[Opinion] : Fewer sticks, more carrots

Daniel Serwer - Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies


By Daniel Serwer,

Washington, 09 June 2023, /  – Distinguished members of the Albanian American community have sent a stern letter to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. It criticizes the Biden Administration’s one-sided approach to current disputes between Kosovo and Serbia. The US (and EU) have generally sided with Belgrade. They have also threatened Prishtina with sanctions if it doesn’t quickly comply with Washington and Brussels demands.

A justified protest…

The protest letter is in my view fully justified. Serbia is aiming to demonstrate and maintain control over the Serb-majority communities in northern Kosovo. This was its goal in over-reacting to Kosovo’s effort to insist on Kosovo license plates in the north. It was the goal in instructing northern Kosovo officials to resign their positions. And it was the goal in getting the Serb population to boycott the elections called to replace them. It is also Belgrade’s goal in pursuing, with strong EU and US support, an Association of Serb Majority Municipalities (ASMM) with executive powers.

Washington and Brussels have backed Serbia hoping to get Belgrade to reorient itself towards the West and away from Moscow. Belgrade’s allowing shipment of arms to Ukraine has reinforced this hope. But there is no sign that President Aleksandar Vucic is prepared to weaken his ties to Moscow and Beijing. To the contrary, he has continued to refuse to align with EU sanctions on Russia (and with many other aspects of EU foreign policy). He maintains an open door for military cooperation with Russia as well as Chinese security technology and investment.

…but more is needed

Kosovo is a sincere friend of the US and EU, not only because of the 1999 NATO intervention that saved its population from ethnic cleansing and war crimes but also because it is a serious democracy. Prishtina has no option to turn to Russia or China. Prime Minister Alin Kurti has refused EU and US demands he believes would limit the country’s sovereignty and threaten its territorial integrity. But he needs Western support for Kosovo to survive and thrive.

He also needs greater acceptance by the Serbs in northern Kosovo. He has been relatively successful, building on accomplishments of his predecessors, in getting acceptance by the Serbs who live south of the Ibar river. But in the north, which is contiguous with Serbia, Belgrade’s security services and their allied organized crime networks still prevail. Kurti has been trying to break their control by enforcing Kosovo law in the north, but so far his efforts do not appear to have succeeded.

Fewer sticks, more carrots

The US and EU are threatening sanctions against Kosovo. Kurti is using the police to try to seat mayors elected despite a Serb boycott. These sticks are working. They appear to have stiffened resistance.

Kurti, the US, and the EU should all try a few more carrots

The Prime Minister needs to show the Serbs in northern Kosovo what they can gain either by allowing the mayors to take their rightful places or by holding new elections. He should propose a statute for the ASM, without executive powers.

The US and EU need to show Kurti what he can gain by beginning negotiations on the ASMM. I imagine, for example, that a sincere apology for the Milosevic regime’s homicidal repression in the 1990s and an offer to negotiate compensation, especially for the women raped by Serbian security forces, would go a long way.

Less appeasement

Brussels and Washington have used only carrots with Belgrade. They incongruously praise him as someone who has turned Serbia westward. They avoid any criticism of high-level corruption and autocratic behavior in Serbia. The US only whispers opposition to his mobilization and deployment of the Serbian army on the border with Kosovo, resorts to inappropriately citing “both sides” in criticizing Serb rioters against KFOR troops, and provides ample political and economic support. Vucic pockets the carrots and continues his courtships with Moscow and Beijing. It is high time for appeasement to end.


Daniel Serwer is a Professor of the Practice of Conflict Management as well as director of the Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. This opinion was first published at his website.            

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of  . 

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