Last Friday, Belgrade and Pristina agreed to “normalize relations” between Serbia and its breakaway, independent-with-an-asterisk former territory of Kosovo. Like so many supposedly certain things here, this newest declaration is full of ambiguities, mismatched definitions, and opportunities for plausible denial.
It’s easy to be cynical about these things. When I arrived here, I was astonished at the degree to which Kosovo was willing to depend on vague assurances, “dialogues,” and other such questionable things. But it’s better than the alternative. When, I have come to realize, you see major world powers and organizations giving their imprimatur to these sorts of labored, dishonest-seeming constructions, its because they are concerned that guns will fire in their absence. All parties remain, for the moment, able to see their directly-opposed claims as being somehow independently true. This is the crucial thing.
Kosovo, for its part, is championing (officially, anyway – many Kosovars remain both distrustful and displeased) the current deal as a de facto recognition of its independence by Belgrade. If the protests in that capital, and the claims by the Serbian Orthodox church that the deal represents a “clear surrender” are anything to go by, this contains at least a measure of truth. In disputes such as this, you cannot call something a success merely because it is being lauded by its champions; you also have to check whether the other side is pissed off. And Serbia’s citizens and its historic national church most definitely are. According to one protester, the most important question raised by this resolution is how Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Daçic sleeps at night.
On the other hand, one can also claim that Serbia has exchanged a nominal and symbolic defeat for a vast array of practical, day-to-day, boots on the ground-type victories. In Kosovo’s north, which centers on the bifurcated city of Mitrovica, Serbia has been promised a series of permanent and far-reaching powers which ensure that Belgrade will have a significant say in the public life of Serbian North Mitrovica (and environs). In many ways, the Serbian population of that region will be able to essentially live and regard themselves as Serbians for perpetuity.
The talks that produced this deal were hosted, of course, by the European Union, and the incentive for both Kosovo and Serbia to come to terms with each other is the promise of eventual EU membership. In light of recent issues, one might wonder exactly how excited Brussels (or Berlin) is to welcome two countries with per-capita-GDPs (PPP) of $10,500 (Serbia) and $7,400 (Kosovo) to the union, but in this part of the world, the EU represents the best show in town, and so any hope is better than nothing.
The fact that this is an EU-sponsored deal, however, means that the question of partition – of Kosovo’s abandoning the disputed North to Belgrade in exchange for recognition of the remainder – is entirely off the table, and conspicuous by its absence. Europe has too many fractious states, too many local independence movements to set this type of precedent. In recent history, any mass movements toward the shifting of European borders have tended to take the form of world wars.
As a Canadian, and a citizen of a country whose history is short, pragmatic, and largely absent of ethereal claims, it is easy to tell oneself that this is all much easier than it is. On the streets of Pristina, the claim that “Kosovo is Serbia” seems strange, deluded, and pregnant with denial. But this isn’t Canada. This isn’t (what was once called) the New World. When Serbians say these things, they are not claiming that they, for example, set tax codes in Prizren, or operate the buses in Pristina. They are saying that, in the shadowy realm of national “essences,” Kosovo is tied to the Serbian state in an existential and dissoluble way. It goes back to the Middle Ages, and is essentially religious in nature. It’s a European thing, old and intractable. And it’s not going to vanish just because a group of elected officials say that it is otherwise.
It’s so easy to be cynical. But cynicism is abrupt and absolute, and qualities like abruptness and absoluteness, in the realm of politics, lead us to the point of conflict. As these negotiations continue, they are going to lead both Kosovo and Serbia to points at which both parties will have to abandon certain central claims. These talks will unavoidably produce a circumstance in which each side will have to redefine themselves in a far-reaching and existential manner. And they are unwilling to do this.
So we have a deal, I guess. We have an agreement.
But we also have a standoff.