Is Kosovo-Serbia normalization a pipedream?

6 Qershor 2023, 12:23Kosovo & Region ZORAN IVANOV

A potential escalation of the ongoing disputes between Serbia and Kosovo to a direct conflict is less likely because the stakes are too high for all involved actors, especially for the European Union and the United States. Nevertheless, the incident on May 29, 2023, is the second one in six months. Both sides blame each other. Yet, the blame game does not benefit either side. We only anticipate that Serbian and Kosovo officials learned valuable lessons from the ongoing war in Ukraine and their recent history of conflict and hope that rationality and pragmatism will prevail.

The latest disputes in North Kosovo have triggered many debates and arguments that a new conflict in Kosovo is imminent. Even though we cannot exclude escalation, two critical aspects do not contribute to the argument of possible escalation or direct conflict between Serbia and Kosovo.

A potential new conflict would be a failure for the EU and U.S. since Kosovo is still an international protectorate under United Nations resolution 1244.

Kosovo lacks significant national power to confront Serbia in a conflict. Likewise, Kosovo does not have the luxury to initiate a battle because it will undermine the EU’s and the U.S.’ trust in it as an independent state and will also undermine current diplomatic efforts for peaceful solutions to mutual disputes. Similarly, it is not in Serbia’s best interest to initiate a conflict because it will stop EU accession talks, and most importantly, it will stop attracting more foreign direct investments (FDIs) and business opportunities.

International factors and actors

Any escalation between Serbia and Kosovo will be perceived as a failure of the EU and the U.S. and will damage their credibility and ideology. Instead of transforming into peace, the Kosovo conflict has become frozen. So far, many agreements have been reached, but the implementation could be better. Kosovo wants the dialogue with Serbia to end with mutual recognition, but Serbia seeks a compromise and has said it will never recognize its former province. Kosovo’s status can be scrutinized from two perspectives: factual reality and ideological.

The factual reality is that what was supposed to be a solution to the Kosovo War has turned into a frozen conflict since 1999. For proponents of liberal democracy, Kosovo is an example of protecting human rights by disregarding the sovereignty of the nation-state while enforcing liberal democracy. Installing liberal democracy is not necessarily bad. For some countries, it has excellent benefits. For other countries or regions, such as Kosovo, it results in frozen conflicts. In the Western Balkan case, neither Serbia nor Kosovo became a liberal democracy after the Milosevic regime changed. Regardless of whether we accept or deny factual reality today, we are facing a frozen conflict that can turn from peace to conflict in a blink of an eye.

Further, neither the EU nor the U.S. has the luxury of allowing a new conflict in their “backyard.” It will resonate as a strategic weakness over Russia in the ongoing war in Ukraine. Russia has been using Kosovo’s frozen conflict to justify its actions in Ukraine. If there is any failure to prevent new conflict in Kosovo, critical opponents of liberal democracy, such as Russia, will use it to gain an ideological advantage to justify their actions in Ukraine. Hence, the EU and the U.S. will maintain peace in Kosovo and not lose the strategic initiative in the war in Ukraine.

Regional factors and actors

On a regional scale, Kosovo and Serbia will not benefit from initiating direct conflict. Kosovo lacks significant national power to confront Serbia in any conflict. Furthermore, Kosovo does not have the luxury to initiate conflict because it will undermine the EU and U.S.’ trust put in Kosovo’s ability to be a state. It will also delegitimize current diplomatic efforts for a peaceful solution. Additionally, Serbia can lose its economic initiative in production and export and damage the conditions for attracting FDIs.

Kosovo’s economy and military capacity to wage war with Serbia is deficient. The U.S. and EU gave Kosovo the trust to build a state in early 2000. If Kosovo initiates any armed conflict or provokes civil unrest, it would mean that they do not respect their foremost supporters. This is at the core of the internal political issue between incumbent Prime Minister Albin Kurti and opposition parties. They accused Prime Minister Kurti of breaking the relationship with the U.S. and taking unilateral actions without U.S. consent, according to Ramush Haradinaj, chairperson of Alliance for Future of Kosovo and former prime minister. It turns out that Haradinaj was right after the U.S. ambassador to Pristina, Jeffrey Hovenier, said that the U.S. would “cease all efforts to assist Kosovo in gaining recognition from states that have not recognized Kosovo and in the process of integration into international organizations” after the May 29 incidents. Obvious Kurti’s “reciprocity” policy toward Serbia can result in the loss of the EU and U.S. support. Consequently, it is creating a critical weakness in managing Serbian diplomatic pressure and in the case of confronting Serbia militarily, it represents a significant obstacle. Serbia’s firepower outnumbers even the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) for a given space and time. Nevertheless, Serbia has already experienced confrontation with NATO; hence it is less likely that they will do it again. Henceforth, neither the Serbian military nor KFOR is willing to take confrontation.

Serbia has created favorable conditions for economic growth in the past decade. The EU membership has been on its agenda since 2009; in 2012, it got EU candidate status. For 2020, it received $2.9 billion as development aid for accession talks with the EU. At the same time, Serbia’s economic system has attracted more FDIs. In 2017, they had an increase of 22.9% or up to $2.89 billion from 2016. For 2019, they increased FDIs to $4.27 billion, followed by a slight decline in 2020 to $3.49 billion. They outnumber other Western Balkan countries’ economic growth in such economic opportunities. Hence, it is less likely to expect Serbia to initiate any aggression over Kosovo. Otherwise, they will lose the economic initiative they were able to achieve. Additionally, Serbia masterfully uses Kurti’s mistakes to gain international support and strengthen the negotiation positions over Kosovo.

Can Russia be involved?

It will be a strategic overreach for Russia to support Serbia in the new conflict in Kosovo because it does not bring any strategic advantage in the war in Ukraine. There can be expected information and disinformation involvement that requires fewer Russian human resources.

Serbia and Russia are traditional partners. Serbia is the only country where Russia managed joint military exercises in 2021. Additionally, Russia and China are the only reason the U.N. still does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Serbia refused to join other European nations’ sanctions regimes. This mutual support keeps the door open for some experts to expect that the worst-case scenario for the Kosovo conflict will be coordinated action between Serbia and Russia. It is less likely that Russia will defocus itself from the war in Ukraine.

Russia’s “special operation” in Ukraine has become a challenge on three primary levels. Militarily Russians faced significant strong resistance on the ground, resulting in many operational mistakes. Economically sanctions are challenging the Russian economy for further development. Ideologically, they enter into a conflict of perceptions with the West. Their aggressive posture resulting in the loss of innocent Ukrainian lives does not contribute to winning the hearts and minds of other nations. Hence, the new conflict in Kosovo will not provide any strategic advantage for Russia.

Nevertheless, when basic national survival instinct kicks in and national interests are threatened, we can hope that rationality and pragmatism will prevail. We only anticipate that Serbian and Kosovo officials learned valuable lessons from the unfortunate loss of innocent Ukrainian lives in the ongoing war in Ukraine, including past regional conflicts.

*Academic at TOBB ETU and Senior Advisor at RINK Institute in Ljubljana, Slovenia

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