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Germany To Serbia: It's Time To Toe EU Line On Kosovo

  • Daisy Sindelar

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle will look to throw the EU's weight around in Belgrade.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle will look to throw the EU's weight around in Belgrade.

When it comes to Kosovo, Serbia and the West occupy alternate realities. Serbia continues to insist Kosovo's independence is not a done deal. The West, with growing impatience, says it is.

Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, will become the latest Western diplomat to urge Serbia to leave its reality behind when he travels to Belgrade on August 26 as part of a three-day Balkans tour.

He's got more muscle than most. Germany holds the key to two issues close to Belgrade's heart -- money and its EU bid.

"Germany is the No. 1 trade partner of Serbia. It's the No.1 provider of international assistance. And it's the fourth-largest investor," says Irena Cerovic, a Serbian political analyst currently based in Berlin.

"In addition, it has a certain weight within EU decision-making," she adds. "Germany is one of the countries that is concerned about the speed of the process of enlargement, and Westerwelle has repeatedly said that it is not going to be speeded up."

UN Resolution

Westerwelle's trip -- which includes additional stops in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo -- was planned more than six months ago. But it falls at a pivotal moment in the long and complicated arc of Serbia-Kosovo relations, as Belgrade attempts to reopen the debate on Kosovo's status by putting forward a resolution at the UN General Assembly next month.

The resolution, which dismisses unilateral secession as an "acceptable way for resolving territorial issues," calls on the UN's 192 member states to return to the question of whether Pristina's 2008 independence declaration was legal.

A map of Kosovo painted on a wall with the words "Kosovo is Serbia" in Belgrade.
The General Assembly, which needs to muster a two-thirds majority for a resolution to pass, is not expected to bite. For many countries, any remaining debate on the issue was closed with last month's ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) supporting the declaration as legal.

Even so, the resolution has rankled many Western UN members, who see Belgrade's fixation on Kosovo as a tiresome impediment to progress in the Balkans. To that end, analysts and officials expect Westerwelle to ask Belgrade officials to soften the tone of the resolution, if not scotch it altogether.

Serbian officials have indicated they are open to talks on revising the resolution, but have flatly refused to withdraw it. Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic, in an interview earlier this week, said reaching an agreement would be the "best" outcome. But, he added, "we cannot accept the point of the document itself to be changed."

Plain Speaking

Germany -- which is among the 22 EU countries to have recognized Kosovo independence -- has yet to ratify Serbia's Stabilization and Association Agreement, a key step toward accession. Analysts say this is one example of leverage that Westerwelle could employ during his talks to persuade Belgrade officials to tone down the UN resolution.

Westerwelle's spokesman, Stephan Bredohl, told Deutsche Welle the minister "won't put too much pressure on Serbia." But he added that Germany was "very clear" on Kosovo, adding, "Germany has accepted its independence, and it's very important for us that if Serbia wants to join the European Union, it needs to be constructive and toe the EU's line."

Some pro-European Serbs would actually welcome tougher talk, since EU incentives like visa-free travel have thus far failed to inspire greater cooperation on key issues like Kosovo and the handover of Ratko Mladic to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.

Andrej Nosov, the president of the Heartefact Fund, a pan-Balkan civil society foundation, says the EU has so far played the role of an indulgent parent -- and risks spoiling an already stubborn child.

"EU policy is somehow responsible for this existing mood, because EU policy has always been like, 'We have a little kid, and the kid is Serbia, and he's getting to be worse and worse in school. But we won't put pressure on him. We did that before and it didn't work. We're going to take him on a nice vacation instead' -- you know, the visa policy -- 'and then we're going to go next time and buy him a bicycle and other things,'" Nosov says.

Kosovo -- Or The EU

Serbia is not required to recognize Kosovo's independence in order to proceed with its EU bid. But its continued failure to hand over Mladic, the alleged mastermind of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, has slowed its path toward Europe, as has what many see as its lackadaisical approach toward rudimentary reforms.

Belgrade's reluctance on such issues has prompted speculation that Serbia, having already achieved the high-priority goal of visa-free travel, may be content to live without EU membership. The steady progress of its fellow ex-Yugoslav republic Croatia, which is expected to join the EU in 2012, appears to have stirred no envy in the halls of power in Belgrade.

Serbia's Boris Tadic seems unlikely to risk political suicide over Kosovo.
But recent polls show that the Serbian public ranks EU membership high on its list of priorities, with Kosovo coming in far lower. Cornelius Adebahr, a Balkans expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations, says that despite outstanding issues like Mladic, the Serbian government has been disciplined in its attempts to meet EU standards.

"It's true that Serbia -- because it's such an important country in the region -- can sometimes play a card and maybe get off better than other states would," Adebahr says. "But it still has the issue of Mladic, it still has the issue of cooperation with the ICTY. It's not off the hook."

Even if Serbia's commitment to Europe remains on track, it is uncertain how far it can proceed without abandoning its preoccupation with Kosovo's status. President Boris Tadic, who rose to power on the slogan "Both Kosovo and the EU," may be reluctant to toy with the formula before Serbia's next elections, scheduled for 2012.

Analysts agree it will take an exceptionally strong politician to step forward and acknowledge that Kosovo has irreversibly broken with its past life as part of Serbian territory. Tadic, whose Democratic Party is eager to hold on to power in the face of a resurgent wave of nationalist opposition, is unlikely to be the man to make that move.

"I think that would be a good thing, and it should have been done a long time ago," Tim Judah, the Balkans correspondent for "The Economist," tells RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "But no Serbian leader has either believed that or been strong enough to do it. I think Tadic has the potential to do it. But whether he has the courage to do it -- that I don't know."

'New Reality'

Even if Serbia remains unwilling to rewrite its broad narrative on Kosovo, Westerwelle and others hoping to redirect Belgrade's attention, in the short term, to pressing pragmatic issues affecting day-to-day relations between Belgrade and Pristina. The situation of ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo remains an issue of mutual concern; energy supplies, transportation, and border control are critical questions as well.

"Basically the Kosovo issue will stay open for many, many decades in the future," says Dusan Janjic, the coordinator of the Belgrade-based Forum for Ethnic Relations and the recent founder of a new social-democratic party. "But I'm hoping that soon will come a new leadership in Serbia which will accept the new reality. Meaning, not to say that the Kosovo issue is solved, that it's over, but basically to accept the existence of the new governmental structures in Kosovo, to accept the reality that Serbs and Albanians are neighbors and that they have to cooperate."

Something that might hasten the arrival of such a "new reality" would be additional countries recognizing Kosovo's independence. Currently, 69 countries formally recognize Kosovo. Officials in Pristina had spoken hopefully of a wave of fresh recognitions in the wake of the ICJ ruling. Some analysts, including Janjic, have speculated that a handful of countries -- including Greece, one of five EU holdouts -- may be close to adding their names to the list.

Such a move could lend dramatic momentum to Kosovo's quest for international legitimacy, including UN and EU membership. Adebahr at the German Council on Foreign Relations can't confirm an imminent move by Greece, but says it would be "more likely" than the other four holdouts to cross over.

"This would certainly change the game enormously," he says. "It may be something like the first domino of the remaining five to fall. I'm not saying that the other four would then follow suit immediately, but that would certainly change the dynamic in favor of Kosovo."

RFE/RL's Balkan Service contributed to this report

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