[Opinion] : See no evil is not good policy

Daniel Serwer - Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies


By Daniel Serwer,  @DanielSerwer , 

Washington, 21 April 2024, / – Serbia’s parliament approved the country’s new government last week. The personnel and program represent a further turn to the ethno-nationalist, anti-EU right. AP makes many of the details easily accessible. The government includes ministers the US has already sanctioned for corruption as well as blatant Russophilic sycophants. Not to mention a prime minister who led the Serbian Defense Ministry last year, when it was complicit in a terrorist attack in northern Kosovo, the kidnapping of Kosovo police, and rioting against NATO-led peacekeepers. He has already reiterated Serbia’s desire for good relations with Russia and refusal to align with EU sanctions against Moscow.

President Aleksandar Vucic is leaving little room for those who argue that Serbia is headed West. In recent months he has ostentatiously met with the would-be dictators of Hungary and Azerbaijan as well as the all too real authoritarians governing Belarus, Russia, and China. Vucic is making no secret of his ambition to extend his authority to the Serb-controlled 49% of Bosnia and Herzegovina, all of Montenegro, and Serb-majority northern Kosovo. Vucic also presided in December over a grotesquely unfair national election, and a fraudulent municipal election in Belgrade, that have prompted Freedom House to continue lowering Serbia’s democracy scores.

Why Europe and the US delude themselves

Still, officials in the US and Europe are prepared to tolerate and even reward Vucic. Some fear that any alternative might be worse. Others don’t want to admit the failure of three years of going easy on Vucic. Still others imagine that crumbs he hands out in the Western direction–Serbs using Kosovo license plates and identity documents–may presage improvement on bigger issues. The shells and bullets Serbia allows to reach Ukraine may influence some, though surely similar amounts–if not more–make their way to Russia.

But self-delusion is a big part of this story. Vucic has made clear that he will not implement agreements the US and EU regard as legally binding. Belgrade has opposed Kosovo membership in the Council of Europe. This is despite its qualifications and the benefits that could derive there from to the Kosovo Serbs. Surely intelligent Americans and Europeans understand that Serbian participation in NATO exercises generates a substantial flow of intelligence to Russia. But doing something about Serbia’s malfeasance requires heavy political lifting. Why take that on if no one above your pay grade objects to a “see no evil” policy?

An opportunity to shift

There should soon be an opportunity to take a more effective tack. The officials who forged the see no evil policy are headed elsewhere. Rumint says EU Special Representative Miroslav Lajcak and US Deputy Assistant Secretary Gabriel Escobar are both getting ready to move on. They invested heavily in Vucic and have little to show for it. So has the US embassy in Belgrade. Ambassador Christopher Hill has repeatedly denigrated Kosovo’s leadership while lauding Serbia’s.

The new leader of the State Department European Bureau, Jim O’Brien, has not fallen entirely into their unproductive rut. He has been notably blunt on some issues with Vucic. But he, too, continues to promise Serbia progress on instituting an Association of Serb-majority Municipalities in Kosovo that Vucic intends to use as an irredentist mechanism for governing Kosovo’s Serbs.

The Association requires fulfillment of the quid pro quo

This is unfortunate. Kosovo promised this Association in a 2013 agreement that included recognition of the validity of the Kosovo constitution on its entire territory and a commitment to allowing Kosovo and Serbia to accede to the European Union separately and without mutual interference. This amounted to de facto Serbian recognition of Kosovo, since only sovereign states can accede to the Union.

But Serbia has withdrawn from those commitments. Vucic has made it clear that he has no greater tolerance for de facto recognition than for de jure recognition. He has pulled the Serb mayors, police, judges, and other officials out of Pristina’s institutions in northern Kosovo.

Belgrade encouraged the Kosovo Serbs to boycott the last municipal elections. Serbia is also opposing Kosovo membership in the Council of Europe and other regional institutions.

The problem is democracy

To expect Kosovo to form the Association without the benefits that Serbia promised in return is foolish. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti has held a commanding position for most of the past five years in Kosovo politics. There would be no quicker way for him to lose it than to give the Association to Serbia without getting anything in return. He likely faces an election next year. To expect him to commit political suicide to please Belgrade is diplomatic malpractice.

Of course the same is true for President Vucic. Serbia may be headed towards autocracy, but it is not there yet. Few Serbian politicians risk saying the obvious: that Kosovo is lost and Serbia would be better off admitting it. Vucic’s main opposition for years has been more hawkish on Kosovo than he is. It would require unusual courage for him to buck the political currents in Belgrade.

The only way of reviving the Association is to revive the 2013 quid pro quo as well. That should include genuine participation of Serb citizens in Kosovo’s governance, Belgrade acceptance of Pristina’s constitutional and judicial authority in the north, and an end to Belgrade’s opposition to Kosovo membership in international organizations. Kurti might then be able to boast that he had made a good deal. Vucic could claim to have gotten what Belgrade wanted. And the US and EU would be able to claim real progress in bringing both Serbia and Kosovo closer to Euro-Atlantic institutions and values.


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 website.                     

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

scroll to top