Permanent De-Escalation: the European Union and the Serbia-Kosovo Quagmire

maandag 30 januari 2023, 13:00, dhr Ferenc Laczó

Het conflict tussen Servië en Kosovo speelt al jaren en tot voor kort nam de EU hier een voorzichtig constructieve houding tegenover. De oorlog in Oekraïne heeft uitbreiding in de Westelijke Balkan echter weer prominent op de agenda gezet en daarmee dus ook het confict tussen de landen. Nu de kwestie weer urgent is geworden, is er een meer transformatieve agenda nodig die vereist dat de EU haar eigen ambivalenties rondom interventie en soevereiniteit onder ogen ziet.

The Serbia-Kosovo quagmire concerns a decades-long series of conflicts in a smallish part of Southeast Europe, but one that interconnects many divisive issues on the local and international levels. Until recently, the European Union took a cautiously constructive approach to this complex matter: it helped foster piecemeal improvements without bringing a comprehensive resolution nearer.

The much-sharpened confrontation between the West and Russia has now revived the enlargement prospects of “Western Balkan countries” – an expression that already started to sound much like a modern-day equivalent of Dante’s purgatory. However, a comprehensive resolution to the Serbia-Kosovo quagmire would require a bolder approach – and one that is fully cognizant that challenging the status quo of ethnic polarization is likely to bring temporary risks.

What are the key issues at stakes in this largely frozen but still unresolved conflict? And at what point have we arrived today? On a basic level, the quagmire has revolved around a question in international politics where no consensus exists: the right to secession.

The debate regarding Kosovo’s status involves complex historical and legal arguments on which the two main sides – the Serbian and the Kosovo’s de facto Albanian leadership – cannot seem to agree. This debate has also split countries across the globe into two roughly equal groups. Most EU member states have come to recognize Kosovo’s independence. However, with five countries remaining opposed, no unanimity is in sight within the Union either.

The global polemic surrounding “the Kosovo question” has also focused on the (unintended) consequences of the West’s “humanitarian intervention.” Diametrically opposed assessments used to clash here, with Russia consistently challenging the interpretation of leading Western powers – until it started to openly support “its own secessionists” in Georgia and Ukraine.

In other words, while Serbia and Russia had similar structural positions and – as we have been forced to realize more recently – also rather comparable roles as the main aggressors in the drawn-out process of Yugoslav/Soviet disintegration, the political elites in the two countries now find themselves on opposite sides of the argument concerning secession. While the two societies may seem aligned due to their exaggerated perceptions of Western hypocrisy and resulting anti-Western resentments, Russian elites have in fact repeatedly pointed to “the Kosovo precedent” to try to justify their blatant violations of international law.

Beyond matters of intervention and secession, there is a third essential layer here. Kosovo is attempting to simultaneously accomplish state building, institute the rule of law, maintain democracy and guarantee minority rights – not least to maintain the good will of the international community, and above all, the European Union. Meanwhile, for members of its Albanian majority, the story is essentially about them aiming to exercise national sovereignty on the periphery of an integrated Europe.

Paradoxical as this may sound, the story of an increasingly independent Kosovo has also been about the European building of a nation state. Its history of a decade and a half offers an instructive case study in how the EU can help preserve a semblance of stability while fostering rather mundane but important steps forward – when it comes to economic cooperation, the operation of the judiciary or the police, the recognition of ID cards, diplomas, customs stamps, etc.

The European Union managed to involve the two parties in negotiations as early as 2011, which led, most importantly, to the Brussels Agreement of 2013. It has been a key factor in the gradual process of “normalization” since, not least via its Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo. However, a genuine resolution of the quagmire has remained out of reach.

This is in synch with the EU’s overall strategy of pursuing “full normalization” of relations without expecting “full recognition” of emerging realities. What the EU has been doing may be viewed as a cunning attempt at de-escalation. The problem is that the more it succeeds, the more it leads to self-contradiction.

Several tangible achievements notwithstanding, at its worst, the EU’s cautious strategy has deteriorated into a politics of illusions – into a form of “they pretend to be committed to change and we pretend to believe them.” While improvements have depended on Serbia accepting the actual governing authorities in Kosovo, the two sides have not inched closer regarding Kosovo’s ultimate status. This is precisely what normalization without recognition means in practice – a strategy which was always bound to empower ethnic entrepreneurs.

The scope and functions of the Community of Serb Municipalities within Kosovo – arguably the most consequential matters at hand –remain bones of contention a near decade after the signing of the Brussels Agreement. In recent months, even quarrels about mundane matters, like license plates, have threatened to boil over. Depoliticizing the important questions – widely understood to be the EU’s forte – has contributed here to the re-politicization of even minor administrative procedures. This should have come as little surprise: after all, the EU has helped entrench the power of ethnic entrepreneurs who strive on conflict.

“The Kosovo question” has thus provided a case study in the limited transformative power of Europe. Now that the matter has become urgent again, a more transformative agenda would be needed, one which combines a normalization of relations with a recognition of realities – an agenda that would also require the EU to confront its own ambivalences about intervention and sovereignty.


Ferenc Laczó is universitair docent geschiedenis aan het University College Maastricht.

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