June 20. 2024. 1:32

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Serbia-Kosovo: The devil is in the implementation

Having agreed on the contents of an EU agreement for normalising their relations, Serbia and Kosovo must urgently find a compromise on its implementation. This will entail Pristina accepting the establishment of the Association/Community of Serb-majority municipalities without any undue delay, writes Ian Bancroft.

Serbia and Kosovo have taken a profound step forward in normalising their relations by reaching consensus a proposal brokered by the EU. As always, however, the devil is in the detail. Without a clear plan on how the agreement will be implemented, it will remain stillborn.

The eleven articles of the agreement on the path to normalisation enshrine fundamental principles on the basis of which relations between Kosovo and Serbia can develop and ultimately flourish.

A commitment to the sovereign equality of states and respect for territorial integrity will permanently silence destabilising talk of land swaps or border revisions.

An exchange of permanent missions will provide vital diplomatic channels to iron out fundamental disagreements and reduce the scope for misunderstandings.

Serbia will end its objections to Kosovo’s membership in any international organisation – and presumably, by extension, its campaign of derecognition – removing another source of friction between Belgrade and Pristina.

A commitment not to block each other’s progress on their respective EU accession paths can unleash a dynamic process where Serbia and Kosovo each strive to fulfil the membership conditionality.

This reform framework will be underpinned by a generous package of investment and financial support, with an important focus on connectivity and green transition; two areas where regional cooperation is imperative.

And as Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, reiterated, the agreement ‘is not for the European Union: it is for the citizens of Kosovo and Serbia.’

Mutual recognition by the parties of one another’s passports, diplomas, license plates, and customs stamps will facilitate the movement of people and goods to the benefit of all.

There is a commitment to deepen cooperation in a number of fields – whether it be science and technology, environmental protection, law enforcement, and health, amongst others – where there are mutual benefits galore.

Nor does the agreement shy away from the challenging issues which have blighted relations and fueled tensions.

There is a commitment to formalise the status of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo and strengthen levels of protection for Serbian religious and cultural heritage sites; presumably including implementation of the decision of Kosovo’s Constitutional Court recognising Visoki Monastery’s ownership of 24 hectares of adjacent land.

It also contends with what has proven to be one of the main sticking points in relations between Belgrade and Pristina, namely the formation of the Association/Community of Serb-majority municipalities (A/CSM).

A key component of the 2013 Brussels Agreement, the A/CSM will provide a vital mechanism for further integrating the Kosovo Serb community, especially in the spheres of health and education.

It will also provide a body through which the Republic of Serbia can transparently provide financial support to, and maintain direct communication with, the Kosovo Serb community.

Pristina, however, has been vehemently opposed to its establishment, often equating it to the secessionist entity of Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and fearing similar institutional gridlock.

For this agreement to succeed, there needs to be a sincere commitment to implement each of its provisions, including the article that pertains to the A/CSM. If one element is missing, then the deal is essentially meaningless.

A clear plan on implementation – something which was arguably lacking with respect to the Brussels Agreement – is therefore imperative.

It is for this reason that the EU rejected the proposal of Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti to sign only the proposal, without the implementation annex.

There is clearly a gap between the parties regarding the modalities and sequencing of implementation; a gap that urgently needs bridging.

On the one hand, Kosovo will need to unequivocally accept to commence the process of establishing the A/CSM; a point strongly reiterated by the latest European Council conclusions. The A/CSM is a binding legal obligation, without which there will be no agreement.

At the same time, Serbia must implement all its outstanding obligations arising from the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and begin preparations for upholding the new obligations they have agreed to.

Time is of the essence. More shuttle diplomacy will be required. The EU and US will continue their two-step, echoing and reinforcing their common message.

Both parties will need to refrain from divisive rhetoric and unilateral actions on the ground which could scupper talks.

This is a delicate moment that requires restrained and unified messages. Their citizens must be fully aware of what the deal entails, and why it is imperative that it be grasped at this juncture.

The stakes are high. Failure to agree on implementation will constitute a rejection of the normalisation of relations, and therefore also of the path to the EU. They won’t be presented with another deal. Both parties have much to lose.

Kosovo needs to overcome its mental blockage regarding the A/CSM and see the bigger picture of what the package offers. Full recognition at this juncture is simply not realistic. It will only come as part of a future comprehensive deal.

Without this interim step, however, Pristina will lose that prospect entirely.

Though Serbia and Kosovo have taken an important step forward during, much work remains to be done. Additional compromises will have to be found. The costs of failure for Kosovo, Serbia, and the wider region are not worth contemplating.