All too often in the post-Cold war years, the Western Balkans has suffered from convoy diplomacy; it moves at the speed of the slowest, and the slowest is very slow indeed.
It’s been 12 years since Kosovo started a European Union (EU) mediated dialog with its former rulers in Belgrade. Now another attempt has been launched, in part to have both sides implement the great majority of the 33 agreements they have agreed to over the years but have not implemented.
So the diplomatic wires have been humming over the past two months. In December, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti flew to Prague to hand over the country’s application for EU membership to Czech Minister for European Issues, Mikuláš Bek, as the Czech Republic’s six-month Union presidency drew to a close.
“The letter I carry contains the hopes and dreams of our citizens, who have worked so hard to reach this day,” Kurti said.
The EU, like the US, has an abiding interest in Western Balkans developments both because the region remains a geopolitical risk because both have fought in the region (not least to expel Serbia from Kosovo in 1999), both still have troops in Kosovo, and both aid its development.
Keeping the peace is not easy. In the volatile northern areas of Kosovo, where Serbs constitute a majority, groups of Serbs have used trucks to block roads leading to two border crossing points. The north was in the limelight for most of 2022, with the crisis worsening in November when all police personnel, judges, prosecutors, mayors, and councilors from four municipalities resigned when the government tried to force a decision that would have seen local Serbs replace car plates issued by Serbia with Kosovan equivalents.
This does not give the Kosovo government a free pass with the West, as Kurti acknowledged in a statement on February 5. It is clear the US and EU have pressed for him to implement the 2013 agreement to establish an association of Serb-majority municipalities. “If we introduce in the Western Balkans the idea of ethnically based association of municipalities, that’s a recipe for new conflicts,” he told the AP.
For Balkan countries, the EU integration process has never been easy. Depending on their internal political troubles — which are not rare — most have struggled.
Kosovo is far from alone. The other five candidate countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia) are also in some difficulty; some due to political uncertainties, and others due to the EU’s conditions which arise along the way.
But as a country with contested statehood (it is recognized by more than 100 countries but not Russia, China, or five EU countries), the international community is expecting Kosovo to first find a way to put an end to its decades-long adversaries with Serbia before pledging a clearer European future.
Since the declaration of its independence, Kosovo has been admitted to a handful of international forums with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, International Olympic Committee, and other sports governing bodies the most notable, but it has struggled to get acceptance from many others like UNESCO and Interpol, where its applications were turned down following Serbian protests.
Indeed, blocking Kosovan acceptance around the world is a major aim of Serbian state policy. In May, it was angered when the Kosovo government applied to join the Council of Europe. Considering Russia’s expulsion from the Council, many in Kosovo had hoped that the application will be reviewed and accepted without issue.
The country’s EU membership bid faces still greater hurdles, not least because five of 27 member states (Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Slovakia, and Romania) do not recognize it.
But the biggest blow for Kosovo since the submission of its application has come from Hungary when Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó stated that his country will not support Kosovo’s EU membership until a final agreement with Serbia on the normalization of relations is signed.
“The premature admission of Kosovo by various European entities may jeopardize the search for reconciliation,” Szijjártó said on January 13, after a meeting with his Serbian counterpart, Ivica Dačić.
The EU and US continue with efforts to bridge the differences between the old foes — a version of the latest plan has been circulated requesting the two parties to start from the assumption that neither can represent the other in the international sphere.
There is clearly common ground between the two; Serbia can expend diplomatic capital blocking Kosovo but the ultimate benefits are hard to discern. It’s unlikely, for example, that Serbia will enter the EU before its small neighbor.
Meanwhile, the talks grind on. And perhaps there will be no progress until a fast-developing crisis (these crop up with very little warning) focuses the West’s efforts on other seemingly bigger global issues.
Until then, Kosovo’s application envelope risks gathering dust on a shelf in Brussels.
Perparim Isufi joined BIRN Kosovo in May 2014 and currently serves as the regional editor of Balkan Insight.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.