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A Way Out of the Balkans Morass: Restoring US and EU Leverage in the Serbia-Kosovo Dialogue

GEP Kosovo Serbia Monastery
Abandoned Serbian Orthodox monastery in Prizren, Kosovo.

Why are the Balkans still a morass, 20 years since the last serious fighting?  Why is a region that enjoys a unique privilege – a pathway to the European Union and NATO – still in the grips of ethno-nationalist leaders who openly call for updated versions of ‘Greater Serbia’ and ‘Greater Albania’?  Why is Russia readily able to perpetuate the region’s divisions and how is China able to find such fertile ground for its corrosive projects?

In a word, the problem is leverage.  The United States and European Union lack the leverage to close the Kosovo question – the issue that sparked the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia.  The inability to close this question has left not only Kosovo languishing in limbo, but Serbia as well.  The unresolved Kosovo question complicates the tri-partite stand-off in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the ability of Montenegro to achieve a stable formula for its Serbs and Montenegrins to live together in an independent state.  The Kosovo issue even looms over relations between Serbia and Croatia, a country that has achieved the Western prescription of joining NATO and the EU.

There is a way to restore Western leverage if policy makers grasp the full costs and futility of the current, debilitated posture, and the need to finally create an alternative.  The alternative requires no change in the core position of any EU country towards Kosovo.  It does require redressing internal EU divisions on Kosovo -- the crux of the entire stalemate over the Balkans.

Because five EU countries do not recognize Kosovo, the West ‘needs’ Serbia more than Serbia needs the West.  This imbalance is the product of positions held by Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece and Cyprus -- not the Russian and Chinese vetoes over Kosovo’s membership in the UN.  With unanimous recognition of Kosovo across all EU and NATO countries, Kosovo would have an independent path, first, to the Alliance, and then towards EU accession.  NATO and EU membership are far more important for Kosovo than UN membership, which is not a precondition to join the Alliance or the Union.  With Kosovo given an independent path to international personality, the Russian and Chinese Security Council vetoes would be virtually meaningless.  Instead of intransigence and high-handed demands, Serbia would find its way to a dignified, stabilizing settlement with Kosovo, negotiated under EU auspices with active U.S. engagement.

Unfortunately, the blockade on Kosovo by the EU 5 / NATO 4 (Cyprus is not a member of NATO) hands the leverage to Belgrade.  Serbian leverage over Kosovo has crippled Western strategy and fostered a dangerous dynamic.  The region’s most antidemocratic government and the strategic partner of Russia and China – the regime in Serbia led by President Aleksandar Vucic – gets the most favorable treatment.  Contrary to the Biden Administration’s goals of promoting democracy, and contrary to the lessons of the continuing struggle against anti-democratic forces in the U.S., American and European officials continue to routinely praise the Vucic regime, rather than hold it accountable.  Last month, a prominent Western official again lauded Belgrade as “the political and economic leader in the region.”

Instead of encouraging reform, supplication of the Serbian government discourages the democratic opposition and supplies the regime with legitimacy – the indispensable goal for all illiberal regimes.  Serbian academics and democracy activists understand this.  A 2019 journal paper by Professor Dusan Pavlovic sets out the formative characteristic of the Vucic regime: its revisionism.  According to Pavlovic, “… [T]he political agents from the Milošević era who returned to office [in 2012] started an institutional reversal – [and] their aim was to go back to the 1990s, towards a more radical version of electoral authoritarianism.”

Pavlovic describes how the regime employs a strategy of “institutional extraction” to systematically subvert state institutions, thereby obtaining the power and resources to dominate the media and control the national narrative.  Opposition parties and democratic activists are marginalized and often intimidated, rendering elections largely a charade.  Pavlovic explains that deception -- the illusion of true electoral competition -- is essential to the illiberal regime, sustaining its façade of democracy.

