On Saturday, March 18, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic met in Ohrid, North Macedonia for another round of dialogue concerning normalization of relations. This was the continuation of a series of talks facilitated by the European Union (E.U.) and endorsed by the United States. In Ohrid, Kosovo and Serbia tentatively agreed on implementation of the eleven-point E.U.-led plan but few details emerged on the specific wording. The goal of the E.U.-led dialogue, initiated in 2011, is to arrive at a binding legal agreement between the two countries, an achievement that could help stabilize the Western Balkans.
Conflict and Progress
Kosovo and Serbia have a long, complex history of tension that has led to decades of conflict. The U.S.-led Operation Allied Force and NATO intervention in 1999 ended the wars in the former Yugoslavia and ended Serbian aggression. Then, in 2008, Kosovo declared its independence.
In the 2013 Brussels Agreement, Kosovo and Serbia opened the door for normalization of diplomatic relations and economic cooperation. This established a framework for Kosovo’s integration within Euro-Atlantic institutions, such as Partnership for Peace, NATO, and the European Union, as well as membership in the United Nations. This also included Kosovo’s recognition by Serbia. The agreement also sought to merge and empower the four Serb communities of North Mitrovica, Zvecan, Zubin Potok, and Leposavic within Kosovo. Ethnic Serbs account for only 5% of Kosovo compared to 90% of Albanians living in the country.
At the center of the current dispute is the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM) in Kosovo. The ASM was implemented as signed in 2015 but later declared unconstitutional by Kosovo’s Constitutional Court. The ASM would provide Kosovo’s Serb communities with governance competencies in agriculture, healthcare, education, and economic development.
While Kosovo believes the ASM should be modeled on a non-government structure, Serbia insists that normalization should be contingent on an ASM with executive functions. Kosovo argues that the ASM would create a federal system, thereby enabling Serbia to continue its malign influence within the country, effectively replicating the majority Serb Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The U.S. has assured Kosovo that the ASM is not a majority Serb “ministate”.
Kosovo has accused Serbian officials of interfering with Kosovo’s internal affairs. Serbia has led a global campaign to de-recognize Kosovo and deny it membership in the U.N. Dangerous border disputes have emerged over vehicle license plates and proof of vehicle registration. Kosovo refused to recognize Serbian identity documents and license plates in response to Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo’s documents. Kosovo’s Serb minority blocked entry/exit points of entry, prompting KFOR to patrol the border and remove blockades.
The normalization process also remains hindered by Kosovo’s lack of recognition by some European Union member states, namely Cypress, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain and four NATO members (E.U.-5 minus Cypress). While there is renewed hope that the latest rounds of dialogue could produce tangible progress, high hopes could again be dashed.
Serbia’s Leverage over Kosovo
The reality is that Serbia is neither interested in nor incentivized to recognize Kosovo. The status quo allows Belgrade to continue to exercise influence in Kosovo’s Serb communities. In effect, Serbia has locked Kosovo in a frozen status by pressuring other countries to de-recognize Kosovo at the same time it garners security benefits through its membership in NATO’s Partnership for Peace and accepts foreign assistance from the E.U. and U.S.
Serbia has resisted joining Western sanctions against Russia, its longtime supporter, in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Serbia is also an observer country in the Russian-led military alliance the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and a partner state in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), another political and economic grouping backed by Russia.
In addition, Serbia and China have enjoyed a close relationship in recent years with Chinese investments making Serbia a prime destination for Chinese businesses. The Serbian economy expanded due to the influx of Chinese investment. Serbia is now central to China’s expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Europe. The BRI provides great economic potential to Serbia and serves as a means for enhancing its role at the nexus of East and West. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has described Serbia as China’s “strategic anchor” in Europe.
Given that four members of NATO do not recognize Kosovo’s independence and Russian and Chinese support for Serbia, Kosovo must continue justifying and consolidating its hard-earned sovereignty. This has forced Kosovo to resist Serbia’s previous attempts to encourage others to de-recognize its independent status even though the International Court of Justice ruled in 2010 that “the adoption of [the] declaration did not violate any applicable rule of international law.”
Breaking the Deadlock
Is there a way to break the deadlock? Yes. Take away Serbia’s leverage. The U.S. should marshal its tremendous diplomatic influence and privileged status in NATO to encourage the NATO-4 non-recognizers to drop their opposition to Kosovo’s independence. A 2022 Wilson Center report argues that, at present, Serbia retains considerable leverage in the dialogue given its objections to Kosovo’s de jure independence.
If the NATO-4 non-recognizers altered their position, Kosovo could enhance its progress toward Partnership for Peace and NATO membership. Non-NATO Serbia would then be incentivized to drop its objections to Kosovo and normalize relations. Put simply, NATO-4 recognition of Kosovo’s independence and sovereignty should come before or run parallel with the normalization.
The U.S. is NATO’s most important and powerful member as it provides the lion share of NATO’s military spending as well as security assistance to Ukraine. It must use its influence to pressure the NATO-4 non-recognizers to drop their objections and embrace the reality of an independent and sovereign Kosovo. This would undercut Serbia’s attempts to reconstitute its waning influence in the Western Balkans and undermine malign Russian and Chinese influence in Europe.
In addition, Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine has altered the geopolitical reality in the Western Balkans. One recent article suggests that if Ukraine were to recognize Kosovo, this could incentivize the NAT0-4 to recognize Kosovo and quicken normalization with Serbia in the name of transatlantic unity. Russia is pressuring Serbia not to resolve its dispute with Kosovo as normalization and recognition would significantly mitigate its continued attempts to undermine stability in the region. Russia opposes a settlement because tension and instability between Kosovo and Serbia allows the Kremlin to maximize its malign influence throughout the Western Balkans.
However, the U.S. and its allies cannot do all the heavy lifting. Prime Minister Kurti must continue prosecuting his campaign of rooting out corruption in Kosovo’s domestic institutions and protecting Serb civil rights protections and cultural sites in Kosovo. Recent indices show that Kosovo has made significant progress in improving transparency and fighting corruption. Likewise, the Serbian government should protect Albanian communities inside Serbia by enhancing property rights and allowing Albanian structures to develop.
The U.S. can counter Russia and China in the Western Balkans by using its privileged status in NATO to encourage the NATO-4 to recognize Kosovo. This would undermine Serbia’s leverage and build momentum toward normalization and, ultimately, formal recognition of Kosovo. Most importantly, it will bring security and stability to the Western Balkans.
Chris J. Dolan is Professor of Intelligence and Security Studies at Lebanon Valley College and a two-time Fulbright U.S. Scholar in Kosovo and North Macedonia