On Kosovo: 3 presidents and a prime minister

Trump and the EU are calling for a peace deal — but interviews with key players show it’s a big ask.

MUNICH — The good news is they got on really badly.

That’s about the only thing the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo agreed upon after an acrimonious public debate at the weekend that laid bare how hard it will be for them to seal a peace deal, even two decades after the 1998-1999 war between their nations.

Both Kosovo’s Hashim Thaçi and Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić said their bad-tempered exchange was useful because it buried any false hopes that they will reach a quick agreement. Still, they face strong Western pressure to push ahead.

In their discussion at the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of leaders, lawmakers and policy experts from around the world at a luxurious hotel, Vučić and Thaçi traded accusations about the war and argued over who is to blame for the current breakdown in the EU-sponsored dialogue meant to tackle their differences.

But the EU and the U.S. are urging the leaders to get things back on track. Donald Trump has written letters encouraging them to pursue a deal, which would draw a line under the last in a series of wars that tore Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s.

For the EU, an accord would greatly reduce the chances of the frozen conflict between Serbia and Kosovo flaring back to life. Both the EU and U.S. are also keen to bind the Western Balkans closer to the West, thus reducing the influence of Russia, Turkey and other rival powers in the region.

At the heart of the dispute is Kosovo’s status. The territory, whose population is mainly ethnic Albanian, declared independence from Serbia 11 years ago and has been recognized by more than 100 countries. But Serbia regards it as a breakaway province and that view is backed by countries such as Russia, China and five EU members.

Western leaders hope the end of a long-running dispute between Balkan neighbors Greece and the now-renamed North Macedonia will encourage Kosovo and Serbia to follow suit.

In Munich, Johannes Hahn, the EU’s commissioner for relations with its neighbors, urged Vučić and Thaçi to aim for a deal before the current Commission’s term ends in the fall.

But Saturday’s rancorous debate shows just what a tall order that is.

Over the weekend in Munich, POLITICO spoke to three men who will determine how things play out — Vučic, Thaçi and Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj — as well as Montenegrin President Milo Ðukanović, whose country borders both Kosovo and Serbia.

Critics of all four leaders say they preside over “stabilitocracies” — governments that claim to support Western values but are authoritarian and corrupt. Vučić and Djukanović are facing street protests while Kosovo has been hit by strikes. But none of the four looks likely to be leaving the political scene any time soon.

Here’s a summary of what they had to say.

Aleksandar Vučić: Looking for a legacy

In a hotel meeting room on Saturday evening, Vučić’s voice boomed in frustration at some points while at other times he spoke almost in a whisper.

He made clear he won’t go back to the negotiating table until Kosovo lifts 100 percent tariffs imposed on Serbian goods last November in response to Belgrade’s efforts to block Pristina’s membership of police agency Interpol. But if the tariffs are scrapped, he said, he would go “immediately back to Brussels” to resume dialogue.

Informed that Haradinaj, the driving force behind the tariffs, had said they would only be removed once a final deal is reached, Vučić replied: “I thought that he was irresponsible but not that irresponsible.”

He called for outside powers to exercise “positive pressure” on all sides — making clear they want to see a deal and offering incentives to help bring it about. But he said: “It’s more about us, Serbs and Albanians, to tell you the truth.”

He said the two sides have to be free to discuss where to draw a common border — even though talk of a possible land swap has triggered condemnation in the region and split international powers.

Vučić played down the EU’s enthusiasm for the idea that the North Macedonia deal could generate momentum for a settlement between Serbia and Kosovo.

“It shows that Europe needed some good news, more than it is very much relevant regarding the situation between Belgrade and Pristina,” he said.

“It cannot be compared … It’s 100 times more difficult.”

But, he stressed, a deal had to be done: “Otherwise we’ll face a catastrophe.”

Vučić said he is motivated by a higher purpose than day-to-day politics in pursuing a deal with Kosovo that may be unpopular at home.

“I believe in someone’s legacy, that’s what I would like to see,” he said.

