Small states and the power of pragmatism

Kosovo Foreign  Minister Enver Hoxhaj has kindly provided a copy of his remarks prepared for SAIS last week.  They seem to me to merit publication in their entirety.  I’ll of course be glad to publish the remarks of others as well on the dialogue process between Pristina and Belgrade.

Small States and the Power of Pragmatism: Kosovo’s Approach to the Dialogue with Serbia


Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kosovo

 A small state like Kosovo is obliged to think how to define its role in international affairs and how to conduct its foreign affairs in a way it can advance its vital interests. For small states that have limited military, economic, and demographic resources, it is essential to adapt a smart and pragmatic foreign policy. Being smart for small states means undertaking actions that increase the likelihood for success, utilize the available resources and capacities. In this context, pragmatism means a combination of realist and practical approaches to foreign affairs with strategic reliance on idealism. Pragmatism is not about being strong or weak, but it is about taking the right decisions in right time. Pragmatism is to adapt but maintain strategic vision and policy coherence. It is about making short-term compromises for long-term triumphs. It is about getting what you want, while also addressing other parties concerns. The current dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia under the EU facilitation is a quintessential example of the pragmatic and smart approach of a small state like Kosovo. The normalization dialogue has been considered historic and a breakthrough achievement. It has been considered a success of EU foreign policy, and a merit of constructive approach of both Kosovo and Serbia.

The on-going dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia has its origin in the UN General Assembly resolution (64/298) passed in 2010 which endorsed the advisory opinion of ICJ in Kosovo’s declaration of independence accordance with international law, where it called the EU to initiate a dialogue to normalize the relation between Kosovo and Serbia and improve the lives of people. The whole idea of normalization is about transforming and stabilizing the relations between two states that have disagreement[s] and disputed issues with each other. Normalization is the stage after fragile peace, and a pathway to sustainable peace. Thus, normalization is a process; it is transitional – from one type of inter-state relation to another better type of inter-state relations. So, normalization as a whole is about making changes, compromises, and finding solutions for issues that each side consider[s] currently as being ‘abnormal’. The spectrum of issues that are considered as abnormal, which need to be normal, constitute the agenda of dialogue.

For Kosovo, abnormal aspects are considered: the existence of Serb parallel and illegal structures in the north of Kosovo (and other parts of Kosovo); inability of Kosovo authorities to exercise the sovereignty in the north of Kosovo after 2008; non-recognition of Kosovo custom st[amps] by Serbia and inability to control taxation in the north of Kosovo; blockage of Kosovo to participate as an independent state in regional events; and above all non-recognition of Kosovo’s independence by Serbia and its proactive attempt to undermine Kosovo’s statehood at the domestic and international level. From Serb side, I presume, abnormal issues are considered: Serbian inability to advance in European integration agenda because of Kosovo; its economic and political losses from interfering in Kosovo’s internal affairs; and the desire to free itself from the legacies of the past. From the international perspective, abnormal aspects are considered: the lack of inter-state dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia and the persistence of instability in the region; the inability of EU to advance its enlargement policy with aspiring countries which have outstanding issues; the threat that disengagement situation between Kosovo and Serbia would have over the international investment in the region for the last twenty years; and the desire of EU to play a more active role in the region and the world.

So, found in this spectrum of perspectives, Kosovo’s pragmatic approach has been how to address the issues that are considered as abnormal by all sides in a manner which in the end ensure[s] Kosovo’s three strategic goals:

– Normalizing our relationship with [the] Serb population living in the north of Kosovo by providing security, public services, rule of law, economic assistance, and democratic governance;

– Normalizing the relationship with the Republic of Serbia by resolving outstanding practical and technical inter-state issues as well as receiving a de facto and gradual recognition; and

– Normalizing the relationship with the European Union by accelerating the EU integration process and coordinating our joint efforts in fulfilling the accession criteria.

