1. Summary

New report of the International Crisis Group (ICG) on the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo (“Relaunching the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia”, Brussels, January 25, 2021) does not deviate from the previous analyses and attitudes of this organization, which are based on the fact that Kosovo is an independent state and that all interested parties, and above all Serbia, should adjust to this fact during further negotiations. Like the previous ones, this ICG report is extremely “Kosovo-centric”, because it seeks both a starting point and an end point in satisfying Pristina’s interests, while all other actors (especially Serbia) need to find a way to adjust to Kosovo’s interests.

Although the report also talks about the need for Pristina to make certain concessions to the Serbian side in the continuation of the negotiation process, the whole concept of continuing the dialogue is based on the recognition of Kosovo’s independence by Serbia. All other conclusions and recommendations intended for interested parties – Serbia, the EU, America – are drawn from that premise. With this suggestion, the ICG turns the whole process, which went from below so far, “upside down“ by looking for a way to reach a compromise and a solution, which would be agreed upon at the very end. The ICG is taking a reverse path, first reaching a solution (mutual recognition of Serbia and Kosovo) and all other recommendations are in support of this outcome. Therefore, a more precise title for this ICG report could be – “Serbia must recognize Kosovo, and negotiations should be conducted only on models for compensation for such a decision”.

We believe that the ICG started from several starting points when preparing this report and that it had several motives for such recommendations. Some are listed in the Report, while others are clearly seen in the political context in which the report is published:

Despite its one-sidedness and bias in favor of Pristina, the ICG Report may also have a positive impact on the future process, by advocating that the model of territorial demarcation not be rejected if it is the result of a compromise between the two sides. This is mentioned as one of the three models for “compensation” that Serbia would receive for recognizing Kosovo’s independence, and the option of “territorial demarcation” was given by far the greatest attention. The ICG even asks the EU and its negotiators in several places not to reject this option, if it could lead to a final goal, which is the Serbian recognition of Kosovo’s independence according to the ICG.

Maintaining the status quo is the least desirable outcome for the ICG, although it states that in both publics, Kosovo and Serbian, there is a very strong commitment of certain influential groups, that things do not change. In the event of a status quo, the ICG suggests that Western countries, supporters of Kosovo’s independence, indirectly help Kosovo politically and economically. There are no recommendations about Serbia, in case of the status quo.

2. Models for solution

The solutions proposed by the ICG to continue the dialogue process between Belgrade and Pristina are actually not new. This report is an upgraded and elaborated version of the same positions, which were published in the form of comments on September 30, 2020 (“Toward compromise between Kosovo and Serbia, ICG, September 30, 2020”). So, immediately after the meetings in the White House with President Donald Trump. By the way, the ICG completely ignores and even disavows this event and the agreements that were made on that occasion, and dedicates only one half-sentence to it (“…the September summit in the White House proved to be, for the most part, a symbolic show”).

This timing of the report, which advocates a speedy end to the process, through Serbian recognition of Kosovo’s independence, while seeking a model of compensation for Serbia for that act, clearly speaks of the ICG’s motives to oppose the then US administration’s aspiration to seek a solution gradually, through compromise, but that the final outcome should be imposed.

The essence of the concept proposed by the ICG is perhaps best seen in the following sentence from the report: “In all versions, the key issue to be addressed is how to persuade Serbia to recognize Kosovo, without agreeing to steps that would harm Pristina and, optimally, taking some that be useful to it.” This is a kind of project task from which the authors of the ICG report started, and in response to the previous thesis, they give three models:

  • Trade – development for independence
  • Autonomy
  • Border modification

Each of the offered models is possible compensation to Belgrade for the recognition of Kosovo, and the ICG suggests combining all three models, if it suits the interests of other actors (EU, for example), but above all Pristina.

The first model advocates a combination of pressure on Belgrade, billions in development aid and investments intended for Serbia, and assurances for accelerated membership in the European Union. The ICG likes this model, as it does not imply any significant concessions from Pristina. On the other hand, it believes that there is a great obstacle to its realization, because the EU cannot accelerate the process of Serbia’s accession to the Union, due to the existing rules of this process. It is interesting that the ICG does not suggest to the European Union, in this or any other place in the Report, to consider changing the current system of joining new members, in order to enable a “fast lane” or give specific guarantees to Serbia for the date of accession to the Union.

