To say that relations between Serbia and Kosovo are complex would be an understatement. The two fought a war in 1999 that ultimately ended with NATO intervention. The earlier wars in Yugoslavia started when Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic stoked the fires of Serbian nationalism, which had smoldered for years under the suppression of Josip Broz Tito, the communist revolutionary leader.
Serbian nationalism is a sensitive and complicated subject that defies reduction. But for people like Milosevic, the issue is actually quite simple: Serbia is wherever Serbs are.
Turns out, there are Serbs in Kosovo. Does that mean that Serbia, too, lies in Kosovo? Only about 1.5 percent of Kosovo’s population is ethnic Serb – more than 90 percent is ethnic Albania. And Albanian Kosovars certainly do not think that Serbia can be found in Kosovo. For them, Serbians can live in Kosovo, but Kosovo is Kosovo, end of story.
This goes to the heart of the disagreement at a recent meeting between Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo President Hashim Thaci – a meeting Thaci called the “worst one yet.” Both countries want to join the European Union, but Brussels won’t let Serbia in unless it reaches an agreement over Kosovo’s sovereignty. (Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but neither Serbia nor, importantly, Russia, has recognized it.) Thaci’s position is that Kosovo is a sovereign country, and Serbia refuses to recognize it as such. Vucic claims that such a position makes compromise nearly impossible.
Simple demographics makes Serbia somewhat more susceptible to compromise on the issue than Kosovo. Kosovo boasts a small but heavily concentrated Serbian minority on its northern border. There are, of course, differences between the Serbian Kosovar identity and the Serbian Serb identity, but that they are Serbs compels the government in Belgrade to protect them nonetheless. This gives Serbia something akin to what the ethnic Russian population in eastern Ukraine gives Moscow: the ability to stir up trouble and pressure the central government in Kosovo. (Kosovo isn’t without tricks of its own, though. It has changed the name of its “Kosovo Security Forces” to the “Kosovo Army,” implying a degree of national sovereignty Serbia is uncomfortable with.) Compromise in northern Kosovo, then, would not require outright annexation; it would just require a degree of autonomy. Kosovo vehemently opposes this, of course. If the past 200 years have proved anything in the Balkans, it’s that the redrawing of borders quickly leads to chaos.
For Serbia, this is a high price to pay for EU accession. It’s been trying to get into the bloc since 2007, and when that process started, Europe looked very different from how it looks now. The EU looked like it could have been a more dependable source of funding than its historical patron, Russia. But it is no longer the bastion of stability it once was, and even if it were, Serbia’s prospects for admittance are increasingly dim, considering there is little middle ground in the dispute with Kosovo. Still, as a candidate country, Serbia continues to receive substantial grant funds from the EU. So even as the appeal of the EU fades and Serbia continues to doubt whether it will ever be admitted – or, at this point, whether it even wants to be admitted – the negotiations continue.