International Crisis Group - Kosovo and Serbia after the International Court of Justice Opinion

International Crisis Group - Kosovo and Serbia after the International Court of Justice Opinion

Pristina/Belgrade/Brussels - 26 Aug 2010 - The development of more realistic, if not yet fully public, attitudes in Kosovo and Serbia suggest a win-win resolution of their dispute is feasible if both sides promptly open talks with the aim of reaching a comprehensive compromise.

Kosovo and Serbia after the ICJ Opinion, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, looks at the real opportunity that Kosovo and Serbia currently have to resolve differences, establish bilateral relations and unblock their paths to greater European Union (EU) integration. There is ultimately no alternative to a comprehensive bilateral accord if either country is to realise its European institutional future.

"Passing up this opportunity would risk freezing the conflict for several years, during which the dispute would likely be used to mobilise nationalist opinion and deflect criticism of domestic corruption and government failures", says Marko Prelec, Crisis Group’s Balkans Project Director. "If Serbia really seeks meaningful progress, it will have to put its cards on the table and treat Kosovo as an equal; and Pristina should carefully consider what Belgrade has to offer".

The issue of diplomatic recognition of Kosovo’s statehood is at the heart of the impasse. Though 69 states have taken this step, Serbia has vowed to never accept the territory’s "unilateral declaration of independence". Pristina hopes the July opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that Kosovo’s 17 February 2008 declaration of independence did not violate international law or Security Council Resolution 1244 (the basis for UN supervision of the territory since the end of the 1999 war) will provide a strong impetus for more recognitions. But nothing short of Serbia’s consent to Kosovo’s independence, at least implicitly via establishment of some form of diplomatic relations, and eventually full and formal recognition, is presently likely to sway non-recognisers in the EU and among UN Security Council members (notably Russia and China).

The EU and other members of the international community, including the U.S., should facilitate as complete a settlement as possible, leaving it up to the parties themselves to decide how far and in what direction they can go to achieve the goal of recognition. The most controversial outcome that might emerge from negotiations would be a land swap of ethnic Serb Northern Kosovo for the ethnic Albanian portion of the Preševo Valley in Serbia. Many in the international community would be unhappy with this option, but a consensual land swap by equals in the context of mutual recognition and settlement of all other major issues should not be opposed.

At a minimum and in order to obtain positive consideration in Brussels for its EU candidacy application, Serbia should pledge to work with Pristina to secure the rule of law in the North, establish good neighbourly relations by cooperating on a host of technical issues to improve people’s daily lives and stop blocking Kosovo’s participation in regional institutions. To exploit the opportunity for serious, comprehensive talks that could bring a compromise final settlement, bilateral dialogue will need to go beyond technical matters.

"A divided international community has few levers with which to exert pressure", says Sabine Freizer, Crisis Group’s Europe Program Director. "At the present time, the best policy for Kosovo’s friends is to facilitate an opportunity for the sides to engage in a frank and open dialogue that can lead toward the fullest settlement achievable, without coercion and without agendas imposed or limited from outside".

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