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Kosovo and Serbia: the ideology of negotiations

It is urgently necessary to mobilise, not only against the existing form of negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia, but also against the eventual agreement, and possible result of, the present negotiations.

lead Hashim Thaci, President of the Republic of Kosovo, Pristina, Kosovo, February, 2018. Silas Stein/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

Tens of thousands of people took the streets of Prishtina, capital city of the Republic of Kosovo on September 29, 2018, to protest at both the ongoing form, and the eventual result, of the negotiations between the Republic of Kosovo and Republic of Serbia. This marks the first demonstration of the new wave of popular uprisings and unrest. But, what exactly did the people of Kosovo protest against?

According to (one of) the predominant liberal positions a propos Kosovo, the record of conflict and tensions in the Balkans is owing to a lack of communication and dialogue. If only the representatives of Serbia and the Republic of Kosovo could sit down and talk, we are told, the region’s history would have taken a different course. Indicative of this is the excitement shown by EU officials whenever the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia meet. According to this view, the mere fact of the two countries’ representatives shaking hands can be heralded as a major achievement.

Yet this shows a deep lack of understanding of recent Balkan history. In fact, over the last two decades Serbia and Kosovo have spent more time engaged in formal dialogue and negotiations than not. This began even before the war of 1998-99, when the leader of the Kosovo Albanians, Ibrahim Rugova, and the Yugoslav president, Slobodan Miloševic, signed a deal on the restoration of Albanian-language education in Kosovo, brokered by the Community of Sant’Egidio. When the agreement was not implemented, Albanian students took to the streets in Prishtina on October 1, 1997, thus marking the crucial and decisive break with Rugova’s official line of “peaceful resistance” against the regime of Miloševic.

After the outbreak of war in February 1998, negotiations resumed three months later, ending with the Rambouillet Conference in February 1999. Negotiations ‘resumed’ in the early 2000s, with the Kosovar Albanians represented by UN administrators (who administered Kosovo from June 1999 till February 2008). Later, in 2005, came the formal negotiations for Kosovo’s final status settlement. They ended in 2008, thus adding to that   document the foundation for the declaration of independence, while Serbia continues its claims over Kosovo though informally accepts the benefits of that document.

It is crucial to recall that between 2008 and 2010, both countries were part of a legal process at the International Court of Justice, which in July 22 2010 issued its advisory opinion according to which the declaration of independence of Kosovo did not violate international law.  And, a new period of EU-brokered talks began in 2011. Since then, a few dozen agreements have been signed, out of which only a handful have been, or are being, implemented. After Kosovo declared independence on 17 February 2008, the EU drove Kosovo and Serbia to fresh negotiations. The format of negotiations was first conceived as “technical” whose aim was to ‘better the living of the people of both countries’. It consisted of the mutual recognition of travel documents, university diplomas, telecommunication, et cetera. However, a few years later, dialogue was advanced to a political level, to meetings between heads of state and government officials, in a seemingly never-ending process.

The problem between Kosovo and Serbia is not the lack of dialogue, rather, it is that there is too much dialogue.

Ideology of negotiations

One should understand this almost literally. In part, many of the existing problems between the two countries are a direct result of the negotiations with which they have been engaged. Moreover, with each signed agreement, regardless of its actual implementation, Kosovo’s political-legal system continues to be embroiled in complexity and contradiction even given its unjust political foundations. There is something highly suspicious about both the pressure as well as the urgency to get the two parties to the negotiation table. 

The lesson one has to learn from the history of negotiations between the two countries is that in certain historical-political conjunctures, negotiations contribute to further complicating the problems in a given country, rather than helping to solve them. This is what is happening in Kosovo now. When the situation is as tense as it is in Kosovo-Serbia relations, establishing a distance between the parties is more than necessary. That is to say, the ideology of negotiations, i.e. the constant toing and froing from the negotiation table, is part of the political dynamics that keeps power relations as they are.