If Kosovo had chosen no[t] to engage in the dialogue with Serbia, it would have been [a] negative choice with many consequences. Serb parallel structures in the north would threaten the security, institutional functionality and the entire political and ethnic stability in Kosovo. Kosovo would have lost and lagged behind on European integration dynamics and also damaged the relations with key international partners. Most importantly, the fragile relations with Serbia would have deepened and potential confrontation (of small and large scale) was possible. [Th]is would undermine the regional peace and stability. Moreover, rejection of dialogue would affect negatively our quest to complete international recognition of our statehood, and gain membership in regional and international organizations. Opponents of Kosovo would have an argument that Kosovo is not willing to resolve outstanding bilateral issues in a peaceful manner through civilized dialogue.

At the outset it is important to highlight that the dialogue with Serbia was not an easy one and there was extensive skepticism in Kosovo, particularly knowing the deviant history of Serb[ian] diplomacy, their intentional avoidance of extending a state apology for the state-sponsored crimes and large scale human rights violations in Kosovo, their tactical delay of returning the bodies of over 1,700 missing persons, and the avoidance of fulfilling their obligations for the reparation of socio-economic destruction cause[d] in Kosovo. But pragmatism is about taking decisions are good for the interest of your citizens, despite the fact there can be resistance and opposition to what you do.

Although the current dialogue with Serbia is not an easy process for Kosovo, knowing Serbia’s deviant practices in the previous negotiation events, the Kosovo Government together with the broad political spectrum has been pragmatic and unified, coherent, and committed to reaching a comprehensive agreement with Serbia to open the path for the normalization of relations, mutual recognition, and complete integration of Kosovo in the international system. Knowing this importance, we have given priority to this dialogue on top of many other domestic issues that the current Government has set to advance, such as economy, rule of law, and European integration. The overall principle of our engagement in dialogue with Serbia has been our pragmatic approach that as the dialogue is about resolving many issues that are within Kosovo’s territory, Kosovo’s involvement in the dialogue with Serbia should in accordance with our constitution and laws. Kosovo’s platform in this dialogue is the Ahtisaari Plan and the resolution passed by the Assembly of Kosovo, which authorize[d] the Government of Kosovo to engage in a dialogue with Serbia whereby the sovereignty, political status, territorial integrity and any eventual constitutional changes are not negotiable. In the current dialogue with Serbia, the bargaining power of Kosovo Government is much stronger compared to the previous negotiations with Serbia, due to international support for the independence, proven constructive attitude to conflict resolution, considerable number of recognitions, strengthened statehood attributes, and improvement of minority conditions.

There are two levels of the normalization dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia: technical and political dialogue. The technical dialogue started first in March 2011, which involves talks on resolving outstanding technical issues between two states, which have resulted in reaching a number of important agreements on: regional cooperation and representations, integrated border management, regulation of customs steps, return of cadastral records and civil registry, and recognition of university diplomas. Senior political representatives from Kosovo and Serbia continue to lead this technical dialogue, supported by a number of sectorial experts and technocrats.

The technical agreements reached with Serbia regulate particular aspects, but overall they contribute to strengthening Kosovo’s statehood and sovereignty, improving the lives of people in both sides of the border, and in transforming disputed issues. The Agreement on the Freedom of Movement was signed on 02 July 2011 aims to facilitate the free traveling of the citizens through the territory of the other. The Agreement on Civil Registry aims to return the civil registry taken by Serb authorities in 1999 to create a reliable civil registry in Kosovo. The Agreement on Acceptance of University Diplomas was signed on 02 July 2011 and further operationalized on 21 November 2011. This agreement on mutual recognition of university diplomas opens the prospects for Albanian students from Serbia to notify their diplomas gained in Kosovo and use them for seeking employment in Serbia. The Agreement on Customs Stamp was signed on 02 September 2011 and aims to ensure the free movement of goods in accordance with CEFTA. This agreement also marks the beginning of trade reciprocity between Kosovo and Serbia based on European standards and CEFTA rules. The Agreement on Cadastral Records that was signed on 02 September 2011 envisages the return of 12 million cadastral documents taken by Serbia during the 1999 war in Kosovo. This agreement ultimately marks the end of Serb parallel and illegal hubs that issued cadastral documents in Kosovo.

