Why the Kosovo Conflict Remains a Problem for the EU

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Kosovo’s ethnic-Albanian majority is demanding recognition as a sovereign state after unilaterally declaring independence in 2008, almost a decade after a NATO bombing campaign led by the U.S. forced Serb troops from its territory. It won’t allow the return of Serb rule after suffering the most when late strongman Slobodan Milosevic tried to destroy its independence movement in the 1998-1999 war, which killed more than 10,000 people. Serbia vows never to agree to the secession of what it considers its historic heartland, which is home to ancient holy sites of the Serbian Orthodox Church. It also demands autonomy for the 100,000 Serbs still living in Kosovo. Neither side has budged from their position for more than two decades.

2. Why is this such a big deal?

Serbia and Kosovo need to mend ties to qualify for EU membership. The world’s biggest trading bloc, already reluctant to take in new members, won’t consider candidates with open territorial issues. Serbia is nominally on track to join, while Kosovo is striving to become a candidate. One hurdle is that while Kosovo, with U.S. backing, has won recognition from more than 110 countries, five of the EU’s 27 members don’t acknowledge it. Serbia is lobbying to block its neighbor from joining world bodies such as Interpol and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and has persuaded at least a dozen nations to revoke their recognition. The ultimate proof of statehood for Kosovo would be entry in the UN, but Serbia is relying on Russia and China to prevent that until a compromise is found. That gives the governments in Moscow and Beijing a foothold to increase their influence in the region.

3. Who are the key figures?

Years of EU-brokered talks to mend ties between the Balkan foes stalled in 2018 when Kosovo erected a punitive trade barrier against Serbia in retaliation against the Belgrade government’s lobbying campaign. Kosovo lifted the 100% tax on Serb imports in June as U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration tried to play the role of mediator. But plans for a White House meeting between Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar President Hashim Thaci fell through when prosecutors at the Kosovo Special Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague, which was established with Kosovo’s approval to pursue war crimes suspects, accused Thaci of involvement in nearly 100 murders and other atrocities. Top officials involved in seeking a settlement include EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and the bloc’s Kosovo envoy, Miroslav Lajcak.

4. What are the stumbling blocks?

Kosovo’s political parties unanimously reject any deal that doesn’t include Serbian recognition. Serbia’s leverage is the ability to prevent Kosovo from gaining a UN seat. Any agreement would require ratification in both parliaments. Vucic has pledged a referendum if a deal is struck, but many Serbs and the Orthodox Church opposing letting go. That’s a potentially unsurpassable hurdle that Vucic hasn’t provided an answer to. The two sides also floated a land swap before talks collapsed in 2018, but Germany and other EU states said redrawing borders was out of the question.

Serbia’s Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti are slated to resume EU-moderated talks after holding a video summit with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and representatives from the bloc. For now, the EU has retrieved the initiative to defuse the dispute in its backyard from the U.S., which has supported the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the region into countries trying to shield themselves from Russia’s influence. But any deal would require support from other world powers, and no imminent breakthrough appears likely.

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