A long shadow from Moscow over the compromise between Belgrade and Pristina
On the day of Serbian statehood, Belgrade was engulfed in riots by extreme right-wing groups. Since the beginning of the aggression against Ukraine, these groups have organized demonstrations in support of Russia, the official aggressor, and in a contrary to Serbia’s vote in the UN. Demonstrations in 2022 were dominated by messages of support for a foreign invasion, loyalty to the foreign ruler Vladimir Putin. These riots of February 16, 2023 cannot be viewed outside the context of Russian goals and interests in Serbia.
The riots that broke out were described by state institutions as preparation a coup d’état, overthrowing the constitutional order and calling for the assassination of President Vučić. It is obvious that the partnership with Russia is in question.
It is symptomatic that the messages presented at the gathering are absolutely in bargain with the official foreign policy of the Russian Federation.
In order to understand the connection between Russia and the violent riots as part of a wider operation, it is important to explain the context.
Moscow tried to get rid of its international isolation with an emphasis on the European continent. Ahead of the vote in April that led to Russia’s suspension from the UN Human Rights Council, Russia warned that a vote for the decision would be seen as a “hostile gesture” and taken into account in the development of bilateral relations. Serbia voted to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. human rights, by which Serbia showed that it has no dilemma regarding the culprit for the crimes in Ukraine.
Even if Serbia has not yet imposed sanctions on Russia, the nervousness of Russian diplomacy is noticeable, which reminds of the most scandalous insults against President Vučić after the signing of the Washington Agreement in 2020, which were presented to the whole world by Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson of the Russian MFA. In 2020, there were violent riots as well, protesters stormed the National Assembly in July 2020. Then information appeared in the public indicating the involvement of Russian security structures in the organization of destructive demonstrations. It is interesting that every time whene there is a possibility of a step forward regarding the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, violent demonstrations and Russian diplomacy storm occurs.
As a result, the uproar in the relationship between Serbia and Russia intensifies every time Serbia is faced with political and difficult decisions, decisions that integrate Serbia more firmly into the EU and leave the Kosovo problem in the past and not in the future for our children. Russia has no interest in Serbia getting rid of its “fraternal” ties with Moscow. The question of Kosovo and the Russian “veto” is a question of Moscow’s influence in the Balkans. Promises of Russian protection, reinforced by pro-Russian propaganda, put Russia in the emotional center of Serbian citizens.
On February 9, 2023, Russian Ambassador Bochan-Kharchenko told us that “The Kosovo issue will be resolved in other geopolitical conditions that will arise after the end of the conflict between the common West and Russia. In the current geopolitical conditions, a long-term solution is not possible for some open regional issues, not even for Kosovo and Metohija. And he added that Russia will surely win” in regard the Franco-German plan for the normalization of relations. In fact, this statement says that Moscow opposes solutions over which it has no influence, and that Serbia, as its sphere of influence, is obliged to wait for approval when and how it will solve its problem. Serbia was presented with a false dilemma about the importance of Russia’s position in the UN Security Council, while the reality is that Russia is isolated from the epicenter of world diplomacy in every respect.
How important it is for Russia to maintain its monopoly on the solution of the Kosovo dispute is also shown by the fact that the Russian media covered in vivo the events at the administrative crossings with Kosovo, when around 100 Russian supporters gathered with the symbols of the Wagner terrorist organization.
And the ambassador of the Russian Federation joined in to comment on that rally, which has nothing to do with Russia, but the protesters carried a banner with the Russian flag: “Pray to God and hold on to Russia” is another way of putting Russia in the emotional center where God and Russia are equal in terms of their powers. This minor event was also covered by the Kremlin’s global propaganda channel RT.
For a long time, Russia capitalized on regional divisions, multi-ethnic tensions, anti-European attitudes and Kosovo. So far, it has managed to maintain collective delusions in the Western Balkans with the help of rampant public diplomacy, a network of agents of influence in the media and disinformation. The cornerstone of Russian architecture of malign influence is the never resolved status of Serbia and Kosovo. As long as there is a state of frozen conflict, Moscow is in the zone of succeeding its influence. Serbia’s EU membership is questionable, and NATO membership is in the realm of science fiction. This guarantees Moscow the fulfillment of the same goals for which it attacked Ukraine. In the event of a change in relations in such a way that Kosovo is no longer a central topic and preoccupation for Serbia’s further progress towards the EU, Moscow’s role will become insignificant and reduced to a relative percentage of sworn Russophiles, but it will never again have a central place in Serbian political discourse. The importance of membership in the UN has its strength; however, Taiwan is recognized by only 14 countries, which does not prevent Taiwan from developing and establishing global trade relations.
Moscow is not sitting idly by, in outlook of the February 27 meeting in Brussels, the series of pressures continued. So we have the statement of Maria Zakharova, who tells us that strategic relations with Russia are a matter of Serbia’s national interests, and in the event that Serbia chooses otherwise, it would suffer irreparable damage. This kind of rhetoric is reminiscent of the rhetoric towards Ukraine, Armenia, Moldova and Georgia.
During 2022, Armenia in particular was exposed to similar pressures due to intense diplomatic relations with the USA, the visit of Nancy Pelosi and the return visit of Minister Ararat Mirzoyan to Washington. A similar reaction followed the implementation of the European civilian mission in the border areas of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia seeks to directly influence the realization of the destiny and interests of the countries which it considers its spheres of influence. The aggression against Ukraine is proof that from Russian “brotherhood” to aggression, the outcome is very predictable. The European plan to normalize relations between Belgrade and Pristina eliminates Russia from this equation to control the outcome of the final agreement. The Russian “veto” has the function of not solving the problem.
