A Balkan success for EU soft power?

Serbian leaders will make another attempt this week to convince Serbs in northern Kosovo to accept last month’s deal between Belgrade and Pristina to normalise relations between Serbia and its former province.

The April 19th agreement was  hailed in the much of the western media as a great success for the EU’s soft power and its oft-criticised Foreign Policy chief, Catherine Ashton. Veteran Balkan watchers, like Misha Glenny and Tim Judah have both penned pieces lauding the potentially historic deal that took several rounds of tortuous negotiations mediated by Baroness Ashton.

The EU can be forgiven for celebrating a rare success given the unremitting gloom that has enveloped the European project as it struggles to find a way out of economic slump and the financial crisis threatening the Euro.

Furthermore, the agreement is certainly the closest the region has come to a comprehensive settlement of the Kosovo dispute since the violent break-up of Yugoslavia ended with NATO expelling Serbian security  forces from the province in 1999, and it was reached through talks hosted in Brussels, not decided on the battlefield. But was it really a victory for soft power?

True, most Serbian politicians see positive reasons for their country to join the EU. To them it represents a route to prosperity, modernisation and the restoration of the country’s reputation, blackened as it was by the repression and violence that marked the rule of its former leader, Slobodan Milosevic.  So the hope in Belgrade is that the deal will clear the way for Brussels to name a date for the start of full membership talks early next month.

Catherine Ashton and her team appear to have displayed diplomatic skill, tenacity and a good deal of imagination in crafting mutually acceptable wording to the fifteen point agreement .

But it was not skilful diplomacy that persuaded Belgrade to retreat so far from the deal it would have wanted. Before Kosovo unilaterally declared independence five years ago, there was another round of talks between the two sides led by the UN mediator, Martti Ahtisaari. Belgrade rejected the deal on offer then because Mr Ahtisaari never made any attempt to persuade the Kosovo Albanians to remain part of Serbia, instead offering a plan that would give Serbs in an independent Kosovo considerable autonomy with some links with Serbia.  The deal Belgrade has now accepted may not be called the Ahtisaari Plan. but it looks very much like it.

The key to getting Serbia to give so much ground – literally – is the German stick behind the Brussels  diplomats. Berlin has taken an increasingly hard line with Belgrade over the past few years and made it clear to Serbia there would be no EU membership talks if it didn’t normalise relations with Kosovo. Also, it is not lost on Belgrade that there are still more than five thousand NATO-led troops in Kosovo and the German contingent is by the far the largest. Ostensibly, they are there to keep the peace and their presence ensures Serbia hasn’t been able to resort to force to prevent Kosovo’s secession, even if it had had the will to do so. But in 2011 and 2012, these troops were deployed to try to face down resistance by Serbs in north Kosovo to an ultimately failed attempt by Pristina to unilaterally impose its rule there – an action that sent a clear message to Belgrade.

This looks more like the exercise of smart, than purely soft, power; something that may surprise many observers of EU foreign policy. But, as the two sides prepare to start discussing implementation, it is by no means certain the deal will stick.

For starters, it is only an outline and there will be plenty of potential pratfalls when working out the details – as the wrangling over interpreting and implementing a previous limited agreement on joint administration of customs and disputes over details as apparently mundane as car number plates, shows.

Then there are the conflicting meanings the two sides attach to the deal. For Pristina it represents de facto – if not de jure – recognition of its independence by Belgrade, but Belgrade insists it is no such thing, preferring to characterise it as a practical agreement to ensure the interests of Serbs living in Kosovo.

But most importantly, there is the attitude of the Serb majority who live in northern Kosovo. Even during the period of UN rule in Kosovo  from 1999-2008, Pristina’s writ never ran in northern Mitrovica and the three municipalities abutting central Serbia, and there is no sign that is about to change. Since the deal was signed, local Serb leaders who, crucially, were not involved in the talks have refused to accept the agreement, and there have been large protests suggesting most of the Serb population back them and are not reconciled to accepting having to live in an independent Kosovo.

Even if Belgrade withdraws its financial and political support from the Serbs in the north, they may take a leaf out of their opponent’s playbook by boycotting Kosovo’s institutions and looking after their own education and health needs, much as the Albanians did under Milosevic in the 1990s.

None of this is to say that the deal won’t eventually take root and the western Balkans will find the long-term stability it has lacked since the Ottoman Empire went into decline two centuries ago. But, as even Francis Fukuyama now acknowledges, history doesn’t end, and there is no guarantee that this deal marks the final resolution of the struggle between Serbs and Albanians for control of Kosovo.

For now, Kosovo’s Albanians have got their independence and are set to extend their control over all the territory claimed by Pristina, not because they are more powerful than their Serbian rivals, but because they have the support of the United States and the EU’s most influential states; while Serbia’s refusal to recognise Pristina’s UDI has support from Russia and other BRICS.

And, as the global power balance shifts over time, there is no guarantee the new status quo is immutable.

This entry was posted in Global Dashboard and tagged , , , by Alistair Burnett. Bookmark the permalink.
Alistair Burnett

About Alistair Burnett

Alistair Burnett is Director of News for Sightsavers, the NGO that works around the world to eliminate avoidable blindness and promote equality for people with visual impairments and other disabilities. Before that he spent 26 years with BBC News where he was the Editor of 'The World Tonight' on Radio 4 for ten years and before that Editor of 'Newshour' on BBC World Service. Alistair has a particular interest in international relations and the shifting power relations in the world challenging the traditional US and European dominance of global affairs.