One of the most important agreement[s] is the Agreement on Integrated Border Management (IBM) agreed on 02 December 2011[.  It] is now operational in six border points with Serbia and its implementation is at satisfactory level. Serbia delayed the implementation of IBM until December 2012. The Agreement on Regional Representation and Cooperation signed on 24 February 2012 aims to ensure effective, inclusive and representative regional cooperation between Kosovo and Serbia. As part of the agreement, the Republic of Kosovo has secured direct representation in regional forums and organizations, as well as practices its sovereign right to speak on its behalf and sign agreements as an independent state. The Agreement on liaison offices between Kosovo and Serbia was reached on 31 May 2013 in Brussels. The mission of liaison officers is to follow all issues related to the normalization of relations and address everyday problems that may occur. The offices are provided by the EU Delegations in both countries. Although this is a liaison office, its meaning and diplomatic importance is significant.

Undoubtedly we would like to have had the demarcation of border with Serbia as we did successfully with Macedonia and we are currently doing with Montenegro. But the achievement of the IBM agreement as an inter-state agreement it is a major achievement, because it is nothing less than a bilateral and legal recognition of the inter-state border. The implementation of IBM is a clear indication that Serbia is recognizing Kosovo territorial integrity and marking of the physical separation. It also signifies the institutional and authoritative recognition of Kosovo state institutions, such as police, and customs. This is yet another example of Kosovo’s pragmatic approach. Equally, we would have been happier to open an embassy in Belgrade and establish full diplomatic relations with Serbia. However, we have accepted a pragmatic option, which is the first definitive step in establishing diplomatic relations. It is an act of acceptance of Kosovo independence and sovereignty. The agreement on liaison offices is in accordance with international diplomatic law – Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations of 1961. This step-by-step approach helps building confidence, facilitating direct communication and getting used to having diplomatic representation in both capitals. This interpretation of these two cases is relevant example of how we have practice[d] smartness and pragmatism towards reaching a greater goal – that of mutual recognition.

The second level of dialogue consisted of political dialogue, which started after October 2012. From this moment on, the nature of dialogue upgraded to discuss more comprehensive political topics that are held at the level of Prime Ministers, and facilitated by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy. Both parties met over 30 times. On 19 April 2013, the first historical inter-state agreement was finally reached between the Republic of Kosovo and Serbia, facilitated by the EU, outlining the principles that govern the normalization of inter-state relations. The First Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalization of Relations (Brussels Agreement) represents the first inter-state agreement between Kosovo and Serbia after the independence of Kosovo in 2008, and as such it has resolved all outstanding inter-state issues. Through Brussels Agreement Serbia has accepted Kosovo’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, as well as has accepted the reality of independent Kosovo as joint partners in the European integration process. The Brussels Agreement marks also the end of a century of conflict and disagreements between Kosovo and Serbia. The agreement not only serves as a basis for normalization of inter-state political relations, but also it serves a catalyst of bilateral reconciliation process. The Brussels Agreement has opened the prospects for Kosovo to complete international recognition and membership in international bodies. Furthermore, the Brussels Agreement has stabilized further the Balkans region and has brought clarity to regional cooperation and economic integration.

The Brussels Agreement is in line with [the] Kosovo Constitution that provides guarantees for Serb community to articulate and enjoy their political, economic, and socio-cultural rights. The Brussels Agreement opens the perspective for establishing stability in the north of Kosovo, through profound transformation of the current security, political and socio-economic conditions. The Brussels Agreement between Kosovo and Serbia represents a crucial and historic moment for improving the relations between Kosovo and Serbia, as two independent countries, and a landmark opportunity, which will pave the way for good neighbourly relations in the EU integration process. Another important provision of this agreement is the mutual accordance [agreement] that neither side will block, or encourage [the] other to block, the other’s side progress in their respective EU integration path. This mutual assurance is a promising provision that the European integration path for both countries will be bright and fast based on fair conditions and individual merits. This provision is essential for ensuring that Kosovo’s European integration process will not be blocked by Serbia. Equally, it provides safeguards to Serbia that Kosovo will not encourage EU member states to block Serbia’s accession process.

We would also liked to sign with Serbia a peace treaty, which would end all disputed and outstanding bilateral issues and reach the full normalization of relations between our two states. However, the Brussels Agreement shows that through pragmatism we were able to reach a deal which marks the acceptance of Kosovo’s political and institutional existence and its independence. The pragmatic approach has enabled to overcome stalemate and gradually transform the relations between two former adversaries. The pragmatic approach has enabled the transformation of Serbia’s position towards Kosovo – from total non-engagement to institutional cooperation. This also triggered a positive effect whereby the EU itself transformed its attitude towards Kosovo as well.

