Most experts agree that Serbia has a "single-issue", the foreign policy of countersecession following Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. This issue shapes Serbia's official discourse and foreign policy.
Serbia is a small state in a complicated Balkan region. Its foreign policy is far from being simple and − as is the case with most small states−for most of this century Serbia’s conduct in international relations has been a reflex of its strategically unreflecting, reactive stance on the Kosovo conundrum. This reactive position has led to its complex balancing act with the great powers, most notably with the EU, Russia, and the United States, as well as enhanced identity politics.
In 2018, a significant political and diplomatic overture in the EU-Belgrade-Priština triangle seems to have begun. The EU insists that a substantial “legally binding agreement” on the normalisation of relations needs to be struck and implemented as a precondition for membership. Thisis well illustrated by the words of Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić who recently told The Guardian that “We are ready to discuss every single issue, we are ready to take into consideration every single proposal that would mean a compromise solution."
Such developments have their manifestation at societal, national, regional, and European levels, and all these are interconnected. This new political dynamic is the result of previous processes, the role of the EU's institutional and enlargement agenda vis-à-vis the Serbia-Kosovo problem and the effects of EU-Russia relations, in conjunction with the marginal position of the Balkan nations, and their (limited) small state agency. The key question is what the normalization agenda can mean for the current difficult balancing act of Serbia, which both aims for membership in the EU and seeks support from Russia for its Kosovo policy. This is manifested by a significant divergence from the positions of the EU in the past couple of years. In 2017, for example, Serbia aligned around 46 percent of its foreign policy declarations with the European Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP)as part of the negotiating chapter 31, compared to 74 percent in 2015.
A snapshot of Serbia’s foreign policy in 2018 - The EU track reinforced
Some of the answers lie in the interplay between domestic and international politics for Serbia. Belgrade’s official communications with Brussels, Berlin, Washington and Moscow seem to have allowed institutions and civil society to play a meaningful role with regard to the "Internal Dialogue" on Kosovo. This dialogue is a welcome move toward an informed discussion, something that has been almost nonexistent in the domestic politics of Serbia over the past decade.
This discussion aims to spell out a strategy upon which the normalization process could proceed beyond the dominant ad hoc manner. For the EU this could mean the complete implementation of the Brussels Agreement, and for Serbia sound guarantees for the political, economic, social, and cultural rights of the ethnic Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija, and eventually constituting a functional Community of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo (CSM).
The first months of this year at the same time bring a combination of elaborate diplomatic pressure from the EU, and clear expectations from Belgrade and Priština, steering the course of the Brussels-led process. During the visits of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and President of the European Council Donald Tusk to the region last month, the need to implement what has been agreed on was underlined, as well as reaffirming the importance of European integration.
Some weeks before, a similar strategy of pressure and support was strongly voiced by Germany, whose Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted Vučić twice in Berlin this year. Vučić, whose Serbian Progressive Party is in firm control of power, likes to emphasise his political ties with Merkel. Germany pushes for resolution of the problem, while acknowledging the difficulty of the present situation for Serbia and keeping the status quo.
The expected step forward in the normalisation discourse is usually dubbed a "legally binding agreement" that would enable Kosovo to seek membership in the United Nations, which Serbia mostly opposes, in exchange for some compromise solution that would be acceptable, and not “humiliating” for Serbia. However, there are no details in the media at the moment about what form this idea could take.
The normalisation of relations under the Brussels Agreement is the only meaningful framework for discussion for the EU and Germany. This is also recognized by the United States that does not intend to join this process but remains strongly present in Priština through its embassy, bilateral aid, and KFOR. On the other hand, Russia supports Serbia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, with the UNSC Resolution 1244 as the basis for any further solution.
Exhausting the UN track and foreign policy of counter secession?
Since the EU track holds importance for the normalisation of relations, the UN track, which Serbia prefers for UNSC Resolution 1244 and Russian support, has been subject to some contestation lately, most notably by the United Kingdom. The EU framework has provided the space for practical and technical dialogue since 2013. The UN framework still matters for Serbia for its high political note, and its emphasis on international law, whereas much of the substantial and technical authority has been bestowed in practice mostly on the EU and Kosovo authorities.
