Wider Europe Briefing: Will Serbia And Kosovo Finally Seal The Deal?

Wider Europe Briefing Plus: How The EU Sanctions On Yanukovych Fell Apart

Albin Kurti and Aleksandar Vucic. Photo: The Dialogue

Brief #1: Perhaps Serbia And Kosovo Can Finally Make A Deal

What You Need To Know: On February 27, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic endorsed an EU-facilitated proposal in Brussels titled, the “Agreement On The Path To Normalization Between Kosovo And Serbia.”

The agreement, which has been in the making since the fall of 2022 and covers numerous facets of the two countries’ relationship, is not signed yet but has been officially published by the EU’s foreign policy corps, the European External Action Service.

There are some caveats, though.

A senior EU official familiar with the talks told me that the text lacks any validity without the annex, which the two sides will work up before their next meeting in Ohrid, North Macedonia, on March 18.

This makes the final article in the 11-point agreement, which simply states that “both Parties commit to respect the Implementation Roadmap annexed to this Agreement” the most crucial one. A blueprint of this road map with a timeline of the implementation of the agreement exists but it is still very much a work in progress.

Deep Background: The agreement is essentially an addition to the landmark 2013 Brussels agreement between Belgrade and Pristina that set out to normalize relations between the pair after Kosovo declared independence in 2008 — a move Serbia has never accepted.

Serbia, Kosovo, and the EU are trying to update the deal struck a decade ago, to help the Balkan pair kick-start their EU membership quests but without any formal obligation for Belgrade to recognize Kosovo’s independence — at least for now.

While Serbia opened negotiations with the EU a year after the initial Brussels agreement, in 2014, it has so far only managed to resolve two of the 34 policy fields.

With five EU member states still not recognizing Kosovo as a country, it remains the only state in the Western Balkans that still isn’t an official EU candidate country, and its application to join, submitted late last year, has still not been considered seriously the bloc.

For now, that means Pristina can’t even officially begin the process of working on the EU-mandated policy fields.

Drilling Down

  • One of the main sticking points remaining from the 2013 agreement is the creation of an association of Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo. Prime Minister Kurti has built his recent political success on refusing to allow this to happen, arguing that such a structure would create similar problems to those in Bosnia-Herzegovina where political entities centered around ethnicity make any reform difficult.
  • The current agreement text does not explicitly mention anything about an “association” of Serb-majority municipalities. Instead, it spells out that both Belgrade and Pristina should “ensure an appropriate level of self-management for the Serbian community in Kosovo and the ability for service provision in specific areas, including the possibility for financial support by Serbia and a direct communication channel for the Serbian community to the Government of Kosovo.”
  • The question is if such vague, noncommittal language can fly. Perhaps. Kurti could potentially try to sell it as something other than an association of Serb-majority municipalities, even though it technically amounts to pretty much the same thing and Vucic can argue that Belgrade still has avenues to financially and politically support ethnic Serbs in Kosovo.
  • Since the publication of the latest document, Vucic has been adamant that he will never recognize Kosovo’s independence or accept it joining the United Nations. That stance is at odds with the provisions of the new agreement, notably Article 4, which states that “Serbia will not object to Kosovo’s membership in any international organization.”
  • The real test for progress might come this spring. First, Kosovo is seeking to join the Council of Europe; and second, the 27 EU member states will seek consensus in order to send Pristina’s EU application from the European Council, which defines the political direction and priorities of the EU, to the European Commission to prepare a legal opinion. In both cases, Belgrade has been working behind the scenes to hamper any progress, according to several EU officials familiar with the issue but who are not authorized to speak on the record.
  • It is also worth noting that while the deal doesn’t force Belgrade to legally accept Kosovo’s independence, it does include moves that essentially mean de facto recognition, such as the need to “mutually recognize their respective documents and national symbols, including passports, diplomas, license plates, and customs stamps” and the exchange of permanent missions in each other’s capitals.

Brief #2: How The ‘Yanukovych Sanctions’ Fell Apart

What You Need To Know: The EU’s sanctions machinery has gone into overdrive recently. Last week, it passed its 10th package of restrictive measures against Russia since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine one year ago.

This included slapping visa bans and asset freezes on over 100 officials and companies, bringing the total number of sanctioned people to a record high of 1,473 individuals and 205 entities.

But that is far from all.

At the end of February, Brussels also rolled over its Belarus sanctions, consisting of 195 people and 34 firms — plus, the bloc slapped sanctions on 32 Iranians for what it considers gross human rights violations in the country. The Iranian list now consists of nearly 200 people.

