For more than a century, peace in the Western Balkans has depended on relations between its two biggest peoples: the Albanians and the Serbs. Their territorial dispute over Kosovo, which has raged since Serbia annexed the territory at the end of the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), has created a permanent condition of instability.
But a decade after Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia (under cover from a United Nations mission and the NATO-led Kosovo Force-KFOR), the first signs of a realistic approach are coming from Belgrade. Last summer, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic called for a “broad national debate on Kosovo,” which could make for a hot political winter.
The 80 percent solution
Armed with a fresh five-year mandate, and with impeccable nationalist credentials, the Serbian president could afford to touch the sore spot in much the same way that Cold Warrior Richard Nixon could go to China. Albanians and Serbians should look for a deal, Mr. Vucic said in an August television interview, because “if we achieve peace between the two biggest nations, we will solve 80 percent of all problems for the next 100 years.”
Assuming this is not just talk, President Vucic can count on support from the European Union and the United States. EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini praised Serbia’s “constructive” attitude in the Brussels-facilitated Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, which aims to have a final Serbia-Kosovo agreement by 2019.
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, however, while acknowledging that “Serbia’s policy on Kosovo has failed,” argued publicly in August that what was needed is a territorial partition – an option that he said would be supported by Russia. This made clear that Mr. Vucic’s “internal debate” would involve outside powers and determine Serbia’s place in the international system – aligned with Russia or with the West.
The timing for President Vucic’s demarche appears to have been inspired by his July trip to Washington, where he met with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. Mr. Vucic was clearly feeling the pressure after German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned, earlier in the year, that Serbia could not join the EU without normalizing its relations with Kosovo.
The Serbian president’s brainstorm, which came at a time of increased U.S.-Russian tensions over the Balkans, was that resolving the Kosovo dispute would free him from dependence on both Washington and Moscow. Belgrade had already tried a two-track policy – applying for EU membership but also relying on Russian support for its claim to Kosovo – and that approach had failed.
Moscow still sees Belgrade as a key ally in the Balkans, and Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin declared during a trip to Moscow in August that his country “will never join NATO.” Serbia’s military regularly participates in joint maneuvers with Russian forces, is seeking deliveries of MIG-29 fighter jets and helicopters from Russia, and hosts a “Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center” at Nis that is regarded as potentially the opening wedge for a direct Russian military presence. Indeed, the U.S. recently warned Belgrade not to extend diplomatic status to this center.
NATO, meanwhile, discussed the future of its KFOR mission at the mid-September meeting of its Military Committee in Tirana. The Committee’s chairman, Czech General Petr Pavel, became the first senior NATO official to state publicly that Kosovo, as a sovereign state, could have its own army.
Unless the conciliatory rhetoric is a smokescreen to deceive foreign observers, this winter could see a struggle over which vision prevails in Serbia – Mr. Vucic’s orientation toward Europe, or Mr. Dacic’s embrace of Slavic brotherhood. Yet Serbia’s biggest strategic dilemma is how to rid itself of both entanglements: Kosovo and Russia.
* The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at :
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