Again, crisis between Serbia and Kosovo

Once again, winds of crisis and perhaps war blow over the Serbia-Kosovo border, all these years since the end-of millennium armed confrontation between the Milosevic regime in Belgrade and the Western-supported independence movement in Kosovo leading to the establishment of the international instruments in Kosovo, NATO:s KFOR, the UN:s UNMIK and the EU:s EULEX, et al, and to the Kosovo declaration of independence in 2008, still today non-recognized by not only Serbia but also permanent UNSC members Russia and China and, significantly, EU (and NATO) member states Spain, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and non-NATO member Cyprus, all with their different national reasons for non-recognition.

Again the cause of winds of conflict blowing boils down to the status of Serb-populated Mitrovica bordering Serbia proper and the seemingly unresolvable clash – in spite of the heavy and lasting international presence – between Serbian and Kosovar concepts and processes of sovereignty and nation-building, between Serbian and Kosovar nationalism, and the internationally divisive power of that clash. Again roadblocks are erected and escalation threats are exchanged between the enduring contenders.

And simultaneously, also bordering a Serbia “proper” which, under a recently re-elected president Vucic, nourishes special relations with Russia and therefore refuses to adhere to EU and NATO sanctions against Putin’s Russia, we have Republica Serbska as a problematic and disruptive component of the fragile Dayton Accord product, Bosnia and Herzegovina, struggling with the potentially disruptive consequences of its recent round of elections. And with the disruptive consequences of the raging Russia-Ukraine war, as is the case for the entire Western Balkans region, or indeed the entire Balkans region, in the Eastern fringe of Europe.

The EU-Western Balkans summit in Tirana, and its backdrop

Still today an enormous challenge, thus, for the “geo-political” European Union, or even more so in the light of – or rather the shadow of – the Ukraine crisis. Hence the effort now to add new momentum and energy to the EU-Western Balkans established – albeit mutually frustrated – policy relations by means of an autumn summit meeting, this time symbolically, for the first time, in the region, in the Albanian capital Tirana.

The backdrop of this “historical” EU-WB summit, over and above the mere dramatic fact of the Ukraine crisis, had been the sense in leading EU (and US) capitals that no stone could be allowed to be left unturned regarding mobilization of resistance by all sorts of means to the Russian aggression, and that vision and imaginativeness was now urgently called for to compensate for the destruction of the now obsolete European security structure. Hence, among other manifestations, important line speeches by the likes of German chancellor Olaf Scholtz who in his Prague speech spoke about a future EU with 36 member states, including the Western Balkans countries and the Ukraine. Moldova and Georgia trio. Hence, too, recent EU Commission commitments to Ukraine, Moldova and (perhaps, later) Georgia to a status as formal EU candidate countries.

And hence, furthermore, the initiative by Emmanuel Macron as French EU Presidency, to conceive of and then also practically convene a new encompassing format, The European Political Community, with a (first) summit in Prague in October seeing a remarkable 44 countries (“from Armenia to Iceland, from Malta to Norway”) on the ambitious list of invitees, the ambitious objective described officially as a format to “allow democratic European nations that subscribe to our shared core values to find a new space for political and security cooperation”, among other things. Even short of immediate results, the experimental format (with currently very uncertain next steps) should have sent a rather clear signal to the receiving end, Russia with potential supporters, that mobilization of resistance to aggression is gaining momentum.

Yet another backdrop factor was the decision by the EU back in March to add, with 500 troops, to its long-standing stability force in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the EUFOR/ALTHEA, as a readiness reaction to growing signs of increased instability in that country in view of forthcoming, potentially disrupting general elections in October, exposing lingering tension between the Bosniak, Croat and Serb ethnic components in the Dayton Accord architecture. There was also the US Congress decision during the summer to anticipate a feared Russian UNSC veto against prolongation of the EUFOR’s mandate by advocating replacement in BiH with a (new/old) NATO force, should a Russian veto materialize – which in the end it did not.

Results of the Tirana summit: a mixed bag

So in view of this contextual backdrop and a built-up momentum the EU-WB summit in Tirana was perceived with much anticipation, even expectation, after all the years of enlargement inertia and mutual ambivalence. Time for re-appraisal of the cumbersome and fatigue-threatened strategic relationship EU-Western Balkans in the wider context EU-US guided mobilization of support for the resistance against Russian aggression.

The result of this endeavor was clearly a mixed bag, easily explainable in terms of and in view of all the differences of opinion and interest as between the EU member states, Sweden included, whenever Western Balkans issues are in purview beyond mere rhetorics.

