There is a lot of symbolism in the fact that it was Frank Wisner who recently called on the Kosovo authorities to stop waiting for Serbia to recognise Kosovo, but to turn to other goals, the economy, road construction, for example. The experienced American diplomat marked the time when Kosovo was rapidly moving towards independence. After failed negotiations in Vienna in 2007, Kosovo formally declared independence, with the great support of Wisner’s government in Washington, while he was an envoy for Kosovo.
During the last 15 years, since Wisner ended his engagement, the issue of Kosovo has been up in the air, apparently resolved by the declaration of independence and strong Western support, but in fact very open the entire time. Those 15 years coincide with the period in which the USA did not have its own high-ranking diplomat in charge of the Kosovo issue – Matthew Palmer was the first to take that position after Wisner, and Gabriel Escobar soon followed.
There are no coincidences here. Simply, American participation in resolving matters surrounding Kosovo means resolving them, in one way or another. And their standing aside and leaving the work to someone else, without fail leads to corrosion, complications and possible escalation. Just a month ago, we were on the verge of an explosion. Fortunately, it was avoided, the solutions that helped to calm the situation were compromises, only apparently simple, just as the problem that needed to be resolved was only apparently “small”. No unresolved problem between Belgrade and Pristina is “small”, each of them has enough destructive energy to flare up into a big flame, until the last one is resolved and extinguished – by compromise.
The American mediation under the guidance of Gabriel Escobar knows this very well and that is why this “small” problem with identity cards and license plates was approached as if it were a threat of nuclear war. From the multi-day meetings in Brussels in mid-August to the recent final agreement on the border crossing/administrative line regime, there has been no pause in the talks. It was actually one continuous conversation that had to end with a compromise and a solution.
A different outcome would not only affect the relations between Belgrade and Pristina, it would complicate things on the European and even the world map. Russia openly hoped for a conflict between Serbs and Albanians at the beginning of August, expected blood in the north of Kosovo, fuelled passions that would lead to a local confrontation, and if possible, a conflict between Serbia and NATO. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, was sorry that the agreement was reached, she blamed the EU for showing that it was “powerless” to bring the two sides to an agreement. And again, she teaches Serbia what its main interest is (protection of Serbs and their free movement), just as the ambassador in Belgrade, Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko, recently said on behalf of Serbia (and not Russia) that “they would respond decisively if the Serbs were threatened”. Unfortunately for them, the agreement was reached, the crisis was avoided, and there is no mention of conflicts. Moscow will have to look for another opportunity to try to provoke a conflict, which would ease the burden of the Ukrainian invasion. For Moscow, Kosovo will remain a point where it will look for a chance to “stretch” the Ukrainian front, but the other side knows that as well. The model by which “small” issues with identity cards and license plates were resolved brought success and it will be used for other issues. Of course, with the strong participation of the US.
The effectiveness of this model reflected in the fact that there are people dissatisfied with the agreed solutions in both Belgrade and Pristina. The right wing in Serbia, as expected, “crucified” Aleksandar Vučić for recognizing Kosovo, and Albin Kurti has to explain, at length, to his supporters why he gave up his maximalist and unrealistic policy – either recognition by Serbia, or nothing. And in particular, he must explain how he put the Albanians in a position where America listens to proposals from Belgrade. When Gabriel Escobar says that Vučić is “completely committed to regional stability”, that he “does not want violence” and that he believes in Serbia’s European ambitions, this does not mean that Washington is on the way to “un-recognize” Kosovo. It only means that America once again accepted mediation regarding the Kosovo issue with the desire for the issue to be resolved, without the possibility of it exploding again, and this can only be achieved with the participation of Belgrade, by no means without it.
Accusations that he recognized Kosovo will follow Vučić in all future agreements with Pristina, but they will be just as meaningless as the previous ones. The recognition of a state never happens by chance and indirectly, it must be explicit, written and explained, in documents that have international legal validity. Serbia points out that it will not do that, and Frank Wisner recently spoke about this fact, addressing the Kosovo Albanians. Vuk Jeremić knows this well, and when he demands that Vučić writes to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping that he will never recognize Kosovo, he is only talking about an outrageous willingness to put the interests of his own country at the disposal of someone else’s interests.
Between recognition and the status quo, which is slowly changing, there is a huge space in which Belgrade and Pristina, with the support and pressure of the US and the EU, are looking for models to normalize relations. This is being done much faster now than at any point in time in the last 15 years, because the international circumstances are incomparably more difficult than in the last 15 years. The Russian invasion of Ukraine brought about that acceleration, because it gave the Kosovo conflict a chance to “unfreeze” and become an issue of global importance again.
Fortunately, that will not happen, because the latest agreements between Belgrade and Pristina have returned the process to the track of agreement and compromise. It’s a tough ride for everyone involved, but the alternative is chaotic and destructive, and no one on the track wants to be a part of that.