NEW YORK, August 22, 2011 – Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has a lot on her plate this month: the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis is spreading to larger economies, markets are tumbling following reports of Germany’s sluggish growth rate, and domestic political pressures to discontinue financial support to profligate eurozone member-states are mounting.
This week, however, Merkel is scheduled to break away from eurozone’s problems to tour three Western Balkan countries – Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. Merkel will focus on the progress towards EU accession, but in Serbia, she will also bring up the uneasy issue of Serbia’s dispute with neighboring Kosovo – the Albanian-dominated breakaway territory that declared independence in 2008.
Politicians in Belgrade are anxiously awaiting Merkel’s visit. The chancellor announced she will demand that Serbia become a stabilizing factor in the Balkans, especially by appeasing its relations with Kosovo. She will require the quasi pro-Western government coalition led by President Boris Tadic’s Democratic Party (DS) to abandon its dual policy of seeking EU membership while defying Kosovo’s independence.
The 22 of the 27 EU member states which have recognized Kosovo’s statehood consider Serbia’s dual policy irreconcilable. To gain EU candidacy status, Serbia is not required to recognize Kosovo in the short-run, but Merkel and the rest of the EU will require it to resume the dialogue aimed at solving technical issues, including freedom of movement of peoples, trade, telecommunications, missing persons, air traffic, and so forth. However, resuming the dialogue, initiated earlier in 2011 by the EU, will be difficult because of the heightened tensions between the parties over the Serb-dominated northern part of Kosovo.
In northern Kosovo, ethnic Serbs maintain their own parallel institutions which are financially and politically supported by the government in Belgrade. The authorities in Pristina and the international peacekeepers accuse the local Serb radical leaders who run the local parallel institutions of taking part in organized crime and smuggling. Human rights abuses are commonplace as the UN had failed to establish accountable and legitimate rule of law institutions while administering Kosovo between 1999 and 2008. And following Kosovo’s independence in 2008, Pristina’s current efforts to extend rule of law to its northern region are hindered by local Serbs and the government in Belgrade.
Ivica Dacic, the first Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia – formerly led by Slobodan Milosevic, the notorious Serb leader accused by the Hague tribunal for genocide and crimes against humanity – has publicly announced Serbia’s intention to seize Kosovo’s northern territory. Even though Kosovo’s partition will have negative consequences for the remaining Serb minority in southern Kosovo, Belgrade appears committed in its efforts to gamble against their interests for the sake of coalition’s political gains in the 2012 elections.
Chancellor Merkel will reportedly also require Serbia to abandon plans for Kosovo’s partition as a condition for Serbia’s EU candidacy status. During his visit to Kosovo in early August, Guido Westerwelle, the German Foreign Affairs Minister, reiterated Germany’s opposition on changing the borders in the Balkans.
Serbia will need to make considerable progress towards normalizing relations with Kosovo before it obtains EU candidacy status at the end of 2011.
Merely resuming the dialogue with Pristina is insufficient. All technical negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia were unsuccessful thus far because the underlying dispute is not technical but profoundly political. Even if Kosovar and Serbian negotiators agree on technical cooperation, their respective government agencies may quarrel during the implementation phase because Serbia ultimately considers Kosovo its integral part, whereas Kosovo considers itself an independent state.
Serbia’s progress must also involve ceasing its support for the radical Serb leaders and parallel institutions in northern Kosovo. The authorities in Pristina need Belgrade’s cooperation for restoring justice in northern Kosovo and establishing local self-government institutions based on the Ahtisaari plan.
Unfortunately, Serbia is not likely to make considerable progress towards normalizing relations with Kosovo before its 2012 elections. The goal of the Serbian ruling coalition will be to find the fine balance between acquiring EU candidacy status and resisting the pressures to recognize Kosovo. This balance would significantly boost the reelection bid of Serbia’s current coalition partners in the forthcoming elections. However, if Serbia obtains candidacy status but fails to meet Merkel’s demands, then the EU would lose leverage towards Serbia in its efforts to stabilize the Balkans. The EU would then be left with the option of indefinitely postponing Serbia’s EU accession, similarly as it keeps doing with Turkey.
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