After several days of meetings at the highest level and a general fear-mongering atmosphere spread by the statements of high government officials in somber, cataclysmic overtones, Serbia's leadership decided to heed the overwhelming popular resentment towards the perceived ultimatum and say "No!" to Brussels.
"No" to what exactly remains a mystery. No one has ever seen the proposal Serbia was deliberating on. According to Aleksandar Vučić, the First Deputy Prime Minister, the terms of the proposal were merely "read off" to the Serbian delegation at the end of the long session on April 2 and the proposed "solution" included "nothing" for Serbia. Namely, amidst the bombastic news coverage dominated by the reports of Vučić and Hashim Thaci "raising voice" at one another, and vague statements of interpretation of the proposal, submerged into a Shakespearean "to-be-or-not-to-be" dilemma and the clamor of spin from both opponents and proponents of accepting "nothing," the people of Serbia were shorted for the real debate on not just this proposal, but the larger issue at stake here.
Vučić, the most dominant political figure in Serbia, despite the official hierarchical position he holds, set the tone for the nail-biter weekend of deliberation, first with the reported winning of the staring contest with Thaci and then with building the divisive public atmosphere in the run-up to Monday's decision. This was the eighth round of negotiations between mainly Prime Minister Ivica Dačić and Kosovo Albanian leader Hashim Thaci, which Vučić joined for the first time.
The negotiations, to the best knowledge of the Serbian public, focused on the status of the Serb-populated North Kosovo - the four municipalities - within what is apparently, though not explicitly, accepted to be an independent state of Kosovo, dominated by its Albanian majority and occupied by NATO. Several months back, in January, Dačić agreed to proceed with the implementation of the so-called "integrated border management" plan, agreed to by the Boris Tadić administration and its special negotiator Borko Stefanović in December of 2011. That plan, at the time it was conceived and accepted, was not presented to either the Serbian public or the Serbian National Assembly. Serbs in North Kosovo had been defending the right to self-determination, and in this specific case, to the physical connection with the rest of Serbia, with their bodies, for months prior and post the Stefanović deal. The new Serbian government, by implementing the IBM deal, effectively made a step towards de facto recognition of Kosovo's secession and inclusion of Kosovo's Serbs into the rogue state. Both Stefanović and Dačić pushed the deal onto the Serbian public as pertaining to "administrative crossings," avoiding the clearly identified term "border." The language and its repercussions couldn't be clearer and more defeating, however. The deal imposed the Albanian customs officers on the administrative crossings between North Kosovo and the rest of Serbia, effectively drawing a border and giving Priština the power to collect customs.
The implementation of IBM paved the way for the new-old condition, read off to Dačić and Vučić in Brussels: dismantle the autonomous political institutions of the North Kosovo Serbs and subjugate them to the will of Priština.
On April 2, following seven bargaining sessions and hours of "negotiations" in the eighth, Ashton could only come up with a list of what apparently were watered-down Albanian demands for the end of Serbia's protections for Kosovo Serbs. Vučić talked of a "huge disappointment" in Ashton's approach. While Aleksandar Vulin, head of Serbia's Kosovo Office, named four stumbling blocks in the negotiations last Tuesday, Vučić found one disrespectful enough. Namely, while Serbs were asking for a minimum of autonomy for North Kosovo, including judiciary, local police, demilitarization and urban planning, Thaci, who fought for independence from Serbia that already had given the Kosovo Albanians a full political and cultural autonomy, kept rejecting even the minimum of political rights for Kosovo Serb. Not only that, but he insisted on redrawing the municipal map of Kosovo to gerrymander the Serb majority in the four municipalities and lump the North Kosovo Serbs into a larger region in which Albanians would overwhelm them. That's when Vučić, admittedly, lost his temper.
Ashton and Thaci came back with a "final solution," which was, in effect, a slightly modified gerrymandering attempt to erase the Serbian majority area. That, following the deliberation within the Dačić cabinet, among the leadership of all the ruling coalition parties, with President Nikolić, with the leadership of Serb Republic (yes, Milorad Dodik came to Belgrade to lend his bit of advice), and following the blessing of Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej, was rejected on Monday. Not to mention the popular outrage Vučić and Dačić undoubtedly strained to hear correctly. The Dveri Movement and the Movement Neverborder organized sit-in protests at the Republic Square in Belgrade and refused to leave until the national leadership said "No" to Thaci and Ashton.
