Economic Normalization Agreement between Serbia & Kosovo


The United States recently brokered a deal that at the very first glace is aimed at normalizing the economic relations between Serbia and Kosovo. However, despite being labeled as an agreement of a solely economic nature, the content of the deal itself pinpoints several political issues. Under the terms of the agreement signed, for a period of one year, Serbia will completely suspend its entire efforts, both official and unofficial, directed at encouraging other states to either not recognize Kosovo or to revoke already existing recognition, while Kosovo will refrain from applying for new membership in international organizations for the same time period. In a nutshell, the deal, consisting of 16 points, further covers issues such as the commitment to find and identify missing persons from the 1998-1999 Kosovo conflict, and the agreement from both the Serbian and Kosovar side to move its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This last is a much anticipated move considering the deal is brokered by President Trump, who three years prior, on December 6, 2017, announced the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and ordered the planning of the relocation of the US Embassy there from Tel Aviv. Another interesting aspect of the agreement is the ‘economic deal’, namely the provision where both Serbia and Kosovo designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

The world did not take long to react to the deal. The provision on the relocation of the embassy has faced fierce opposition from several parts of the globe. The Arab League and Palestine have heavily criticized the decision of Serbia and Kosovo to open embassies in Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv, while Turkey stated that the deal was a clear violation of international law due to the relocation of the embassies to Jerusalem. On top of the hostile stance that the Muslim world has taken with regards to this controversial provision, the EU has further voiced serious concern in connection with the Serbian commitment to relocate the embassy. A rather tailored approach was offered by the EU, with its foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano saying that, “In this context, any diplomatic steps that could call into the question the EU’s common position on Jerusalem are a matter of serious concern and regret.”

Even though the deal is viewed by many as a landmark in Serbian-Kosovar relations, Official Belgrade denies any claims that it had somewhat resorted to the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. According to Ivica Dacic, the Foreign Minister of Serbia, there is no agreement whatsoever in this regard. Meanwhile, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic further said “there is no possibility for me to sign any document that implies the recognition of Kosovo, and I have clearly said that to both the Albanians and Americans”. As anticipated, the Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti views the current development of this saga as a road to mutual recognition, unlike the Serbian perception, stating that they have made a huge step forward toward full normalization of relations that should lead eventually to mutual recognition between the two countries.

Such a swift turnaround in developments has led to a significant question being raised: Does the deal to any extent manifest for the recognition of Kosovar autonomy by Serbia? In the given light, one may argue that the whole pre-text to the deal, along with its content and how some of its main actors see it, stresses the fact that this landmark may not yet be the cornerstone of the endlessly debatable case of mutual recognition, but at least a huge stride taken towards it. According to Serbian officials, their American counterparts have been systematically making their intentions clear with regards to the recognition of Kosovo by Serbia. The provisions of the deal that have no connection whatsoever to economics further increase suspicion among the sceptics that the deal may be a perfectly disguised ‘Trojan Horse-like maneuver’ that to at least some extent, directly or indirectly, recognizes the Kosovar sovereignty. If true, the accumulated damage produced by such maneuver may be irreversible for Serbia, and may eventually prove lethal.

This may well have been anticipated by many, considering the deal was from the beginning to end anchored from the Oval Office, and considering that we have USA and Russia on the opposite sides of the wobble board. Russia has nearly always been a close ally to Serbia, with its President Vladimir Putin never shy of expressing his support towards Serbian territorial sovereignty. He has openly stated in the past that any support for Kosovo's unilateral declaration is immoral and illegal, as well describing the recognition of Kosovo's recognition by several major world powers as a terrible precedent that breaks up the entire system of international relations. It quite realistically seems that if the provisions of the deal are implemented, its consequences may lead to a reduction in the influence of Russia and China in the Balkans, as the US will arguably increase its sphere of influence at their expense. This will more likely be achieved through the multi-billion dollar investments in the infrastructural projects, both in Serbia and Kosovo, dubbed the ‘Balkan Marshall Plan’ by many. This is a rather new approach taken by the USA, a far cry from the approaches of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush towards Serbia and, instead of unilateral support for Kosovo, seeing it acting as an independent arbiter who does not carry any threat. However, as the name ‘Balkan Marshall Plan’ suggests: everything new is actually well-forgotten old.

Russia arguably benefits from confrontation between the Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Kosovars so as to be able to strengthen its influence along the southern borders of NATO, the membership of which Serbia does not seek, under the pretext of guaranteeing the security of fellow Slavs. Therefore, the normalization of the Serbian-Kosovar relations will once again arguably diminish the role of Russia in the region and act hand-in-hand with the abovementioned economical interference of the USA. As for the Chinese case, China is interested in Serbia in the context of its ongoing Belt and Road Global Transport and Investment Initiative, which the US sees as a tool for spreading Beijing's influence. In addition to the intensification of the spread of soft power, Chinese support towards Serbian territorial integrity may also be greatly influenced by the fear of a precedent for the activation of centrifugal tendencies in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Tibet, and Hong Kong.

On another note, it is worth mentioning that the majority of the points agreed are not binding, due to no existing guidelines as to how they will be implemented, or by when. Compliance on Belgrade’s part, given the strong ties to Russia, further increases the question mark over the implementation of the provision therein. This arguably diminishes the role of the deal as a landmark, and strongly advocates for the position that the under-pressure Serbian president expressed, who described it as merely an “exchange of letters of intent” between Serbia and the US. For some, it may be a sign of the deal already falling apart. This aligns well with the fact that both Aleksandar Vucic and Avdullah Hoti signed papers titled ‘Economic Normalization’, but they were not the same. In the Serbian copy, the last point concerns the transfer of the Serbian embassy, while in the Kosovar copy it refers to mutual recognition of Kosovo and Israel. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, signed only a ‘thank you’ note. Therefore, it remains unclear whether Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement with each other, with the US, or with anyone at all. Vucic further elaborated that Serbia signed the letters of intent with the United States, knowing the content of what the opposite side signed. Speaking on television, he added that in the dialogue held with the Albanians, the words he used to describe the Kosovars was solely in front of the American side. The letters of intent, as per definition, are simply a mechanism by which the parties give reassurance of their intentions and the provisions are generally not binding, unless explicitly stated so. In some instances, they may be interpreted as binding if they beyond the doubt resemble a formal contract and have no clear disclaimers.

Some experts, such as Milos Hrnjaz, Assistant Professor of International Law at the University of Belgrade, highlights that pursuant to the publicly available information, the deal does not represent an international treaty, and therefore it has no binding force on its participants. Once again, analyzing the deal in the legal context may not be of much importance, as even though the document may be not binding, the political impact and socio-economical influence it may have is arguably bigger than those sharing Vucic’s position might reckon. Whether the deal carries a meagre symbolic value rather than being a precedent creating real progress in the relationship between the two parties will likely depend on how skillfully the involved parties intentionally avert the straightforward discussions on the elephant in the room: mutual recognition.

By Levan Kipiani

Image source: Arab News

17 September 2020 15:58