The fate of the entire Western Balkans hangs in the balance as the Serbia-Kosovo Talks prepare to reconvene in Brussels on February 27. Tension crackles in the air, and the stakes are high. The consequences for failure by the parties involved, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic, to agree on the French-German Agreement are even higher. Miroslav Lajcak, the EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues, and a staunch advocate for the region’s European future, pulls no punches when it comes to his expectations for the upcoming meeting. Lajcak holds nothing back.
“Our expectations are quite high,” began Miroslav Lajcak, speaking from his office in Brussels, with the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue banner prominently displayed in the background. “While this is the sixth meeting between Prime Minister Kurti and President Vucic, it will be the first one dedicated to the European proposal on the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia,” he said. Lajcak, no stranger to diplomatic candor, spelled out the anticipated outcomes for the high-level meeting ahead. “We expect, first of all, both leaders to formally and publicly endorse the proposal, and then we can engage in its implementation to ensure that everything expected is also implemented. This is what we expect from the meeting on Monday,” stated Miroslav Lajcak.
Asked if we can expect Vucic and Kurti to be on the verge of a signing ceremony, Miroslav Lajcak provided a realistic assessment. “We don’t think about the signing ceremony,” he responded.
“I had several meetings with both leaders separately. They are familiar with the proposal, of course, to every detail. Last weekend during the Munich Security Conference, they met with the High Representative Borrell separately and German Chancellor Sholz and French President Macron,”noted Lajcak. “They’ve heard very clearly what is expected, what the European Union expects from them, and the United States, because the United States very strongly supports this proposal,” he explained. “We have a proposal, and then, there is an implementation part. We said we expect endorsement of the proposal and we expect engagement on the implementation part, based on the proposal we put forward,” announced Lajcak. “But of course, we also invited those leaders to come with realistic and constructive suggestions for this part of the document.”
As the historic meeting draws near, it seems that Kurti and Vucic are at odds over the topics to be discussed in Brussels. In a characteristic move, Kurti has made it plain that he has no intention of entertaining any discussion around the Association of Serb majority municipalities at the meeting.
As various conjectures swirl through the political hallways, there is no better person to consult on this matter than Miroslav Lajcak. The pressing question on everyone’s mind: Will the Association of Serb majority municipalities even make an appearance on the meeting’s agenda in Brussels?
“What will be on the agenda is the proposal. And the proposal also contains the appropriate level of self-management for the Serbian community in Kosovo. And other things,” he stated.
The EU’s stance on the matter is unequivocal. “We expect them to endorse the paper which has a very clear reference to this, and we expect them to talk about how to implement it,” Lajcak added.
The “difficult” and “honest” talks between Vucic and Kurti
The negotiations between President Vucic and Prime Minister Kurti have been frequently described as “difficult and honest” by those in the room. But what does this coded language of diplomacy really entail? Seeking an answer from Lajcak, a man in the trenches of history captures the raw intensity of this pivotal moment.
“These talks are very difficult because they, of course, are addressing the issues of the utmost importance of national identity. We are also dealing with two realities. We have two Constitutions, which are not compatible when it comes to the definition of Kosovo,” explained Lajcak.
“That’s why we need to normalize the relations so that there is no clash between these two realities. Unfortunately, we have seen this clash more than once, in the north of Kosovo, particularly before the end of last year. So normalization is a must,” he said.
“Both leaders know that this is a huge task, challenge and responsibility. So therefore, obviously, they both are fighting for their interests. But I also have to say that, particularly in the last meetings, the atmosphere has been one of respect. Last time, we spent more than eight hours or the last two times in the room, so you can imagine it’s very open. They are there on their own basically, only with Representative Borell and me. So that means they can be very open. There are moments of tension, of course, but as I said, they can feel that they are not trying to pretend or to play games, because they know the reality very well and that’s why the talks are very honest,” revealed Lajcak.
“They are also very open because you cannot hide anything. And then again, as I said, they both know how huge the expectations are, that the media is waiting in front of the building, that every word will be judged after the meeting. So they are working on finding a way forward. And it’s, of course, very important for both of them that they don’t appear, like being on the losing side of the process. Which we fully respect, and we really believe that what we are proposing is a win-win solution.”