Hashim Thaçi: Man in the middle

The former political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrilla group that fought Serb rule, Thaçi finds himself in a tight spot.

Last year, he raised the idea of “border correction,” under which some of Kosovo’s territory may be traded away in an effort to secure a deal. But the deal hasn’t happened and his rival Haradinaj, a former KLA commander, has won popular support for imposing the tariffs on Serbia and ruling out any border change.

Speaking to a small group of reporters in a corridor of the Munich hotel, Thaçi made clear he takes a softer line on the tariffs than Haradinaj. He suggested they could be dealt with in a parallel process while talks over the peace deal resume.

“Politics is about being creative,” he said.

Asked if Kosovo was now speaking with two voices, he switched from Albanian to English to reply: “We have one voice — everybody’s for dialogue, for negotiation, and for the agreement.”

On his relationship with Haradinaj, he said: “Even inside a family, people have differences … We were co-fighters and we won the war and we worked for the independence together and now we work for the final agreement.”

Although Kosovo’s parliament has now established a negotiating platform that rules out border changes, Thaçi declined to say the idea is off the table.

“We have to come to an agreement on where the border is, and recognize each other’s border,” he said.

As for Vučić’s tough on-stage rhetoric, Thaçi said he is unmoved. “I’m used to his drama and his acting,” he said.

Thaçi is likely relying on international pressure to get Haradinaj to move on the tariffs and help ensure he retains a big say in any negotiations with Belgrade.

“We must listen to the advice of the United States and the EU,” he said.

Ramush Haradinaj: The hard-liner

The battle between Haradinaj and Thaçi has further complicated efforts to reach a deal. Both men are lobbying hard for support from European and American politicians, with international public affairs companies advising them.

In an interview on Saturday, Haradinaj didn’t hold back. He took aim at EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini for not ruling out border changes and said Thaçi has no choice but to drop the idea. He said Serbia should see recognizing Kosovo as a moral duty, to atone for killings and other war crimes by Serb forces.

“Recognition should be coming as an apology for tragedies caused to our country, our people,” he said.

Haradinaj said it would be “unlawful and unconstitutional” for Thaçi to pursue border changes now that parliament has agreed its negotiating stance.

“He has not much room to maneuver,” he said of the president. “He will find his way to cope with that.”

Haradinaj said Mogherini’s stance on border change is a ”big mistake.”

“She harmed not only our region but Europe as well,” he said, suggesting the idea would be seized upon by Russia's Vladimir Putin to redraw boundaries on the territory of the old Soviet Union.

Despite his hard-line rhetoric, Haradinaj said “with political will, an agreement is possible this year.”

Milo Ðukanović: Worried neighbor

Ðukanović has held power far longer than even other regional veterans such as Vučić and Thaçi. His party has been in government continuously since 1990.

He suggested the international community should have stuck to the line that border changes are taboo. Some countries, such as Germany, still support that stance but the U.S. and the EU have given Belgrade and Pristina the green light to explore changes.

“This whole story about the change of borders has now been put on the table and I would say it got a certain level of legitimacy from the international community,” Ðukanović said.

He referred back to the wars of the 1990s, during which nationalists advocated drawing borders along ethnic lines. (Both Ðukanović and Vučić were allied early in their careers with Serb nationalist leader Slobodan Milošević before switching to pursue more pro-Western foreign policies.)

“Everyone should be very, very careful when presenting any solution that involves a change of borders in our region,” Ðukanović said.

He said the North Macedonia deal shows what could happen when leaders on both sides conclude a deal is in their interests. But he said even if Kosovo and Serbia reach a settlement, there will be an even tougher nut still to crack.

“After this problem, we will be left with the most serious problem in the region, that’s Bosnia,” Ðukanović said. The peace deal that ended the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina is widely seen as having left the country with a highly dysfunctional political system.

“We will have to deal with Bosnia in a much more serious way … with a wider range of participants,” he said. “It will be very complicated to find a formula for Bosnia.”