The ICG finds some encouragement for such a model in the alleged readiness of President Aleksandar Vučić to reach an agreement on these lines, in any case without the formal recognition of Kosovo in return. The ICG refers to President Vučić’s October 2019 interview with Der Standard, in which he said that an arrangement that would include a form of “de facto” recognition would be much easier for Serbia than if it were in the form of a “de jure” recognition of Kosovo.

The second model deals with the establishment of a new autonomous status for the ten majority Serb municipalities in Kosovo, but also for the majority Albanian municipalities in central Serbia. The ICG proposes that ten Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo receive their basic law, assembly, police force, court and source of funding, while the central government in Pristina would have authority over this autonomy only in the areas of defense, foreign affairs, monetary policy and some aspects of security forces. According to the ICG, Preševo Valley would receive the same or similar autonomous solutions. Both new autonomies (autonomous districts) would have ties with their home countries, primarily in terms of receiving financial support from Serbia and Kosovo, respectively.

The shortcomings of this model ICG founds only in the dissatisfaction and unwillingness of Pristina to provide wider autonomy to the Serbian community. The report states that they do not want to go beyond the existing solutions on autonomy in Kosovo, which originate from Ahtisaari’s plan, and that they see every new and wider autonomy for Serbs as a nucleus for some future secession. The ICG, however, does not consider Serbia’s position in relation to the greater autonomy advocated here for Albanian-majority municipalities in south of central Serbia.

The third model (modification of borders) received by far the largest space in the ICG Report. Partly because of its complexity, and partly because of its long-standing controversy that it provokes in international circles. However, the ICG does not reject this model, even appeals to some tough opponents (Germany for example) to try to soften its position, and even hopes for such an outcome by quoting an unnamed German official in the EU that they “never say – never”.

According to the ICG, the greatest potential of this model is that with it, both Pristina and Belgrade could declare victory in front of their public. As expected, the biggest flaw of this model is in the most frequently mentioned “domino effect” that would appear in the Balkans, in almost all of its parts – Bosnia and Herzegovina (Republika Srpska), Northern Macedonia, for example. However, the ICG states that the risk of such a solution is high, but that it should be compared with the risk posed by the possible status quo for overall regional stability and security. Therefore, it suggests that, in the case of this solution, all other Balkan governments commit themselves not to have similar aspirations, nor to support possible separatist tendencies in their countries. Addressing Pristina’s interests within such a model, the ICG seeks a solution to its interests in areas that could be “affected”, primarily the Gazivode and Trepča systems, as well as the status of Kosovska Mitrovica.

3. How to reach a solution

The ICG says that the basis for all solutions that would find “compensation” for Serbia for its recognition of Kosovo, should be in Ahtisaari’s plan!? Apart from the fact that Martti Ahtisaari is one of the most prominent and influential representatives of the ICG and that his 2007 plan is actually the foundation of the Kosovo Constitution, and the ICG always strives to be on the side of Kosovo, it is difficult to find other rational reasons for such a setting. Especially when the Report almost proudly quotes the ICG’s position from the Vienna negotiations on the final status of Kosovo that the Ahtisaari Plan is a “compromise that offers the best recipe for creating a multiethnic, democratic and decentralized society” (Crisis Group Report, Kosovo: No Good Alternatives to the Ahtisaari Plan). With this plan, Kosovo has not become a multiethnic, democratic or decentralized society, so it is surprising why the ICG did not keep silent about its long-standing support for this plan, but proudly quoted it.

In general, the ICG asks all actors (Belgrade, Pristina, EU, USA) to adjust their positions according to the proclaimed goal – the recognition of Kosovo by Belgrade, with concessions offered in the three mentioned models.

Thus, Pristina should hear from the leadership of Serbia under what conditions they are ready to formally recognize Kosovo and, on the other hand, Belgrade should hear from Kosovo what they are ready to offer in order to receive recognition in return. If the two sides are not ready for that, then the EU should establish informal channels of communication in which it would be possible to talk honestly, without fear of information leakage and with the presence of mediators of mutual trust.

The ICG estimates that the future government in Pristina, whoever it consists of, will be reluctant to accept the risk in relation to the previous hard positions and will be suspicious of all compromise proposals. Especially because they will be constantly under pressure from the opposition not to take any compromise steps. As key factors in this regard, the ICG sees Washington and Brussels, to encourage the future government in Pristina to embark on a compromise without fear of losing positions.

