problems.