The Pen Really is Mightier than the Sword in the Balkans

Ross White

EU foreign policy chief Ashton poses with Serbia's Prime Minister Dacic and Kosovo's Prime Minister Thaci at NATO headquarters in Brussels

EU foreign policy chief Ashton poses with Serbia’s Prime Minister Dacic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Thaci at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Reuters/VOA News.

It has been a little over a decade since the 1999 Kumanovo Agreement was concluded, signalling the end of military conflict in the Kosovo region of Serbia. Signed on the 9th of June, the agreement guaranteed the cessation of NATO bombing in Serbia in return for the withdrawal of Serb troops from Kosovo. This uneasy peace was to be maintained by international troops under NATO command; however the future of relations between Serbia and Kosovo was, and has remained, uncertain. This uncertainty remained unaffected by Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008; an act still not recognised by the Serbian government (due to the nationalist Serb belief that Kosovo forms an integral part of historic Serbia), but declared legal by the International Court of Justice. Formal relations did not follow the declaration, and although Kosovo came some way to achieving recognition in the international community, Serbia’s opposition (and the subsequent opposition of its influential ‘friends’ China and Russia), kept the country in a state of limbo regarding its international legitimacy. That, however, may be about to change.

In a step which has been described as ‘nothing short of historic’, Serbia and Kosovo’s respective governments have reached an agreement over the heavily disputed north of the region. The agreement, signed in Brussels on the 19th of April 2013 under the supervision of Catherine Ashton (the EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs), sets out the conditions for the devolution of northern Kosovo, thus partly alleviating the majority Serb population from Kosovan rule. The agreement contains what The Economist has termed a ‘grand bargain’, whereby “Serbia accepts the authority of Kosovo’s government over the whole of Kosovo and Kosovo grants a large measure of autonomy to Serbs living in the north.” The deal represents the first formal negotiations between the two countries, while for Kosovo the agreement signals the first recognition from Serbia that they hold autonomy over their land. What’s more, the deal has even larger consequences for the two countries than the conditions of local governance. By coming to an accord, the two countries have opened their respective doors to EU membership.

Accession to the European Union has been emphasised by the Serbian government as their most important foreign policy aim. Just as Croatia before them, the Serbs were given certain criteria by the EU to be fulfilled before talks could begin. The first of these was full complicity with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; a requirement satisfied when Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic were captured and handed over to The Hague for trial in 2008 and 2011 respectively. The second was for the country to reach an agreement with Kosovo; hence the publication of an EU commission report recommending EU governments to agree on a start date for accession talks, just three days after the Brussels accord. Kosovo on the other hand are much further behind on the path to EU membership; after all, there remain five EU countries that continue to refuse recognition of the nation (Spain, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Cyprus). Nonetheless, the agreement with Serbia has helped to further their case, with the EU recommending a ‘Stabilisation and Association Agreement’ be signed. In short, Kosovo’s journey into Europe has begun.

Both governments, and the diplomacy of the EU, have received glowing praise since the agreement was concluded. Piotr Smolar, writing in The Guardian, declared it a “very welcome success” for EU diplomacy and Catherine Ashton in particular. The Economist concurs, declaring that the accord demonstrates that “the lure of EU enlargement is still sufficiently strong to get people and countries to do things that they would otherwise resist.” It is pertinent to remember that the idea of a European coalition of states was first conceived in order to forge peace among enemies: and while debates may continue over the economic vibrancy of the Union, its ability to encourage peace on the continent through membership of its institutions is unquestionable. That this agreement was thrashed out over the negotiating table, and not in the battlefield, serves as a testament to that fact.

However, not all commentators have regarded the agreement as an unbridled success story. Melanie McDonagh has admitted that she finds “quite a lot not to like about the deal.” Firstly, she believes that the agreement puts an end to the prospects for a multi-ethnic Kosovo. By granting autonomy to the north, McDonagh argues that the agreement marginalises already vulnerable Serbian minorities in the country, and refers to the Serbian Orthodox Church’s assessment that the Serbs in the rest of Kosovo have been abandoned. Furthermore, McDonagh believes that the deal relinquishes any hope of ethnic Albanians, ‘cleansed’ from the north during the war, being able to return to their homes. Another critic of the agreement comes in the form of American Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican Congressman who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Rohrabacher, a staunch supporter of Kosovan independence, criticises the deal for giving Kosovo “absolutely nothing for what they gave up”. He argues that rather than strengthening Kosovan sovereignty, the deal has undermined it by removing Kosovan authority from the north. A better solution, Rohrabacher asserts, would have been to allow the region to vote on its future and then, when it inevitably chooses Serbia, Kosovo would have been in a strong bargaining position to receive something in return. As it is, the region has been lost “for nothing”.

Despite these criticisms, the Brussels Agreement between Serbia and Kosovo should be seen as a triumphant moment in the post-Yugoslav history of South-East Europe. The deal seems to be positive for all sides. Kosovo have received partial recognition, while both countries are closer to EU accession. The EU has demonstrated its ability to contribute to the peace process, especially when it is able to offer the ‘carrot’ that is Union membership. The inhabitants of the region, although protesting the decision at first, will soon see the benefits of more representative governance and the reception of funds from both Belgrade and Pristina. Criticisms such as those voiced by MacDonagh and Rohrabacher are no doubt well-founded: however the bitter, controversial and accusatory nature of Balkan history means that there will always be someone who disagrees, always be someone who feels unjustly and unfairly treated. Writing just a year after the Kumanovo Agreement in 2000, Tim Judah recognised this fact and speculated over the consequences. How would history shape Kosovo-Serb relations? Would feelings of injustice and revenge prevail? The agreement reached in Brussels goes some way to answering these fears, hence its importance: for now, the future of Kosovo looks likely to be settled by leaders using pens to sign agreements, not guns to shoot opponents.

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