Despite the lack of progress, political deadlock and the recent escalation of tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, the Brussels agreement remains the only option for normalisation of their relations.
Five years ago, on April 19, 2013, an extraordinary agreement was signed in Brussels by Serbia’s Prime Minister, Ivica Dacic, and Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, when they pledged to work towards the “normalisation of relations” between Serbia and its southern/former/disputed province.
The so-called Brussels Agreement mapped out points of negotiation and compromise concerning Kosovo’s Serbian minority, the nature of power sharing between Kosovo’s Serbian and Albanian communities, and the prospects of Kosovo’s involvement in international organisations.
Perhaps the most important outcome could have been that two diametrically opposing sides finally found compromise through EU-mediated sponsorship.
At long last, it was believed, a workable solution for Kosovo’s future could begin to grow between Belgrade and Pristina, which was hoped would improve the quality of life for the Serbian and Albanian communities in Kosovo.
Seven years after its unilateral declaration of independence, despite its disputed status, Kosovo had a roadmap for moving forward with plans of political stabilisation, economic development, and most importantly international engagement.
Five years later, however, little has happened, let alone changed; the two sides have made hardly any progress.
Serbia remains an EU candidate country, but no definitive date for membership has been reached. Kosovo remains a quasi-sovereign para-state with no indications that any obstacles towards its full international sovereignty will be removed any time soon.
As in most other similar cases of internationally-sponsored negotiations involving conflict resolution, disputed territories and complicated power-sharing, each side claims to be in support of the agreement, blames the other for stalling, yet does little to ease the situation.
As a result, five years after the signing of the Brussels Agreement, the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo seem to be exactly where its signatories wanted it to be – nowhere.
Association of Serbian Municipalities remains key dispute
Central to the agreement was the establishment of a so-called Association/Community of Serbian Municipalities (Zajednica srpskih opstina – ZSO) which, as its name implies, would operate as a coordinating body for Kosovo’s Serbian-majority municipalities.
These municipalities include four in the north of Kosovo: Leposavic, Zubin Potok, Zvecan, and North Mitrovica; and six in the centre and south: Gracanica, Novo Brdo, Ranilug, Partes, Klokot, and Strpce.
All were originally designated with “enhanced competencies” in Annex III of the so-called Ahtisaari Plan that envisioned Kosovo as a democratic and multiethnic sovereign state. These “competencies” included retention of extensive links with Serbia.
According to the Brussels Agreement, this association would have “competencies given by the European Charter of Local Self Government and Kosovo law” that grant “full overview of the areas of economic development, education, health, urban and rural planning” alongside “other additional competencies as may be delegated by the central authorities”.
The ZSO does little to add to these already envisioned municipal competencies, but effectively affirms the institutional autonomy of Kosovo’s Serbian communities by providing them with a unifying and coordinating body.
The central problem is not over its formation, but the scope of its functional capabilities.
Pristina fears the ZSO will be similar to the Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska in Bosnia, with power to veto legislation.
Serbs fear that if Pristina has its way, the ZSO’s powers will be limited to little more than a civic organisation with the ability only to organise conferences and ethnic folk festivals.
To date, the Kosovo government has yet to vote on its implementation, and attempts to do so have led to a number of protests and obstructionist measures by opposition parties that oppose any negotiation with Serbia until it recognises Kosovo’s sovereignty.
This has prompted Serbian politicians in Belgrade and Kosovo to accuse their Albanian counterparts of stalling and of actively working to undermine an agreement they were co-signatories to.
While there has been little progress on this issue for the past five years, a breakthrough seems even further away following the escalation of tensions between Serbia and Kosovo in the past few weeks, involving the controversial arrest and manhandling of Marko Djuric, the director of Serbia’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija, on charges of “illegally” entering the territory.
Amidst the predicable mixture of bluster and hubris coming from Serbian and Kosovo Albanian officials following this incident, members of Kosovo’s Serbian community have pledged to form ZSO with or without Pristina’s approval on April 20, on the fifth anniversary of the Brussels Agreement.
On April 18, however, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said that Serbia would instead give Pristina three months to do it itself.
Both sides sticking to their positions
Kosovo Serb pledge to move forward may have prompted Pristina to suddenly muster the determination to ratify the ZSO within its own legal system.
But, as mentioned earlier, at issue is the scope of its functional abilities, which seems to be a problem in nearly all cases of autonomy negotiated with one regional group and a central government.
