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10 years have passed since the launch of the EU facilitated Kosovo-Serbia dialogue. While relative progress has been made during this time in stabilizing the relationship between the two countries, there has been a recent lull in actionable steps made towards normalizing relations.
With a new government in Kosovo, and leadership changes in key country players such as Germany and the United States, a resurgence of the dialogue seems much anticipated.
However, recent tensions that arose between Kosovo and Serbia over vehicle license plates has exposed how flimsy the relationship between the two countries really is. Kosovo implemented a reciprocity measure on Serbian license plates, which obliged vehicles with Serbian plates to get temporary plates in order to enter Kosovo.
This is a measure Serbia has enforced on Kosovo’s vehicles since Kosovo declared its independence.
Kosovo special forces were sent to two border crossings in the north to implement the new measure. This seemingly technical issue triggered a strong reaction from the Kosovo Serb citizens living in the north of Kosovo, which blocked the roads in protest.
On the other side of the border, Serbian fighter jets, helicopters and armored vehicles were hovering near the border, a move not seen since the end of the war in 1999.
This tense situation lasted for almost two weeks, until Kosovo and Serbia agreed to end the blockade. Kosovo agreed to remove its special forces from the north and were replaced by KFOR troops, whereas Serbia agreed to remove the roadblocks. According to the new agreement, a special sticker will be placed over the license plates in both countries as a temporary measure until a permanent solution is identified.
Watching the situation escalate so quickly over the measure indicates that ethnic tensions are still brewing. Prime Minister Kurti’s decision to implement the measure, which he stated was not meant to provoke Serbia, did exactly just that.
The decision also caught the attention of the EU and NATO. These institutions and their member states called upon Kosovo and Serbia to de-escalate, arguing that the dialogue is the only alternative.
Moreover, Serbia’s combative response to a measure that they currently have implemented shows that they are not ready to view Kosovo as an independent country, but rather the autocratic regime of Aleksandar Vucic is still interested in displaying their authority over Kosovo.
Ten years after the launch of the Kosovo-Serbia negotiation talks, political trends have changed. Joe Biden defeated Trump in the 2020 US presidential election, whereas Angela Merkel will depart from her 16 years of chancellorship.
Consequently, this requires changes in the dialogue process too.
The dialogue needs a new strategy, more commitment and resources, and most importantly, transatlantic cooperation. Otherwise, the relative progress achieved thus far risks backsliding and spiraling into new tensions, which was exhibited by the license plate issue.
On the national level, the newly elected Kurti government should make transitional justice and reconciliation efforts one of its top priorities in the negotiations. Furthermore, the government should engage in serious domestic dialogue with its Serbian community, including their elected officials.
In addition, Kosovo must take advantage of the more cooperative US administration, and make sure to establish channels of communication with the future German chancellor.
On the international level, Western partners should undertake proactive steps to make sure that the dialogue process remains on a good track.
First, the dialogue needs more commitment. The EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues, Miroslav Lajcak, needs the support from all EU member states, which means putting aside the national interests of specific member states and providing full support to Lajcak.
Second, the EU needs to work on its credibility issue. The EU does not have to reinvent the wheel, but it surely needs to step up on the dialogue. Opening EU accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, and lifting the visa regime for Kosovo citizens will send a strong and supportive signal to the region.
Third, there is an absolute need for a transatlantic cooperation on the dialogue. At a time when the US is reevaluating its position in world affairs, Kosovo-Serbia relations might be an opportunity for cooperation. With the US and EU working together, progress in the region will be more likely.
This might be the booster that the dialogue needs.
Within Kosovo Collective Op-Ed series
Opinions expressed in this oped series do not necessarily represent those of the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. (BTD), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), or the U.S. Government.
The project is supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. and USAID.