The role of the West is to see through the regime’s camouflage, exposing the façade and holding the government accountable for its stated commitment to join the European Union.  Instead, officials are playing into the charade, including President Vucic’s false ‘balance’ between Western countries and their Russian and Chinese adversaries. A dangerous disequilibrium has been established where the countries that have accepted the Western order receive far more scrutiny over their corruption and ethno-nationalism than the actor that is openly updating Milošević’s 'Greater Serbia', while promoting the authoritarian model aligned with Moscow and Beijing.  The Serbian government is not ‘captive’ to those powers; its proactive embrace is grounded in shared values and character, along with shared benefits.  Belgrade supplies political support to Russia (over Crimea) and China (over Hong Kong and Xinjiang.)  Among other benefits, Serbia receives materiel for its prodigious military  buildup.  It is not clear how the values of long-standing military cooperation with the U.S. have been absorbed.

Nor is it clear how Serbia’s EU candidacy, launched by the current government in 2013, has altered regime values.  The evisceration of Serbian democracy has coincided with its EU candidacy.  Meanwhile, in the neighboring regime led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the Vucic regime has an illiberal model, mentor and ally inside the EU.

The West’s debilitating lack of leverage led U.S. and EU diplomats to back a partition plan – a ‘land swap’ in Kosovo – that undermined the very principle of democratic co-existence on which the stability of the entire region rests.  Washington and Brussels have moved on from the land swap, but the land swap has not moved on from them.  The illusion of viable Western strategy blew up last month with the release of another ethno-territorial scheme, in this case to divide Bosnia-Herzegovina and link Kosovo to Albania.  The plan appeared in an anonymous ‘non-paper’ attributed to (but disavowed by) the leaders of Slovenia.  Denounced roundly across the Atlantic, the ‘non-paper’ has nonetheless sent continuing tremors around the region and across Europe about the potential for renewed conflict.  The reverberations themselves are proof of a crisis of confidence – a widespread sense that Western strategy for the Balkans is failing.  The EU’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout failure, and Serbia’s successful vaccine diplomacy are another blow to the European model and a boost to the illiberal alternative.

U.S. and EU disavowals of the Slovenian ‘non-paper’ and the latest reaffirmations of European integration for the Balkans will achieve little as long as the fundamentals don’t change.  As long as the West has to beg Belgrade to settle the Kosovo question, the regime’s illiberal charade will continue, and the EU-led Dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo will falter.  As long as the cause of Western weakness – the divisions within the EU itself over Kosovo’s independence – remains unaddressed, the United States and the EU will struggle to close the Kosovo question, and to advance Western strategy in neighboring countries as well as in Serbia itself.  No supplementary efforts, including ‘economic normalization’ and the ‘Mini-Schengen’ approach espoused by President Vucic, can substitute for the West’s fundamental lack of leverage.

Two Unanimous Principles, One Standard of Conduct

To give meaning to their reaffirmations of European and Euro-Atlantic integration, the EU and the U.S. must summon the means to engage with Serbia on the same level as Brussels and Washington engage with Serbia’s neighbors.  This moment of singular European confusion is the opportunity for the uniquely experienced Biden Administration to lead all of its European partners -- including the five EU (and four NATO) countries that do not recognize Kosovo – to establishing a baseline standard of conduct for all six of the region’s EU aspirants.  That standard derives from a straightforward stipulation: the wars in the region are over.  The continued prosecution of those wars by aspirant countries, utilizing political means, can no longer be tolerated.

The Western Balkans Six, including Serbia and Kosovo, have all formally committed not to obstruct the European path of their fellow aspirants.  It is time to hold them to that commitment.  With its European partners, Washington can catalyze unanimous agreement to two concise principles – one formalized by the EU and the other by NATO.  These two, complementary principles -- communicated initially and specifically to Serbia and Kosovo -- will rule out political aggression, manifested both by Serbia’s ‘non-recognition campaign against Kosovo’ and by Kosovo’s promotion of ‘union of Kosovo and Albania.’  Both are intolerable forms of war by other means.  The ‘non-recognition campaign’ is an act of punitive isolation and hostility towards Kosovo, and violates Serbia’s own express commitments.  The campaign amounts to a threat to isolate Kosovo even in the wake of a political settlement, evidence of Serbian bad faith in the EU-led Dialogue.  ‘Union of Kosovo and Albania’ is aggression against Serbia and the Kosovo Serbs.  ‘Union’ also represents a violation of Albania’s commitments to its NATO allies, and would irreparably damage Kosovo’s NATO membership aspirations.

