by Rafaela Prifti/
The Pan-Albanian Federation of America Vatra denounced the statement of US Ambassador Philip Kosnett that “Kosovo has an obligation to set up the Association of Serb Municipalities” earlier this month. Kosovo’s Prime Minister Kurti has rejected this suggestion by stating that there is neither a legal nor constitutional basis for an ethnic based association in Kosovo. Vatra’s statement points to the risk of ASM leading into “a mini-Serbia in Kosovo”. What are your concerns?
Unfortunately, Serbia has managed to use the so-called Association of Serb Municipalities issue to block the dialogue process and, at the same time, to put the blame on Kosova. The country’s Constitutional Court has made it clear that the association as pushed for by Belgrade is unconstitutional. At the same time, all Balkan observers and those invested in the region know that there is a real danger that such an entity could be leveraged by Belgrade to destabilize the State of Kosova.
Importantly, the association as called for by Serbia’s representatives does nothing to advance the rights of the Serbian minority in Kosova. On the opposite, it merely offers Belgrade more incentives to continue to meddle in its neighbor’s internal affairs and to hold the Serbian minority in the country hostage in its quest for regional hegemony.
The US Department of Energy feasibility study with regard to sharing the UjmaniLake came just a few days prior to Ambassador Kosnett’s issuing the statement on ASM. The study is tied to one of the points of the Economic Agreement under the auspices of the Trump administration. It was signed by Kosovo’s and Serbia’s PM at the White House last September. In two months, it will be one year from its signing. Can you help us understand the timing of the study by putting it in context?
The representatives of the Biden administration, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have said that they supported in principle the agreements signed in the White House during the Trump presidency. The publication of the study, which was prepared by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory on behalf of the Department of Energy, shows that the U.S. is committed to keeping its end of the bargain. That is an important signal towards both Kosova and Serbia.
What is quite interesting is the fact that the reception of the study in Belgrade was frosty. Serbian analysts actually complained that the focus of the study was diverted. While the expectation was for the paper to assess how to share the water resources between the two countries, the study and its recommendations mainly focused on ways for Kosova to increase efficiency in water resource management. Some of the commentators in Serbia went so far as to argue that the study was not relevant per se to the Washington agreement. This is quite indicative.
There is controversy surrounding the legal nature of the Washington Agreement. One perspective sees it as a trilateral agreement between the U.S., Serbia, and Kosovo. This view has been rejected by Serbia’s President Vučić, who sees the Washington Agreement as consisting of bilateral agreements between Serbia and the U.S. and between Kosovo and the U.S. A third point of view is that the Washington Agreement is not a legally binding treaty at all but only a political commitment that does not create any legal obligations. Can you talk about this?
In Washington, both Serbia and Kosova undertook certain commitments with the United States, but there was no direct agreement between the two Balkan countries. Both parties pledged to support a series of policies and positions that affected the dialogue and that were advocated by the United States, whose role was central in the entire process. At the time, the event did not seek mutual recognition, which is unfortunate, however it aimed to incentivize both parties as they continued in Brussels the dialogue under the auspices of the European Union.
While the event was political in its purest sense, by agreeing in principle and officially signing the documents, Kosova and Serbia would normally be obliged to respect the content of the documents and their spirit. However, it is worth noting, less than a year after the signing event in the White House, Serbia has already failed to stand by its commitments on many accounts. The Kurti government should actually demonstrate and raise its voice on how Serbia is breaching its own commitments and is actually continuing with its destructive behavior towards Kosova.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti has expressed his view that the agreement is not legally binding. Does that mean Kosovo can walk away from it?
While Mr. Kurti was critical of the agreement at first, he has taken a much more careful approach now that he is leading the government. This can be attested also by his position on the feasibility study, on which he said that he would comment on it only after a thorough analysis by his team. This kind of approach should be welcomed by the citizens of Kosova.
While there are specific commitments that were undertaken in Washington by the then-Prime Minister Hoti that were deemed problematic, it is important for Kosova that its government attests maturity as a state. If Prime Minister Kurti and his government continue to be skeptical about one or more elements of the Washington agreement, he should raise those concerns with the United States and coordinate with the American government on how to move forward.
Lastly while the previous administration sidestepped the issue of mutual recognition, President Biden has placed it on the table. Reportedly, in view of President Biden’s stated goal of improving relations between the U.S. and the EU, it is expected that the Biden administration will work more closely with the EU in facilitating a legally mutually binding agreement and a push for a form of recognition of Kosovo by Serbia. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has confirmed that the Washington Agreement will remain valid until changes are made to it in the future.” What is the message here in practical terms?
Differently from the European Union, President Biden and his administration have been unequivocal about the end goal of the dialogue between Kosova and Serbia. President Biden has called for mutual recognition between the two sovereign countries and the firmness of the U.S. position on the matter should be fully leveraged by the Kurti government in its efforts towards centering the current dialogue on mutual recognition. The disbalanced format of the EU-facilitated process so far has not only put pressure on Kosova, but has also harmed the very principles upon which the dialogue is based.
Considering that Kosova has been on the receiving end of the process for way too long, the UnitedStates could help to challenge the dynamics and the asymmetry of the dialogue by strengthening Kosova’s negotiating position. President Biden and his administration, in coordination with the European allies, should lead a renewed push for Kosova’s recognition by the five EU member states that still refuse to acknowledge its sovereignty.
We all saw how worried Serbian President Vucic was after some media reported of efforts from Washington to convince Greece to move forward with recognition and establishment of full diplomatic relations with Kosova. There is a need to build this kind of momentum. This is what would pressure Serbia to seriously commit to the dialogue and move towards its finalization.
Akri Çipa is a political analyst, Balkan expert and consultant. He holds a Master of Science from Columbia University, New York.