Editor’s note: in general coverage of Serbia-Kosovo relations, the full range of hypothetical diplomatic alternatives, and the scenarios that condition them, is rarely encountered. Partly due to media oversimplification, and partly due to the perceived need to safeguard strategic options, the issue is rarely explored in depth.
In this detailed new interview for Balkanalysis.com contributor Cristian Dimitrescu in Belgrade, however, former State Secretary of the Ministry of Kosovo and Metohija Dušan Proroković provides an informed and detailed situation report on the factors involved with current and future negotiations, the role of foreign powers in Kosovo diplomacy, and the current escalation of tensions in the north.
Dušan Proroković served as State Secretary of the Ministry of Kosovo and Metohija from 2007-2008 and, from 2004-2007, was Chairman of the Committee on Kosovo and Metohija in the Serbian National Assembly. He was also a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and member of Parliamentary Assembly of NATO. Today, he works under the auspices of the Serbian think-tank Center for Strategic Alternatives, and as an associate of the Foundation Slobodan Jovanović.
Cristian Dimitrescu: When, in 2006, Serbia declared its independence, the country was already engaged on a European path: since 2001 it had been part of the EU-FRY Consultative Task Force (CTF), a member of the subsequent Enhanced Permanent Dialogue (EPD) and, starting in October 2005, it became involved in negotiations with the EU on the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA). If you recall, what prospects did you foresee for the country at that time and what were the major shortcomings you expected to be encountered in the short- and medium-term?
Dušan Proroković: After the fall of Slobodan Milosević in 2000, a desire emerged in Serbia to join the EU and there was a hope that this could be done within a reasonable time. First, Serbia did not have some other clear alternative and all countries in the region were already in some stage of EU accession. [Serbia was] a country that had just gotten out of the dreaded sanctions that had caused isolation. Secondly, the EU looked like an opportunity for successful integration and challenging society. Thirdly, European integration had become heterogeneous – the EU had just received Eastern European countries which were in a similar economic situation as Serbia. And fourth, it appeared that the supranational framework is a desirable model for solving the accumulated international problems in the Balkans.
Three reasons are usually stated as an explanation for why Serbia has not yet joined the EU. First, in the last 15 years, from a successful commercial alliance the EU has become a geopolitical entity with vague goals and often conflicting interests of the leading states. There is no consensus on the admission of Serbia among key member states. The EU as a whole is not even sure why she needed Bulgaria and Romania. Second, at the very moment when Serbia accelerated its European integration the economic crisis – which in the last two years has started spreading, like an epidemic – had just begun. And third, one question becomes more and more relevant: where are the borders of ‘Westliche Hochkultur’- Western civilization and the Western cultural pattern? What is the place and role of Orthodox Christianity in the new geopolitical makeup of Europe? All these dilemmas had an impact on slowing down and finally, essentially, stopping Serbia’s EU integration. However, the key to the whole process is something else.
Willy Wimmer, a former vice-president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and a long-time MP of the German CDU in the Bundestag, attended a closed meeting in Bratislava, organized by the US State Department in the spring of 2000. Regarding the findings from this meeting, he informed the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and later the German public in an interview for “Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik” in summer 2001.
It came down to this: General Eisenhower had failed to deploy ground forces in the Balkans as a geopolitical hub in 1945, and so the US must not repeat this mistake. In this sense, the US expected the support of European countries, and those countries, like Serbia, whose support in the long-term they could not count on, would be denied access and opportunities for rapid and sustainable development, and would be subjected to peaceful isolation.
In Henry Kissinger’s book, Diplomacy, there is one map that represents Southeastern Europe before the First World War, and under the Serbian name there is a note saying, ‘Russian ally.’ Nothing similar was written on any other map or under the name of any other state, not even on a map that explains the very complicated alliances after the Thirty Year War (1618-1648).
Serbia had clearly become a danger for British geopolitical interests even in 1813, after the Russian-Persian agreement on the influence zones in the Caspian and Central Asian region. The British had tried to slow down Russian advances in the southeast, fearing for their possessions in India. That is why they tried to open a new “soft belly” of Russia in Southeastern Europe.
