Kosovo police continue to maintain security with search, patrol and control activities in the region after the clash led by Kosovo Serb politician Milan Radoicic in the northern town of Banjska on September 24 in Zvecan, Kosovo, on September 3 October 2023. Clashes broke out in the village when a group of armed Serbs blocked a bridge with two trucks. A shootout ensued after the group opened fire on police, leaving one officer dead and another wounded. (Photo by Vudi Xhymshiti/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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Davos, SWITZERLAND — With Europe’s attention focused on the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, peace and stability are far from guaranteed in another of the region’s most volatile conflict zones, according to a senior EU diplomat .
Relations between Serbia and Kosovo, which have been strained since the brutal conflict between the two in the 1990s, remain delicate a year after a tentative agreement on a new path to normalization.
“Stability is fragile. We cannot take peace and stability for granted,” Miroslav Lajčák, EU special representative for Belgrade-Pristina dialogue and the Western Balkans, told CNBC in Davos last month.
The Belgrade-Pristina dialogue is a series of talks facilitated by the European Union designed to ease hostilities between neighboring countries in southeastern Europe.
In February 2023, Serbia and Kosovo agreed on a path to normalization, marking a major step forward for the former adversaries, whose decades-old friction centers on territorial disputes and ethnic divisions.
But that progress was later marred by a resurgence of violence in northern Kosovo, including a deadly shootout between a heavily armed group of ethnic Serbs and Kosovo special police forces in the village of Banjska.
Northern Kosovo has an ethnic Serb majority and is therefore claimed by Belgrade as its southern province. Meanwhile, Kosovo as a whole is approximately 93% ethnic Albanian and Pristina declared independence in 2008.
Years of conflict between the two have left Europe sharply divided over the way forward, with several EU members (Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania and Greece) and other non-EU neighbors disputing Kosovo’s claim to independence.
However, Lajčák stated that the normalization agreement had moved the situation forward “like never before” and noted that the focus is now on implementation. Normalization measures include developing “normal and good-neighborly relations” and restricting the “threat or use of force” in future disputes.
“There is no turning back,” he said. “There is no way to reach these agreements because they are accepted by both parties.”
Both the EU and the United States are strongly committed to normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo, even as they face other rapidly evolving international conflicts between Israel and Hamas and Russia and Ukraine.
But time is ticking. With elections scheduled for this summer in the European Parliament and later in the year in the United States, progress in normalization talks will be critical before the issue is deprioritized.
“What will start before the EU and the US go to elections will continue throughout the electoral process,” Lajčák said. “But what doesn’t start sooner, I have my doubts will start later.”
Kosovo police officers and the NATO Peacekeeping Force in Kosovo (KFOR) continue to ensure security with search, patrol and control activities in the region after incidents in Banjska, in the north of the country, on September 24 in Zvecan, Kosovo, on September 30, 2023.
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The resistance is more likely to come from the respective leaders of Serbia and Kosovo, President Aleksandar Vučić and Prime Minister Albin Kurti, who have nationalist bases in their countries to appease.
There is a lot at stake for both sides. With EU membership aspirations looming for Serbia and Kosovo, Lajčák said this could provide the EU with a carrot to incentivize peace between the two countries.
Serbia is currently in the midst of EU accession talks, having been granted candidate status in 2012, while Kosovo has potential candidate status, although both will require major reforms to be admitted to the bloc.
“The success of the normalization process will also depend on how directly and closely they are linked to Kosovo and Serbia’s path towards the EU,” Lajčák said. “That’s the biggest influence we have.”