There is trouble in the Western Balkans. Again. Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, mispresents the simmering Serbia-Kosovo conflict as a “pogrom” against Kosovo Serbs while denying any responsibility for escalating the crisis.  

Worse, Western officials continue to appease the autocrat and neglect reckless behavior threatening regional instability. That has already left at least 25 NATO troops injured by ethnic Serbia rioters in May and forced the hurried reinforcement of Western forces in the country. But rather than cracking down on the source of the instability, Kosovo faces European Union (EU) and US pressure to establish an Association/Community of Serb-majority Municipalities (A/CSM), to represent the truculent areas of northern Kosovo. The issue will once again come center stage in September.      

The protests by Kosovo Serbs erupted when Kosovo attempted to facilitate the safety of democratically-elected Kosovo Albanian mayors when assuming their duties. The move was unpopular among Kosovo Serbs given that Serbian List, a Kosovo party closely affiliated with Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party, campaigned to boycott the vote, leading to a turnout of only 3.5%. The elections were recognized by the US as “consistent with Kosovo’s constitutional and legal requirements.” In response to the subsequent violence however, Western officials imposed restrictions against Kosovo while conducting joint military exercises with Serbia, sidestepping the censure of Vučić for fomenting the crisis. 

Western officials are now ramping up pressure on Kosovo to establish an A/CSM as if this is the silver bullet to ending the Serbia-Kosovo conflict. Recently, EU High Representative Josep Borrell threatened that failure to establish the A/CSM “will have serious consequences for [EU-Kosovo] relations.”  

Yet, no evidence supports a causal relationship between an A/CSM’s creation and ending of the Serbia-Kosovo dispute. In exchange for the establishment of the assembly, Serbia need not recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty — the root cause of the conflict. Paradoxically, the assembly would offer Serbia more avenues to create instability in Kosovo.    

Initially, the vision of the A/CSM was to dismantle (Serbian) parallel government structures and to empower the Kosovo state. In practice, Serbia is pushing for an institution with executive powers, which will weaken Kosovo’s sovereignty, provide a platform for an increasingly authoritarian Serbian state to grow its influence in Kosovo, and further fuel ethnic tensions in a region where political leaders might be usefully focused on building multi-ethnic democracies.  

In 2015, Kosovo’s Constitutional Court scrutinized the prescribed powers of the A/CSM as envisioned by the 2013 Brussels Agreement, especially the constitutionality of the right to “amend legislation” and receive financial support from Serbia with little oversight.   

Presently, the precise nature of the body remains under negotiation. On May 2, Prime Minister Albin Kurti shared a draft concept with Vučić and EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, Miroslav Lajčák, and their responses are pending. It is likely that Serbia will push back with a maximalist demand on executive powers.  

The creation of another ethnically-based entity will open up Pandora’s box. It sets a dangerous precedent in the Balkans and beyond, especially given that the revanchist ideas of Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia are not dead, even three decades after Wars of Yugoslav Succession. Serbian nationalists continue to promote the Serbian world (Sprski svet), which is analogous to the Kremlin-backed, imperialist concept of Russian world (Russkii mir). Critics worry the A/CSM will be comparable to the political autonomy enjoyed by Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina), where it fosters an extremist and politically destructive agenda while awarding medals to Vladimir Putin.  

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In the absence of recognition by Serbia of Kosovo’s independence, the A/CSM will merely provide a platform to further delegitimize and undermine Kosovo’s authority. Vučić frequently “escalates” the Kosovo situation in order to “deescalate” the domestic situation in Serbia or to get what he wants at the bargaining table. Considering his authoritarian trajectory, this should worry Western mediators.  

Furthermore, in terms of precedent, should every minority group in the Balkans be allowed autonomous governance structures? What would happen to Serbia’s Vojvodina region with at least 24 ethnic groups? Where do you draw the line? 

The notion that different groups cannot live harmoniously spells trouble for the future of democracy in the Balkans. Bitter ethnic violence has plagued the region for decades, and policies based on ethnic lines do not encourage interethnic cooperation.  

As we have seen in Bosnia and Hercegovina, the constant threat of secession leads to instability. These political configurations also create an opening for Russia to propagate disinformation and undermine democracy.  

The EU’s assumption that Serbia can be nudged to end conflict via EU membership overlooks reality — only 33% of Serbians favor it. As such, the temptation of the EU carrot is questionable, and Vučić has no major incentive to resolve the conflict, especially after the formation of the A/CSM. Kosovo will be worse off than when it began the negotiations. 

Western allies must understand that an assembly will not ameliorate tensions between the two nations, but rather tip the scale of power still further in the direction of Vučić’s autocratic regime.  

Instead of castigating a fledgling democracy for defending its sovereignty, Western diplomats should stand with Kosovo in its fight for a multiethnic, liberal democracy. The ultimate goal should be to strengthen a pluralistic democracy in the Balkans, not undermine it.  

Jack Galloway is a CEPA Intern and a student at UC Berkeley.  

Dr. Leon Hartwell is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at CEPA and a Senior Associate at LSE IDEAS, London School of Economics.  

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.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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