In the whirlwind of emotions the Kosovo issue inevitably stirs up in Serbia, several important points were missed:
2. Since the EU continued to treat Serbia with utmost indignation and disrespect, how reasonable is it to expect that such treatment will not be continued no matter what Serbia conceded en route to pleasing Brussels into granting it the date for the start of accession talks? And considering the damages that the EU's involvement in the Serbian affairs has inflicted on Serbia so far, why would Vučić and Dačić continue to insist on the European path, going as far as prophesying a doomsday if Serbia didn't accept the latest ultimatum or if it abandoned the EU path for any other reason?
3. Was this mere bargaining over the status of the Serb minority inside a "Republic of Kosova," with the recognition of independence implied? Serbia's Constitution prohibits the government from treating Kosovo as an entity outside of Serbia, but Thaci is being treated as a foreign leader. Phrases like "the normalization of relations" implies two independent countries, and nowhere is it emphasized that the talks are not between two independent countries. Serbia is going to be required to recognize Kosovo before, if ever, the accession to the EU happens, that's been made clear on many EU levels. By negotiating lesser points and skipping over the question of status and an agreement on it, the recognition becomes implicit, but irreversible as the institutionalization of agreement terms drives the Kosovo formal independence to the point of fait accompli. In other words, if the status is not negotiated now, there won't be other opportunities. Like the IBM deal divested Serbia of key leverage points, any future deal will make the Kosovo recognition as a process more and more irreversible.
5. It is wrong to assume this proposal, however unjust and - as Vučić said - "terrifying" it apparently is, means some form a D-Day for Serbia. While this administration inherited a very bad situation from the previous one, and while it was Boris Tadić who abandoned the UNSC Resolution 1244 and allowed the Ahtisaari plan to take effect, the Dačić government built up to this moment itself by following in Tadić's footsteps and by not making any constructive moves to alleviate the bad predicament. There could be no mistake that only ultimatums and blackmail could be expected from the EU and only sheer aggression from the Albanians in future as well. Unconditionally insisting on the EU path means that Serbia is not opening itself for options, but that it must consider any condition the EU imposes in return for the acceptance in very uncertain forms. Thus, the latest ultimatum is only the latest one in the line of similar Western threats, and it won't be the last one like it wasn't the first one.
6. Why aren’t the interests of the Serbs south of Ibar considered at all? More Serbs live in the ghettoized enclaves south of Ibar than north of it. They have been subjugated by the Albanian rogue state, but the prospects of their survival are dim if the North Kosovo falls into the Albanian hands. The need for pretenses of a multiethnic society will cease and all the Serbs are gradually to be expelled. No reason given to believe otherwise. Finally, together with the people and the land, the greatest value of Kosovo lies in its being the spiritual cradle of the Serb nation. No one is negotiating the future of Serbian cultural heritage, churches and monasteries eight centuries old. These cultural monuments, still alive as centers of spirituality, have been under attack, both physically and culturally. While the physical destruction has been well documented, it is less obvious – although the Albanians are not hiding it – that the Serbian religious objects are planned to be passed off as Albanian medieval heritage. One only needs to look for a Kosovo country guide in any American bookstore. The Serbian expulsion from Kosovo can only be made final when all of the components of Serbian historical presence are destroyed. By not insisting on the inclusion of these points, Serbia is giving them up.
But as nothing radical is going to happen because Serbia rejected this "nothing" deal, it may cost the EU some credibility in dealing with the situation and it may be pushed out by the more determined forces, like the United States, as we saw happen during the Bosnian War. Would that effectuate a counter-intervention from the East, that of Russia, it is hard to predict. Russia has voiced its opposition to the proposal, but its ambiguous approach to the Serbian affairs leaves us guessing. Thaci would most definitely like to dispatch a NATO ethnic cleansing unit to "liberate" the North and be rid of the Serb population for good, and as such an option was made available to Croatia in 1995 and to Thaci himself in 2004, I wouldn't put it past him to try and win support for it again.
It is unclear whether the rejection of the ultimatum was an act of bravery or an act of calculated misleading of own people. Time will tell, and soon. Whichever it is, the terms of it need to be clarified and interpreted.