Still today, after all these years of water treading, there persists the collision between the security interest in enlargement – especially now with the Ukraine crisis’ predominance – and the general political emphasis on conditionality as a needed prerequisite for and caution against hasty EU enlargement. So in the end, for all the contextual anticipation and fanfare, even this major event turned out to be basically a manifestation of an old dilemma: how to promote, credibly promote, EU enlargement as a key to cohesive European and democratic response to Russian and other external challenges, including concrete competition in the Balkans arena, while sticking to the constituting values and principles of the EU Aquis and hence to strict (strictest possible) conditionality? How to turn a threatening vicious circle into a benign one? How to promote and achieve unity with the current family of members on these inherently divisive issues? How to make EU enlargement commitments, now also, significantly, to Ukraine, credible?

After all, there is also the Turkey factor to incorporate in the credibility calculus.

But in fairness, there was more to it than that, this time. More than mere new wine in the same old, frustrating wineskin.

Croatia, unlike neighboring EU members Bulgaria and Romania (sic!), was awarded Schengen status, a further (final?) step on its road to full European integration. And, seemingly significantly, Bosnia and Herzegovina, despite its lingering struggle for the survival of its nationhood on the basis of Dayton and hence failures in honoring the Copenhagen criteria (for candidate status), was awarded official EU candidature status, with the ensuing financial support mechanism. This step may mean less to progress and nation-building in today’s world of experience-based protracted disappointments, compared to past stages, but it is still a step. The significance of the step, in the wider context of EU enlargement in a still troubled Western Balkans (or Balkans as a whole) region, will – as stated by prof Hamza Karcic (“What Bosnia’s EU candidate status really means”) – largely depend on the EU: “Enlargement fatigue, the future direction of the EU, the rise of the far-right, Islamophobia and a number of other issues will factor in whether and how the bloc decides to proceed with enlargement to encompass the Balkans”.

Still: more of the same

But in assessing the (lasting) importance, in today’s complicated security situation, of the EU-WB Tirana summit, the big question remains one of competitive credibility: what is it worth in terms of credibility for the EU, at summit level, to leave behind in the basket of results in the “Tirana declaration” a reaffirmation of “the EU´s unequivocal support for the EU perspective of the Western Balkans”, only to then add the standard lines of welcoming WB partners resolve to uphold European values and principles and stressing the importance of continuing reform in the areas of rule of law and fight against corruption and organized crime?

Has not this continued talk of “perspectives” and “conditionalities” been in use and abuse many times over? Simply repeating this message, albeit now in a radically new security context following the shock effect of Russian aggression and ensuing grave uncertainties and a wide search for avenues of unity and resistance, would seem to rather devalue the message, indicating snails speed in spite of time flying. Meanwhile, the various Western Balkans countries are encouraged to keep “digging where they stand”, queuing up in their various capacities as “potential candidates” or “candidates” or those deemed ready to initiate or continue on the protracted and thorny path of membership negotiations.

And now the new phase in the Serbia vs Kosovo protracted crisis, perhaps again “solved” by some added international community intervention by the time these lines are published, but still a new reminder of the need for but at the same time near-impossibility of a lasting solution, especially now that current rifts in the architecture of international cooperation tend to add new difficulties, and now that these difficulties apply to both concepts of “solution” and to any concept of minimum stability by “freezing”, thereby feeding into the festering problems of near-by Bosnia/Republika Serbska. The jury is still out, it seems, as regards whether EU enlargement as a key component of the EU security tool kit can, within a relevant time frame, provide a, or the, solution to the accumulated, inter-connected identity conflicts in the Western Balkans. Or, again, the Balkans as a whole. On the other hand, if the enlargement tool proves ineffective, what else does the EU have? Time once more for the US to step in as a, or the savior?

Time for re-appraisal

Or, as stated in the heading, time for re-appraisal?

Clearly, the dangerous developments during 2022, mainly but certainly not solely a product of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and Western hitherto responses to this existential challenge, have necessitated a long list of needs for re-appraisals of earlier guiding assumptions. It follows from the reasoning above that this certainly applies to the EU:s attempts this problematic year to seek, in coordination with the US and of course NATO, new avenues for stable incorporation/integration of the states concerned, our WB neighbors and others close by. Once again, in spite of tentative visions tested and real security needs, the difficulties and dilemmas of enlargement bounced back, both in the shape of limited progress in some areas and renewed conflict in others.

Further re-appraisals, therefore, will be needed, in a context of competition between the wider arena of competitive needs for re-appraisal.

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The conclusion for now, consequently, is that the forthcoming Swedish EU Presidency will need to spend significant time, energy and imaginativeness on all the leftovers from the events in 2022 of necessary but insufficient re-appraisal of the way ahead for the (Western) Balkans, in spite of the fierce competition from the demands of other crises.

The author is ambassador, holds a Phd and is a fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences.
The article is earlier published in Consilio International.

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