The economic cooperation pact between Serbia and Kosovo, announced Friday at the White House, was received in Israel with a degree of surprise, particularly in light of the clauses that gave Israel a diplomatic victory.
While full-fledged diplomatic relations with Kosovo have been an aspiration of the Serbian republic for years, as it searches for recognition across the globe, the transfer of the Serbian Embassy to Jerusalem is a real sacrifice for the Serbs, who want to preserve good relations with the Muslim world.
But beyond the Jewish state’s surprising injection into the contentious Balkan issue, the deal signed in the Oval Office could be profoundly significant for one of the more volatile and conflicted regions in Europe.
But to understand the complex relationship between Kosovo, a tiny country with an Albanian-Muslim majority, and Serbia, the largest and strongest of the former Yugoslavia countries, one must do a deep-dive into the modern history that created Kosovo and Serbia, together with the deep-rooted sense of enmity and distrust between the two.
In 1992, separatists in Kosovo declared independence from Serbia.
The declaration ignited sectorial strife between the territory’s Serbian residents, with help from the Serbian military and police, and the Albanian-Muslim separatists. The Kosovar paramilitary organization, the Kosovo Liberation Army, committed atrocities against the Serbian population, while the Serbian army and militias perpetrated a horrific wave of massacres.
The Serbian army’s brutality, which increasingly resembled an ethnic cleansing campaign, led NATO, spearheaded by the US, to intervene and launch an aerial offensive in 1998 against the Serbian military. At the same time, the Serbian army launched a revenge campaign inside Kosovo, which led to the deaths of nearly 10,000 civilians, almost 250,000 refugees, the rape of nearly 20,000 women, and the destruction of one-third of the mosques in the territory.
American intervention ended in 1999 as NATO ground forces entered Kosovo and the Serbian army withdrew.
The Kosovo Liberation Army was disarmed and the local Kosovar government, which largely represented the Albanian majority in the territory, began managing the region’s daily affairs. Meanwhile, the UN’s foreign peace-keeping forces assumed responsibility for all security aspects.
In 2008, after the withdrawal of most of the foreign peace-keeping forces from Kosovo, and after a failed attempt to forge peace with Serbia, Kosovo declared its independence. Only 112 UN member states have recognized this independence and Serbia still objects to political recognition of this status.
The deal signed at the White House was the first sign of Serbian recognition of the government sitting in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, but it stands on strictly economic foundations. Although it is not a political resolution to bury hostilities, the idea behind the agreement — economic cooperation, easing of travel restrictions between Kosovo and Serbia, and greater freedom of movement for goods — could lead to greater willingness in the future from both sides to come to a resolution.
The pressure applied by the US and EU to reach an agreement found both respective leaders at a sensitive juncture. On one hand, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and his government have faced unprecedented anti-government protests and a significant decrease in popularity in the polls. On the other hand, the past of Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaçi, as a former senior commander in the KLA, has come back to haunt him in the form of war crime allegations.
“For the Kosovar prime minister, this accord is tremendously good tidings to bring home, and not in the least because Israel now recognizes Kosovo after all these years in which Kosovo has begged and wished for such a thing,” said Orel Beilinson, a historian from Yale University.
“For Vucic, this is an exceedingly modest achievement, if not too modest, whereby for now he doesn’t have to recognize Kosovo politically and can tell his supporters that he essentially prevented Trump from recognizing Kosovo’s independence,” explained Beilinson.
“But all this isn’t enough. I don’t think there will be war, but Vucic will have to work hard to think of his next step in the domestic arena to salvage his rule,” said Beilinson.
“He was elected, in large part, to institute economic liberalization and make inroads toward EU membership. The economic progress has been stunted and the attempt to normalize economic ties with Kosovo will soon cease when the next phase is political [recognition].
“The EU won’t suffice with economic normalization, while Serbian citizens won’t allow him to recognize Kosovo but will continue pressuring him to join the EU.”