[Opinion] : Smoke and mirrors make confusion, not peace

Daniel Serwer - Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies


By Daniel Serwer

Washington, 19 March 2023, / – According to EU High Representative (Josep) Borrell, Saturday’s meeting between Serbian President (Aleksandar)  Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister (Albin) Kurti was a success. It resulted in an “Implementation Annex” to the Agreement on the Path to Normalisation of Relations.

There are two macro problems:

-It is focused on process, not substance.

-Serbia again refused to sign.

Process not substance

The major procedural innovation is incorporation of the obligations in the two agreements into both country’s EU accession obligations. The new agreement also foresees an EU-chaired monitoring group. These provisions have been implicit all along. They obligate the EU more than they obligate Serbia and Kosovo. Moreover, the obligation does not extend to recognition of Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, since the normalization agreement falls short of that benchmark.

The implementation annex also obligates Prishtina to begin negotiations “immediately” on self-management for the Serbian community in Kosovo. This reformulation of the 2013 agreement to create an Association of Serb-majority Municipalities has two notable features:

First: it avoids the specific institutional form of the original. That in Prishtina’s eyes represented a potential threat to Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Second: it references the “Serbian community.” This suggest it applies not to existing municipalities but rather only to those inside Kosovo who consider themselves Serbian citizens.

The first is clearly to Kosovo’s advantage. The second is to Serbia’s, since it eliminates obligations to most non-Serbs.

The new agreement adds other procedural niceties. The obligations of the original agreement are to be implemented independent of others and the order in which they are mentioned. None are to be blocked. All that is good.

No signatures

Once again, President Vucic refused to sign the agreement. Vucic’s motives are clear. He fears domestic reaction in Serbia, where ethnic nationalist passions and hatred of Albanians reign supreme. He wants to avoid any formal equality with someone who will insist on being identified as the Prime Minister of the (independent and sovereign) Republic of Kosovo (or maybe even Kosova, the Albanian preference).

EU and US officials would have you believe this does not matter. But it does. Under international law, signed agreements obligate a state. Unsigned ones do not. Serbia could walk away from all the agreements with Kosovo, as they are unsigned. In fact, it has not implemented many. Nor has Kosovo. Signatures would make a big difference. That is why Vucic resists.

The Americans and Europeans have pressed Kurti hard to obligate Kosovo. They have withheld goodies and criticized him publicly. It shows. He is willing to sign.

Brussels and Washington have taken a different approach with Vucic. It also shows. They have rewarded him in advance. Neither criticizes Serbia’s drift towards autocracy or its corruption. Both welcome Vucic and his minions for visits and provide ample assistance, including more than one billion recently for railroad reconstruction. This appeasement gives him the diplomatic space he needs for refusal to sign. Even the donor conference promised in the more recent agreement is of marginal interest, as Serbia has most of what it wants already.

What is missing ?

We always need to ask “what is missing?” That is often more significant in assessing a diplomatic manoeuvre than what is apparent. Here are a few missing elements:

There is no reciprocity. Serbia gets its “self governance” [read self-management] for its citizens in Kosovo but the Albanians who live in southern Serbia do not get anything comparable.

Serbia’s harassment of Serbs who participate in Kosovo institutions is not mentioned. This includes municipal governments as well as the Pristina institutions, including the Kosovo Security Force.

There are no deadlines to accomplish the goals set out. An implementation agreement is only as good as its timetable.

While a signature on this agreement might amount to virtual recognition, that possibility is not mentioned, even as a remote goal. Nor is there any sign of recognition by the five EU non-recognizers.

A process-focused agreement without signatures leaves a lot to future negotiations. This one is more smoke and mirrors than substance. It is more likely to generate further confusion than peace.


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 of his was originally 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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