Because of that, the Ottoman Empire had a great significance for them. France and the Austro-Hungarian Empire also had an interest in this idea, and restless Serbs were just a ‘disturbing factor.’
The US took on fully the British attitude in this matter in the early 1990s. The current situation on the Balkans in full represents a result of this fact. That is why, viewed from today’s perspective, we can say that the European powers historically were never actually interested in Serbia as a subject, but rather as an object of international relations.
CD: As Kosovo is one of the prominent issues on Belgrade’s agenda, we cannot avoid acknowledging the different frameworks employed to clear the way for sustainable outcomes: the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) established by the June 1999 UN Resolution 1244, and the EU facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Priština set through the September 2010 UN General Assembly Resolution 64/298. How dedicated is Serbia to such initiatives, and how much responsiveness and openness did it receive from the Kosovar side at the level of the aforementioned structures?
DP: The EU has expended a lot of energy in persuading others that the ‘creative interpretation’ of the international law is the legal basis for its engagement in Kosovo. The existence of multiple parallel legal frameworks in Kosovo is a proof that the situation is not legally clear. The EU engagement in Kosovo is based on illegal decisions. This is the main reason why we have such a complex legal and political system in Kosovo today. Negotiations will not change this.
First we need an answer to the question: why do we have the current negotiations? From Belgrade’s perspective these negotiations are a shortcut to EU membership candidate status, something that President Tadić sees as an important electoral asset.
From Priština’s perspective, negotiations present a chance to be accepted as an equal partner by Serbia and a possibility of de facto recognition of their independence, if Serbia accepts signing of bilateral agreements.
It should also be stated that Belgrade is limited by the Serbian Constitution and no intergovernmental agreements with Priština institutions can be signed. On the other hand, Hashim Thaçi is limited in a political sense- in order to preserve his shaky parliamentary majority, he cannot agree to another ‘original’ solution that would only affirm Priština’s unequal position compared to that of Belgrade. In such circumstances one cannot expect that an agreement will be achieved, nor that Belgrade will get candidate status, or that Kosovo will be de facto recognized by Serbia.
The EU will spend a lot of energy in order to convince the international public that the sustainable and functional agreement between Belgrade and Priština has been achieved. The failure of these negotiations would be marked as a failure of the EU and that would have a bad influence on Brussels’ image. This is how we will soon see some ‘creative interpretation’ of the political reality.
CD: In an interview for the Associated Press, Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vuk Jeremić said that the agreements reached at the end of the fifth meeting of the Belgrade-Priština dialogue, on July 2, owe to the fact that the Kosovar counterparts “moderated their demands.” As one who has held, for some time now, a great deal of interest to this matter, could you be more specific regarding this ‘moderation’? What exactly is it that Kosovo’s negotiators have conceded?
Out the Window
DP: The message of Minister Jeremić was primarily addressed towards the local public. The need of Serbian officials to constantly present something as a success is in fact the proof that the Serbian government cannot commend itself [as having made] some visible results.
Having in mind what was asked of them, the pressure they were under and what the final results were, we can say that Serbian negotiators have achieved a certain success in the July talks in Brussels. However, that was their personal success. The question is: what kind of benefit will Serbian interests have from this in a final result? It is as if we have fallen from the second floor of a building onto a concrete sidewalk and now feel triumphant because we have only broken our legs, but we are still alive. We need to seriously address the issue of why did we fall? Why did this happen?
President Tadić made a strategic mistake in September 2010 when he accepted the ultimatum of the EU and a resolution written in Brussels, which was subsequently adopted by the UN General Assembly. In doing so, President Tadić accepted that instead of the UN, where Serbian still has the overwhelming support and understanding for its own attitudes, the Kosovo issue should in future be resolved by the EU, where Serbia has neither support nor understanding.
