The Ohrid Agreement, officially known as the Agreement on the Path to Normalization between Kosovo and Serbia, was verbally accepted by the Serbian President and Kosovar Prime Minister in March 2023, symbolizing the most significant advance in negotiations between the two nations in years. A report by the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies (The Kosovar Centre Report) indicated that by accepting this agreement, Serbia recognized major statehood attributes of Kosovo and created an enabling environment for an independent Kosovo to move forward with integration on regional, European, and international stages. In fact, the text stipulates that Serbia will not object to Kosovo’s membership in international organizations.
The last several months, however, have proved that even though the agreement was reached, neither side has fully implemented it. For example, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić vowed not to sign an EU-facilitated agreement with Kosovo and not to recognize Kosovo. Serbia also voted against Kosovo’s application for membership in the Council of Europe. The Kosovar Centre Report stated that Vučić “voted not to ‘punish’ states that abstained from the vote.” This move reinforces Vučić’s prior promise to oppose Kosovo’s UN membership and highlights Vučić’s disregard of the Ohrid Agreement.
The international quest for support is a prominent political goal on Kosovo’s path to becoming a fully-recognised well-functioning state. There are five members of the EU who do not recognize Kosovo: these countries are Romania, Slovakia, Greece, Cyprus, and Spain. The last two take the most radical stance toward the recognition of Kosovo. Spain struggles with the case of Catalonia separatism and Cyprus has also suffered from internal division. Thus, Spain and Cyprus might be especially hesitant to create a precedent which can later backfire on themselves.
If implemented, this agreement could be a big move for Kosovo towards a better position in the international arena. According to the Kosovar Centre Report, “if the optimistic scenario of all five recognizing Kosovo fails, then Spain and Cyprus should move towards the current Greek position on Kosovo, while Greece itself, alongside Slovakia and Romania, should move to formal recognition.” Even this scenario could improve the country’s position with the EU.
However, at the end of May, the security situation in Kosovo’s most problematic Serb-dominated northern regions faltered. Local Serbs boycotted municipal elections because their demands for more autonomy were unmet. Ethnic-Albanian mayors without proper public support were elected. As a result, protests started. Protests were shut down by the police, using force, and NATO peacekeeping missions intervened. In clashes, thirty NATO-led peacekeepers were injured. Serbs blamed Albanians, while Albanians blamed Serbs, and the cycle of irresponsibility continued.
Since the clashes, the security situation in the region worsened again, jeopardizing the previous agreements on normalization. On June 15, 2023, the Serbian side kidnapped three Kosovar police officers on the border, pressing charges against them. The Kosovar Centre for Security Studies published this statement: “The available evidence suggests that abduction occurred within the territory of Kosovo, it was pre-planned and it was executed by the special units of both Serbian Armed Forces and Gendarmerie.”
Shpat Balaj, a researcher in the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies, spoke to JURIST about non-majority inclusion, integrity in the security sector, disinformation, and violent extremism issues in the region. Balaj’s biggest concern is the government’s absence of dialogue with Kosovo Serbs. “When the current Kosovar Prime Minister came to power, one of the main pillars of his program was a proper dialogue with Kosovo Serbs, but we have never seen the actual dialogue occur,” Balak said. This absence of dialogue makes this group a more vulnerable target for Belgrade and Moscow propaganda, leading to consequences we can observe now.
The Northern Serbs and their interests should be differentiated from the criminal groups operating in the region. Balaj explained that despite a lack of political unity in the community, a common goal is to receive the Association of Serbian Municipalities. This is desirable because it would allow them to reduce the central government’s influence on their identity policies and help them protect their Church. This association, however, is impossible to make following a decision by Kosovo’s Constitutional Court which held that Kosovo’s minority Serbs would be able to run an association of municipalities, but that the associations could not have executive rights reserved exclusively for the central government. Thus, there is a necessity to renew direct negotiations between sides about the association and find a compromise suitable for Serbs without breaking the Kosovo constitution.
The absence of constructive dialogue has contributed to the deadlock in the country’s political situation. When asked about the possibility of real war in the region, Balaj answered, “If the sides do not come back to negotiations and do not stop the provocations, the situation will definitely further deteriorate. I am not sure that it will necessarily be a full-scale war, but events which can lead to a partition of the territory in future.” With the rise of tensions, the Serbian army commander urged NATO peacekeepers to increase efforts to protect minority Serbs in Kosovo.
Also, the influence of the Russian war in Ukraine should not be underestimated. With its outbreak in 2022, the international community’s focus has shifted from Kosovo to the Russian war. The shift in focus is exacerbated by the fact that Northern Kosovo is rife with criminal organizations and heavily influenced by Russia. As Balaj explained, these forces can be used for destabilization.
Local dialogue is vital to success between Kosovo and Serbia. As Balaj explained, without understanding what the Serbian minority wants, it is impossible to deal with the situation. This is because using force will not lead to any positive outcomes. Thus, the international community should keep abreast of events and execute the role of an unbiased arbiter. Both parties should return to the table, and the only solution is a mutual trade-off concerning the Constitution. Even though the Serbian side is not the only one to blame in the current crisis, the influence of Belgrade on the situation is significant and destructive. Further harmful deeds like the abduction of police officers should face a robust response from international communities, including sanctions. Any other violations of human rights by any side should face the same reaction.
Mykyta Vorobiov is a student at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Ukraine. He is currently reporting from the Balkans.