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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2013 > July 2013 > The Game Changer

The Game Changer

Will the EU’s carrot-and-stick approach to peace work in the Balkans?

Tuesday 2 July 2013, by Wendy Papakostandini

“And the white smoke is out!” tweeted Vlora Citaku, Kosovo’s minister for European integration, “Habemus Pactum!” What Citaku was referring to was a deal struck this past April between the nations of Serbia and Kosovo, deemed a landmark agreement by world leaders and the media. After a long negation process the respective prime ministers, mediated by Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, finally reached an understanding in Brussels.

The agreement emerged on the heels of ongoing instability and ethnic struggles plaguing the region for the last decade. The region is not new to conflict; ethnic conflicts and wars have afflicted the Balkans for years. Kosovo in particular has been subject to much unrest, having been the epicenter of a centuries-long dispute between Albanians and Serbs. Kosovo – with a predominately Albanian population – has been free from Serbian rule since the culmination of the Kosovo war in 1999. Though the situation has simmered down in recent years, the northern municipalities of Kosovo continue to feel the tension the most.

Despite the initial optimism toward the agreement, deeming it a success at this stage is premature. Whether or not the agreement will live up to the hype centered on it remains unclear. Yet, the agreement is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. The deal largely centers on northern Kosovo, where a large portion of the country’s Serb minority, and ethnic tensions, reside. The first six points of the agreement deal with establishing a new “Association/Community of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo.” Other provisions in the agreement deal with instituting a single police force, and appointing a Police Regional Commander for the four northern Serb majority municipalities. Additionally, the agreement calls on having integrated judicial authorities as well as an understanding that “neither side will block, or encourage others to block, the other side’s progress in their respective EU path.” However, as attractively worded as the agreement is at first glance questions arise upon closer inspection.

The agreement is short and sweet, yet maybe a little too short. The text is noticeably vague, leaving many details open to interpretation. If one reads the second point for instance, the problems that could ensue in the implementation stage become apparent. The second point calls for an association/community of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo to be established by a statute. The agreement goes on to read that “[i]ts dissolution shall only take place by a decision of the participating municipalities” and “[l]egal guarantees will be provided by applicable law and constitutional law (including the 2/3 majority rule).” The point does not specify who will authorize the law. Whether it is “the Kosovo Assembly (as Pristina prefers), the municipalities in question (which operate under Serbian law) or newly elected municipal bodies (under Kosovo law)” remains unclear. Furthermore, it goes on to mention “a ‘constitutional law’, something that does not exist in the Kosovo system (but does in the Serbian one), and a ‘2/3 majority rule’ of which Kosovo has at least two.” Many provisions in the 15-point agreement have similar technical problems – raising questions on the how realistic successful implementation of the agreement is.

As well as the details of the agreement that have yet to be hashed out, another concern is the willingness (or lack thereof) of the leaders in northern Kosovo to abide by the deal. How far leaders in the northern municipalities of Kosovo, who have largely resisted Pristina’s control up until now, will go to help the implementation of the agreement is unclear. Yet, “early reactions bear a distinct resemblance to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, and a few signs of depression and acceptance.” Hard-liners in the North have notably said they will challenge the agreement, even going as far as citing the possibility of secession from Kosovo. Others are threatening to leave the nation, or boycott any potential reforms enacted to implement the agreement. Despite the vast number of uncertainties surrounding the northern provinces, what is clear is that the status quo of remaining incorporated in the Serbian system and dismissing the reality of Kosovo is no longer an option.

This is what makes the agreement truly groundbreaking – not the text itself, but the concept behind it. It is not what is explicitly stated that gives this agreement such importance; instead, its implicit implications reverberate far beyond the agreement itself. Even though the agreement is a step forward for the region, Serbia has yet to officially recognize Kosovo as an independent state, despite having over 100 nations recognize the newly formed state. Nevertheless, sitting down with Kosovo implicitly suggests that Belgrade does indeed recognize the reality of Kosovo. This is what is truly groundbreaking, and the glimmer of hope for lasting peace and stability that comes along with it.

What we see happening with Kosovo and Serbia today is not new. The EU came about through the negative experience of the founding member states during and after the Second World War. At its core, it was devised as a vehicle to ensure the peace and security of Western Europe at the time – mainly to build a structure that would make war between France and Germany impossible. If the two historic enemies were bound together with an economic agreement, making peace the most worthwhile option for both nations then the possibility of war would be reduced significantly. It was a crazy idea, but it just so happened that it worked. Roughly 68 years later, we see the possibility of the same concept working in the Balkans. Showing that EU conditionality is effective, this agreement, in Ashton’s words, brings both nations “a step away from the past and, for both of them, a step closer to Europe.” By bringing both nations closer to Europe, stability in the region is enhanced, and ethnic conflict is minimized. If the agreement sincerely achieves its objectives, it could not only help stability and peace in the Balkans, but also serve as a guideline for other regions in the world plagued with similar issues.

The deal, in theory, is done. On the psychological front at least, it is undeniable that great strides have been made – but now comes the real work. How effective implementation will be remains uncertain, how willing both nations are to cooperate in order to bring the agreement into fruition is anyone’s guess. The receptivity of the leaders in northern Kosovo is up in the air as well. All in all, any conclusions or predictions are rough speculations at best. Yet, despite the uncertainties and reservations, we know one thing to be true: the game has changed, and all eyes – irrespective of which side they fall on – will be closely watching the North to see how it plays out.