The new EU principle would be drafted along these lines to protect the positions of the EU 5:

’Further to the express commitments in Annex 3 of the Vienna Western Balkans Summit, and in accordance with European Union norms, no EU aspirant that has a formalized candidacy or association relationship with the EU – whether or not it recognizes another EU aspirant with such a relationship -- can block the progress of other such EU aspirants on their respective EU paths.  Nor can such EU aspirants commit acts of aggression against another EU aspirant.’

The new NATO principle would be drafted along these lines to protect the positions of the NATO 4, and to account for the fact that Kosovo has no formalized relationship with NATO, as Pristina has with the EU:

’Acts that impair the commitment of NATO allies, such as threats or acts to alter the borders of NATO allies, threats or acts to alter the borders of NATO aspirants, or threats or acts that violate formal commitments to NATO where it maintains a peace-support operation, are inconsistent with the principles of the North Atlantic Treaty and the values needed to become a NATO ally.’

The principles do not require Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece or Cyprus to recognize Kosovo, nor do they alter the stance on recognition of the EU or NATO.  Nor do the principles require Serbia to recognize Kosovo, nor subject Belgrade to any particular sanction if it chooses not to recognize Kosovo.  Kosovo’s EU and NATO paths will still depend on a negotiated settlement with Belgrade.

The two principles ask Serbia and Kosovo alike to finally implement the formal commitments they have already made to each other and to cease their political aggression, specifically Serbia’s ‘non-recognition campaign’ and Kosovo’s promotion of ‘union of Kosovo and Albania.’  Together, the principles are a balanced, necessary response to regional deterioration and instability exposed by the recent furor over proposed border changes.

Each principle is self-enforcing, thanks to unanimous EU and NATO approval. They create a third-way alternative for Kosovo - and the West - if Pristina accepts the new principles and rules out ‘union of Kosovo and Albania.’  Under the new approach, Kosovo will be free to join other international organizations – except for NATO, the EU and UN - and cultivate its bilateral relations around the globe.  This will transform negotiating dynamics, as time will no longer be on the Vucic regime’s side.  Continued intransigence in Belgrade will see Kosovo’s progressive development, backed up by a united EU and NATO.  The EU-led Dialogue will be empowered. As talks resume, Kosovo will have far greater incentive to address issues like ‘the Association/Community of Serb Municipalities,’ a key stumbling block.

In Serbia’s case, the Vucic regime can choose to accept or reject the new principles, either way ending its pretense of joining the EU while practicing and promoting the values of Russia, China and Hungary.  If Belgrade rejects the new principles, by storming out of the Dialogue or, in the extreme, suspending or even cancelling its EU candidacy, two consequences follow.  First, if Serbia violates the standard for aspirants created by the new principles, the violation itself is the initial punishment.  The regime will be choosing to defy the entire EU, including the five European Union states on which Belgrade’s leverage depends.  In so doing, Belgrade will finally be making its choice between Western values and those of Russia, China and Hungary.  Serbia’s choice will be clear, and its charade will be over.

Second, the rejection of this EU standard will open the way for greater support from the EU and the U.S. to develop Kosovo’s capacities.  No EU 5 state needs to recognize Kosovo in this case either.  Instead, the EU and the U.S. would identify a range of actions consistent with EU position on non-recognition to increase Kosovo’s capacity and its ability to function internationally.  This is the critical contribution of unanimity.  For the first time, the United States and the European Union will have a work-around for Serbian intransigence.  No longer will U.S. and EU officials have to kowtow due to feared reaction on Kosovo, turning a blind eye to the Serbian regime’s assault on democracy. 

Neither the EU nor the NATO principle alters the position of any party, whether Serbia or the EU 5/NATO 4, on recognition of Kosovo.  The EU principle is grounded in the fact that Serbia and Kosovo both have formalized relationships with the EU – candidacy in Serbia’s case and a Stabilization and Association Agreement in Kosovo’s case.  The inclusion of the clause ‘that has a formalized relationship with the EU’ protects the concerns of Spain and the other EU 5 states.  Catalonia, for example, does not have a formalized candidacy or association relationship with the EU – and can never have one without Madrid’s agreement.  The same is true of the position of Northern Cyprus to Nicosia, as well as any speculative ethno-Hungarian scenarios in Slovakia or Romania.