However, there is one area where the number of sanctioned people and entities is quietly diminishing and that is high-ranking Ukrainian officials that Brussels deems responsible for the “misappropriation of Ukrainian state funds.”

Deep Background: These sanctions were put together immediately after the then-president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, fled Ukraine for Russia in February 2014 after months of protests triggered by his decision to forgo the signing of an association agreement with the EU.

Yanukovych was listed along with his two sons, Oleksandr and Viktor, as well as 15 others in his inner circle, including the former head of the presidential administration, Andriy Klyuyev, his brother Serhiy, the former Prosecutor-General Viktor Pshonka and his son, Artem, plus two previous Ukrainian prime ministers, Mykola Azarov, and Serhiy Arbuzov.

While the restrictive measures imposed were renewed in 2015, decided by consensus by all EU member states, signs that enthusiasm was waning for the measures began showing in 2016.

First, the former health minister, Raisa Bohatyriova, was taken off the list, with EU officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, telling me that it was simply due to a lack of evidence. From then on, every year, another few names were knocked off the list.

Drilling Down

  • On March 1, EU ambassadors took the unanimous decision to prolong the sanctions regime by another year — giving it a lifespan of at least a full decade. But many EU member states are questioning the wisdom of going much further, especially considering that only three out of the original 18 remain listed.
  • The three are Vitaliy Zakharchenko, who served as interior minister, his deputy Viktor Ratushniak, and the businessman Serhiy Kurchenko. These are hardly the biggest names among what is informally called the “Yanukovych sanctions” in Brussels. The irony is not lost on anyone that the man himself is no longer included on the list.
  • Viktor Yanukovych, his son Oleksandr, as well as Pshonka and his son, were all quietly delisted in September last year without so much as a press release from Brussels. (Yanukovych’s other son, Viktor, was delisted after his death in 2015.)
  • That didn’t mean, however, a reprieve for the Yanukovychs. In August 2022, EU ambassadors added father and son to the EU sanctions list of people who since Russia’s full-scale invasion are deemed to have played a role in “undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine and the state’s stability and security.” Oleksandr Yanukovych was also listed on new EU sanctions for “conducting transactions with separatist groups in the Donbas region of Ukraine.”
  • If you ask diplomats in Brussels why the “Yanukovych sanctions” have unraveled so spectacularly, they will point to one thing: They were put in place in haste back in 2014 and were largely based on information from the Ukrainian authorities, information that in many cases remains incomplete.
  • In turn, this led to another reason for the reluctance: Many on the list, often backed by considerable personal wealth, have employed good European lawyers to take their cases to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
  • Viktor Yanukovych and his son have won three times in the Luxembourg-based court, the earliest in 2019, with the judge demanding that the EU annul its restrictive measures imposed on the pair, noting that Ukrainian judicial authorities had not provided them with the right to defense or the right to effective judicial protection.
  • The only reason they remained listed until September 2022 was that the various court verdicts always concerned previous sanction periods and didn’t consider that the measures had been renewed on a constant, annual basis. For example, the 2019 judgment only concerned the sanctions period between 2016 and 2018. So, in a sense, the EU sanctions regime was saved by its own slow wheel of justice.
  • In the end, not even the EU could justify keeping people on the list who scored judicial victories over the bloc in its own court. There is a fear in Brussels that many Russian officials and oligarchs now sanctioned for supporting the Russian war effort will soon test Brussels in the ECJ. The legal service of the Council of the European Union recently identified weak legal grounds for the EU listings of Russian businessmen Grigory Berezkin and Sergei Mndoiants last year, even though both remain sanctioned for now, RFERL wrote.

Looking Ahead

EU defense ministers will meet in Stockholm on March 7-8. This is an informal EU defense council meeting, meaning that no concrete decisions can be taken. That said, these sorts of gatherings usually mean that ministers spend time together in a more relaxed setting, discussing pressing needs more thoroughly.

And the most pressing need right now is Ukraine and how the EU can provide the country with more ammunition.

There was already an agreement among EU member states late in 2022 that citizens of Kosovo will be able to travel to most EU countries without a visa by January 1, 2024.

This week, this decision will start to be formalized as the bloc’s interior ministers meet in Brussels on March 9-10 to rubber-stamp the deal.

The European Parliament is also expected to vote overwhelmingly in favor of the move, first in the chamber’s civil liberties committee on March 22-23 and then in the full plenary, either at the end of March or in mid-April.

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