In Kosovo’s case, this dilemma is compounded further by its disputed international status, which limits its political leverage and dissuades Serbia from treating it as an equal international actor.
A major point of contention is how the ZSO will be placed within “Kosovo Law” and Kosovo’s constitutional framework – both of which are connected to a partially sovereign para-state that Serbia refuses to recognise.
While Serbia claims to support the necessity of negotiated settlements, it has not been shy in emphasising the ZSO’s continued links to Belgrade. It sees Serbs in Kosovo, first and foremost, as citizens of the larger Republic of Serbia, whose rights should not be limited by authorities in Pristina.
While the European Union calls for a settlement, it is unable to pressure Serbia to recognise Kosovo as a sovereign state, which gives Belgrade long-term advantage over Kosovo’s status and future.
This has framed much of the negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo leading up to and stemming from the Brussels Agreement.
Instead of meetings between two separate states, Kosovo negotiates with diminished authority in the eyes of Serbia, as well as the EU itself, which has never formally pushed for Kosovo’s sovereign recognition.
None of this has been lost on officials in Pristina, who have long suspected that the Brussels Agreement clears the road for Serbia’s entry into the European Union, while leaving Kosovo as a frozen conflict.
While they attend talks, make commitments to normalise relations, and blame Serbia when progress is stalled, Kosovo’s Albanian leadership finds it impractical to negotiate anything that will only further undermine Kosovo’s declared sovereignty.
Officials in Pristina bristle at the word “autonomy” when referring to the ZSO, largely because it appears to act as a euphemism for Serbia’s continued involvement not only in northern Kosovo, but also in Kosovo’s central and southern regions, threatening to create a parallel authority within a statelet trying to gain fully international sovereignty.
This situation has led many analysts to conclude that these agreements are acts of futility, since both sides remain diametrically opposed to each other.
Some hope still remains
There is, however, room for optimism, no matter how guarded.
First, Kosovo’s disputed status notwithstanding, it is in Pristina’s interest to formally and legally recognise its obligations to uphold the formation of the ZSO, which will have a significant degree of autonomy.
This should not be seen as something unique to Kosovo, nor should it be understood that this automatically gives Belgrade back-door access to its wayward province.
If anything, autonomy for Kosovo’s Serbian population upholds the principles of its constitution and the rhetoric of its political culture – that Kosovo is a multiethnic democratic state in which past cycles of interethnic violence have been broken.
Second, and by definition, anything that is “autonomous” exists within a larger legal body that recognises the said autonomy.
Hong Kong, South Tyrol, Catalonia, and Iraqi Kurdistan all have degrees of independent decision-making; however they all function within the legal constitutional structure of China, Italy, Spain, and Iraq.
The ZSO might operate “within Kosovo law”, but “Kosovo law” affords a significant degrees of autonomy and retention of links to Serbia.
Both Belgrade and Pristina seem to forget this when speaking to their own audiences.
Kosovo’s allegedly “special status”, so often repeated by its international supporters, includes disproportionate degrees of autonomy and power-sharing to its Serbian minority.
Third, patterns of autonomy and power-sharing in other regions have all shown that autonomy grows in strength and scope over time.
Thus, no matter how limited Pristina may initially want the ZSO to be, given Kosovo’s proximity within Europe and its hopeful membership of the European Union, the Serbian municipalities are likely to acquire increasing competencies in the coming years, similar to what is now seen in South Tyrol and Catalonia.
This last comparison is not that unrealistic to contemplate. The autonomy and prosperity enjoyed by South Tyrol today came after decades of tension, resistance from Rome, persistence by local German communities, and a dedicated effort by the-then European Community to mediate a resolution to a protracted conflict.
Obviously, a major difference lies in Austria and Italy both being sovereign states; but the EU has, at least officially, been just as determined to reach a settlement between Serbia and Kosovo as a key to peace and stability in the region.
Status and sovereignty notwithstanding, implementing the Brussels Agreement, which includes empowering Kosovo’s Serbian communities via the ZSO, will go a long way in reducing tension in a region plagued with years of political, economic, and diplomatic inertia.
The only alternative is a continuation of an indefinite frozen conflict.
Michael Rossi is Instructor in the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Visiting Instructor in the Department of Political Science at Long Island University Brooklyn, New York City. He is working on a collaborative project critically analyzing the nature of parastates around the world.