There have been a number of crucial moments in the current phase of negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia. The most important one was in August 2015 with the agreement on the Association of the Serbian municipalities in Kosovo.

According to this agreement, Kosovo would be divided on ethnic lines; thus, the Serbian minority would create its ‘state within the state.’ To this, we can add the status of ex-territoriality of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which they got from the UN-backed Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement (CSP), also known as the “Ahtisaari Plan”, after UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari, who led the negotiating process. Based on this agreement, the Serbian municipalities – including four municipalities in the north of the country, where Belgrade exercises almost full control both formally (through the “Srpska Lista”/Serbian List – a party formed and controlled directly by Belgrade), and informally (through the business interests in that part of the country) – would establish its executive and legislative power, independently from the country’s legal-political framework. Not having the majority to vote against the agreement, the opposition MPs turned the parliament into a battlefield, by throwing tear gas at the beginning of each parliamentary session.

According to a ruling of Kosovo’s Constitutional Court on 13 December 2015, this agreement has 23 constitutional violations, and had, therefore, to be redrafted. However, all the parties engaged in the dialogue, that is, Kosovo, Serbia and the EU insisted on having this form of agreement pushed and voted through parliament. The opposition had to prevent the ratification of this agreement at all costs.  Not having the majority to vote against the agreement, the opposition MPs turned the parliament into a battlefield, by throwing tear gas at the beginning of each parliamentary session. It is worth noting that over a dozen of them have been arrested, some have been sentenced or are on trial as a result. The scenes of tear gas, security guards, and MPs in the parliament, drew international media attention.

Outside of the parliament, tens of thousands took to the streets, protesting against this agreement. Their protest also extended to the agreement on the demarcation of the border with Montenegro, where Kosovo would give up 8200 hectares of its existing territory; this agreement was ratified by Kosovo Parliament in March 2018.

The ratification of the demarcation law was considered to be the last of the conditions set by the EU with regard to visa liberalisation for the Schengen zone, though this has yet to come to pass. Incidentally, Kosovo is the only country in Europe whose citizens need to apply for visas to enter the Schengen zone: a nerve-racking and humiliating procedure for those who have to go through it.

All this is very important because it will determine, to a large degree, the rest of the negotiating process, what the EU and others are calling the “final phase.” We are told that the historic agreement between Kosovo and Serbia will be reached in the next couple of months, the latest by March (that is, before the EU parliamentary election set for May 2019).

The final deal

Although the phrase “final stage of the dialogue” has penetrated our daily vocabularies, there are two problems with this expression. The next agreement between the two countries does not seem to be either the final agreement, or the final stage of the dialogue between the two countries. In fact, we appear to be going through a night of the living dead, mostly forces that have no political efficacy fighting to remain alive, and pretending to have a grip on the political reality. We appear to be going through a night of the living dead, mostly forces that have no political efficacy fighting to remain alive, and pretending to have a grip on the political reality.

This is the case with Hashim Thaçi, the current Kosovan president, whose hitherto political existence has been entirely conditioned by the need to partake in or initiate negotiations with Serbia. Thaçi is a familiar figure in the political history of Kosovo, and currently risks being exposed for corruption-related affairs over his time as a former Prime Minister of the country. For this reason, and the possibility of his being indicted by Kosovo’s Specialist Chamber for the alleged war crimes of the Kosovo Liberation Army, he is prone to accusations of blackmail, and could very well be blackmailable. You could say that Thaçi fits perfectly well within the framework of the ideology of negotiations. In fact, it is very hard to distinguish between a negotiation process and Thaçi.

In these last few months, the process of negotiations with Serbia became the top priority for the country’s government. And this is in itself suspicious. It seems that the existence of Kosovo functions precisely for the sake of these negotiations, while Serbia exploits them in two ways: it expands and fortifies its role as the mini imperial power in the region and also uses them to help it draw closer to joining the EU than any other candidate country in the Balkans (perhaps, only Montenegro comes close).