He explained this move, although very unconvincingly, with Serbia’s need for ‘EU integration.’ But this was more a reflection of his expectations, than an argument-based political position. Since September 2010, to quote former Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Koštunica, the Serbian policy has been wandering like “a blindfolded man in the dark.” That is why Serbia fell out of the window and slammed down on the concrete.
Import Ban Ramifications
CD: On July 20, the Kosovar authorities introduced an embargo on import of goods from Serbia. This decision, agreed upon by the Government of the Republic of Kosovo on the proposal of the Ministry of Trade and Industry, was officially explained by the Kosovo government as a “measure of reciprocity in trade exchanges” caused by “the failure to reach agreements on recognizing Kosovo custom stamps in exchange for free trade of goods.” How does the reaction fit national and international legislation and what are the economic consequences Serbia will have to face due to this measure?
DP: There will certainly be some economic consequences for Serbia, but they will be short-term. Serbian producers sell annually to Kosovo goods worth above 300 million euros. Most of these are food products and construction material. There were hints in 2008 that something similar would happen at the time when Kosovo Albanians adopted a unilateral declaration of independence. At that time a plan to re-export Serbian goods to Kosovo through Montenegro and Macedonia was being elaborated. In that way Serbian goods would be a bit more expensive, but their prices would still be competitive.
I do not know whether Serbian state authorities are considering a similar plan this time, but even if they are not thinking about this, businessmen will do it on their own. Therefore, the measures taken by Kosovo Albanians cannot drastically hurt the Serbian economy. As for the question about the legality of this decision, I believe that this question is not in place. How can we talk about the legality of one decision in a situation where everything else is illegal?
CD: The ban on Serbian goods came just before a new meeting of the Belgrade-Priština dialogue, scheduled for July 20 and 21. The agenda was supposed to cover issues such as telecommunications, customs stamps, energy supply, cadastral records, mutual recognition of university diplomas, etc.
In a press statement dated July 19, the EU mediator for the dialogue foreseen in UN General Assembly Resolution 64/298 Mr Robert Cooper, assessed that “we have now reached a stage in the dialogue where agreements are part of the process” and that “there are a few issues that are ready or very close to agreement… in accordance with [the] EU acquis and in line with international standards.” Could you specify what are the items on which Serbia is ready to agree with Kosovo?
A Growing Dissatisfaction
DP: Belgrade and Priština have a range of topics they need to discuss because they are in their mutual interest. But there will not be a serious dialogue any time soon, because that would mean that both sides would be ready to make some concessions. On the one hand the position of Belgrade is not so good. Serbia has no political, diplomatic or military force to convince Albanians to negotiate, and to get them to see that they need to make some concessions in this respect. Albanians, who have a saying – ku është shpat, është feja – ‘where there is a sword there is faith,’ have realized that the sword is in the hands of the United States.
This is why they strongly, at any cost, hold on to Washington, which has no interest in any kind of rehabilitation of Serbia. On the other hand, the mess made in Kosovo in the last decade has left terrible consequences. The situation in Kosovo today resembles the situation there during the late 19th and early 20th century. Collective frustrations are enormous, tension is felt everywhere and lack of prospects has never been greater. Directing part of the growing dissatisfaction towards Serbia and Serbs is one kind of a vent, which cannot be used much longer.
The only job young people from Kosovo can find for sure is to become a part of criminal gangs involved in smuggling heroin. Since, similar to the case of Afghanistan, no plan for sustainable development can be found, the West eventually began to tolerate parallel criminal structures that provide some sort of income for people. That is why the illusion of peace will exist only until NATO and the EU tolerate these activities. How long this will last we cannot predict, but we can see that activities of Kosovo Albanians in Europe are increasingly becoming an obstacle, and that at some point NATO and the EU will have to respond to these challenges. This response probably will not differ much from the Young Turks’ attempt to impose order among Kosovo Albanians at the beginning of the 20th century. And this will only make the situation worse than it already is.