Lajcak: Friendship unenforceable, respect essential
“Can Kurti and Vucic become friends?” I asked.
“Look, friendship is a very special category. You cannot enforce friendship. What is really important is that they respect each other. And they show this respect to each other. Also, in the public statements, I would say there is room for improvement,” replied Lajcak.
Prime Minister Kurti espoused his interest in discussing the “European plan” during the high-stakes gathering in Brussels. But one must ask whether the path to Europe can be truly realized if the Kosovo Prime Minister persists in his non-compliance with the implementation of the Association of Serb majority municipalities.
“The European Union made it very clear to both Serbia and Kosovo that the European future depends on the normalization of the relations. It’s also written in their formal documents, agreements that they signed with the European Union.Therefore, the dialogue is the path toward European Union membership,” said Lajcak.
“The dialogue is the door that opens the European door and many other doors. So both Prime Minister Kurti and President Vucic know that,” said Lajcak. “That’s why it’s very clear that the European Union would not be able or willing to accept new members whose relationship is not clear and not normal. This is what makes the dialogue a necessity. As part of this process, we not only need to think about the future but also about the past. And we have to make sure that everything that was agreed over the years will be implemented.”
In 2013, the Brussels Agreement was signed, yet a decade has passed and the question lingers: who should take the blame for the non-implementation of the Association of the Serb majority municipalities? It is tempting to pin this all on Albin Kurti, a man in steadfast opposition to such municipalities despite the fact that the Kosovo Assembly has ratified the Brussels Agreement, but he was not in power a decade ago. Could it be that there was a dearth of determination to enforce the Brussels Agreement? Miroslav Lajcak shared his perspective on the matter.
“I would have an easier life, if all the past agreements would have been implemented by the time when I was appointed to do my current job. It was not the case. We cannot change the past. I don’t think starting the blame game would help anything, ” assessed Lajcak.
“What we are trying to do differently, is that every time we are agreeing on something, we also make it very clear how we want to get there: Who is responsible for what within which timeframe, so that we can measure and we can clearly define the responsibility if the agreements are not implemented,” Lajcak revealed the inner workings of the negotiations.
“One thing that I’ve learned from the past agreement is that noble intentions and good texts are not enough, you will need to have an implementation part to it, which really specifies in detail. And that’s why we are having this as part of the European proposal.”
During an exclusive interview with The Pavlovic Today, US Deputy Assistant Secretary Gabriel Escobar revealed that the United States has made clear its expectation for the parties involved to begin implementing the French-German Agreement, including the annexes, without delay. In response, I posed a question to Lajcak: What’s in the annexes?
“Well, we expect the implementation to start immediately,” Lajcak echoed US Deputy Assistant Secretary Gabriel Esobar. “The reason we want the annex—it exactly deals with how to implement all the articles of the agreement,” Lajcak revealed.
“It is important for both parties that if they do what they’re asked to do, they get what they are promised to get. So that we do not end up with one party getting its share and the other party not. That would not be fair. And this is what the implementation annex is about,”said Lajcak. “That means we want to start discussing this annex and agree on it ideally already on Monday. Then, to start with the implementation immediately,” added Lajcak. “The momentum is now. We have absolutely no intention to allow this process to drag on. It’s also in the interest of both parties, Kosovo and Serbia, that the agreement will be fully implemented.”
As Secretary Blinken offered his backing for Belgrade and Pristina to embrace the French-German Agreement as a fundamental stride towards unlocking the future’s possibilities for the Western Balkans, the question remains: What concrete advantages will the citizens of Serbia and Kosovo reap from this agreement? How will their daily lives experience an upgrade if Kurti and Vucic ultimately reach an accord?
“The people will feel it immediately because the Agreement, first of all, will greatly relax the atmosphere not only between Kosovo and Serbia but across the region,” said Lajcak.
“It will basically introduce the four freedoms in the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia and in the Western Balkans. It will remove a number of barriers and obstacles, administrative obstacles that exist right now and will make traveling, working, making business much easier,” he continued.
