One step forward - will the next be a step back?

Author: Vladimir Gligorov
Uploaded: Tuesday, 03 April, 2012

Acute analysis of the possibilities and dangers implicit in the recent agreement between Belgrade and Prishtina, which paved the way for Serbia to gain EU candidate status.

Serbia’s agreement with the Kosovo government is undoubtedly a step forward. Let’s first explain in which direction; whether it is the first of a series of steps; and, finally, whether it signals a reduction in variance, i.e. the practice of marching out of step.  
The agreement is being presented, unsurprisingly perhaps, as confirmation of the [official] policy of ‘Both Kosovo and Europe’. But in reality it is a decision to go for what can be achieved, which is moving closer to the European Union, and to give up what cannot be achieved. Reading the agreement reached in Brussels, it becomes clear that it permits Kosovo to acquire international subjectivity, at least in regional and European institutions. There are no conditions attached to this, as is made clear in the footnote. Hence, the fact that some countries do and others do not recognise Kosovo as an independent state does not qualify Kosovo’s international presence, nor present any obstacle to cooperation, be it regional or bilateral. The EU intermediary in these negotiations, Robert Cooper, put this well when saying that ‘the only true meaning of this footnote is that Kosovo’s name is in accordance with international law’. 
With this agreement, on the other hand, the Serbian side gained removal from the agenda of a problem the intractability of which, at least in the form in which it was perceived over the past three decades, has held back Serbia’s political development. What kind of relations the two countries may develop will depend on their ability to identify common interests and realise them through cooperation.   These are obvious in the sphere of economic cooperation, and of individual and collective rights in both countries. Since the responsibilities are now well defined, it is to be expected that their cooperation will advance, if not bilaterally (at least not at the start) then through regional institutions - both those that already exist and those that might be established. 
The additional value of this agreement is that it rejects the policy of territorial partition which has the potential of destabilising not just Kosovo and Serbia, but also the neighbouring states. To the extent that this agreement is honoured, and conducted in good faith, the solution to other ethnic and human-rights problems is supposed to take place within the framework of the existing states and their territories. One should note here that any claim to Kosovo territory on the part of Serbia, or to that of Serbia on the part of Kosovo, would clash with international law and come under the United Nations obligation to protect territorial integrity, if need be by the use of force. One should not, of course, expect the UN to be terribly effective here.   But this is a consequence of accepting Kosovo’s international subjectivity, irrespective of whether Kosovo is or is not a member of the UN.   The agreement should also encourage an understanding that the question of frontiers in the Balkans has been solved.
What steps could and should follow?   It is necessary to take into account that this is a temporary agreement, which could lead to a permanent one or to some other lasting solution to be found even in Kosovo’s eventual UN membership. But since it would appear that, at least for the time being, the agreement will not be submitted to the Serbian parliament for ratification, it is clear that additional steps are needed to clarify its implications. If not now, then certainly as the process of Serbia’s integration into the European Union advances, it will become necessary for the two states to recognise each other and establish diplomatic and maybe also friendly relations, if they find this useful. Since we are dealing here with a relatively long period of negotiations with the EU - say ten years - there is a real danger, however, that things could return to the past: that one side or the other could regress in its political behaviour.  
The two most likely risks are these. First, that some future Serbian government may decide to annul this agreement, including all that it could give rise to in the interim, because it runs contrary to the constitution or to the political goals of the electorate and the parties it brings to power. The forthcoming general election will be the first test, followed by the election of the new state president. If the government changes, the new ruling coalition will have to decide whether this agreement, and the process it has initiated, binds it or not. As things are, the relief that a very difficult problem, which for a long time determined the outcome of political competition in Serbia, has been removed should ensure the election of a government that would adhere to the agreement and work to secure the advantages that it brings. These lie not only in the opening of negotiations with the EU, but also in significant improvement of cooperation with Kosovo. Such cooperation should bring about a significant liberalisation of movement within and across the borders of the two countries, and also increased economic and cultural cooperation. Taken as a whole, this would significantly improve aspects of security both in Kosovo and in Serbia.
