Serbia and Kosovo agreed last month to exchange envoys for the first time in response to a broader European Union push for the two to improve relations. In an email interview, Stefan Lehne, a Balkans and European Union expert at Carnegie Europe, explained the overall progress of Kosovo-Serbia relations and the challenges that remain.
WPR: What were the factors that drove Serbia and Kosovo to exchange envoys for the first time?
Stefan Lehne: Whatever their differences on the status issue, Serbia and Kosovo will always be neighbors. Every day there will be problems to sort out between them and gains to be had through cooperation. Exchanging liaison officers will facilitate direct communication and allow this complex relationship to run more smoothly. Of course, this arrangement is only one achievement of the dialogue mediated by EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton. Other recent steps include the establishment of border controls in the north of Kosovo and a customs system. These measures make eminently good sense in themselves. However, they probably wouldn’t have happened without strong pushing by the EU, which has made progress toward a more normal relationship a condition for both parties to move toward participating in European integration.
WPR: From the EU’s perspective, do Serbia’s moves signal a viable path toward normalization and thereby EU membership for Serbia?
Stefan Lehne: When the new nationalist leaders of Serbia came to power, there was a good deal of skepticism regarding their willingness to move forward on Kosovo. However, since then significant progress has been achieved. Many observers think that this might be a case in which more nationalist leaders are capable of bolder action than moderate politicians who have to fear a nationalist backlash. The steps achieved so far are promising but will not by themselves convince the EU to open accession talks with Serbia. In order for the EU to make such a decision in the coming months, significant further progress in Serbia-Kosovo relations appears necessary.
WPR: What are the likely areas for compromise between Serbia and Kosovo, and what could derail the rapprochement?
Stefan Lehne: Progress should certainly be achievable in the areas of energy and telecommunications, where negotiations are already quite advanced. But the real key to success lies in defining a way forward for the northern part of Kosovo, where the Serbs are in the majority and where Pristina so far has not been able to extend its authority. Here a compromise needs to be struck between two legitimate interests: the need of the Serb population for assurances that they will be able to preserve their way of life and to maintain their ties with Serbia, and Pristina’s need for guarantees that the territorial integrity of Kosovo will not be called into question. These are undoubtedly difficult issues, which may give rise to strong passions that could in turn derail the process. However, with political will on both sides and skillful mediation by the EU, a solution can be found which would defuse one of the last dangerous hot spots in the region and remove a huge obstacle on the path to fuller European integration.