Serbia, the EU and the Kosovo Issue: No Reason for Pessimism

9 March 2010 | Focus | English

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At first glance, recent events in Serbia’s relationship with Kosovo do not point to particularly good prospects for the future. Not only can Serbia’s entire Kosovo policy be summarized broadly as “non-recognition” (“under any circumstances”, it could be added), the country is also actively excluding itself from political events and processes which could potentially thaw its relations with Kosovo. However, we should not start to panic too soon, nor should we view Serbia’s position on Kosovo through the eyes of the 1990s. Although the importance of Kosovo for Serbian mythology and identity is unlikely to diminish, Serbia has fortunately finally grown up and moved on – even if this is not always immediately apparent from its Kosovo policy.

A quick study of events since the start of 2010 illustrates this tension very well. Firstly, in January, President Boris Tadic refused to attend the inauguration of the new Croatian president Ivo Josipovic because the Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu was also invited. In the end, a representative from every former Yugoslav state except Serbia attended the inauguration. Speaking on Radio Television Serbia (RTS), Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic commented: “The Croatian president has made his decision. He chose Kosovo officials, not Serbian officials,” adding: “We want the best possible relations with Croatia, but not at the price of being degraded, or, God forbid, the recognition of Kosovo, and that would be the consequence if a Serbian official was to attend an inauguration organized in such a way.”1

Then, on 20th March this year, Tadic boycotted the pan-Balkan summit held in Brdo, Slovenia. The conference was designed to encourage good regional relations, but the attendance of Kosovo as a sovereign state threw the proverbial spanner in the works and posed a dilemma for Tadic because sitting at the table with an independent Kosovo would mean backtracking on the boycott policy which started with the Croatian inauguration. In the end Tadic stayed away, and the damage done to the optimism of most observers was conveyed by the headline in The Economist: “Serbia ruins an attempt at Western Balkan unity.”2

The two incidents are not exceptions, but rather the norm for Serbia’s behaviour where Kosovo is concerned. Now the boycotts and isolationist politics have almost started to affect Serbia’s EU integration. The government actively keeps pursuing the “Kosovo over EU” rhetoric, despite the fact that EU representatives have repeatedly said that recognition of Kosovo is not a pre-requisite for entry into the EU. While officially Vuk Jeremic declared on 17 February, in an interview with the daily Danas, that Kosovo and the EU are separate issues, this message does not tend to come across in government statements to the public. 

Some observers, not least the Kosovo Prime Minister Hasim Thaci, have been seeing red for a long time. The isolationism and rebuttals seen at the inauguration, together with boycotts of regional events and hints at secret conspiracies, signal to many that Serbia is returning to a quasi-Milosevic era.  

So is it really a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose in Serbia? Has the country really regressed to the isolationist and conservative politics of the Milosevic era? Ever since Milosevic fell from power in 2000, Serbia has indeed been one of the EU’s most difficult partners, posing problems in terms of Kosovo negotiations and cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). 

Whilst all the Balkan key words, “Milosevic”, “nationalism”, and “isolationism”, are yet again rearing their heads, it is important to stop viewing Serbia’s Kosovo policy through the eyes of the 1990s. Things in Serbia are not as bleak as they seem, and in fact there are some grounds for optimism about future relations between Serbia, Kosovo and the EU.

Although the petty squabbling between Serbian and Kosovar leaders is obvious, it is not indicative of impending disaster or renewed conflict. Rather, as The Economist points out, Serbia and Kosovo have adopted a relatively grown up attitude towards meeting together, give or take the “odd tantrum”.3 The “odd tantrum” is certainly a good analogy – Serbia often behaves like a grown up at the EU table, but throws its proverbial toys out of the pram at the first mention of Kosovo’s sovereignty. 

Rather than indicating a return to Milosevic-era style politics, these “tantrums” illustrate Serbia’s strangely fragmented approach to the Kosovo problem. There is one face for the domestic public and another for the international community. Seen from this perspective, the Tadic and Jeremic proclamations and boycotts make sense. Otherwise, why would Tadic, the most democratic and EU-orientated Serbian president to date, allow himself to get caught up in seemingly petty boycotts of regional events, and, more generally, endorse the conservative and unproductive “Kosovo is Serbia” policy?

