The Kosovo-Serbia dialogue has carried forward for nearly a decade. This series of negotiations aimed at normalizing relations between the two Western Balkan neighbors has been staged intermittently since 2011, and it has emerged as a touchstone for Western policymakers. A resolution is key to regional stability: Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, and Belgrade has worked to undermine Pristina ever since, lobbying other countries to refuse to recognize Kosovo, or in some cases to withdraw their previous recognition.
Currently the dialogue pairs Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, and the European Union acts as the main facilitator. EU involvement in this process is easy to understand, given that mutual recognition is a precondition for both of these countries to eventually join the bloc. The incentives for Kosovo to reach an agreement with Serbia are obvious and go beyond the possibility of EU membership. Reaching such a deal could open the door for Kosovo to finally join other international organizations, such as the United Nations and Interpol. However, it is less clear what incentives Serbia has to normalize relations with Kosovo. In fact, there are both political and personal disincentives for Vučić to see a deal reached.
Let’s take a look first at the political panorama. According to a 2018 public opinion poll, a slight majority of Serbian citizens want Serbia to join the European Union, citing the promise of better job opportunities and free movement throughout the bloc. However, in a 2019 poll, a clear majority of Serbian citizens said that they do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state. This is a big problem. The progress that Serbia has made in its EU accession negotiations will be moot if it cannot successfully complete the thirty-fifth and final chapter: normalization of relations with Kosovo. Vučić therefore has to reconcile two mutually exclusive positions.
If forced to choose between pursuing EU membership and non-recognition of Kosovo’s independence, Vučić has made it clear which one he would choose: “In reply to a possible offer to recognize Kosovo and that Kosovo enters the UN, and we (Serbia) receive nothing in return except EU membership, our answer would be ‘no.’” While the chances are slim of Serbia being offered literally nothing except EU membership for recognizing Kosovo, this statement shows how costly Vučić perceives normalization of relations with Kosovo to be, and how reluctant he is to move forward with it.
From his perspective, the ideal outcome is probably one where an agreement is not reached but it is Kosovo who backs away first, likely due to what it perceives as Vučić’s exorbitant demands. This would allow Vučić to garner favor with nationalistic Serbian voters while simultaneously placating those who favor EU membership. He can deflect the blame for the deal’s failure on the other party.
It might be even more important to note that a deal with Kosovo could threaten Vučić’s personal interests as well. Vučić has successfully consolidated power in Serbian politics since 2017. According to a recent Freedom House report, Serbia has devolved from a “semi-consolidated democracy” to a “transitional/hybrid regime” under Vučić, fueled in part by his attacks on independent media outlets and on non-governmental organizations that have been critical of his government.
Vučić has consolidated power to the point where he is undisputedly the single most powerful person in the country. EU membership would threaten the basis of that power. Membership necessarily entails a litany of democracy and governance reforms that Serbia would need to undertake, and such reforms would undo the apparatus that Vučić has constructed for himself. Admittedly, the EU has struggled to confront authoritarian power grabs among member states, but there is reason to believe that it may be changing course and finally treating democratic backsliding like the serious threat that it is. The main incentive for Serbia to reach a deal with Kosovo is to clear the way for it to eventually join the EU, but for Vučić, EU membership is a potential personal threat.
This does not mean that a deal won’t get done just because Vučić doesn’t want it to happen. The political pressure to pursue EU membership by any means necessary could increase to the point where it is insurmountable. Additionally, despite his cozying up to other major players in the region, such as China, Vučić is well aware that the European Union is by far Serbia’s largest foreign patron, and that the only long-term path for Serbia to be secure and prosperous is through EU membership. Regardless of whether or not a deal with Kosovo happens in which Serbia recognizes it as a sovereign nation, the tensions within the Vučić regime are on full display.
Austin Doehler is a visiting scholar at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. The views expressed are the author's own.