The leadership in Belgrade and President Vučić, who are stated to have extremely high and stable support of the citizens, unlike the leaders in Pristina, are expected to “face the conditions under which they would be ready to recognize Kosovo” and to inform its public about it. This is especially important because any agreement regarding Kosovo will have to cause a change in the Constitution of Serbia, and that must be done through a referendum. Therefore, Belgrade will need a “strategy to build public support” for new solutions, which will include “a higher level of communication and perhaps spending some significant political capital”.

The ICG expects a lot from the EU, especially when it comes to putting pressure on its five members who do not recognize Kosovo to revise their position. These five EU members are seen in several places in the ICG Report as a major problem for the realization of this concept, so “hard” supporters of Kosovo’s independence, and above all Germany, are asked to influence five countries to soften their positions. If that does not happen, the majority in the EU, which is for Kosovo’s independence, should persist on the condition that Serbia will not be able to become a member of the EU if it does not recognize Kosovo beforehand.

In this context, the ICG raises a surprising question – what will happen if Serbia becomes an EU member before Kosovo? Namely, the ICG fears that in that situation, Serbia will be in a position to block Kosovo’s progress towards EU membership. It does not take into account the fact that Serbia is incomparably closer to EU membership than Kosovo and that the consideration of some simultaneous accession to the Union is pointless.

The ICG suggests that Kosovo, regardless of the further course of the dialogue, should seek admission to certain international organizations, for example the Council of Europe and the International Court of Justice, as this would contribute to the overall future solution. According to them, Kosovo’s membership in the Council of Europe would place Kosovo under the jurisdiction of its Court of Human Rights, which would open another mechanism for the protection of rights to minorities (Serb minority) in Kosovo.

4. Conclusion

In its latest report, the ICG has shown that it is not fundamentally changing its long-standing position on Kosovo, which it considers an independent state and seeks solutions to give that independence full international affirmation. Back in 2010, the ICG advocated very similar solutions in the Kosovo Report:

  • Recognition of Kosovo within existing borders
  • Wide autonomy for the north, within the legal system of Kosovo
  • Autonomous status for SOC facilities

Due to the long duration of the dialogue, longer than ten years, due to the disunity within the EU regarding Kosovo’s independence (five members do not recognize it), as well as due to the arrival of the new US administration, the ICG demands an end to the current model of negotiations “from below” and advocates for negotiations to focus on Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo, with Belgrade receiving certain compensation. The ICG is, in fact, asking for a solution to be imposed.

The ICG advocates changing the focus of the negotiations and turning them “upside down”, so that Kosovo’s independence will be set as a fact, and all other parties will find a way to adjust to it. This especially relates to Serbia, which is being asked to accept one of the three offered compensation models (financial support, autonomy for Kosovo Serbs, change of borders) or a combination of these models, if it suits Pristina.

It is a very “Kosovo-centric” model in which the interests of Kosovo are primarily taken into account, to which everyone else should adjust – Serbia, the EU, and even the United States.

The ICG remains in favor of a land swap model, aware that there are large reservations about this model with influential governments around the world (Germany is most often mentioned). However, this model is not rejected and European negotiators are asked not to disqualify it, if they assess that it can provide a path to a final agreement.

This concept advocates too much pressure on too many stakeholders, and that is its key weakness. The pressure is advocated primarily on Serbia, which according to the ICG must recognize Kosovo’s independence, and the choice is only about the model for compensation for such a decision. Great pressure is also on the EU, especially to solve the “problem” with its five members who do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Pressure has been directed even at the United States, whose role is in influencing the government in Pristina not to obstruct any compromise proposals. The least pressure, as expected, is projected on Pristina, whose independent position is observed as not particularly threatened.

The need for great pressure on all sides (except Pristina) comes from the premise that Kosovo’s independence cannot be discussed and that all solutions should, in fact, be adapted to that fact.

Regardless of the essential bias and shortcomings of such a concept, its impact on international actors will be undeniable. The report was released at a time when dialogue is at a standstill and will not be renewed for months, primarily due to the election process in Kosovo and the formation of a future government. A special influence is possible on the new American administration, which has previously had a lot of regard for the recommendations of the ICG, and at this moment is tracing its future foreign policy activities, among which the Balkans is one of the six priorities.

Given the ideological profile of this organization, it is surprising that the ICG in its report did not mention the interests of non-Western actors in the Balkans, especially Russia and Turkey, when it comes to resolving the Kosovo issue. The ICG’s disinterest in Moscow’s position, which is the biggest advocate of preserving the status quo in Kosovo on the international scene, is particularly surprising, which in turn leads to long-term instability in the Balkans and Serbia’s long-term commitment to EU membership.