“And of course, it will also relax the atmosphere on the international scene within international organizations because there will be clear rules of engagement, and this will also be very helpful for both. Because right now, both Serbia and Kosovo are spending an enormous amount of their time and energy to address the deficiencies in the relations, the lack of normalization. So all this will be bridged with this agreement,”Lajcak added.
“There are no losing sides. There are, at least to me, winning sides. But I think that there are many more winners because the region will benefit greatly as well.”
President Vucic’s latest response to the prospect of “mutual recognition” with Kosovo was one of resolute contempt. “Dream on,” he quipped in a video statement.
While speaking to The Pavlovic Today, Miroslav Lajcak acknowledged that “mutual recognition” may not be achievable in the short term and emphasized the importance of building trust and normalizing relations as a prerequisite for future talks on more complex issues.
“Well, the positions of two leaders [Vucic and Kurti] on this issue are not compatible. So we are trying, so to say, to square the circle with our proposal, which I believe really delivers the maximum achievable at this point,” revealed Lajcak. “At the same time, this is not a final document and we also say in our document that we will continue with achieving the comprehensive normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.”
Lajcak:I feel a huge responsibility for this process
Once Vucic and Kurti give their endorsement to the Agreement on Monday, will they be expected to do the seemingly impossible, stand together in the same room and shake hands? Miroslav Lajcak, when pressed for an answer, responded with a tease, “Ask me on Tuesday, I will give you a very, very precise answer.” Lajcak went on to share that both leaders are aware of what is expected from them.
“Both Prime Minister Kurti and President Vucic know what is expected from them and they are preparing for Monday. We of course have signals that they are working hard and they are preparing seriously. So, I really wish and hope that the meeting will be constructive,” stated Lajcak.
“They also know that the international community is watching very closely, the European Union and the United States in the first place. So this meeting will probably be watched with the greatest ever attention in the history of their personal relationship and our dialogue. I wish we will be able to produce good news out of this meeting.”
In view of Lajcak’s substantial role in shaping history and being present in the upper echelons of decision-making, how did he handle shouldering responsibility for such complex and sensitive subjects as the Serbia-Kosovo negotiations?
“If there are two words that define me, these two words are professionalism and responsibility. So I’ve never run away from responsibility. I feel a huge responsibility for this process. I know how sensitive this is,” said Lajcak.
“I, of course, receive lots of feedback from citizens from Kosovo and from Serbia. I know how sensitive this issue is. When I walk on the street, and there are people of Serbian or Albanian origin, in Brussels, but in many places all over the world, they recognize me and they come and they say how important this process is, and they wish me to succeed, because they know how important it is for them, and for the countries and for the people. So I’m fully aware of these responsibilities,” he continued.”And it’s important for me that the European Union is seen as it should be seen as a professional, neutral, well prepared facilitator who is doing the job, with the aim to bring Kosovo and Serbia closer to the membership in the European Union,” Lajcak added.
Miroslav Lajcak: Past haunts the present
As the former President of the United Nations General Assembly, Lajcak is no stranger to the ins and outs of global politics. The EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and Western Balkans is well-versed in the intricacies of diplomacy. Given his extensive experience, it’s intriguing to contemplate how he views the geopolitics of the Western Balkans and what apprehensions keep him up at night.
“I have been dealing with the Western Balkans one way or another since 1999,” he said. “Of course, I’ve been a strong supporter of the Western Balkans membership in the European Union, because I know how much and how positively this affected my own country, Slovakia. How much the prospect of membership helped us to go through difficult reforms, and I clearly wish the same for the countries and citizens of the Western Balkans,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the process of integration has been much more complex and complicated, because of the very complex past, which is still haunting the present. And the past is very much here in today’s agenda and has an impact on the bilateral relations and the overall atmosphere,” he explained.
“The second thing I need to say, self-critically, is that the European Union did not show the same level of commitment, as in the beginning. This year, it will be 20 years since the EU gave the solemn commitment in Thessaloniki and since then, only Croatia has joined the European Union. That’s definitely not the result we can be proud of,” Lajcak’s words cut to the heart of the matter.