Demonstrations of Strength
CD: The issue of custom stamps was a sensitive one, which developed a certain history of its own. However, why do you believe the decision was taken, and announced shortly before the beginning of the new round of negotiations and not, eventually, after discussing officially the matter during the meeting? For how long have the parties conducted these concealed consultations aiming to find a compromise to this issue which, apparently, became a deal-breaker at this stage of the negotiations?
DP: There are two reasons why Hashim Thaçi entered negotiations. The first reason is an attempt to obtain de facto recognition from Serbia, something that will not happen as he had planned. The second reason is the external pressure he was under, especially from the EU, which he sought to dispel. This is why the last weeks of crisis in Kosovo was a chance he could not allow himself to miss.
On the one hand, it provided Thaçi with the opportunity to enter future negotiations with a stronger position- he will thus have no regrets even if negotiations fail, because he has achieved his main goal.
On the other hand, he has demonstrated his strength to the EU and once more has shown that he enjoys the full support of Washington, something the EU will have to take more seriously into account. Also, Thaçi does not look favorably on a number of investigations led by EULEX for war crimes and organized crime against people close to him. So, furthermore, this was a way for him to strengthen his position within domestic politics.
The main problem for Serbs is that the use of force and embargo by Hashim Thaçi is just the beginning of his campaign. What will he come up with for the next elections? Charged as an organizer of the illicit trade in human organs, a head of political organization whose members and sponsors are questioned by EULEX, [having achieved] no success in economic policy, faced with bankruptcy, he will have no other way out but to start a campaign of taking over Serbian Northern Kosovo.
With a combination of the use of force in the establishment of Priština institutions and intimidation of the Serbian population, Thaçi will re-impose himself as a key politician in Priština who can get another four-year term in government. A number of people are urging him to do this, also, for historical reasons. If he occupies Northern Kosovo he will be remembered as the Albanian hero who established full Kosovo sovereignty, whatever this means. Being an important and discreet American player he will most probably get the full support of Washington for this.
Escalating Tensions in the North
CD: Recently we’ve been witnessing an escalation of tensions and violence on the ground: Kosovo Albanian police seizing the border crossings of Brnjak and Jarinje, located in the Serb-dominated northern regions, leading to sharp reactions from the Serbs in the region, including an exchange of gunfire and setting of barricades.
As a result, in a Declaration on the current situation in Kosovo and Metohija adopted by the Serbian National Assembly on July 31, the protection of the legitimate interests of Serbia in Kosovo and Metohija was declared a priority of the state institutions and public factors in the country, until a compromise solution is adopted; at the same time, it asks the government to continue the dialogue with Priština, while doing “everything it can to protect life and property, rights and freedoms of citizens of the province.”
Corroborating this stance with the August 1st closed-door meeting, between chief negotiator Stevanović and minister Bogdanović with Serb representatives in Zvečan, an ethnic Serb-dominated town in northern Kosovo, one can clearly see a display of support and engagement.
However, given that – as you previously said – Serbia is not in the best political, diplomatic, and military position to force the ethnic Albanians to engage in conclusive negotiations with Belgrade, what are the tools the Serbian government can use in order to fulfil the tasks referred to in the Declaration? How and to what extent can the Serbian authorities protect the Serb communities in Kosovo and Metohija?
DP: The Serbian government has moral, legal and political reasons to react. Between 70,000-100,000 Serbs are living in Northern Kosovo. They are citizens of the Republic of Serbia, and Serbia has a moral obligation to help them.
It is not in the interest of Serbia to create an unsafe environment in the north, but, at the same time the Serbian government cannot just stand and watch a humanitarian catastrophe unfold in Northern Kosovo, starting with shortages in medicine, food and energy supply. The Serbian reaction will for sure cause a counter-reaction from Kosovo Albanians, NATO and the EU, but at the moment Serbia does not have another choice. Legally, Kosovo is part of Serbian territory, and Serbia has full legitimacy to act. No international court can deny this right to Serbia. However, in the current political situation NATO and the EU can always limit or even suspend the actions of Serbian institutions in Kosovo.
