Serbia and Kosovo: war of nerves

Since the ICJ ruled Kosovo’s independence legal last year, Serbia’s position on Kosovo has become untenable, both politically and in international law. Will the country’s politicians finally recognise that it is in their own interests to recognise Kosovo?

An old Serbian adage reads: “Your closest relative is your neighbour”. It advises you to respect your neighbours, as they will be the first to come and help you should you get into trouble. If so, why does Serbia not respect its southern neighbour – Kosovo?

The previous remark may sound to Serbian nationalists like a sarcastic joke, but it really isn’t. Although Kosovo declared independence in 2008, it has been a de facto independent state for more than a decade, namely since 1999, when NATO successfully accomplished its airstrike campaign against Serbia’s armed forces. However, Serbia stubbornly refuses to accept the reality of the situation, as well as its own responsibility for these events.

Whether examined from a political or ethical viewpoint, Serbia lost Kosovo deservedly. Serbian state policy during 1990s could not have been better devised to alienate the nation from the entire civilised world, while the regime treated Kosovo Albanians so degradingly that it ultimately became unbearable.

Most regrettable is that, even nowadays – more than ten years after Slobodan Milosevic was ousted – the large majority of people in Serbia still perceive Albanians in the same way they did when Milosevic was in power. They largely see the whole Albanian nation as a lawless tribe constituted almost exclusively of terrorists, drug smugglers and other sorts of criminals. This means that none of Milosevic’s successors, including the current regime, has dared to tell people the truth.

This is, after all, unsurprising, given how tendentiously some of the most influential media -  which are all either directly or indirectly controlled by various political circles – are portraying events on the ground. Such propaganda has been by and large designed to bolster the preposterous campaign of foreign minister Vuk Jeremic – the current so-called “diplomatic battle for Kosovo”.  In addition, until very recently at least, for many years the Kosovo issue served domestic politicians as an ideal tool for scoring cheap political points. The Democratic Party of the President Boris Tadic thus won the last elections using a contradictory catchword - “[We want] both Kosovo and Europe”.

However, last year, when the ICJ ruled that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was legal, it became clear that all the diplomatic efforts Serbia had exerted had been in vain. The ICJ’s verdict was seen by many analysts as a turning point from which Serbia would have to dramatically change its approach to the Kosovo issue. In addition, opinion polls conducted afterwards have clearly indicated that fewer and fewer people believe that Serbia can restore its authority over its former province. Even though this change of mind was arguably prompted by a sense of resignation rather than rationality, it was a golden opportunity for strategic reversal, which the Serbian regime unfortunately failed to recognise and make the most of.

Some adjustments have been made, mostly in terms of tactics, but they are definitely far from substantial. And as things stand, the long-anticipated talks between Kosovo and Serbia, which are now finally under way, are not likely to bring anything substantively new in this respect. Simply put, the general success of any negotiations depends on how far the sides are willing to go with mutual concessions, and as for now, both appear to be operating from relatively weak starting positions domestically, which naturally reduces a range of options.

Kosovo’s negotiating team is in the first place limited by the public sentiment of the Albanian majority whose memories of brutal repression under Slobodan Milosevic’s rule are still fresh. Moreover, a considerable portion of people in Kosovo strongly oppose any sort of talks with Serbia. In addition, the formation of the Kosovan Government , along with antecedent parliamentary elections, has been encumbered by the allegations of Prime Minister Hashim Thaci’s involvement in human organs trade, as well as with the rumours of electoral fraud. On the other hand, Kosovo can rely on the full support of its western partners, and the United States in particular, in terms of the unquestionable status of its sovereignty.

Serbia, for its part, is facing a serious governmental crisis, which has proved to be more unstable than it looked. This particularly comes to the fore as the next elections are approaching while the ruling coalition is continuing to lose its credibility among people for meagre policy results, particularly in terms of the economy. On top of that, Serbian society is profoundly divided even on trivial issues, let alone more significant concerns, which means that the slightest tactical mistake on the part of the regime could easily prove decisive in the elections. Roughly speaking, historically there have been existing two basic ideological concepts in Serbia, unofficially known as "The First" and "The Second" Serbia respectively. The former is based on conservative nationalism with a strong pro-Russian/anti-Western sentiment, whereas the latter is for the most part quite the opposite, and this division, of the ‘Two Serbias’ cuts to the core of the society.  Therefore, any concession that Serbia might make to Kosovo in the course of its negotiations would be welcomed with open arms by the opposition as a “betrayal of national interests”.

For exactly these reasons, the Serbian team will at some point probably try to change the negotiations from technical talks to status talks, questioning the status of Kosovo itself, in order to ingratiate itself with nationalists in Serbia. Given that Prishtina, Washington, and Brussels have all forewarned Belgrade that the question of status is not on the table, the mission will in all likelihood fail, though a sort of agreement may at best be reached on issues of less significance, just to create the impression that the negotiations haven’t been completely futile.

As a matter of fact, Serbia is basing its policy toward Kosovo on a vague hope that regional geopolitics might change to its advantage. This shortsightedness of Serbian policymakers was further revealed in the decision to block the membership of Kosovo in the UN by the Russian veto. While it costs Russia nothing – and, moreover, provides it with an effective leverage for expanding its influence over Serbian policy – it does cost Serbia a lot.

It is hard to conceive how much money and energy – not to mention kerosene  – Serbia has wasted throughout the years in the attempt to do the undoable. In fact, a group of experts has recently calculated that Kosovo costs Serbian taxpayers 16 euros on average each second. Now, try to imagine what would happen if Serbia accepted the more than obvious fact that Kosovo had irreversibly become a neighbour. The two countries could establish diplomatic relations which would not only facilitate their respective economic recoveries but deal with many other challenges – such as the fight against organised crime in the region not to mention the accession of both to the EU.

However, the Serbian political elite obviously lacks vision and courage to do the right thing and turn the problem into an opportunity. Even worse, judging by the current situation, such posturing doesn’t appear likely to be revised any time soon. And so the exhausting war of nerves continues.

About the author

Milan Marinkovic is a columnist and analyst from Serbia and a regular contributor to several online news portals