“Yes, we have spent a couple of years when enlargement was almost a taboo. We all remember the infamous inaugural speech of Jean-Claude Juncker, which had an effect on the region,” he recalled. Lajcak’s observations on the state of the enlargement process and reform efforts in the Balkans evoke a sobering truth: the mimicry of institutional commitment and political reform can only go so far.
“We came to the point of the enlargement fatigue being present in the Balkans rather than in Europe,” noted Lajcak. However, Lajcak’s piercing insight also acknowledged a recent shift in the geopolitical landscape: “All this has changed after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.” And that, includes the attitudes towards the EU enlargement.
“All of a sudden, politics and geopolitics were put in the center. All of a sudden, it was clear that enlargement is not a bureaucratic exercise,” he stated emphatically. “It’s not about clusters and ticking boxes, but it’s about joining the community of values and sharing the same values, also about the European Union demonstrating leadership and geopolitical vision with regard to Ukraine and Moldova. And it was striking how different it was when we look at the state of relations and the way of dealing with the Western Balkans,” Lajcak observed.
“We now have a situation when there is a new opening. European Union leaders realize that the only final answer to the Western Balkans is full membership. There is a window of opportunity,” he said. “But the region is not in a good enough shape. I mean, these years of neglect have really left its mark. I dare to say that the region is less prepared for the membership than five years ago. European enthusiasm is much weaker. European forces are much weaker. So we need to revive this atmosphere, this commitment, and we need to use this window of opportunity,” he continued. “But again, it will not help to blame each other. EU has recommitted. This is, I would say, one of the results of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. But now we need to project this new commitment also for the region, so that they believe that we really expect them to join the European Union sooner rather than later,” he concluded with urgency.
Kosovo won’t be another Ukraine
As the bloodshed in Ukraine continues into its second year, there are growing concerns that Kosovo may be the next tinderbox to ignite with violent conflict. When asked whether this concern has placed Belgrade and Pristina on the fast track to normalization of relations, Miroslav Lajcak shared his thoughts from the European Union’s perspective.
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“Kosovo cannot become a new Ukraine, international communities are present heavily in Kosovo politically, but also militarily through KFOR which means NATO. So there is no reason to be worried in terms of hard security,” Lajcak clarified. “But of course, any instability in the region sends negative waves across the region and wider into Europe,” he added.
“At a time when our attention is fully absorbed by Ukraine, we cannot allow for another source of instability in the Western Balkans and we can also not allow Western Balkans to be misused as a tool to defocus the European Union, or to keep the European Union busy with another problem or another conflict,” he said.
“So yes, the fact of Russia’s war against Ukraine has increased the resolve or strengthened the resolve of the European Union and United States that we need to address open issues in the Western Balkans and make sure that they are on the safe, European credible trajectory, which clearly leads them towards membership.”
In Miroslav Lajcak’s view, the manipulation, distraction, or distancing of Kosovo from the European Union would be a serious mistake. Nevertheless, President Putin frequently cites Kosovo as the blueprint for his annexation of Ukrainian territory. But one may wonder: is Putin right?
“Putin is wrong in everything that he’s been doing. Of course, starting with the war against Ukraine and killing innocent civilians. And, of course, his historical parallels are not sustainable and not credible either,” Lajcak was clear. “If there is one lesson we can learn from what he’s been saying, we should give him no pretext or no justification for any further dangerous adventures or endeavors. This is one reason why we need the Balkans stable and clearly and visibly on the European path,” said Lajcak.
Inquiring into the intricate web of alliances in the Western Balkans, one cannot help but inquire about the role of the United States and the European Union. How do their efforts in the region compare to the strategic maneuvers of China and Russia? What are the primary concerns raised by US diplomats in these discussions, and what steps must be taken to forge a clear and successful path forward for the Western Balkans vis- a-vis the EU-US partnership?