The EU has never proscribed Kosovo’s efforts to obtain bilateral or international recognition.  Therefore, Serbia has no right to impute an EU standard on Kosovo’s Stabilization and Association Agreement that the EU itself has not applied.  The EU does not require Serbia to recognize Kosovo, but that does not accord Belgrade the right to set standards on what Kosovo is or is not allowed to do under its association agreement with the EU.  The new EU principle acknowledges the obligations and limitations that exist under formalized aspirant relationships with the EU.

Like the EU principle, the NATO version creates a standard of conduct that also applies to the full Western Balkans Six.  In this case, Kosovo would be informed expressly that ‘union of Kosovo and Albania’ is a violation of the standard.  It is the inclusion of the U.S., along with the NATO 4, that gives this principle its credibility.  On the one hand, Serbia would gain the assurance of an American-backed, formal NATO proscription on a ‘Greater Albania’ bid involving Kosovo.  This comes on top of the EU principle, which also bars such an act as political aggression.

At the same time, the inclusion of the NATO 4 opens up the possibility for potentially greater NATO cooperation with Kosovo, if Serbia rejects the EU bar on ‘non-recognition.’  Formalized cooperation between the Alliance and Kosovo would trace the form of the EU’s Stabilization and Association Agreement, signed by the EU itself and accepted by the EU 5.

Because Kosovo does not have a formalized relationship with NATO, as it does with the EU, the proscription is framed in terms of obligations flowing from the presence of KFOR.  Those are inherent to Kosovo.  And they are formalized with Serbia through the Kumanovo Agreement.  Like the EU principle, the NATO principle is consistent with the NATO position on recognition of Kosovo by all actors, Serbia and the NATO 4.

Additional Leverage

Gaining EU 5 agreement will require a political lift, but a plausible and necessary one.  President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken have already demonstrated much-needed American leadership on the Balkans with no less than a half-dozen straightforward communications to regional leaders.  Washington will have allies in the EU eager to close the Kosovo chapter and finally put the Balkans on the path to European-led stability.   The U.S. also has another option to concentrate minds across Europe, including in Serbia.  The Administration could prepare a Mutual Defense Treaty with Kosovo, along the lines of that between the U.S. and South Korea.  Such a pact would provide a quantum leap in security and stature for Kosovo, above the current protection afforded by KFOR.

The Mutual Defense Treaty would be cause for deep reflection in Belgrade, as it would spell an end to the regime’s strategy of weakening Kosovo.  Russian and Chinese support to Serbia, including stepped-up military support, would be of negligible utility with Pristina a U.S. treaty-based ally.  War by other means is only viable if the political means are achieved.  The Mutual Defense Treaty would pose the same choice for Belgrade as the EU principle, but on worse terms.  Few burdensome changes would flow to Washington from the Mutual Defense Treaty.  The U.S., including the Congress, already strongly backs the development of Kosovo’s nascent army.  U.S. troops are still deployed at Camp Bondsteel, the already-equipped U.S. base in the country.

The new principles finally create political vulnerability for Vucic.  At present, Vucic can claim he has won the support of the United States and the EU as he practices neo-Milošević policies.  That’s no longer the case under the new principle.  Belgrade will be finally be held accountable across the board, including domestically.

The Serbian opposition will not be disadvantaged.  Just as the regime will not be asked to recognize Kosovo, neither will the opposition.  The opposition can retain its nationalist credentials on Kosovo, and also denounce the new principles while blaming Vucic for producing them.   Opposition figures can ask Vucic whether it was wise, for example, to send the Serbian Foreign Minister to Iran last month for support over Kosovo while the U.S.-backed moratorium on recognitions (agreed under the Washington Agreement concluded last September) was in effect.  The Iran mission put the mendaciousness of the Vucic regime’s foreign policy on full display.  Kosovo is now allied with Tehran’s two arch-enemies, Israel and the U.S., making Iranian recognition unthinkable.