Looking at the broader picture, from the moment the international community held its breath over Kosovo independence in 2008, wondering whether Serbia would slip away from Europe, Tadic has done a remarkable job in steering post-Kostunica Serbia towards the EU. Tadic’s efforts have seen Serbia sign the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) earlier than expected in 2008, together with the visa liberalization agreement in December 2009. He has also helped to diffuse some of the public dissatisfaction about the loss of Kosovo by pushing for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) status case to be opened. 

Even so, Tadic is an elected politician, and the support of the Serbian public is notoriously hard to win and to keep, as we saw in the Serbian presidential elections in 2008. To keep this support, Tadic must walk a fine line between appeasing the EU and appeasing the public, and this is a public obviously unhappy about the loss of Kosovo but one which at the same time has no illusions about future options. The Serbian public is surprisingly clear-headed about this and knows that no diplomatic miracle will ever return Kosovo to Serbia.

The sticking point, as always, is the question of identity and history. Kosovo is a huge part of both for Serbia, but this connection with identity and history would not be nearly so powerful were it not a reflection of Serbia’s resentment towards “the West”. “Kosovo” is now a prism through which many of Serbia’s relationships with the region and the West are refracted.

In addition, it is too soon for Serbs to start talking about the events and atrocities of the 1990s which led to the loss of Kosovo in the first place. Taking this off the agenda for discussion and political debate only leaves room for one position, that of insisting that “Kosovo is Serbia” and rebelling against restrictive EU policies. The Serbian public expects this kind of rhetoric and it is exactly what Tadic has given them. 

The Serbian Ambassador to Germany made this very clear when he said that “Serbia just wants to be treated fairly by the EU.”4 But Serbia is treated fairly by the EU and, in fact, if we take into account the financial assistance, visa liberalisation and early SAA signing, one can argue that it is treated extraordinarily well. But this is not the problem. Rather, Serbia has resented the EU and the international community ever since the 1990s. There is a widespread feeling that Europe could have done much more to prevent the conflicts in the Balkans, and even a feeling that Europe allowed these conflicts to escalate “on purpose” to the point they did. This was further compounded by the NATO air strikes, and the international community’s insistence that Serbia cooperate with the ICTY.

In this context, Kosovo’s declaration of independence, overseen by the international community (in the Serbian version, “engineered by the EU”), is not the start of Serbia’s relationship with the EU and an imagined “Europe” and “the West”, but rather the final straw which strained an already difficult relationship. 

Thus, Tadic’s boycotts of regional events are simply a demonstration of how this perception of resentment and identity has seeped from the public consciousness into politics. Even so, we should not be too pessimistic: given that the current tensions are not the start of a troubled relationship, but rather the culmination of one, Serbia’s relationship with the region and the EU is unlikely to be strained for much longer purely because of Kosovo. 

We must not allow the “odd tantrum” to colour our perception of Serbia’s other efforts. Serbia’s progress as a country in transition is currently measured by its progress towards European integration. On the whole, considering the enormity of the problems Serbia has had to overcome to get to where it is today, this has been positive.

Kosovo always has been and always will be an ideological question for Serbia, and as such it is unlikely have any real effect on domestic or international politics (other than recent boycotts, for instance). This lesson was learned in the late 1990s, and Tadic is unlikely to make the same mistakes again. On that basis at least, we can take comfort from the fact that the “Kosovo is Serbia” policy will not go any further than it already has.  

In this broader scheme of things, the boycott of the Brdo summit is not to be taken as an indication of Serbia’s regression. It is unlikely that Serbia will ever recognize Kosovo, and its relations with the former province may remain frozen for a long time to come, but the most important aspect of contemporary Serbia is the fact that its threatened isolationism from the European stage has never become a reality, and that alone should give us grounds for optimism.