Kosovo, Serbia OK EU Plan, ‘But Devil Is in the Details,’ Analysts Say

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, left, and Kosovo's Prime Minister Albin Kurti, right, meet with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, second left, in Brussels, Feb. 27, 2023.

Kosovo and Serbia have agreed to back a proposed European Union plan for normalization of relations, but, in a sign of persisting differences about its implementation, stopped short of signing it.

The plan — revealed for the first time publicly Monday evening in Brussels — includes steps to bring the parties closer and resolve some issues such as mutual recognition of respective documents and national symbols, including passports, diplomas, license plates, and customs stamps. It also stipulates that Serbia “will not object to Kosovo’s membership in any international organization.”

The document, however, does not call for Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo’s statehood.

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The talks between Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti were held under the auspices of the European Union. The bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, told reporters after the meeting that “progress was made.”

"At the same time, more work is needed to ensure that what was accepted today by the parties will be implemented,” he said.

Whether the agreement of parties to the document is a significant achievement is not immediately clear, but some analysts are taking an optimistic view.

“I think one can confidently say that despite the absence of a signature, the glass is more than half full. I would say it's three-quarters full,” Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations told VOA. “I do feel that the parties have passed through some kind of important political inflection point. They are heading toward the finish line.”

“The finish line,” according to Kupchan, being Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo.

A child attends a parade during celebrations of the 15th anniversary of Kosovo independence in Pristina, Kosovo, Feb. 17, 2023.

“I think it's safe to say that that formal recognition is the endpoint of this process,” Kupchan said, adding that the document “is really spelling out how the first phase is going to be conducted and how it will unfold.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Greg Delawie told VOA the simple fact of an agreement between Kosovo and Serbia is good news.

“Any meeting in which the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia are treated as equals is a positive step.”

‘Devil in the details’

But there are questions about how far the proposal goes.

The thorny issue of the creation of an Association of Majority Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo is not explicitly mentioned in the plan and the approach to it by Kosovo and Serbia could determine the speed of the normalization process.

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Such an association, first proposed in 2013, would allow communities in Kosovo where ethnic Serbs are in the majority to collectively manage such affairs as economic development, education, health, urban and rural planning in their areas. Serbia sees it as an important protection for the Kosovo Serbs but the Kosovo government worries that it would unduly infringe on the prerogatives of a multiethnic independent country.

“The devil is in the details, and we don't know the details,” said Kupchan. “We do know that the Association is part of the deal and it's a piece of the puzzle that was put into place quite some time ago.”

On Tuesday, U.S. envoy for the Western Balkans Gabriel Escobar said Washington supports the agreements laid out in Brussels.

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“But while it was an important step, the hard work agreeing to an implementation annex still remains and we still want to see two parties move forward on that on an expedited basis,” said Escobar, referring to the next step of negotiations.

Borrell on Monday called that step “an integral part” of completing the deal.

There, say some experts, lies the real issue.

“We still have a long way to go before we have an agreement,” said David Kanin, adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former CIA senior analyst, adding that Monday’s agreement to the proposed plan “is simply an agreement to try to reach an agreement.”

“That implementation annex—that's the agreement,” he said.

There were signs that the parties may have chosen to ascribe more weight to those aspects of the deal that are most in line with their positions. For Kosovo’s Prime Minister Kurti, who said he was ready to sign the document, that seems to be the EU plan itself.

But Serbian President Vucic chose to focus on the implementation aspect. He said he insisted, during the meeting, on the creation of the Association of Serb Municipalities, which was called for in previous agreements. According to the European plan, both Parties confirm their obligation to implement all past agreements.

“I don’t think Kurti was ready to accept that,” said Vucic. “[Whether] that will be possible in the future, [we] will see.”

Kanin of Johns Hopkins says these statements indicate that basic differences remain.

“That's the kind of thing they've been saying before about each other in terms of the Serbs insisting on the Association of Serb Municipalities and Kurti saying, ‘No, that’s not the priority,’” Kanin told VOA. “They have different priorities and different positions. That hasn't changed.”

The EU and the U.S. have been pressing for the creation of the Association, but so far Kosovo has been reluctant, arguing that the establishment of a mono-ethnic community would violate its constitution, destabilizing the state and threatening its functionality.

Security forces of Kosovo march at a parade during celebrations of the 15th anniversary of Kosovo independence in Pristina, Kosovo, Feb. 17, 2023.

“It will need to be implemented in a manner consistent with Kosovo’s constitution and with the understanding that it is intended to benefit Kosovo’s Serbs, not the Serbian government,” former Ambassador Delawie said.

As a result, said Kupchan, there needs to be more clarity about “how to reconcile some level of autonomy for the Serbian community — the Serbian minority in Kosovo — with the powers of Kosovo's own government.”

U.S. envoy Escobar made it clear that, from the U.S. perspective, the creation of the Association of Serb Municipalities is legally binding, and that implementation should begin immediately.

Borrell says the diplomacy will continue, and he is aiming for another round of talks in March.

Daniel Serwer of Johns Hopkins University told VOA that although Kurti does not like the idea of implementing the Association of Serb Municipalities, he has suggested he would implement it under a different name.

“Provided Serbia recognizes Kosovo and establishes full diplomatic relations, I think he [Kurti] is correct in believing that implementation of the Association before recognition is a threat to Kosovo's sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said.

Escobar said this particular agreement is about normalization, not recognition. And while the U.S. supports this agreement, it ultimately believes that all the countries of the region should "recognize each other and have ... full and positive relations between each other."

Russia’s shadow

The renewed diplomatic push to broker a deal between the former foes comes against the backdrop of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

SEE ALSO: Russia’s War on Ukraine Endangers Stability in Western Balkans, US Officials Say

“I am very hopeful and our expectations are very high for this agreement,” Escobar said on Tuesday. “I think what's new is not only the seriousness of both governments, but the seriousness of our European partners to make this happen in the shadow of one of the biggest crises Europe has seen since the Second World War.”

Russia has stood by Serbia’s non-recognition of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, and the West wants to steer Serbia — the only country aspiring for EU membership that has not imposed sanctions on Moscow — into its sphere of influence.

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Kupchan said “Russia looms large in what is transpiring,” and, with its aggression in Ukraine, has lost a foothold in the Balkans, making siding with Russia or affiliating with Russia less appealing for Serbia.

“[Russia’s invasion of Ukraine] has expedited U.S. and EU engagement in the region to remove whatever footholds Russia has left,” said Kupchan. “The more that can be done to resolve outstanding cleavages in the Balkans, the more difficult it will be for Russia to exercise influence.”

Keida Kostreci and Milan Nesic reported from Washington, Besim Abazi reported from Brussels.