An expert's point of view on a current event.

Serbia Needs Kosovo’s Respect, Not Its Land

Peace talks have fallen apart again in the Balkans—but Greece and Macedonia show the proper way forward.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic walks under a giant Serbian national flag during his arrival in the village of Gazivode, Serbia on Sept. 8, 2018.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic walks under a giant Serbian national flag during his arrival in the village of Gazivode, Serbia on Sept. 8, 2018. ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images

“We are here to build bridges and break down walls,” said Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to his Macedonian counterpart, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, during his visit to North Macedonia on April 2, the first ever by a Greek premier.

“Overthrow me in the streets, I still won’t recognize Kosovo,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said in a televised interview on Serbia’s public broadcaster on May 8.

“We are here to build bridges and break down walls,” said Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to his Macedonian counterpart, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, during his visit to North Macedonia on April 2, the first ever by a Greek premier.

“Overthrow me in the streets, I still won’t recognize Kosovo,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said in a televised interview on Serbia’s public broadcaster on May 8.

Two Balkan leaders wrestling with two intractable disputes arrive at diametrically opposed outlooks. The sharp contrast between the optimism of Greece’s Tsipras and the obduracy of Serbia’s Vucic encapsulates the pivotal choice for the region.

Overcoming decades of acrimony, Tsipras negotiated a breakthrough agreement over highly sensitive national identity issues that saw its northern neighbor change its name to North Macedonia. A triumph of peacemaking, the Prespa Agreement removes all impediments to a respectful, cooperative future between these former adversaries that were once locked in vicious combat.

Meanwhile, Serbia and Kosovo remain mired in animosity, unable to find a way for Belgrade to recognize its former breakaway province in its current borders. A European Union-led and U.S.-backed effort to broker a partition deal between the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo has just fallen apart, sparking nationalist posturing and recriminations. Seizing on the savagery of the 1990s, ethnic Albanian members of parliament have accused Serbian forces of genocide, a charge that Belgrade angrily rejects, castigating its adversaries in Pristina as “thugs” and “criminals.”

Filling the policy void over Kosovo—the oldest, most vexing clash in the region—is an urgent matter. With Bosnia and Herzegovina teetering, Russia continuing to incite division, and Europe hesitant, the heavy lifting in the Balkans once again falls to the United States. To recover from recent Western stumbles, Washington must extract the crux of the breakthrough over Macedonia and apply it to Kosovo.

The key to the Prespa Agreement was not only the courage of the leaders in Athens and Skopje but also their comprehensive approach to the problem. Instead of seeking a short cut—focusing only on a new name for Macedonia that Greece could accept—Tsipras and Zaev tackled the array of differences that made the name “Macedonia” such a paralyzing, third-rail issue in the first place.

Through painstaking negotiations, aided by a skilled American mediator and adroit U.S. diplomacy, Athens and Skopje came up with a formula for recognizing each other’s incompatible narratives over the past and an ingenious mechanism to thrash out their dueling versions of history. The result is a pathway to full and complete recognition. Tsipras’s historic visit to Skopje, like Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, was the embodiment of that recognition. As the benefits of the Prespa Agreement accrue, and relations continue to warm, the intense opposition to the deal in both countries will wane.

The same prospect is possible on Kosovo. Unfortunately, neither Vucic nor Kosovo President Hashim Thaci has the vision of their Greek and Macedonian counterparts. Their favored approach is an ill-conceived plan—up to now backed by both Brussels and Washington—to divide Kosovo in the north, where hard-line Serbs live near the Serbian border, while slicing off bits of southern Serbia where Albanians are concentrated in exchange. Besides resulting in mass population movements for the minorities stuck on the wrong side of the new border, the division would accelerate the centrifugal forces threatening to tear Bosnia apart and reopen the question of borders around the region.

For that reason, German Chancellor Angela Merkel wisely torpedoed the partition plan at a regional summit in Berlin late last month. Neither Merkel nor any other leader has put forward an alternative. France is slated to host another high-level parley in July. But the basis for continued dialogue on the Kosovo question remains unclear—except for one novel point: Both Vucic and Thaci have called for high-level U.S. engagement.

This creates leverage. As a first step, Washington should demand that the parties immediately end the cycle of provocation, as it reviews its approach. Up to now, Western strategy on Kosovo has rested on a faulty premise: the perceived need to compensate the Serbian president for shepherding his country through the loss of its former province. Compensation, which leads to the destabilizing logic of partition, misses the point.

Kosovo exists in Serbian consciousness not as an appendage but as the ineffable heart and soul of the Serbian nation. The country’s founding narrative rests on a heroic defeat in Kosovo 630 years ago that Serbs are forsworn to redeem. Therefore, the loss of Kosovo—even if largely self-inflicted—cannot be compensated; it is national betrayal. It is for that reason that the Serbian Orthodox Church opposes the land swap favored by Vucic, which would formally cede the most cherished Serb patrimonial sites to the adversary. This is more than a tactical problem. Partition will leave the Serbs nursing a permanent grievance, burdening their relations with Kosovo and other neighbors.

As on Macedonia, the solution to the Kosovo problem lies in recognition—in the fullest sense of the word. In order to permit Serbia to recognize independent Kosovo within its current borders—the only stabilizing outcome—Kosovo must recognize the legitimacy of the Serb claim. This means replacing “Serbian compensation” with the opposite goal: Serbian affirmation.

The new Western strategy will aim to preserve, honor, and dignify the enduring Serb connection to Kosovo, in the context of full, mutual recognition. Instead of slicing off the north of the country in a futile attempt to console Serbs, the new strategy will render permanent the Serb presence in Kosovo—in a form compatible with the sovereignty and functionality of the state.

