The recent announcements of new transport links between Serbia and Kosovo reflect fresh Western efforts to restart the dialogue between the two Balkan neighbors. However, limited progress should be expected at least until the end of the Serbian parliamentary elections in late April. Any sustainable longer-term deal leading toward the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo – and a potential accession to the European Union (EU) – will depend on their political will to compromise and their ability to implement the negotiated agreements.
On 14 February, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (Serbian Progressive Party, SNS) and his Kosovar counterpart Hashim Thaci (independent) announced their intentions to develop new railway and road links between Belgrade and Pristina. The announcement followed the 20 January agreement to restore direct flights between the two capitals for the first time in two decades. Both deals were facilitated by US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell – who also serves as a special envoy to Serbia-Kosovo talks – in the hope of facilitating the flow of goods and people between the two neighbors.
While there are few details about the implementation of the proposed transport links, recent agreements signify a US-led diplomatic push for closer economic links between Serbia and Kosovo, hoping that a political thaw would follow. Relations between Serbia and Kosovo have been frosty since November 2018, when Pristina imposed a 100% tariff on Serbian imports in response to Belgrade’s attempts to block Kosovo’s membership in Interpol. The controversial tariff, however, could be suspended by the recently inaugurated Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti (Self Determination movement), who considers renewed talks with Serbia as a priority. However, considering his previous activities and statements on the topic, Kurti will likely prove to be a tough negotiating partner for Serbia.
The European focus on the Western Balkans is also set to rise further during Croatia’s and Germany’s presidencies of the Council of the EU in 2020. The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borell has already visited Belgrade and Pristina in late January and a special envoy to the region should be appointed shortly. Moreover, an EU-Western Balkans summit is due to take place on 5-7 May in Zagreb, while French President Emmanuel Macron has recently proposed another summit in Paris dedicated specifically to Serbia-Kosovo relations. The prospect of potential EU membership will remain the key motivating factor to seek compromise for both sides, especially as neighboring Albania and North Macedonia could enter an overhauled EU accession process later this year.
Despite fresh international efforts to restore dialogue, progress will be limited at least until the end of the Serbian parliamentary elections in late April. Serbia’s constitution explicitly states that Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia and that the president has the duty to preserve its sovereignty. As leader of the ruling SNS, Vucic will likely avoid any compromises that could be perceived as moves against national interests.
In the longer run, the normalization of bilateral relations will depend on the ability on both sides to not just reach but, importantly, implement future agreements. In this context, both sides face difficult tasks such as resolving long-standing issues concerning the recognition of Kosovo’s sovereignty and the level of autonomy for Serb-majority areas in Kosovo.