The Kosovo problem did not isolate Serbia from the EU and America. Serbia has strengthened its economic integration with the EU, every year the economic exchange grows by several billion euros. Serbia’s agricultural exports to the EU amount to around 2 billion euros, which is more than Serbia’s total exports to Russia and the People’s Republic of China combined. The aggression against Ukraine opened the possibility for Serbia to permanently distance itself from the strategic partnership with Russia and finally redefine its foreign policy strategy based on four pillars – the EU, the USA, the People’s Republic of China and Russia. Such a foreign policy setting is unsustainable for the solution of the Kosovo problem, as well as for complete Euro-Atlantic integration. Serbia’s radical foreign policy turn is only a matter of time. Russia knows this and will use all available means to prevent it. The fortunate circumstance is that Russia no longer has patience, but only expectations from its “partners”, which will accelerate the split between Moscow and Belgrade. This is supported by the news that Russia demanded Serbia not to participate in international conferences without the presence of Russia. Gradation of negative reactions and Moscow’s willingness to use all means of pressure on Serbia is also shown by the international intrigue that was launched from their circles regarding Serbian weapons and ammunition in Ukraine. Moscow would certainly not raise this issue if it cared about Serbia, but instead wants to undermine Serbia’s international position and thereby send a message that stronger pressures and reactions can be expected. “We have already asked Belgrade to make a statement. Such statements should not be made through the media, nor through the Telegram channel, nor through leaking information, but through the officially announced position of the Serbian side,” Zaharova said.
We realize that the strategic partnership and centuries-old brotherhood have led to official accusations and demands for a statement from Serbia. The context itself is very important and indicates that Russia is criminalizing Serbia with its announcements. There are clear signals that Moscow could use its channels of public diplomacy to influence the attitude of public opinion in Serbia, and in the direction of blocking public support for ending the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, in science we call this a hybrid war. There is no reason to qualify Russian activities with a value-neutral diplomatic tone, it is important for the purpose of protecting Serbia to precisely label these activities as subversive. For now, it is not clear how long it will take to clearly mark Moscow as an obstacle to Serbia’s strategic goal – EU membership. The need to maintain strategic relations with Moscow in today’s circumstances struggles with the real interests of Serbia and its citizens.
EU plan for the normalization of relations
At the same time, parallel to the issue of Kosovo’s membership in the UN, there are a bunch of unresolved issues that caused a cycle of political and security crises in 2022. These crises have greatly affected the daily life of Kosovo Serbs – the issue of identity cards and traffic plates. Later, everything achieved was degraded due to the abandonment of Kosovo’s institutions by the Serbs. 10 years of absence of implementation of the community of municipalities with a Serbian majority bears the responsibility for the emergence of crises and endangering the collective and security rights of Serbs.
The Franco-German plan as a platform for the predictability of the process of normalization of relations has become the official plan of the EU. After the meeting with in Brussels on February 27, 2023. The High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security, Josef Borel, stated in a statement: “I am pleased to announce that President [Serbia Aleksandar] Vučić and Prime Minister [Kosovo Aljbin] Kurti today agreed upon the proposal of the European Union – the proposal entitled “Agreement about the path of normalization between Kosovo and Serbia“.
Due to its structure, the text itself does not refer to circumstances that do not already exist on the ground. It actually states the reality on the ground and recognizes that reality in the first point where it calls for respect for documents, national symbols, passports, diplomas, traffic plates and customs stamps. Through the preamble, this wording removed the possibility of interpreting that this recognition results in direct or indirect mutual recognition and it reads “Starting from historical facts and without questioning the different views of the Parties on basic issues, including status issues”. The agreement legalizes the situation on the ground and the real life that takes place with all its specificities, regardless of what the parties think about each other’s statuses. However, states are recognized by clear and unambiguous decrees, there is no indirect recognition in international law. Article 6 of the European plan gives it the status of a starting point for dialogue under the leadership of the EU until comprehensive normalization. We can consider it a big reset in the normalization process, which is based on previous experiences in the implementation of what was agreed. The European and American envoys clearly underlined the political will that they will not tolerate the obstruction of the process and that the party responsible for the lack of progress will bear the consequences. The European plan comes at a time when the community of municipalities with a Serbian majority has not been implemented for 10 years. The absence of implementation is the main obstacle to the continuation of the dialogue. The American Ambassador to Serbia, Christopher Hill, as well as other officials involved in the dialogue, have repeatedly made it clear that Kosovo is obliged to implement the community of Serbian municipalities without delay. Point 7 of the European Plan is important for Serbia, which states that both parties undertake to establish special arrangements and guarantees, in accordance with the relevant instruments of the Council of Europe and relying on existing European experiences, in order to ensure an appropriate level of self-governance for the Serbian community in Kosovo and the ability to provide services in certain areas, including the possibility of financial support from Serbia and a direct channel of communication between the Serbian community and the Government of Kosovo. The parties will formalize the status of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo and provide a strong level of protection to Serbian religious and cultural heritage sites, in line with existing European models.
Two important points of special importance for Serbia are treated within the framework of Article 7, thus Belgrade once again triumphs from the position of a credible party in the process that cares about the implementation of previously signed agreements that directly concern the protection of the collective and security rights of the Serbian people and cultural heritage. The plan foresees financial support through donations and investments for joint projects in key areas.
The very predictability and de-escalation of tensions in the dialogue process will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the economic perspective of the region.
The EU plan itself met with the disapproval of the wider layers of society in both Serbia and Kosovo. The bottom line is that the painful compromises that accompany the long-term process of an unresolved status will result in a change in the thinking of public opinion on both sides when the perspective from which the public perceives this solution changes. Far from the EU, without a clear perspective of the benefits of EU membership, the public does not identify with the process as a reward. The moment the compromise produces results, the public’s perspective will change significantly. There are examples of that.