But even so, the Serbian government has to react for political reasons- for if it does not react, the Serbian government will risk weakening its already unstable and low rating in the coming election period.
The official Serbian request is that the situation in Northern Kosovo be returned to the previous condition. This will not happen. KFOR will not withdraw from the administrative crossings, and Hashim Thaçi will not give up the institutional occupation of Northern Kosovo. Serbian negotiators will not be able to persuade him to do this by any arguments.
If the Serbian government wants a result and diplomatic victory it has to use more radical solutions, such as full blockades on the Serbian side of the administrative line as well, an embargo on shipments of goods and services to Priština (the threat of stopping electricity transfer can be a pretty persuasive argument), rejecting further negotiations because of a deficit in democratic legitimacy and capacity of the government led by Hashim Thaçi… these would lead to further worsening of relations between Belgrade on one side, and NATO and the EU on the other. Is the Serbian government ready for something like this? I think not. But at this moment, I do not see any other way in which the Serbian government can react without turning out to be the complete loser.
The Outlook for September
CD: Following the trade embargo and the reaction of the Serbian side, mediator Robert Cooper, considering there to be “no point in holding a meeting unless we’re going to be able to reach an agreement on something,” decided to postpone the sixth round of the dialogue until September, when there “will be a better prospect of agreeing on quite a number of issues.” Apparently, just as in the case of the previous such encounter, Mr Cooper took this decision in order to allow the parties involved the necessary time for doing “a little bit of thinking” and working on possible solutions. What should we expect from the September round of discussions?
DP: Robert Cooper is a politically educated man with enviable experience. These kind of people are rarely found among the loads of bureaucratic careerists in Brussels. However, he represents the paradigm of EU involvement in Kosovo. How come a man who wrote about the disintegration of nations happened to be named as a mediator in a problem with exclusively national roots? That’s like if a man who smokes two boxes of cigars a day was giving lectures on the dangers that tobacco presents.
Under normal circumstances, this mediation would be destined to fail even before it began. However, viewed from the Serbian side, negotiations are already taking place in abnormal circumstances. Since the election slogan “there is no alternative to Europe” has become the official policy of the Serbian authorities, Serbia started accepting almost everything coming from Brussels, without any critical attitude and without previous definition of self-interest that must be protected.
It is therefore likely that the Serbian authorities will accept the majority of future proposals from Robert Cooper. Still, the problem for this presents limitations imposed by the Serbian Constitution. That is why a special mechanism was set up for defining the conclusions. There is not going to be any signing of documents between Belgrade and Priština, but the binding conclusions for both parties will be defined in a statement of Robert Cooper, who is probably also the one who guarantees implementation of these arrangements. That is why the direction in which the negotiations will develop will mostly dependent on future relation between Brussels and Priština.
The International Recognitions Battle
CD: Up to now, 76 out 0f the 192 UN members and 22 EU Member States have recognized Kosovo’s independence. Even though at a slower pace, the trend seems to be continuing, with Andorra the latest country to recognize Kosovo.
That said, how will the remaining states succeed to balance their position on Kosovo in the presence of the two main stances promoted, through political and diplomatic channels, by the US and Russia?
DP: The West has shown all of its weakness in the process of bilateral recognition of Kosovo. Until Saudi Arabia joined these efforts, only around 50 countries had recognized Kosovo. Out of this number, if we exclude the EU and NATO members, some small states, island states and semi-dependent states, only seven other countries from around the world that could be called mittelstaat or regional powers recognized Kosovo independence.
This shows the full diplomatic influence of the Western, Euro-Atlantic part of the world on a global scale. Therefore, the western part of the world had to start the search for allies that could help in this process. The ally was found in Saudi Arabia, which could influence around another 15 countries thus contributing to a significant increase in the number of countries that recognized Kosovo. It’s true that among these recognitions there were some bizarre examples like Somalia who recognize the secession of Kosovo although on its own territory it had two self-proclaimed states – Somaliland and Puntland, while a third one was being formed.
