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Why the E.U. can’t get Kosovo and Serbia to end their conflict

A new survey suggests many in Kosovo don’t approve of the E.U.’s efforts

- September 9, 2022

The European Union hosted further talks between the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia last month, though representatives of both sides once again left Brussels without a deal to normalize the countries’ relations. Attempting to capitalize on any remaining momentum, E.U. and U.S. envoys visited both countries in late August, with minimal success.

Why has the E.U. struggled to bring about a final agreement between the two countries on normalizing relations? My research suggests there’s an overlooked factor: what the people of Kosovo want. While an array of international organizations is involved in peace-building, many Kosovars disapprove of the E.U.’s role in these efforts. This suggests that who mediates the process matters for citizens — perhaps as much as what’s being mediated.

What’s happening between Kosovo and Serbia?

The relationship between Kosovo and Serbia has remained tense for the past 20 years. Formerly a province of Serbia — within Yugoslavia — Kosovo came under U.N. administration in 1999 following the two-year Kosovo War and a NATO bombing campaign designed to end the widespread violence against ethnic Albanians.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008 with Western backing, though Serbia refused to recognize it. At that time, the E.U. deployed a mission to take over the U.N.’s duties of helping to rebuild Kosovo’s government institutions, and to mediate the dialogue process. The first major breakthrough in normalizing relations took place in 2013 with the signing of the E.U.-brokered Brussels Agreement.

But progress since then has stalled. Although the Kosovar parliament ratified the agreement, it wasn’t implemented following widespread protests — and Kosovo’s Constitutional Court issued a partial annulment of the agreement in 2015. Two years later, the E.U. led the establishment of an unpopular court to try Kosovo War crimes committed by the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army.

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Following a brief hiatus, the E.U. reinvested in the dialogue process in 2020. If anything, however, the situation has grown more tense. Last September, the Serbian government mobilized its military in response to ethnic Serbs’ protests against the Kosovar government’s decision to require documentation to cross the border. A month later, the Kosovo police arrested suspected smugglers in Serbian-majority North Kosovo, prompting criticism from the E.U. for “unilateral action.”

Tensions flared up this year as Serbia resumed its campaign to encourage countries to “de-recognize” Kosovo — and the Kosovar government again pushed ethnic Serbs in Kosovo to apply for Kosovar license plates and show identification documents at the border. The two sides reached a temporary moratorium on Aug. 27 on the registration issue.

What do Kosovars think?

To understand what people in Kosovo think about the E.U.’s efforts, I implemented a 20-minute telephone survey of 1,608 adults in June and July. A team of independently trained, experienced researchers used random-digit dialing methods to select Kosovar citizens (or permanent residents) to interview. All contacted respondents agreed to participate.

The survey sample is similar in age, gender, education and socioeconomic status to the broader Kosovar adult population. However, the survey’s ethnic demographics are slightly skewed toward Albanians, who constitute about 93 percent of Kosovo’s population.

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I asked respondents questions regarding their attitudes toward the work of the E.U. in Kosovo, as well as that of NATO and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Response options ranged across a five-point scale.

Are Kosovars satisfied with E.U., NATO and OSCE contributions to peace and stability?

The results suggest that Kosovars systematically disapprove of the E.U.’s role, both in relative and in absolute terms. While 42 percent of respondents were satisfied with E.U. contributions to peace and stability, 44 percent were unsatisfied. This stands in contrast to how they view NATO and the OSCE’s contributions — 94 percent of respondents were satisfied with NATO’s efforts, while 73 percent felt similarly toward the OSCE’s endeavors.

Similarly, a sizable 64 percent of respondents believed that the E.U. was partial in whom it serves, a finding in line with the charges made by many Kosovars of the E.U. mission’s “anti-Albanian” and “pro-Serbian” tendencies.

These findings are further reflected in the responses to a broader question: “How successful or unsuccessful have the following been at performing their tasks in Kosovo?” While the vast majority of respondents believed that NATO and the OSCE have been successful (95 percent and 78 percent, respectively), just 42 percent felt similarly about the E.U.

Do Kosovars believe the E.U., NATO and OSCE perform their tasks successfully?

This finding is noteworthy, given each organization’s duties in Kosovo. While the E.U. has taken the lead on the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo and institutional reforms, NATO is primarily tasked with preventing further conflict and interethnic violence, yet the threat of both has risen substantially in the past 12 months. Despite difficulties faced by both missions, it appears as though Kosovars have become increasingly and disproportionately hardened in their negative attitudes toward the E.U.’s efforts.

What does this mean for the E.U. mediation efforts?

While these data come from Kosovo, other survey results demonstrate similar levels of distrust in Serbia. A Eurobarometer survey found Serbian citizens are more distrustful of the E.U. than other citizens in the Western Balkans. And as Serbia seeks E.U. membership, a recent IPSOS poll found Serbians have become increasingly disillusioned with its promises, instead looking toward Russia for peace, security and stability.

These trends matter. The E.U.’s ability to broker a lasting agreement between Serbia and Kosovo hinges on how the two parties perceive its effectiveness and impartiality. This is especially true as efforts to mediate the confrontation between Kosovo and Serbia become increasingly protracted.

Despite the recent defeats, the E.U. continues to place high hopes on its ability to mitigate increased threats to peace and stability in the Balkans. However, these findings may serve as a warning: The E.U. may have to overcome more challenges than solely crafting the appropriate terms of an agreement if it is to bring about a durable end to the dispute between the two countries. This is particularly important as the E.U. reinitiates the dialogue this week.

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Cameron Mailhot (@crmailhot) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at Cornell University.