Serbia’s open gratitude to Iran over Kosovo is a reminder of the folly of the recognition ‘moratorium’ negotiated by the Trump Administration.  The moratorium freezes the inequitable status quo into place, reinforcing Serbia’s leverage while denying Kosovo the ability even to seek new membership in international organizations.  Effectively, the Trump moratorium makes the U.S. the guarantor of Kosovo’s international isolation.

Vucic could seize on the new principle to refuse to move the Serbian Embassy to Jerusalem, another commitment in the Washington Agreement.  That accomplishes nothing for Belgrade.  First, Serbia is already under pressure (mounting due to events in Israel and Palestine) not to move its Embassy to Jerusalem, so retaliating like this only rewards the EU.  Second, Belgrade clearly values the relationship with Israel.  If Belgrade refuses to honor its commitment to move the Embassy to Jerusalem, it puts its relations with Israel at risk, not just with the United States.  Meanwhile, Israel would have all the more incentive to develop its relations with Kosovo, the worst outcome for Serbia.

The same is true for the other provisions of the Washington Agreement.  Most of them are of benefit to Serbia.  If Belgrade walks away from them, the regime damages its own interests.

If Vucic were to take retaliatory steps beyond the Dialogue such as restoring 5G cooperation with Huawei, this would then trigger coordinated U.S. and EU responses.  The opportunity cost is relatively small.  The regime is still strategically engaged with Huawei and there is no Western actor that Belgrade has yet accepted to replace the Chinese enterprise for 5G.

The same is true if Russia picks up the slack on the Serbian ‘non-recognition’ campaign, for example, on Kosovo’s membership in Interpol – a clear example of the campaign’s punitive nature.  Interpol’s mission is to enable police to fight precisely the international crime that Kosovo is often accused of permitting.   Russian efforts to block Kosovo from joining Interpol will be the trigger for a united U.S. and EU response, precisely the long-needed collective response to Russian machinations in the Balkans.

In the end, the Vucic regime’s calculation becomes the one that it has studiously avoided: accepting the baseline commitment required to join the European Union.  This is a rational decision.  The regime’s leverage over Kosovo is eroded, not eliminated.  Kosovo will be held to the same standard, with ‘union with Albania’ equally proscribed.  The very real benefits of membership in the EU, the bloc responsible for two-thirds of Serbia’s trade, will come into focus.  The regime’s illiberal practices will also be exposed to more scrutiny, a prospect manageable by delivering on expectations in a more competitive, less extractive political environment.  Belgrade will retain its relations with Moscow and Beijing, though exposed to considerably more leverage and scrutiny from the West on foreign policy.  Effectively, the new principle will provide Vucic with the opportunity to rectify through true compromise the mistake of Milošević that cost Serbia sovereignty over Kosovo.

Serbia would also find other benefits in the new approach.  The breakthrough unanimity across the EU on the two new principles would lend credibility to the renewed commitments to EU enlargement for the region. 

Vucic has justifiably railed about the basic antipathy and hypocrisy of the EU on enlargement, so he could be given due and prudent credit as the inspiration for the invigorated enlargement process, as he accepts the two new principles.  In turn, President Vucic could become the historic Serbian leader who leads his democratizing country towards its rightful place in the European Union, in equal standing with all of its neighbors, including Kosovo.


Edward P. Joseph is a member of the Wilson Center’s Working Group on the Western Balkans and teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He is a Senior Fellow at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute. In his dozen years in the Balkans, he served during the wars in each conflict-afflicted country (Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo and North Macedonia).  In 2012, as Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, Mr. Joseph negotiated the agreement to hold Serbian national elections in Kosovo. He has been deployed on shorter missions as well in Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The views expressed here are his own.

The full argument for this new approach is set out in the forthcoming Johns Hopkins SAIS Policy Paper issued by the Foreign Policy Institute – ‘A Way out of the Balkans Morass: Restoring Leverage over the Serbia-Kosovo Dialogue.’

About the Author

Edward P. Joseph

Title VIII Supported Short-Term Scholar;
Senior Fellow, SAIS Foreign Policy Institute, Fomer Macedonia Project Director, International Crisis Group
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