The Clinton-Ashton Double Act

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It’s probably the last time we see them shuttle together but you have to grant it to Hillary Clinton and Catherine Ashton: they are doing a good job as a two-piece team. (if only the Baroness had the same chemistry with her colleagues at EU foreign ministries!). It might be a bit premature to call their Balkan tour a shining success but it’s nonetheless true that it helped stich up a bargain with Belgrade. “Normalisation” of relations with Prishtina, rather than full recognition, is now set as a precondition for opening membership talks with Serbia. Both President Nikolić and Prime Minister Dačić seem receptive to the idea. If only because it helps them kick the status issue a few years down the road, possibly into the hands of some future governing coalition (as Dačić put it wryly, Kosovo and EU membership will be both solved ‘by our generation’).

Speaking on Serbian national TV yesterday evening the President even stated that if Kosovo’s recognition is a condition it has to come at the end of the negotiations. In truth all players need such a breathing space. Nikolić’s, or rather Aleksandar Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party, the senior partner in the cabinet, have had surprisingly few things to say about Kosovo, they preferred to focus on their anti-corruption crusade instead. I am sure Dačić, for his part, bitterly regrets taking up the premiership with all attendant headaches. He was much better off in the not-so-distant past when he ran the resource-rich and, by and large, highly regarded Ministry of Interior.

As ever, the devil is in the details. It’s key to spell out what normalisation means in practice. At the minimum, Serbia will have to carry out hitherto commitments: chiefly the integrated border management (IBM) deal and the so-called footnote agreement reached in February enabling Kosovo to join all-Balkan cooperation schemes. If IBM is implemented it will allow the government in Prishtina to claim it has de facto control over the mostly Serb-populated North. It helps fend off nationalist opposition which is against any talks with Belgrade. Meanwhile, Ashton and Clinton’s stance gives Belgrade the much needed alibi that no change in the status quo has occurred. For this to hold, however, Kosovo must thread very carefully in the North, resisting any temptation to impose its fiat on the locals and risking a crisis which could easily undercut the deal.

The next big piece of news from the two foreign-policy supremos’ (or is it supremas?) visit is that we are nearing the relaunch of the formal talks between Serbia and Kosovo. This time they will move from the level of high MFA officials to political leaders. The meeting between Dačić and Kosovo PM Hashim Thaçi was only the initial step, there’s more coming up with another round of talks in Brussels due on 7 Nov. This might prove a mixed blessing. It will either provide even stronger momentum and deliver normalisation worthy of its name, or inflate expectations and inevitably produce disappointment. Especially if the EU, preoccupied as it is with its own crisis, fails to exercise the requisite leadership. 

The power duo also made stops in Bosnia, Albania and Croatia but not much to report beyond the usual routine (urge cohesion in Sarajevo, remind Berisha that rule of law is paramount in Tirana, and back-pat Croatia for being ‘’the region’s nucleus of stability”). Tellingly, Macedonia was skipped. No one, except enlargement Comissioner Stefan Fuelle, is keen to talk to Nikola Gruevski, it seems.

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