For its part, Kosovo’s independence is not recognised by five EU members and thus cannot become a candidate for membership. For both countries, any prospect of EU membership is conditional on the “normalisation” of their mutual relations. This is the formal reason why they are pushed into dialogue.

Proposed solutions

Among the many proposals for the final and historic solution between the two countries, three of them seem to be taken more seriously and are considered to have more political potential: 1) a partition of Kosovo (with the northern, Serbian municipalities joined onto Serbia); 2) land swapping (where Kosovo would get a piece of the Presheva Valley region in the south of Serbia, while Serbia would get northern Kosovo); 3) delineation of the border – which although presented as a viable and possible option by both presidents, is highly obscure and unclear. At best, as speculation has it, delineation might be a form of partition of Kosovo. But, since both presidents insist on it – without giving even basic explanations of what it means – we might be in for a surprise here.

Thaçi and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic both seem open to either arrangement. And this should not come as a surprise. Both presidents are autocratic leaders, whose understanding of their respective states is akin to that of medieval fiefdoms which they fully and directly own. Both presidents are autocratic leaders, whose understanding of their respective states is akin to that of medieval fiefdoms which they fully and directly own.

Hence, they talk about land swapping, partition or delineation of the borders as if the countries were their private property. In fact, however, it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to imagine that the negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia will result in a partition of the country, or with a land swap. At least, this seems very unlikely in the present historical-political conjuncture. One has to think of the tense situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Republika Srpska presents itself as a continual separatist threat. There is also the very fragile situation in the Republic of Macedonia, especially after the failure of the Prespa Agreement on the near 30-year dispute over the issue of the name of the country between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece. The consequences of partition will be impossible to be contained only in Kosovo – there will be at least a regional spread, in the worst possible sense of identity politics.  

However, this does not mean that the only existential threat to Kosovo is partition. On the contrary, I believe precisely because partition is not a serious political option, we should get concerned about other possibilities, for which partition serves as a political smokescreen.

Political smokescreen?

President Thaçi has a long history of similar bluffs. His political engagement began in the 90s in the illegal movements in Kosovo. During the war, he became the political director of the Kosovo Liberation Army, thus leading the Kosovo Albanian delegation in the Rambouillet Conference in 98. After the war, he had lost two national elections, only to become a prime minister in 2008, a few weeks before the declaration of independence. He has built his political career on either hijacking political projects (liberation war, declaration of independence), or creating false political agendas (‘technical and political negotiations with Serbia’).

What is more puzzling are the real reasons behind the proposals for delineation of the border, land swapping, partition, mutual recognition by a legally binding agreement. We are bombarded with different ideas on the final solution between Kosovo and Serbia, only to mask and  cover up the real solution which, in my view, will consist of a version of the Serb Republic akin to that in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) is the best example of the state within a state. Even though formally and nominally it is constitutive of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is independent in it functioning. What is more, the functioning of the rest of the country (known as The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a Muslim and Croat majority) is completely conditioned by Republika Srpska. The leadership of the Serb Republic has always claimed its right to secession and has refused to recognise Bosnia and Herzegovina as a state.

Here we should remember a striking similarity: on October 21, 1991, Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina declared the Assembly of Serb People in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Today, this association, which back then consisted of six entities, is transformed into and has the name of Republika Srpska. This formula is not unknown in the region. While the independence of Kosovo is the name of a long process of the struggle for freedom and equality, the Serbian Republic is the product of the war and genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This, in short, is the main difference between the two solutions. While independence of Kosovo was not independence of Albanians only, the Association of Serbian Municipalities (or its advanced form, Serbian Republic) is an ethnic solution for what is precisely not an ethnic/cultural problem.

Here is the irony: Slobodan Miloševic, Radovan Karadzic or Ratko Mladic may be dead, or convicted on charges of genocide and other crimes against humanity, but the truth is that their political projects are being implemented, first in Bosnia and Herzegovina, then in Kosovo. A few weekends ago President Vucic visited northern Kosovo. What is telling is that his speech, self-titled as “the most important speech in his career”, celebrated and rehabilitated Miloševic, calling him “a great Serbian leader, whose intentions were certainly for the best, but our results were very poor.”

