Serbia is having the most serious political crisis of the last three years. Disaffection among the people because of poor economic performance has increased, leading to cracks within the coalition government.
The opposition, aspiring to cash in on this situation, is expending efforts to come to power by way of early elections. The leader of the ruling coalition’s leading Democratic Party, President Boris Tadic, believes that his party’s popularity will rise again with Serbia gaining EU candidate status by the end of this year.
It has been noticeable for several months now that the Serbian government has been taking some important steps in line with the demands of Brussels. For example, Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic, wanted war criminals, were arrested and handed over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Furthermore, belgrade, eager to demonstrate its willingness to develop good relations with all its neighbors, is trying to set up a better dialogue with Sarajevo and accepts dialogue with Kosovo. But Kosovo continues to be a highly sensitive issue for Serbia. Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, is one of the most significant challenges to Serbia’s domestic and foreign policy. While Serbia remains committed to its struggle against Kosovo’s independence, recognized so far by 77 countries, Belgrade is also bowing to Brussels’ demands about Kosovo and is insisting on the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo.
The aim of the new dialogue process led by the EU’s mediation is to get Serbia and Kosovo to reach a compromise on some practical matters, facilitate their citizens’ daily lives and speed up the process of their EU memberships. After many rounds of dialogue, Serbia and Kosovo mutually took the first steps on July 2, 2011 towards normalizing their relations. Belgrade and Pristina reached a compromise on the mutual recognition of the freedom to travel, the registry of persons and principally agreed to mutually recognize university diplomas. As Serbia does not recognize Kosovo, this compromise has not been signed in a document of agreement, being presented as a final communiqué. But this compromise is going to be both monitored and guaranteed by the EU.
From dialogue to border tension
The dialogue process for the normalization of Serbia-Kosovo relations has suffered a blow because of ongoing border tensions between Belgrade and Pristina for more than three weeks now. Parallel to the policy of rejecting Kosovo’s independence, Serbia also rejects the stamp on Kosovo’s export documents. That is why Serbia has placed a ban on exports from Kosovo for more than three years now. Bosnia and Herzegovina is also implementing a somewhat similar ban on products coming from Kosovo because of the attitude of the Bosnian Serbs, who are in solidarity with Belgrade.
Under the existing dialogue, Kosovo authorities were expecting to reach a compromise with Serbia regarding customs stamps, too. However, the Serbian government, which is now in a sort of election mode, is shying away from signing any kind of new agreements with Kosovo, fearing the opposition’s critical forays, and has decided to postpone dialogue for some time. This development has also cornered the government of Kosovo because some nongovernmental organizations and the opposition in Kosovo are already accusing the government of having made too many concessions to Serbia in the compromise of July 2, 2011. The political woes growing in this direction have forced the Kosovo government to take retaliatory action. And it declared it does not recognize Serbian stamps on export documents, thus banning all imports from that country. It also started implementing an additional 10 percent import tax on products coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
As Kosovo’s two border gates in the north opening out to Serbia are not controlled enough by Pristina, the ban on Serbian imports could not attain its goal in practice. This is why the Kosovo government has tasked a special police force to take control of the border gates in the north as of July 25, 2011. The turmoil, which broke out as a result of this initiative, left an Albanian police officer dead, and a border gate of Kosovo was set alight by Serbs. Serbs have also put barriers on roads connecting Serbia and Kosovo, which were recently partly removed. Finally, the NATO force in Kosovo, KFOR was obliged to take over control of the border gates.
Trade war of planned actions?
Border tension between Serbia and Kosovo should not be seen as an accidental development triggered by a trade war because what has been seen is that both Serbs and Kosovars were well prepared and organized for something like this. Those who torched the US Embassy in Belgrade after Kosovo declared independence this time set the Kosovo border gate on fire. In fact, nothing can take place in the north of Kosovo without the knowledge of Belgrade.
Furthermore, the Kosovo government has been trying to widen its sovereignty so as to wrest control of the north dominated by the Serbs. Fully aware of this, Serbia is doing everything possible to ensure the permanence of the status quo in the north of Kosovo on the one hand and is playing the card for Kosovo to be divided on the other. However, it cannot get the backing it wants from either Brussels or Washington. As for Kosovo, although the government has been coerced into withdrawing the special police force it dispatched to the border gates in the north, it has succeeded in bringing about a new situation in the border region.
It could be argued that the foreign intelligence elements operating in Kosovo and considered very influential may have been informed beforehand of the government of Kosovo’s actions concerning the border gates. The Kosovo government may have also notified Western countries of the plans it had put into implementation. One can also say that the initiative conducive to the creation of the new situation may have also been covertly supported by the West. With the new situation at hand, some countries are probably giving Belgrade the message that no permission will be given for the north of Kosovo to be physically torn away from Kosovo for the purpose of integration with Serbia.
Apart from this, tight controls at the border gates in the north of Kosovo by the authorities in Pristina can lead to a drop in organized crime in the long term and an increase in the taxes collected by Kosovo. A rise in Kosovo’s income will benefit all Western countries, which are tired of giving supportive financial aid to Kosovo. And lastly, Brussels started urging Belgrade more strongly to normalize its relations with Kosovo after Belgrade honored the EU’s precondition regarding the capture of Serb war criminals. Therefore, those EU countries reluctant to support Serbia’s rapid progress on the road to EU membership may well remain unperturbed and somewhat complacent over the recently strained relations between Belgrade and Pristina.
KFOR managed to ease the tension between the two countries by having Belgrade and Pristina reach a provisional compromise. However, the developments of the last weeks are a reminder of the fact that there is still a lot to be done regarding the issue of Kosovo.
*Erhan Türbedar, PhD, is a foreign policy analyst with the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV).