Why is recent Serbia-Kosovo agreement no good news for Western Balkans?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell (L) gestures during the meeting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (R) in Belgrade, Serbia, 24 January 2020. [Andrej Cukic/EPA/EFE]

The Serbian leadership signed an agreement in Washington in order to advance the achievement of the so-called “Serbian world”, and that risks opening the Pandora’s box in the whole region of the Western Balkans, writes Filip Milačić.

Filip Milačić has worked in the German Bundestag, at the Universities in Montenegro and Croatia, and for the OSCE, and has written extensively on the post-Yugoslavia space. 

They say that something is only as strong as its weakest link. But what if the weakest link is also the most important and largest? These are by no means promising constellations, but they aptly describe the situation in the Western Balkans and its fragility.

Serbia, the country on which the stability of the region mostly depends, has been for some time leading the way in two developments: autocratization and the rise of ethnic nationalism.

And it seems that the agreement between this country and Kosovo, which was signed on 4 September in the White House in the presence of US President Donald Trump and celebrated as a major contribution to the stability of the Western Balkans, will change nothing.

The agreement focuses on “economic normalization”, but also includes points that have nothing to do with the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo.

As far as Serbia’s obligations are concerned, the agreement, among other things, bounds Serbia to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to classify Hezbollah as a terrorist group, and to ban the use of 5G equipment supplied by untrusted vendors (meaning the Chinese company Huawei).

At first glance, it appears that the Serbian delegation was forced to fulfil the President Trump administration’s wishes and shoot itself in the foot. Serbia will be the first European country to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a move that collides with the EU foreign policy whereby Serbia’s EU accession process would be most definitely endangered.

This would not be the first time Serbia did not follow the EU’s foreign policy as it has previously declined to join the Union’s sanctions against Russia over its role in Ukraine. Yet the new EU enlargement methodology clearly emphasizes an absolute necessity of the alignment of the foreign policy of the EU membership candidate with the EU’s.

Moreover, with this agreement, Serbia also risks to alienate China, which President Xi Jinping, only few months ago, was called a “brother” and saviour of Serbia by his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic, while the fraternal relations between two peoples were celebrated on the rallies of the Serbia’s ruling party (Serbian Progressive Party).

In addition to it, Serbia is now risking the support of the Arab countries that have been, in principle, on its side in the conflict with Kosovo.

Have President Vucic and his team been taken advantage of for the purpose of boosting President Trump’s re-election chances or were they just thinking long-term by agreeing to this kind of an agreement? The second variant seems to be more likely.

In the last few years President Vucic and his party SNS have been grounding their legitimacy on two pillars: firstly, on personal benefits to party members and supporters, made possible through state capture and widespread patronage networks the SNS has built; and secondly, on the promise of collective dignity and the myth of national greatness.

The second pillar concerns the whole region of the Western Balkans because it is based on ethnic nationalism. In the spirit of the nineties, President Vucic has been portraying himself not as the president of Serbian citizens, but as the leader of all ethnically defined Serbs in the region.

Serbs in the neighbouring countries are encouraged to primarily view themselves as a part of one Serbian national corps.

For some time, namely, we have been experiencing the pattern of behaviour very similar to the one from the beginning of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia: the existence of Serbs is allegedly in danger, which justifies the interference of the Serbian leadership in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries.

This is a part of the developed strategy that nurtures hopes that the national borders in the Western Balkans can be redrawn. Serbian leadership has thereby its eyes not only on the north of Kosovo with its predominantly Serb population, but also on the territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, where a considerable number of Serbs live too.

The leader of the Serbian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Republika Srpska), Milorad Dodik, has been for a long time dreaming of the “Anschluss” and regards it as inevitable. Following the recent parliamentary elections, Montenegro will most likely have a new government in which the Serbian nationalists will have a major, if not leading role.

Emboldened by this development, Serbian Defence Minister and a prominent nationalist hardliner Aleksandar Vulin, known also as the one who says the things President Vucic cannot say publicly himself, admitted few days ago that Serbia’s goal is the unification of all Serbs in the region.

Those who dared to criticize the depicted behaviour are only doing it because they are bothered by the fact that since President Vucic’s ascendance to power Serbia is great again and is, thus, able to take care of the Serbs in the region, is the usual reply of Serbian officials.

So how does then the “Washington agreement” fit into this strategy? The depicted plans can only be realized with the support of the USA.

Serbian Foreign Minister Dacic reiterated on several occasions that the current American administration is more receptive than any previous one to Serbia’s vision of the Balkans’ future, and Serbia should seize this opportunity.

Trump’s envoy for Serbia and Kosovo, Richard Grenell, who signalled that the current American government is open to the correction of the borders in the Western Balkans, seems to confirm it.

Accordingly, Dacic described the agreement with Kosovo as a step toward a strategic partnership with the USA, i.e., with Trump’s administration, for which re-election in November Serbian leaders hope (even publicly).

In other words, the Serbian leadership signed an agreement in Washington in order to advance the achievement of the following goal: the creation of the so-called “Serbian world,” which would consist of Serbia, north Kosovo, Republika Srpska, and Montenegro.

That is the main aim of Serbia’s foreign policy (President Vucic has already told EU leaders that Serbia wants “more” than just an EU membership in order to recognize Kosovo). The realization of such plans would, however, open the Pandora’s box in the region, and most likely revitalize competing ‘Greater Albania’ and ‘Greater Croatia’ projects. For too long the EU has been ignoring the rise of ethnic nationalism in the region and underplayed its danger. Only a clear and determined stance from European capitals, reminding that good neighbourly policy is of one of the key criteria for the EU membership, can prevent this gloomy and dangerous scenario that would negatively affect whole Europe.

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