Only Democracy Can Bring Stability to the Balkans
Sovereignty is an abstract concept. License plates are not. In late July, the Kosovo government demanded its Serbian citizens replace the plates on their cars, prompting protests among those who continue to reject Pristina’s sovereignty. International intervention helped postpone the issue, but it threatens to erupt again on Nov. 1 when the government’s new regulations are scheduled to go into effect.
Kosovo’s latest crisis is another reminder of what Europe has gotten wrong in the Balkans. For the last 15 years, Western leaders and organizations have worked to ease tensions between Kosovo and Serbia by throwing their support behind the corrupt stabilocrats who perpetuate them. To preserve peace and stability in the region, Western countries have backed officials in Belgrade and Pristina who promised to settle their disputes through dialogue and choose European integration over alignment with Russia. In return, these stabilocrats were granted international legitimacy and a free hand in running their countries. This has led to real progress, such as the integration of predominantly Serbian northern Kosovo into the country’s legal and political system. However, leaders in Belgrade and Pristina have also instrumentalized this progress to consolidate their international image as peacemakers and escape criticism for undemocratic behavior. This has enabled them to amass power while fuelling nationalism and further undermining human rights and the rule of law — actions that will make real and lasting peace impossible. The result is that after 11 years of negotiations, Serbian and Kosovar leaders have not normalized relations, brought their countries closer to the European Union, or limited Russia’s influence in the Balkans. Instead, they continue to provoke numerous low-intensity crises to ensure they remain irreplaceable as dialogue partners and peacemakers.
Rather than blame Russia for the region’s troubles or double down on failed strategies, Western leaders should prioritize the democratization of Kosovo and Serbia. Among other things, this would entail democratizing the E.U.-led dialogue process between the two countries to make it more transparent, accountable, and inclusive. As Kosovo and Serbia are largely dependent on foreign funding, financial support should be conditioned on building democratic and multi-ethnic institutions that will implement the existing and future peace agreements.
The License Plate Crisis
11 years ago, Serbian and Kosovar leaders negotiated an agreement in Brussels to secure freedom of movement for Serbs and Albanians living in Kosovo. Yet Serbia has nonetheless applied discriminatory measures against the owners of cars with Kosovo plates. In response, the Kosovo government banned Kosovo Serbs from travelling south of the Ibar river without getting new national plates. This summer, it again called on residents of Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo to obtain Kosovo license plates and said that Serbian citizens travelling to Kosovo will have to obtain temporary entry documents issued by the Kosovo authorities. In response, Serbs in Kosovo, opposed to Pristina’s claims of full sovereignty over their region, blocked the roads leading to two border crossings with Serbia. Thankfully, the crisis was resolved within a few hours. With NATO forces standing by and support from E.U. officials, the U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo asked Prime Minister Albin Kurti to postpone the implementation of the new measures until Sept. 1. When he did, locals took down their barricades.
While Kosovo and Serbia have solved the identity card issue, a license plate showdown still looms. Following another postponement, Kosovo Serbs now allegedly have until Oct. 31 to replace their current license plates. In conversations with the author, some Kosovo Serbs explained that they have decided to boycott the new measures, while others have preregistered their cars with the new plates. A third group is stuck in a bureaucratic dead-end because they cannot get the government-issued identity documents necessary for preregistration. Which is all to say there could be more problems at the end of October.
Back to the Table
Immediately after the Kosovo Serbs blocked the roads, diplomats from the European Union, NATO, and the United States called on officials in Belgrade and Pristina to return to the negotiating table to find a sustainable solution. But the high-level political dialogue facilitated by the European Union has been stuck for the past few years because of the open hostility between Prime Minister Kurti and the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, as well as the Kosovo government’s decision to impose tariffs on goods from Serbia.
This illustrates the limits of what bilateral dialogue can achieve without a more comprehensive approach. Since 2011, Belgrade and Pristina have concluded more than 20 agreements to resolve a number of concrete problems, thus contributing to the normalization of their relations. The biggest breakthrough was achieved through the Brussels Agreement of 2013, which resulted in the dissolution of Serbian institutions in Kosovo, including the police, judiciary, and civil protection corps, along with the integration of Serb-majority municipalities into the country’s legal and political system. Since the Kosovo Serb community resisted these moves, they were only possible as a result of serious pressure from Belgrade, which included both political violence against the local population and guarantees from the government of Serbia. As a consolation prize for accepting integration, Belgrade also promised to establish an Association of Serbian Municipalities, a body that would allow the Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo a higher level of self-governance. To date, politicians in Pristina have refused to implement the part of the Brussels agreement related to the association, claiming that it would lead to the creation of another Republic of Srpska.