His problem with Miloševic is not that he was a war criminal, responsible for three wars in the region during the 1990s, with 130,000 dead and almost four million refugees and displaced persons, etc, but Miloševic’s weakness in failing to realize the project of a Greater Serbia. Out of this ‘historic’ failure, Vucic  is determined squeeze out what he can: to expand his control in Kosovo, along with greater political and economic influence over Bosnia and Montenegro.

A final solution?

The final solution, we are told, will take the form of the Association of the Serbian Municipalities in the Republic of Kosovo. It suffices to note that there are at least two hundred disputable points on the eventual demarcation of the border between Kosovo and Serbia; approximately fifty of them are either private properties, or inhabited. This is an ethnic-based solution, which preserves and deepens the presence of Serbia in Kosovo in its neo-colonial form, while translating the Albanian-Serbian problem from a problem of economic injustice and political exploitation and occupation, into that of an ethical-cultural problem between the two nations. 

The problem with this Association is that it would not protect, empower or provide more rights for the Kosovo Serbs themselves. It would only be an extension of the Serbian Government in Kosovo, thus sustaining Serbian mini-imperialism. It is important to add that because this dialogue is not about rights, but about territories, it is carried out by two individuals and not two parties; and thus, remains centralised and insular.

It is urgently necessary to mobilise, not only against the existing form of negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia (in which the figures like Miloševic have been rehabilitated and indeed serve as a political compass for the present ruling regime where Ivica Dacic, the deputy Prime Minister and the minister of foreign affairs, is the former spokesperson of Miloševic’s party, and where Vucic served as the minister of information in Miloševic’s government from 1990-2000), but also against the eventual agreement, and possible result of, the present negotiations.

In Kosovo, the precondition for this is rebellion against Thaçi and the current government. And here is hope! The main opposition party is Lëvizja Vetëvendosje! (Self-Determination Movement!), which in the elections of June 2017 became the largest party in the country. A centre-left party, Lëvizja Vetëvendosje! opposed the dialogue between Prishtina and Belgrade, proposing instead a dialogue between the Kosovo government and Serbian and other minorities in Kosovo. Most of the Kosovo Serb leaders (who are not from Srpska Lista) are opposed to all of Thaçi-Vucic proposals for the ‘historic agreement’. And this is crucial, because the “integration” of the Serbian minorities cannot be realised by Brussels’ documents or agreements, but by creating and building a life together.

That is to say, the dialogue proposed by Vetëvendosje! would lead to Kosovo Serbs realising that they share the same concerns and problems with Kosovo Albanians (high unemployment, healthcare, etc), and that therefore the antagonism currently engendered by the very form of the negotiations is certainly a false one. The “integration” of the Serbian minorities cannot be realised by Brussels’ documents or agreements, but by creating and building a life together.

As the current government doesn’t seem able to govern, not only the country, but also itself (minority government), snap elections seem to be well within the horizon. The protest of September 29 was called and organised by Lëvizja Vetëvendosje!, who have already announced a second popular protest. Crucially, like the first protest, this will not be a “mono-ethnic” demonstration: minorities expressed their support for it and will join in once again.

This holds especially true for the Serbs – we have to repeat continuously that the liberation of Kosovo is at the same time the liberation of Serbia itself. It is a liberation from the conditions which require it to continue to dominate.

In the current conjuncture, this dialogue is being expressed in solidarity in action. And there is no better way to conceptualise solidarity than in struggle. After all, politics has little to do with discursive war, though this may be part of it. It is a matter of pragmatic organisation based on effective territorial engagement. Real solidarity is costly, it takes work, and is more than mere opinion.

About the author

Agon Hamza holds a PhD in philosophy. He is currently a researcher at the Institute of Social Studies in Tirana. His latest publication is “Reading Marx” (co-authored with Slavoj Zizek and Frank Ruda).

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