The recognition of Kosovo independence by Serbia remains the most important priority. On 19 April 2013, the first historic agreement was finally reached between the Republic of Kosovo and Serbia, facilitated by the EU, outlining the principles that govern the normalization of inter-state relations. Through this agreement Serbia de facto recognized the political existence of Kosovo, recognized Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as it recognized Kosovo’s Constitution and laws. However, there can be no full normalization of relations unless the following five conditions are met:

1. Full implementation of agreements reached so far, without tendencies for re-negotiating and diverging the substance of agreements;

2. Complete dismantling of Serb parallel structures from the north of Kosovo;

3. Full integration of Serbs into Kosovo institutions and constructive attitude towards Kosovo state, as it was the case with the integration of Serbs during the implementation of Ahtisaari proposal after 2008;

4. The sovereignty of Kosovo should be respected, and Serbia should remove obstacles for Kosovo’s membership in regional, European, and international organizations, including here the UN.

5. Finally, full normalization will happen when Serbia recognizes formally the independence and statehood of Kosovo.

Taking a pragmatic approach, there is hope that bilateral issues between Kosovo and Serbia will be resolved as part of our European integration process. The EU in its negotiating framework with Serbia has made it clear that Serbia before joining the EU needs to reach a legally binding comprehensive normalization agreement that improves significantly inter-state relations, resolve[s] outstanding bilateral issues, remove[s] potential obstacles in Kosovo’[s] EU integration path, and demar[cates] the inter-state border. This is a hopeful process, which needs to be taken seriously by Serbia and once and forever remove its hostage attitude towards Kosovo.

In the near future [the] pragmatic approach is the new EU conditionality on Serbia set as part of the negotiation framework for accession. The EU requires from Serbia to not block Kosovo in its European path, to reach a comprehensive agreement, which is legally binding, to demark the border with all its neighbours including Kosovo here, to implement all agreements reached so far, and also act constructively in regional affairs. The provision for not blocking Kosovo’s European path could potentially serve Kosovo to apply for membership in the Council of Europe (CoE). CoE is a pan-European organization. Kosovo’s membership in CoE is part of ‘European path’. If this is the case, then Serbia should not block Kosovo nor encourage other member states of CoE to block Kosovo from getting membership to CoE.

The most important aspect is the obligation of Serbia to normalize the relations with Kosovo in the comprehensive manner and seal in the end this process with a legally binding agreement that allows both Kosovo and Serbia to exercise their rights and responsibilities. By pointing out the need for ‘comprehensive’ normalization of relations it signifies the need to resolve all outstanding political, economic, social, and technical issues between Kosovo and Serbia. Here it is implicit also the question of recognition of Kosovo, as well as the admission to the UN and other international organizations. Ultimately, without resolving the question of recognition and admission to the UN there could be no comprehensive normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. The reference for reaching a legally binding agreement by the end of the accession negotiations is crucial for ensuring that the comprehensive normalization of relations does not remain only a matter of rhetoric, but it is a legally binding agreement, which needs to be implemented entirely. This also signifies that this legally binding agreement will serve as a peace treaty and a legal act of mutual recognition.

Beyond the normalization dialogue with Serbia, Kosovo has invoked a pragmatic approach to the entire statebuilding enterprise in the last six years. As a result of this, Kosovo today is an independent and sovereign State with functional and democratic governance; a vibrant and cohesive population; a growing economy; a clearly demarcated and defined territory; and full diplomatic capacity and willingness to join, interact, and positively contribute to international affairs. We have also applied a pragmatic approach to gaining international recognition and becoming part of international organizations. Our pragmatic approach also has enabled us to develop constructive neighbourhood in the region and cultivate strategic relations with the United States and the key European states. While Kosovo is a pragmatic state, it does not make compromises to its founding values, which are political independence, sovereignty, democracy, multi-ethnic and secularism. Kosovo respects and promotes highest level of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and is committed to promoting policies and practices that support peace, tolerance, and inter-cultural and inter-faith diversity.

07 February 2014.


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