Commentary

Serbia’s Olive Branch

Serbia’s government has sent an intriguing and rather surprising signal that it is willing to compromise on the issue of Kosovo’s status. Previously, Belgrade had flatly rejected any notion of an independent Kosovo, continuing to insist that the territory was merely a province of Serbia and that the unilateral declaration of independence in 2008 was invalid. Although the new policy guidelines issued on January 13 reiterated the government’s position that it would never accept that declaration, the guidelines also called for an autonomous status for minority Serbs living within Kosovo’s borders. That measure could be construed as an implicit willingness to recognize Kosovo’s boundaries, under certain conditions. Two days later, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic indicated that Serbia could even agree to a UN seat for Kosovo, albeit without formally recognizing that entity’s statehood, though he has since walked his statement back.

The new policy guidelines for proposed “reconciliation talks” with Kosovo’s leaders mark the latest trial balloon that Belgrade has sent aloft to test the willingness of the United States and the European Union to compromise regarding Kosovo’s status. Previously, Serbian leaders had hinted that they might be willing to consider diplomatic recognition, if among other measures there were changes to Kosovo’s boundaries that would allow majority Serbian population north of the Drina River to remain with Serbia.

Unfortunately, both U.S. and EU leaders have reacted to previous diplomatic feelers from Serbia with intransigence bordering on contempt. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton typified that attitude when she flatly rejected any notion of compromise. “We oppose any discussion of territorial changes or reopening Kosovo’s independent status,” Clinton stated during an October 2012 meeting with Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. “These matters are not up for discussion. The boundaries of an independent, sovereign Kosovo are clear and set.”

The United States does not have any crucial interests in the Balkans, and it most certainly should not be a party to the dispute over Kosovo’s status.”

A majority of countries in the European Union, most crucially Germany, have adopted a similar rigid stance. In December 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told officials in Belgrade that the “path of Serbia into the EU can only lead through the normalization of its relations with Kosovo.” By “normalization,” she meant Serbia’s recognition of an independent Kosovo with no boundary changes whatsoever. That is an extralegal requirement that has never been a condition for any other current or prospective EU member. Moreover, the demand is in stark contrast to the EU’s decision regarding the Cyprus’s membership. Nicosia did not have to recognize the independence of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which Ankara had created in the portion of the Island that Turkish troops had invaded and occupied in 1974.

U.S. and EU leaders assume that Serbia wants membership in the European Union (and, eventually, NATO) so badly that Serb leaders will ultimately adopt a policy of unconditional surrender regarding the Kosovo issue. That may well be a dangerous miscalculation. The current government of Prime Minister Dacic has already moved far beyond Serbian public opinion in offering possible diplomatic compromises. There is still a strong nationalist faction that is unalterably opposed to relinquishing Serbia’s claim to any portion of Kosovo. To them, Kosovo is Serbia’s historical and religious heartland—the country’s equivalent of Jerusalem.

The perverse unwillingness of the United States and the EU to compromise with Dacic and other generally pro-Western moderates could lead to the resurgence of nationalist extremism and the emergence of a new hostile, anti-Western regime. One nationalist party, the Democratic Party of Serbia, has already demanded that Dacic resign, accusing him of pursuing a “policy of capitulation.”

Solving the Kosovo problem—which continuously threatens to roil the Balkans—requires accepting Belgrade’s latest olive branch as a basis for negotiations. Indeed, that proposal is more accommodating than the West had any reason to expect. It is unlikely that any Serbian government can swallow the bitter pill of recognizing Kosovo’s independence without boundary adjustments, or at the very least, guarantees of extensive political autonomy for Kosovo’s Serb inhabitants. The EU is missing an opportunity if it clings to its current myopic policy.

Even worse is Washington’s unhelpful meddling. The insistence of U.S. leaders in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations to back, without any apparent reservation, the agenda of Kosovo’s government exacerbates a chronic regional and international problem. The United States does not have any crucial interests in the Balkans, and it most certainly should not be a party to the dispute over Kosovo’s status. If the Obama administration unwisely insists on continuing Washington’s involvement, it at least should not adopt positions that make a settlement less likely. There should be no more statements like those Hillary Clinton made in October.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books and more than 500 articles and policy studies on international issues.