Milosevic Lost Kosova: Can Serbia Let Go?

David L. Phillips

Serbia wants to join the European Union (EU). Brussels is clear: no EU membership for Serbia until it normalizes relations with Kosova. Normalization means recognizing Kosova’s independence.

Kosova rejected ties to Serbia in 1991, in response to Slobodan Milosevic’s draconian repression. More than 10,000 Kosova Albanians died and up to one million were displaced during Serbia’s crackdown.

NATO launched air strikes on 24 March 1999, aimed at preventing ethnic cleansing. United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1244 ended the war and established the United Nations Interim Administrative Mission in Kosova (UNMIK). UNMIK provided provisional systems for self-government and facilitated a political process to determine Kosova’s future status, putting Kosova on the path to statehood.

When Kosova declared independence on 17 February 2008, Serbia challenged Kosova’s declaration at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). However, the ICJ found that the declaration conformed to international law. According to then Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice: “The unusual combination of factors found in the Kosova situation – including Yugoslavia’s breakup, the history of ethnic cleansing and crimes against civilians in Kosova, and the extended period of UN administration – are not found elsewhere and therefore make Kosova a special case.”

Kosova’s independence caused despair, disbelief and anger across Serbia and in Kosova’s Serbian enclaves. To many Serbs, Kosova is the holiest and most important part of Serbia, the cradle of Serbian spirituality, culture and statehood. Serbs believe in the divine origin of Serbian rule. The organ pipes of the fourteenth century Decani Orthodox Monastery in Kosova were reputedly forged from the swords of Serbian nobility slain fighting the Ottoman Turks. Serbs view the 1389 Battle of Kosova as part of an ongoing struggle between two civilizations – one Christian and European and the other Islamic and Asiatic.

To this day, Serbia refuses to admit that Kosova is lost; Kosova will never again be under Serbia’s control. So far, 114 countries have recognized Kosova’s independence.

Serbia systematically tries to impede Kosova’s efforts to gain greater global recognition. It undermines Kosova’s state-building, setting up parallel structures in North Kosova where Kosova Serbs reside. With Russia’s backing, it backs campaigns against Kosova’s membership in international organizations such as INTERPOL and UNESCO.

Serbia’s approach may be evolving. On 24 July 2017, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic published an article calling on the Serbian nation to “stop burying its head in sand” on the issue of Kosova, and to start “an internal dialogue.” According to Vucic, “We must try to be realistic, not lose or give away what we have, but not expect to receive what we have lost long ago.”

Vucic can deliver a deal on Kosova. He has a strong mandate based on his nationalist monopoly, and was recently elected to a 5-year term.

His position has support. According to Serbia’s Foreign Minister and First Deputy Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, “Times and international relations have changed.” Vuk Draskovic, head of the Serbian Renewal Movement, concurs: Serbia should “accept and recognize the Kosova reality,” as the basis of “a sustainable solution.” The Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, traditionally hardline, has no objection.

What motivated Vucic to write about Kosova and propose an internal dialogue among Serbs in the middle of the summer? Is he really sincere about solving the Kosova-Serbia problem, or is he simply appearing reasonable to gain favor in Brussels.

Vucic is a both a pragmatist and a canny politician. Serbia is required to make constitutional reforms to meet standards in the EU “acquis communautaires.” Negotiations over EU membership will require Serbia to conduct fundamental changes to its legal, economic and political system, resulting in the Europeanization of Serbian constitutional law.

The Serbian Radical Party, the largest party in opposition to the Vucic government, strongly opposes constitutional reforms. Vucic may be trying to highlight a stark choice: either support recognition of Kosova on the one hand or reforms on the other. The latter is far more acceptable to most Serbs.

Vucic may be trying to distract Serbs from the country’s economic problems. In a big blow to Serbia’s economy, FIAT, the largest foreign investor in Serbia, could close its factory in Kragujevac. Vucic needs popular support for economic reforms encompassing the state administration, public finances, and the economy in order to advance EU accession.

Or Vucic could be trying to cause a nationalist backlash, resulting in a crisis. Serbia would respond by annexing North Kosova, realizing Milosevic’s partition plan. This scenario is unlikely. Creating a crisis in Kosova is risky brinksmanship. Vucic knows there is no military solution, and that military action in North Kosova would destroy Serbia’s prospects for EU membership.

Is Vucic laying the ground for a grand bargain?

A grand bargain would entail recognition of Kosova by Serbia. Kosova would join the UN, while both Kosova and Serbia continue work on meeting EU membership criteria, entering the EU at the same time.

The Kosova-Serbia Dialogue, mediated by the EU with a new approach and under a different format, could lead to a breakthrough, resolving one of Europe’s most intractable conflicts.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert at the U.S. State Department during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Phillips is author of Liberating Kosova: Coercive Diplomacy and US Intervention.


Author’s Note: The Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights will publish an “Implementation Review of the Kosova-Serbia Dialogue.” Scheduled for release on 5 September 2017, the report proposes an enhanced mediation format for more effective engagement by the international community. It offers a “win-win”, based on recognition of Kosova by Serbia and normalization of all bilateral issues, leading to integration of Kosova and Serbia into multilateral and Euro-Atlantic institutions.