On the other side, though, are all the BRIC states and a large number of influential regional powers that are trying to promote a fundamental respect for international law. Russia has directly tied the question of Kosovo status to the question of the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which only made it more complex and harder to resolve. The only way for Kosovo Albanians and their Western allies to come to a positive solution is for Serbia to recognize Kosovo. However, despite the enthusiasm expressed by certain Serbian politicians, at this time this is impossible.
A New Balkan Framework
CD: For a long time the entire international community is advancing solutions for the situation in Kosovo. The UN, the EU, the US and Russia have all expressed themselves in this regard. Out of the available proposals, which ones do you find more suitable?
DP: When the Austro-Hungarian Empire withdrew from Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1918, it left behind a society in which 88% of the population was illiterate. There is no need to explain how the economic, political, scientific or educational system in this society looked. The EU will leave a similar result behind in Kosovo.
The main reason for this is that power, either “hard” or “soft” is seen as the key measurement for reaching a solution. Negotiation and other solutions based on international law and diplomatic compromise are thus put to the side. For example, a good framework for solving the Kosovo problem could have been the conclusions of the Badinter Commission- the boundaries of the former federal units were there declared internationally recognized and problems within these borders were supposed to be resolved by international mediation. With the unilateral declaration of Kosovo Albanians independence, however, this rule was violated. A new norm of establishing borders on ethnical principle was launched.
The West has made a huge mistake and cannot go back anymore. In the future the West will have to be aware of the new reality that is being created in the Balkans. The solution for Kosovo will have to be looked for in a new security and political framework that will be defined for the Balkans in the coming decades. To make this framework more viable it would be advisable to seek a solution with the participation of the US, EU, Turkey and Russia.
CD: Then, considering also some of the recent events in Serbia – such as the visit of Russian Prime Minister Putin, the July 2nd agreements concerning the “areas of civil registry, freedom of movement and acceptance of university and school diplomas,” the trade embargo, the preparation of the following meeting of the dialogue foreseen in UN General Assembly Resolution 64/298 etc. – how would you briefly define Serbia’s solution to the Kosovo issue and what developments do you envisage?
DP: It is too late now to ask what Serbia is suggesting. And it is not even correct to ask that kind of question. Serbia had a moderate proposal, limited to 20 years, proposed in November 2007. This proposal was easily rejected by the US and the EU. The self-declared independent state of Kosovo’s Albanians is today in a catastrophic position, first of all diplomatically. Its president, Atifete Jahjaga, had not been heard of before [the election]- diplomats serving in Priština say that when the American ambassador told four party leaders that she was the US favorite for president, none of them knew who he was talking about. So they had to call the interior minister, Bajram Rexhepi, as Jahjaga was working in the police, to inquire about this person who they were supposed to vote for. Not knowing why they were asking about Jahjaga, Minister Rexhepi’s first reaction to ask if he should fire her.
Also, the prime minister of the Kosovo government is accused of being one of the organizers of human organs trafficking, one of the most monstrous war crimes in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. A person dealing with accusations from ICTY for war crimes is one of the opposition leaders. Another opposition leader has given a political legitimacy to Great Albania and does not care a whole lot about international representatives’ opinion.
In Kosovo, GDP per capita is on the same level as the GDP of East Timor. Pensions are around $60 per month. The unemployment rate today is above 50%. Only one-third of the state budget of Kosovo is made up of sustainable sources. Another third is coming from internationals donations, and the final third believed to come from money laundering from smuggling of narcotics. There are no prerequisites for sustainable development in Kosovo.
But Serbia should be interested in some other issues. USA and the EU have taken the full responsibility for the development of situation in Kosovo so this is the issue that they should worry about. The Serbian interest in Kosovo at this moment should be aimed at taking care of the Serbian population, the preservation of Serbian cultural heritage and creating stronger foreign political ties with countries that support Serbia’s position. Serbia has a moral right to lead a self-centred policy regarding Kosovo.
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