Both Belgrade and Priština have expressed commitment to the protracted Brussels talks, despite their often ups and downs. The eventual success of this process could benefit both sides regarding accelerating EU integration, improving the socio-economic situation and improving their overall status, but this “carrot” apparently seems to be insufficient for the two sides to secure efficiency and implementation.
The key to success of the normalisation discourse is understanding what the strategic content of normalisation (which slowed down in 2017) is for Belgrade and Priština.This requires showing more understanding in the discussion between the two sides. The maximalist positions even within the Brussels Agreement are not likely to bring progress, even on the technical questions (such as cadastres or diplomas), not to mention the more complicated political ones, such as contestation of the implementation of the Community of Serbian Municipalities.
While Priština seeks membership in international organizations and aspires to a seat in the UN as a key token for its status-building, Belgrade particularly insists, especially in the wake of the ongoing Internal Dialogue, on forming the strong Community of Serbian Municipalities with executive powers, something the Kosovo Albanians have opposed so far. Whereas Serbia has shown the willingness to compromise in the dialogue, by looking for a “dignified” solution, Kosovo should not insist on recognition as such by Serbia – thus some give-and-take is needed from both sides. As to the Security Council authority, Russia and China are not likely to support Kosovo’s UN membership, while there have been some recent signals that the UK seeks to take the Kosovo issue out of the public UNSC sessions by moving it to procedural Council matters. This move is opposed by Serbia since it would mean no potential use of the veto and less public exposure of the issue.
Great-power politics and limited small-state agency
As a small state, Serbia's space for autonomous agency and independent action within the region is limited by the presence of international actors such as the EU, UN, and NATO. Here one has to take into consideration the legacy of the previous political process and the normative commitments taken under the overall European integration process.
History shows that, to overcome problems and achieve sustainable solutions, small states usually do not negotiate on their own, nor do they offer guarantees themselves. Some external support is usually needed, and the resolution of the Serbia-Kosovo conundrum is possible only with substantial international support and by working with both sides. The questions of EU enlargement strategy and Russia’s role in the Balkans are particularly important here.
The great power bidding and a revived interest of Russia through its soft or sharp power in the Balkans (whether by invitation of the local states or by design) is a challenge for EU policies in the region in the long term, now seen as being a “spoiler“ to the EU agenda. On the other hand, Serbia may use the EU's reluctance or what the political elites may interpret as its not-so-credible enlargement policy, to temporarily seek reliance on some other actors such as Turkey, Russia, or China for economic, or limited political,cooperation (and not as the alternative to EU integration).
The latter cannot replace the EU integration model as the impetus for overall societal development but can be just a short-term remedy for the current crisis of EU enlargement. However, the new EU enlargement strategy may change this perspective, although 2025 may be just an "indicative" date and not the accession date for Serbia, Montenegro, and other Western Balkan countries.
In conjunction with the revival of great power tensions over the crisis in Ukraine and illiberal tendencies in Central Eastern Europe, this lack of Euroenthusiasm is not the optimum scenario for the EU in the region. Europe must also make up its mind and policies, for the consequences of the suboptimum enlargement process in the Balkans are already there. Some of these consequences include the declining socio-political cohesion and the deterioration of democracy that is connected to the phenomena of “stabilocracies”: a combination of weak democracy and pro-EU stability narratives in the region.
Finding lasting solutions through mutual understanding: it takes two to tango
Thus, any ambitious plan must be followed up by serious guarantees by the EU and clear prospects for and commitment to the Europeanization of Serbia, which would make the Brussels "normalisation" agreement successful in the long run. However, within the region, normalisation is just the first step, preceding a much-needed societal reconciliation – a new reality on which more amicable relations in the Western Balkans can be built.
This difficult and fragile process requires patience and more than pressuring one side. While pressure may work as one step in the diplomatic communication between great powers and small states, any further steps must be based on substantial, engaged, and fair actions by all partners in the process. This means that the EU (and its key members), Belgrade and Priština, and their respective societies need to agree on a common vision of mutually beneficial relationships.
All of the above shall be rooted in true local ownership, which is internationally guaranteed and supports the arrangements that domestic elites can use as the foundation for the future transformation of the relations between those societies from a Hobbesian enmity toward Lockean cooperation.