Kosovo Sot, a Pristina paper, likes to hear from me once a year. Here is what I sent ten days ago for publication today:
As the end of the year approaches, I find myself more hopeful about Kosovo and Serbia than I anticipated at the beginning. The high-level political dialogue that started this fall holds more promise than the technical dialogue begun in 2011. The technical dialogue focused on practical issues: boundary/border controls, mutual recognition of diplomas, return of the civil registries taken by Serbia at the end of the war, electricity trade and telecommunications. Edita Tahiri carried it as far as it could go. It reached the limits of what it was able to achieve without running into political problems. Until recently, implementation has been minimal, especially on the Serbian side.
Talks on the political level, which began in October between the prime ministers with Lady Ashton as facilitator/mediator, came at the right moment. Germany had made it clear to Belgrade over the summer that the parallel Serbian administrative structures in northern Kosovo could not remain in place if Serbia wants a date to begin accession negotiations to the EU. Serbia this fall and winter faces dramatic fiscal constraints. The Serbian platform for negotiations published recently was not promising, but more important is what Belgrade does and says at the talks. Attenuating the economic burden of Kosovo should be welcome in Belgrade.
Pristina also needs a positive outcome, in order to improve its relations with the EU and establish itself as a serious contender for the visa waiver and a Stabilization and Association Agreement. First priority is to finalize implementation of the technical agreements, including the Integrated Border Management and the Cadastral Records Agreement. If that doesn’t happen, Thaci will be in a bad spot for upcoming elections either in 2013 or 2014.
The end of supervised independence in September by the International Civilian Office was a step forward, but some supervision continues. Even if the International Civilian Office has disappeared, EULEX and a variety of internationally appointed officials remain. Kosovo’s security still depends on KFOR.
There is nevertheless a new spirit in Kosovo, manifest in the willingness to admit political level dialogue is necessary. Only two summers ago I encountered many Kosovars who did not want to admit that good relations with Belgrade were important for Pristina. Today that is well understood. People are feeling the responsibilities of sovereignty and independence. They recognize that the Serbian campaign against recognition has unfortunately been successful in constraining acceptance of Kosovo into the UN.
Kosovars are looking for a changed, more mature relationship with Belgrade. Eventually this has to include diplomatic recognition and exchange of ambassadors. The first step toward this new relationship is an end to the campaign against recognition. Thaci will find it hard to continue to attend meetings if Dacic is sending (unsuccessful) demarches to dozens of capitals trying to prevent Kosovo from becoming a member of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Kosovo will be entitled to armed forces in the middle of 2013. It will take at least another five years before they reach full capability. How big an armed force Pristina will need—and how it should be equipped—to protect its territorial integrity and sovereignty depends on the threat Kosovo faces. With Serbian security forces already in northern Kosovo and KFOR anxious to leave, it is hard to argue that there is no threat. Kosovo’s armed forces will in turn be seen as a threat in Belgrade and perhaps Skopje as well. All three countries would be better off if they can agree to lower the mutual level of threat, but they must act quickly to make the necessary diplomatic arrangements.
There are real possibilities for successful political-level dialogue. Dialogue is necessary not for dialogue’s sake or even for confidence-building, but because it’s the shortest path to allowing both Kosovo and Serbia to embark on the still long road to EU accession.