The sooner, the better
With Aleksandar Vučić confirmed as prime minister of Serbia on the wave of a strong parliamentary election result last month, questions arise about what the new government should do about Kosovo. On the well-founded principle of doing big but potentially unpopular things you know you will have to do as quickly as possible in a new mandate, here is my advice, composed in response to a colleague’s queries:
Q: Can you give me reasons why the new Serbian government should recognize the independence of Kosovo?
Belgrade has said many times it will not recognize Kosovo’s “unilateral declaration of independence.” But no one “recognizes” independence, which is declared by those wanting it, in this case not unilaterally but rather in close coordination with both Europe and the United States. Britain never “recognized” America’s independence, which was a dramatic and important political rather than a legal act.
Belgrade has already accepted, in the agreement it reached with Pristina last year, the legitimacy of the Kosovo constitutional and legal order on the whole territory of Kosovo. It is not a great leap from there to recognizing Kosovo’s territorial integrity and legitimate authority.
Kosovo is now starting to build its armed forces. They will be designed with Serbia as the main potential threat, since Belgrade does not accept Kosovo as sovereign and continues, despite the Belgrade/Pristina agreement, to say it claims sovereignty over Kosovo’s entire territory. If Belgrade were to recognize, Pristina would be able to reduce its future military commitments and reorient them towards participation in international peacekeeping deployments. That would enable Serbia to do likewise. Kosovo will eventually become a NATO member. Recognition would enable Serbia to become one as well, if it decides to move in that direction.
If Serbia does not want to recognize Kosovo in the near term, the easy way out for now is to allow it to enter the United Nations. That will not be fully satisfactory, as it will not necessarily lead to diplomatic relations, but it would certainly be a step in the right direction. The Kosovars often point to the “two Germanys” precedent. I don’t really think that applies, since on the Pristina side there is no intention whatsoever of reunification, but from Belgrade’s point of view the “two Germanys” precedent should be seen as an attractive one.
How will recognition help the region enter the EU?
The big benefit to Belgrade of recognition, followed by establishment of diplomatic relations with it and border demarcation, would be closing one of the few remaining war and peace issues in the Balkans and thereby removing a major barrier to Serbia’s EU membership. I don’t know two neighboring states without mutual recognition, diplomatic relations and a demarcated border who have good neighborly relations, which are required for EU membership.
The 23 members of the EU that have recognized Kosovo will not accept Serbia as a member without Belgrade recognition and diplomatic relations. Only one EU member taking that position is needed to impose the policy on the rest. I’ve spoken with diplomats from half dozen of those countries who assure me that is their policy. Moreover, even if the governments were tempted their parliaments won’t ratify Serbia’s membership in the EU without recognition.
How will it help economic development in the region?
Kosovo, even under current adverse economic conditions in Europe, is still a relatively dynamic economy, in part due to its young and still growing population. Serbia is aging rapidly and declining in numbers. It would benefit enormously from increased trade with and through Kosovo, which in recent years has relied far more on Macedonia and Albania, to Serbia’s detriment. Completion of the Durres/Pristina road to Nis would bring enormous benefits to both Kosovo and Serbia, but this is unlikely to happen without recognition and diplomatic relations.
Serbia is central not only to the geography of the Balkans but also to its fate. But it cannot stand in the way of Kosovo’s progress without hurting its own EU prospects. Leaving this issue unresolved for another four years will mean less growth, fewer jobs, lower investment and reduced pensions for Serbia and its citizens. Recognition and establishment of diplomatic relations are bitter pills for Serbian politicians, but accompanied by protection of Serbs and Serbian sites in Kosovo they are needed to cure what ails the region. The sooner, the better.
PS: For analysis of the Serbian election campaign and results, try NDI’s Letter from Belgrade.