All further talks between Belgrade and Pristina have been focused on establishing full sovereignty of Pristina over the entire territory of Kosovo. Ultimately, the dialogue should end with a legally binding comprehensive agreement and Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence. However, Serbian political elites view any such agreement with Pristina as political suicide. As a result, for almost a decade, E.U. mediators have allowed Kosovo Albanian and Serbian political leaders to interpret their agreements differently, thus fostering different expectations on both sides and leaving the two countries’ citizens unprepared for the compromises a lasting agreement would require. In this way, the E.U.-mediated dialogue enabled Serbian officials to save face and remain in power by presenting their compromises as diplomatic victories.
It will be difficult to further integrate the Serbian community or establish Pristina’s full sovereignty without buy-in from Belgrade. Yet in the absence of a more inclusive dialogue process, this would feel like a betrayal to Kosovo Serbs, generating either a local backlash or causing Belgrade to ultimately balk. Serbian politicians often claim that they represent the interests of the Kosovo Serbs in negotiations, but in fact, Vučić has sought to deepen his control over the Serbian population in Kosovo. He does this through the Serb List, a party which has 10 seats in the Kosovo parliament and a minister in the government. The Serb List also won the local elections in 2019 with more than 90 percent of the Serbian vote. Certain opinion-makers from Belgrade think that “these victories have emboldened Vučić to negotiate on behalf of almost all Serbs in Kosovo.” But even as Vučić seeks to suppress critical voices, dissatisfaction with the concessions that Belgrade has offered in Brussels is growing. Locals claim that the Serb List did nothing to protect the interests of the Serbs or even inform them of the Kosovo government’s recent decisions.
One of the lessons of the license plate crisis is that in the absence of functional and inclusive dialogue between political leaders, outbreaks of instability and violence will remain all too possible. The current dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina is an elite-driven process that takes place behind closed doors in Brussels with no input from citizens and civil society. So far, none of the leaders involved have shown a true commitment to building a national consensus behind the negotiations. When Albin Kurti came to power for the second time in Feb. 2021, he said that dialogue with Serbia was not a priority for his government. Instead of implementing the agreements that were reached by his predecessors, he pushed for strengthening Kosovo’s international legitimacy. This has involved lobbying for membership in international organizations and recognition from the five E.U. countries — Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia — that have not yet granted it.
The European Union remains in the driver’s seat, but its mediators come from countries that do not recognize Kosovo and do not enjoy a high level of trust among Albanian citizens and politicians in Kosovo. Despite this, the E.U. Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue expects a final agreement on normalized relations between the two countries to be reached before the European Parliament elections in 2024. E.U. diplomats consider the next two years favorable for concluding a legally binding agreement, as snap elections in Kosovo and Serbia are not expected.
In short, the European Union expects Balkan stabilocrats to deliver on Kosovo once again. This is a potentially dangerous situation. The last time the European Union expected Serbia to make progress on the Kosovo issue, it turned a blind eye to democracy and rule of law. As a result, Serbia moved towards autocracy under Aleksandar Vučić, and the state itself became a source of insecurity for its own citizens and an exporter of instability in the Balkans. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many Serbian citizens fear that the West’s desire for stability at all costs will lead them to turn a blind eye to authoritarianism again. That would represent a serious blow to civil society, which has spent almost 30 years working to democratize Serbia and improve the rule of law.
Kosovo is currently more democratic than Serbia, and its government is more transparent. But if Kosovo wishes to be considered a fully functioning democracy, it should guarantee security, justice, and basic services to all its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity. It is also essential that Kosovar leaders invest in building trust with the country’s Serbs, address their concerns, and show that they will be treated as equal citizens.
Democracy and rule of law — not stabilocrats — are the key for maintaining peace and stability in the Balkans. The international community should insist on them as a prerequisite for lasting peace between Serbs and Albanians. Rather than accept the invasion of Ukraine as a reason to compromise on these values, it should instead be seen as a lesson in the dangers that strongman rule can pose to stability. Only by supporting leaders with democratic potential in both Serbia and Kosovo can the West help build accountable institutions capable of implementing future peace agreements.
Maja Bjelos is a senior researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy.
Photo by Milosevo/Wikimedia