It is to be expected, therefore, that this agreement excludes the formation of a coalition government in which one or more members favours annulment of the agreement, and the reopening of conflict over the status of Kosovo and Serbia’s attitude to the EU. But the risk of worsening relations might increase later, because the whole process, so to speak, depends on good news, and could prove unstable if things do not go well and bad news keep coming. Serbia finds itself in a very difficult economic situation, and social pressures can only rise, at least for a time. As a result, the influence of new nationalist movements and parties could increase. Judging by experience, the reality in Kosovo has not always provided sufficient arguments against seeking political support through rhetoric calling for changing the situation there. Matters stand differently now, not only because the process of integration into the European Union exists, but also and even more because there is a democratic way for making decisions. To the extent that this can be preserved, i.e. if there is no slide towards some form of autocratic regime, the prospect that democratic elections might lead to government by an aggressively nationalist party should diminish.
The other great risk is that Kosovo public opinion and the Kosovo government might fail to be satisfied by the ethnic and national cooperation that offers the framework of freedom and political institutions to be found in the European Union, leading to a growing interest in unification of the two Albanian states. This would inevitably reopen territorial issues and conflicts in the Balkans, and pose a significant challenge to regional cooperation and security. It is only realistic to expect growing cooperation between Kosovo and Albania, above all for economic reasons.   Improved communications will bring closer the exit to the sea, and open a whole number of possibilities for increased economic relations. This would benefit everyone in the wider Balkan area and, provided that democracy and ties to the European Union are consolidated, would strengthen all the Balkan states. But the risk does exist, because interest in changing the political map can arise in the pursuit of certain political and ideological interests. This is something that is not specific to the Albanian and Serbian populations only, but that represents the political problem of nationalism which European unification is meant to solve. There are no guarantees, however, when it comes to political matters; and a redistribution of political power and authority as a rule provides powerful political motivation irrespective of the political system, so that it is impossible definitively to remove the risk of territorial re-configuration. Democratic decision-making normally provides for more rational choice, but it is not unknown for democracies to succumb to nationalist pressure.
Can one say that the direction has been set, and that the policy of erratically changing course has been abandoned in Serbia?   In this context, the debate on the advantages and disadvantages of integration into the European Union, because it entails joining a customs union and establishing a different relationship of exchange with the rest of the world, is particularly interesting. There are already warnings that Serbia will have to give up its agreement on free trade with Russia and other countries that have joined, or will join, the free trade zone which Russia is creating. There will also be the objection that growing integration into the European Union inevitably stimulates also an interest in joining NATO, which would sever close friendly relations with Russia and other countries in the immediate and wider neighbourhood. 
The charge that this would cost Serbia the advantage of free trade with Russia is largely devoid of economic sense, because the interests of both Russia and the EU are such that one can expect a significant liberalisation of mutual trade in the future; so the level of custom protection, if it remains at all, will become very low and would hardly create an obstacle to Serbian exports. The ability of the Western states to trade with Russia through Serbia will be much reduced, since this is already very limited. But there is no doubt that Serbian negotiators will be able to demand that the European Union take into account the existing free trade agreement, and that a suitable transitional period be provided, if they think this would be to Serbia’s advantage. 
The objection concerning membership of NATO carries greater weight with Serbian public opinion, and is therefore bound to involve a more concentrated and long-term public debate. The agreement with Kosovo, provided that it is respected and strengthened through cooperation with Kosovo and through the eventual establishment of diplomatic relations, will greatly reduce challenges to Serbia’s security. Defence and security force could be greatly reduced, because there is in fact no real threat. As for armed forces intended to expand Serbia’s territory, any such thing would inevitably involve a conflict with NATO, because practically all the neighbouring states will either be its members or be under its protection. It should be realised, therefore, that it is in Serbia’s interest to join NATO, so as to be able to influence its decisions and also gain greater protection from eventual security threats originating within more distant, international conflicts of interest. The idea that one can remain neutral - Serbia as the West in the East and the East in the West - runs contrary to historical experience, and has become irrelevant too, because the conflict between East and West is practically over and is unlikely to be renewed. There are advantages in a collective system of protection from asymmetric threats, and this will be the context in which the debate on whether membership of NATO is useful or not will take place, provided it is conducted rationally,
One can say, therefore, that the first step has been made, and that one need not suppose that the next step will be backwards. But also that it will be necessary to mobilize the political will to continue in this direction and give up the policy of walking out of step. 
Translated from Helsinška povelja 159-160, January-February 2012.
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