“I can say very clearly that everything positive that was achieved in the Balkans, since Deyton, since the end of war, since 1999 has been possible thanks to the closest cooperation between the European Union and the United States. So this is a very powerful alliance,” noted Lajcak. “It’s crucial that we work hand in hand, that we work closely together,” he added.
Amidst Lajcak’s previous roles in the Balkans, whether he was the High Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina or the key player who negotiated, organized and supervised the referendum on the independence of Montenegro in 2006 on behalf of the European Union High Representative for Common and Security Policy, Javier Solana, his collaboration with the United States was nothing short of remarkably close.
“This has always worked well,” he reflected. “Right now, our cooperation with the United States, with President Biden’s administration is exemplary. I would say there is no room for improvement, it’s really perfect,” he added.
“We have full support of our American friends, we have mutual, full trust, and we really work, we complement each other. This is the only way how we can progress and how we can achieve something,” he said. “So there is no competition, there is no parallel track, there is no disagreement about things. We are in a daily contact, I can say. And we know exactly what the other party is doing. And we also make it very clear to our partners in the Western Balkans that we speak with one voice.”
Lajcak: I spent one year coexisting rather than collaborating with President Trump’s administration
The French-German Agreement comes at a time when two experienced diplomats, Miroslav Lajcak and Gabriel Escobar, have come together to bring much-needed diplomacy to the Western Balkans. With their deep understanding and professional experience of the region, one may wonder if this is a moment when the stars have finally aligned for the normalization of Serbia-Kosovo relations.
“I will not speak about myself,” said Lajcak humbly. “Gabriel is a great expert on the Balkans and a great colleague and friend,” he added, referring to Blinken’s top diplomat for the Western Balkans.
“The stars have aligned in the sense that we have a US administration that understands the Balkans. The senior members of the administration, starting with President Biden himself, had been there and spent part of their life there, they feel the region. And they also feel the legacy. Which was not the case at all with the previous administration,” he said.
“I spent one year coexisting rather than collaborating with President Trump’s administration,” revealed Lajcak. “And that was a very different story,” he said plainly. However, Lajcak was quick to note that under President Biden, “we have full understanding.” The United States, he emphasized, “supports European leadership when it comes to the Western Balkans and the dialogue in particular, and they make it very clear.”
As for the current situation, Lajcak highlighted a “good alignment of stars” with the absence of major elections in the region and Europe and with the unwavering support for the French-German Agreement from the United States.
“We have a very good alignment of stars with the fact that since April last year, there are no major elections, we have no elections in Kosovo and Serbia, or the election in Germany, in France. So that means there is a window of opportunity in the sense that there is no political calendar standing in our way,” he clarified. “There is full focus, there is full support. If you see how many outreaches there are from the United States administration towards Serbia and Kosovo. If you see Germany, France, Italy, the leaders making an effort to make it very clear that this is the EU endeavor, which they very strongly support,” noted Lajcak.
“We did not have that before. So it is really important that this very favorable constellation will turn into a new quality, a new and better quality for the citizens of Serbia.”
Regarding Trump’s approach to the EU, what would Lajcak say was the underlying issue? Did the former President lack respect for the EU or did he simply have a different vision for how things should be done? In hindsight, what would Lajcak say were the main obstacles?
“It will not help much if I go back to the past,” he responded. “What I can say is, you know what was the relationship towards Europe as such, and European Union as such, and that was also reflected in the dialogue in the world on the Balkans.”
The Diplomatic Peacemaker
In the world of high-stakes diplomacy, Miroslav Lajcak, whose career spans multiple high-profile roles such as Ambassador, Foreign Minister, and President of the UN General Assembly, is keenly aware of the importance of legacy.
Asked about what he hopes to be remembered for, he paused for a moment. “As a peacemaker,” intoned Lajcak without hesitation, his words imbued with the weight of diplomatic experience. “I think peace is the most important and every time I can contribute to avoiding a conflict and strengthening peace, that, of course, is the highest award you can achieve.”
In a global affairs where turmoil and strife often appear to reign supreme, figures like Miroslav Lajcak offer a glimmer of hope. A reminder of the incendiary power of diplomacy to bring people together. The undeterred diplomat remains focused on the task at hand.
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