For example, Kosovo’s internationally imposed constitution currently requires Pristina to protect Serbian Orthodox sites, a commitment that would be immediately neutered under a partition scheme. Under the new strategy, Pristina would cede outright sovereignty over these sites to the Serbian Orthodox Church. To ensure that the sites are used appropriately, and do not become flash points, the sides would agree to the binding authority of the secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (an accepted third party) to resolve any disputes.

To reframe the recriminatory narratives about the past, the agreement would copy the model created by Greece and North Macedonia. With robust international support, Serbia and Kosovo would also establish a “Joint Committee of Experts,” as in the agreement between Athens and Skopje, charged with producing “objective interpretation of events” based on “authentic … evidence-based sources.”

In addition to discussing and producing studies, historians would curate materials for dignified, vivid representations of each side’s Kosovo story. Housed in a public memorial, museum, and institute, the Joint Center for Peace and History would have official standing and prominent premises in both Pristina and Belgrade, where the flags of both countries would fly. Sidestepping Vucic, this venture would solicit the active involvement of Serbia’s influential Academy of Sciences and Arts, whose experts would work alongside their Albanian counterparts, under careful Greek, Macedonian, and Albanian tutelage.

A parallel approach would govern the intense thirst in both societies for justice. The United States and EU would produce a detailed framework for Serbia and Kosovo to each prosecute well-known (and less well-known) perpetrators of crimes against the other’s community. Buoyed by international assistance (particularly for Kosovo’s justice system) and successful precedents in the region—and facing substantial penalties for foot-dragging—the parties would have ample incentive to follow through.

The United States, which led the decisive NATO air campaign against Serbia in 1999, has its own work to do on the past. Serbia recently commemorated the 20th anniversary of the campaign, a bitter memory that Russia exploits in its ostentatious role as Serbia’s so-called protector. The former headquarters of the Serbian Defense Ministry still sits in a heap of rubble in Belgrade, a monument to Serbian-American enmity.

Concealed beneath Serbian anger toward the United States is affection. Last year, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic and hard-line Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic visited the U.S. Congress to honor the centennial of a remarkable display of friendship—the day during World War I when the Serbian and American flags flew together over the White House.

Washington could again harness the power of symbols as an adjunct to its Kosovo diplomacy. The Pentagon could seek the long-term basing of U.S. troops to a fixed site in Serbia. The initial deployment would be a contingent of Army engineers whose mission would be to work with Serbian counterparts to rebuild destroyed infrastructure, beginning with the destroyed Defense Ministry building.

The ideal location for the U.S. base would be in Ponikve, a military site in western Serbia also targeted by NATO. Located near the Bosnian border, the U.S. deployment would be widely and instantly perceived around the region, particularly in breakaway Republika Srpska, as a signal of firm U.S. commitment to the territorial integrity of Bosnia.

Beyond symbolism, Washington would offer Belgrade a vast upgrade in the military and civil relationship, potentially to the level of strategic partnership. Complementing the U.S. investment in the defense sphere, the EU would offer both Serbia and Kosovo a generous development package, consistent with the goal of coexistence between the two countries. The plan would supply Serbs in the breakaway north with a new perspective but eschew the creation of any proto-state like Bosnia’s Republika Srpska. Serbia’s remaining, modest economic interests in Kosovo would be protected.

The whole approach of reaffirming—permanently—the Serb attachment to Kosovo and ceding sovereignty to the Serbian Orthodox Church will provoke howls of opposition among Albanian quarters. However, Kosovo is in a weak position to refuse its still-beloved American patron if Washington suggested that Pristina negotiate such a deal.

On the other hand, if Vucic rejected or sabotaged the new approach, due to Russian chicanery or his own fecklessness, Washington should have an unpalatable alternative prepared. Vucic’s choice will be either to negotiate an honorable settlement that advances Serbia to the EU by 2025 or watch as the United States and key European capitals unveil “Kosovo 2025,” an intensive, trans-Atlantic state-building effort.

Instead of seeing Serbia’s Defense Ministry forge a special, potentially lucrative relationship with the Pentagon, that privilege would go to Kosovo. Using its leverage in NATO, Washington would press allies to bolster support the fledgling Kosovo army and ask the alliance to do the same. The U.S. Defense Department would appoint a special envoy to accelerate development of the Kosovo force. The State Department would appoint a special envoy for Kosovo recognition, who would extract commitments from European-recognizing states to join the United States in a global effort to boost bilateral and multilateral recognition of Kosovo. The generous EU development assistance that Serbia and Kosovo would share would instead go only to Kosovo.

And rather than the self-styled “factor of stability,” Vucic would be seen across the West as just another expendable, problematic Balkan politician.

Vucic would be wise to fundamentally rethink his approach to Kosovo. True, the Kosovo the Serbs once knew—a province that answered to Serb masters—is long gone. But Serbian history will not look kindly on the leader who gave up Serbia’s claim to the entirety of the mythological Kosovo homeland for a few insignificant municipalities.

Better to emulate his Greek and Macedonian neighbors and—with U.S. leadership and EU assistance—forge a settlement that preserves the Serb nexus to Kosovo without the burden of ruling it. An agreement along these lines would shield Vucic from bastions of Serbian reactionary nationalism and meet the bedrock wish of the majority of citizens on Kosovo—to move on in dignity.

Edward P. Joseph teaches conflict management at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.  He served on the ground for a dozen years in the Balkans, including with the US Army, and as Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo.

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