When politicians are narrow but not very deep: why the Kosovo negotiations repeatedly fail

pregovarački timOne more round of negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo ended without agreement last week. The remaining point of disagreement is the degree of autonomy that would be afforded to the municipalities in the north where a large minority of Kosovo’s ethnic Serb population is concentrated. On this point the difference in official positions is small enough that compromise between legitimate governments that have an interest in reaching an agreement is entirely possible: it comes down to who is involved in the operation of local police forces and courts. It is the side and symbolic issues that present a dilemma for the Serbian government, in particular the question of whether they can step back from lucrative parallel structures that have been built up over the years, and whether making an agreement with a state they have declared an intention never to recognise carries an unbearable political cost.

So what happened after the failed negotiations? The members of the Serbian government went back home to consult with their political parties and something that describes itself as the “state leadership.” A bunch of people made a bunch of statements to the press, and a little far-right group had a listless rally after which they played Boy Scouts by camping in a central square of Belgrade. Government spokespeople have promised to come out today with a final resolution in which they will say “yes” or “no” to the agreement.

The government is more likely to come out with a “no” than a “yes,” but it makes no difference what they say. The result will be the same: negotiations will continue, and a compromise will be signed that acknowledges the sovereignty of Kosovo over its territory while providing some degree of self-government to the disputed municipalities. The frenetic activity going on now is not about whether this will happen, but when.

So why is it so difficult for Serbia to agree to a foregone conclusion that recognises the reality on the ground? And why despite the difficulty will they agree to it anyway? Step by step.

Why is it so hard to agree?

  1. This government lacks authority and legitimacy. It was assembled in a hurry after a close and surprising election result that followed a campaign in which the status of Kosovo and the northern municipalities was not an issue. The obligation to make an agreement was made without public involvement in private meetings between the prime minister and EU and US diplomats. The prime minister leads a minority party poorly placed to make commitments, which is why a last-ditch effort to rescue the negotiations involved flying his more powerful deputy over to Bruxelles. A government that never said what it would do, does not know what it wants, and can’t figure out who speaks for it is not likely to be able to do much.
  2. For years the ground was prepared for the opposite outcome. A series of post-2000 governments engaged in rhetorical escalation and immobility. The constitution was altered to include a hardline negotiating position the preamble. When he was prime minister, Vojislav Koštunica created institutions in the northern municipalities designed to compensate for his party’s lack of an electoral base. The teaching of history and culture was handed over to the farthest-right elements in educational and religious institutions. And nobody was told what was in the proposals on the table – the Ahtisaari plan, which provided everything that Belgrade is demanding now, was presented to the public as an imperial ultimatum, just like this one. Propaganda has defined the discourse for the past twenty years, and it is only an informed public that can back away from propaganda.
  3. The parties in power are trapped by their legacies. Who is the president? The former leader of a party that organised paramilitaries. Who is the prime minister? Milošević’s former spokesman. Who is the foreign minister? A fellow lots of people say is a very nice man but who has no involvement in the making of policy. Who is the grey eminence? Milošević’s former minister of information. Who is the largest opposition party? A party whose foreign minister built a bridge from the democratic centre to the nationalist far right. Every party that is in a position to influence the debate has a record of supporting the Milošević regime’s policy toward Kosovo before 2000 and of trying to pick up Milošević’s voters by continuing his policies afterward. They have no room to maneuver and no credibility.

What happens when no agreement is reached?

If we follow the pattern that can be observed in every previous instance, when a little bit of time passes the government agrees to terms that were angrily rejected shortly before, and go on to do quietly what they earlier refused to do loudly. Since all of this happens without authority from the public and behind closed doors, it is undertaken insincerely. Then the main political energy goes into undermining agreements that have already been made.

It’s an ugly situation. It produces unevenly implemented agreements designed by outsiders who lack knowledge and engagement, and who look to satisfy the interests of political parties and profiteers at the cost of the interests of the local residents. This is not the product of imperialism or strongarm politics, but is entirely the product of the irresponsibility of political actors who had every opportunity and motivation to make agreements themselves, and only cynical reasons not to.

Why will the result be not much of a result?

The fundamental reason that the agreement will be signed sooner or later is that the Serbian government cares more for the benefits it can receive from the EU than it does for a long-cultivated public opinion that is increasingly hostile but only occasionally relevant. This result should be satisfying to absolutely nobody. It demonstrates the power of the EU to eventually compel resolutions, but also the fundamental weaknesses of EU policy. They imagine that they are more powerful than inertia. They imagine that they are more attractive than they are. And they imagine that there is a limit to the irresponsibility of politicians.

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