Do potential new pressures on Belgrade regarding the continuation of the dialogue make sense?

Eskobar i Lajčak
Source: Kosovo Online

After the tragic events in Banjska calls from the EU and the US for stronger pressure on both sides, especially on Belgrade, have emerged again, including mentions of sanctions. However, experts interviewed by Kosovo Online suggest that such moves by Washington and Brussels would be counterproductive and unlikely to yield results. They argue that the key address for de-escalation remains Pristina.

The previous measures imposed by the US and the EU on Kosovo due to its failure to take steps to calm the situation in the north have not been effective, according to these experts. They believe that these measures have not addressed the underlying issues that continue to generate the crisis, such as the formation of the Community of Serb-majority Municipalities, new elections in the north, and the withdrawal of Kosovo Special Forces.

In this context, introducing the potential punishment of Belgrade after the events in Banjska would also not push things forward. It wouldn't address the core problem, which is the increasingly difficult situation faced by the Serbs who are subject to constant pressure and violence from Pristina.

This is supported by today's incident involving Kosovo Police entering the Clinical Hospital Center in Kosovska Mitrovica, as mentioned by political analyst Dimitrije Milic. He points out that after the incident in Banjska, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti continued with actions aimed at portraying the Serbs as "militant." He also warns that additional pressure from Pristina could provoke a reaction from the local Serbs and lead to a renewed escalation of the situation.

"The situation this morning is directly linked to the Banjska incident because it, in a way, gave confirmation to the Kurti’s Government positions in describing the Serbian community in the north as militant, a community that does not want to participate in the system and wants to be subversive toward the system. In that sense, it has now provided legitimization for such situations," Milic said.

He noted that how far Pristina will go depends on how much Western pressure limits Pristina's actions in terms of violating personal freedoms and rights under the guise of fighting terrorism.

Milic stated that the reaction of the Serbian community to the new actions of the Kosovo Police could be intense, potentially leading to a new escalation.

"When tensions are this high, it can lead to an exaggerated reaction from the local Serbs once again, which reinforces the 'frame' that Albin Kurti wants to impose on the Serbs. The biggest risk is that the escalation that occurred in Banjska and now with Kurti's new reaction could lead to a new escalation through a more decisive response from the Serbian community in northern Kosovo," Milic emphasized.

Regarding the announcement of possible additional pressure on Belgrade by the US and EU to reduce tensions, Milic believes that the pressure should primarily be directed at Kurti’s Government to achieve measurable results.

"Primarily, when it comes to the formation of the Community of Serb-majority Municipalities, it is the root of the current problem because, since it has not been implemented, there has been a reaction from the Serbs, withdrawing from municipalities and prior to that from local institutions. Now you have an open space for escalation because there is no institutional way to articulate your interests. Pressure on Belgrade in this regard would be more aimed at indirectly pressuring the Serbs in the north because it is believed that Serbia has an influence on the Serbian community, primarily on the Serb List," Milic assessed.

He stressed that if there were pressures from the international community, they would be directed at both sides to accept "controversial measures".

When it comes to sanctions, Milic believes that there is unlikely to be a consensus within the EU for the imposition of more serious measures on Serbia.

Referring to reports that some EU member states have requested a reconsideration of sanctions against Serbia, he suggests that these are likely member states that already have skepticism regarding Belgrade's policies.

"One should always look in the direction of some countries in the region, such as the Baltic states, which have hostile relations with Russia, and these are countries that are also skeptical of Serbia. So, these individual sanctions, primarily imposed by the US, have not borne fruit in terms of Serbia changing its policy of distancing itself from these individuals; that has not happened. So, I believe that this form of personal sanctions will probably not be put into effect. But certainly, just the discussion about it is a message to Serbia. The reason for this specific situation, including this morning's events, such as near-warlike actions, is that Kurti wants to impose the perception that the Serbs in the north are a militant organization and that all measures implemented by Pristina are merely counter-terrorism measures," Milic explains.

He adds that the case in Banjska has provided arguments to Western states to tacitly approve of such actions by Pristina.

"Who benefits from the events in Banjska? Currently, Serbia has no benefit from this latest situation," Milic concludes.

He emphasizes that the position of the Serbian community in Kosovo is currently very difficult, regardless of whether there will be measures against Belgrade or not. On one hand, he notes, the Serbs in Kosovo lack institutional representation, while on the other hand, due to how the Serbs were portrayed after the Banjska incident, reduced empathy from the international community can be expected.

"In that situation, it should be relied upon more that the issue of the north will be resolved at a high level, rather than what the Serbs in Kosovo can currently influence. It is very bad when you have no control over your destiny. However, until the issue of the north is resolved at a high level, whether it is related to the presence of Kosovo Forces, municipal presidents, or this latest situation in terms of how Pristina will handle it strategically, because Pristina's strategy may be to exert additional pressure on the Serbs in the north to provoke another similar reaction to this and to somehow round off the image of the Serbian community as militant and criminal, which does not want to participate in the Kosovo system. So, what the Serbs should do is not fall into such traps, no matter how difficult it may be," Milic advises.

