Text was originally published in Novi magazin.
Biden’s victory was welcomed by political actors in Kosovo, with many pointing out how the Trump administration was favoring Belgrade. Albin Kurti before all: it was Trump’s envoy Grenell who contributed to his removal. The leader of the Self-Determination Movement also recorded a short video before the November elections, in which he wished success to Biden and his team.
When it comes to Serbia and Kosovo, goals of the new administration will not change: economic normalization and mutual recognition. What is “new” seems to be return to the principle of territorial integrity. Meanwhile, the dialogue was “restarted” last July, with the support of Germany and France and a new European Union (EU) special representative, Miroslav Lajcak; and, on September 4, the “Washington Agreement” was signed, which, despite dismissals and criticisms, has been producing practical consequences for several months now – from the opening of the US “development bank” (DFC) office in Belgrade, over the “investment incentive agreements” signed with government representatives in Belgrade and Prishtina, to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Kosovo on 1 February. Last move was welcomed by State Department’s spokesman, meaning it has the support of the new administration. Assuming he is the likely winner of upcoming elections, Kurti will have to decide on how to position himself towards both processes.
He will certainly form a new negotiating team and insist, once again, on the principles he announced in 2019: that there should be “no agreement without dialogue” (not clear what he means by this); that there can be no talk of exchanging territories; and that presidents cannot be included in such talks (referring to Vučić and Thaci). As Thaci is indicted with war crimes, the third principle is no longer relevant. At a webinar organized by Harvard University on May 18, 2020, Kurti rejected partition as a “dangerous” and “racist” idea dating back to the conflicts of the 1990s. Instead of discussing territories, he is “open to economic co-operation, education and development”, but in the context of a “mini-Marshall Plan” for the Western Balkans to “break away from foreign influences”. He believes that such a plan can only become a reality if the EU and the US work together. (Who will finance such a plan, when the EU has already promised 9 billion euros to the Western Balkans?)
Judging by its first term, Kurti’s government could once again insist on “reciprocity”, and treat Belgrade (Serbia) the way it treats Pristina (Kosovo), first in terms of recognizing labels and certificates displayed on products. In practice, that could turn into a new embargo on Serbian goods, just as the exchange began returning to levels before November 2018. However, the risk of something like this happening is still small; it would make far more sense, and be more constructive, to support expert teams working on harmonization of the remaining 37 certificates. Furthermore, de-recognition of diplomas obtained in the Serbian education system would directly affect Serbs who want to live and work in Kosovo, and as such would be criticized by the international community.
It remains unclear whether the campaign for new international recognitions – or membership in key international organizations – would continue. A year ago, Foreign Minister Glauk Konjufca had to admit defeat in this long and difficult fight that Kosovo and Serbia have been waging “behind the scenes”. Recognition granted by Israel might change that dynamics.
Kurti fell from power for the first time because he was an obstacle to the agreement as Washington imagined it. The EU, all the time the dialogue was in crisis, was not sure what to do. It remained silent when he as new PM stated how all agreements reached within the Brussels dialogue will be reviewed. However, Kurti never got around to do it; other issues were more pressing, above all dismantling the system established by the three parties that had been in power for twenty years. That is why, in the end, he was elected; voters will primarily expect “jobs and justice” from him, a slogan he is happy to repeat.
Kurti presents a challenge for Belgrade. He is different from the leaders they talked to in Brussels so far. This was evident at the special session of the Munich Security Conference, from which a recording of his address was leaked in public (despite being a “Chatham House” event). Also present, President Vučić reacted angrily to every sentence, especially the one “we should help Serbia get rid itself of Kosovo”. The leader of “Self-Determination” is a gifted orator: he combines the topics of social justice, the right to (ethnic) self-determination, criticism of foreign capital and political corruption. The legacy of being one of Adem Demaci’s best student defines him; as, in this highly informative profile, writes Petar Ristanovic. However, unlike 2014, when I had the opportunity to meet him for the first time, today he seems warmer, more receptive; he learned to communicate and move in international circles. Where Vučić acts humbly and falsely modestly, Kurti captivates with his self-confidence. But he wants the power and position that the President of Serbia has, believing – not without reason – that it is political fragmentation that makes Kosovo’s position in the negotiations more difficult.
So how could future Prime Minister of Kosovo approach the continuation of the dialogue? Speaking in the beginning of 2020, he ruled out the possibility of a quick agreement and repeated the stated principles. Apart from the idea of “reciprocity” (which both the EU and Germany initially seemed to accept) he did not have time to define the approach to dialogue itself, despite much previous deliberation. On Serb autonomy, Self-Determination Movement took a hardline approach; therefore, it is hard to imagine concessions regarding the Community/Association coming anytime soon.
On the other hand, VV could fall back to the idea of the Community/Association that is in line with the decision of the Constitutional Court (of Kosovo). By working on ASM’s establishment, as unlikely as that sounds at the moment (with only 9% of citizens supporting such outcome) they could beat one of the key arguments out of Belgrade’s hand. This would make Kurti look a bit like Vučić, who, while also tough while campaigning, accepted everything that the West (and Germany) asked of him in 2012-13.
The most difficult question to answer is whether Kurti gave up on the idea of national unification with Albania. Those who support him will say yes; or that it is no longer so high on his agenda of priorities. Ones worried about the rise of this party will answer that nationalism has always been one foot on which “Self-determination” stood.
A few days ago, Kurti himself – reacting to the same statement made by Ramush Haradinaj – acknowledged the possibility of a referendum for citizens to decide on the matter. One of the leading experts on the political situation in Kosovo active in Belgrade, Milivoje Mihajlović, said as a guest on RTS that “Republika Srpska is much closer to Serbia than Kosovo in relation to Albania”; and that “there are not enough people among (Kosovo) Albanians to support unification in a referendum. “There is no mood there, they are afraid of a state in which Kosovo would be the ‘developed north’ – as they say jokingly.” Maybe that is why Haradinaj adds in his call for a referendum that Kosovo would keep the institutions as a federal unit. Mihajlovic is probably right, but there are also analysts, such as Agon Maliqi or Florian Qehaja, who estimate that in a situation where Kosovo’s statehood and European integration remain disputed or out of reach, some kind of unification with Albania is the only “plan B” (strategic option) for Pristina. Failure of the dialogue, or its definite collapse, entails the risk of new borders in the Western Balkans.
*First published in Novi magazin no. 510, 4 February 2020