He believes that there is a possibility that the international community may impose additional measures on Pristina.

However, in his opinion, this would not lead to an improvement in the situation, as previous measures have not influenced Albin Kurti to change his policy toward the Serbian community.

"It is possible that there will be more punitive measures against Pristina, but Kurti has shown that all these restrictive measures have not influenced him in the sense that he pursues a maximalist policy," Milic stated.

Political analyst Ognjen Gogic, in an assessment for Kosovo Online, believes that the pressures exerted by the EU and the US on Pristina and Belgrade to de-escalate the situation in northern Kosovo are proving to be counterproductive. He emphasizes that the international community needs to reconsider the effectiveness of these pressures and change their approach.

Regarding possible new pressures on Serbia following the events in Banjska, as some EU countries have called for, Gogic questions what their effect would be at this moment.

"The question arises as to what purpose pressures on Belgrade would serve to unlock this dialogue process and implement agreements. The ball is in Pristina's court. Pristina should take the first steps, which involve organizing new elections in the four northern municipalities and beginning the formation of the Community of Serb-majority Municipalities. Until that happens, Belgrade is not in a position to take any action. Therefore, pressures on Belgrade at this moment would not make sense, as we are waiting for Pristina's reactions," he explains.

He suggests that later on, when the conditions set for Pristina are met, Belgrade might be expected not to set new criteria for the return of the Serbs to institutions.

"The moment elections are organized, and if Pristina truly starts working on the formation of the Community of Serb-majority Municipalities, Belgrade should encourage the Serbs to return to institutions, primarily through participation in those elections and reintegration into municipal structures," Gogic believes.

At this moment, pressure will be on both sides, but primarily on Belgrade, to determine the circumstances of the armed incident in Banjska.

"Belgrade can offer certain information about the individuals who were a part of that armed formation, where the weapons came from. Belgrade might expect pressure of that kind," he emphasizes.

He adds that discussions about pressures and measures have been ongoing for months, seeking de-escalation, but, as he points out, "the situation on the ground is worsening".

"The more calls for de-escalation, the more the situation escalates. This is a new step where lives have been lost, so this is a moment for Brussels and Washington to revise their policy and approach to dialogue because it's evident that this is not yielding results, and it's counterproductive," he says.

He suggests that those who talk about and implement pressures should actually consider whether these pressures have an effect or, as he puts it, lead to more radical actions on both sides, escalating incidents.

"If we were to look specifically at what measures could be taken, the only measure that could have an impact on both sides is visa liberalization, which is supposed to come into effect for Kosovo on January 1st. If that were to be suspended, it would lead to a change in policy in Pristina. Additionally, if the visa-free regime for Serbia were questioned, it would make Belgrade more constructive," Gogic concludes.

Director of the International Institute for the Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES), Zijad Becirovic, has assessed that regarding the new pressures and potential measures for Belgrade and Pristina, it was crucial for the international community to take steps to fulfill the obligations of the Kosovo authorities, which included the establishment of the Community of Serb-majority Municipalities, new elections in the north, and the withdrawal of special units.

Becirovic tells Kosovo Online that ten years ago, Serbia did not have much say when it came to Kosovo.

"Now, Serbia has become a subject of events, in the last 10 years, mostly thanks to President Aleksandar Vucic. He managed to impose the paradigm that they cannot get everything, and we get nothing. So, there must be a win-win situation for both sides. So, it is simply expected that what the international community promised, what it took upon itself as an obligation, should be fulfilled, and those are three points: the establishment of the Community of Serb-majority Municipalities, holding new elections in the four municipalities with a Serb majority, and the withdrawal of the ROSU special units," Becirovic says.

He also emphasizes that we are once again in a situation where, without KFOR's approval, special units of the Kosovo Police are entering the north and conducting various arrests.

"And this is a clear sign that the international community must start fulfilling its obligations. The EU has imposed silent sanctions on Kosovo, and the Kosovo Prime Minister himself has admitted that it has already caused 500 million euros in damage. So the EU can act in such a way. But this is still a political dialogue, and it is important that there is political will to resolve it, to achieve normalization," Becirovic says.

He believes that negotiations conducted under the auspices of the EU cannot lead to normalization.

He adds that the US role is key, which he says has "complete patronage" over the Government in Pristina.

"The EU can act economically through measures. However, the US has a key role, meaning they have complete patronage over the Government in Pristina. So it is simply in the hands of the Americans to thaw this conflict and revive the dialogue. But I'm afraid the EU no longer has the capacity, and potential, to provide any additional value to that dialogue. Everything that has been done, we see the result. Instead of normalization, there's the abnormalization of relations. I think after such a result, the EU no longer has a place here. In fact, the dialogue itself has been rendered meaningless. New forms and models must be found on how to reach an agreement where one side does not lose everything and the other gains everything. Instead, a win-win solution must be found, and a comprehensive binding agreement on normalization must be signed," Becirovic concludes.