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Three Years Since the Washington Agreement Between Serbia and Kosovo: What Has Been Implemented?

On Monday, 4 September, it will be three years since the Washington Agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, which Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and then Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti signed in the White House in the presence of US President Donald Trump. The Serbian and Kosovo leaders signed two documents, which differ only slightly – in the last provision. Although, according to the interpretations of most lawyers, it is a question of legally non-binding declarations of intentions, the implementation of the agreement, negotiated with the mediation of the USA, was assumed as a political obligation.

As in the case of numerous other agreements concluded between Belgrade and Pristina in the past 12 years, there is an obvious gap between what was signed and what was implemented. Three years later, it is clear that the implementation of the Washington Agreement has “fallen into oblivion.” Most of the provisions, out of a total of 16 in the Serbian and Kosovo declaration of intent, have not been fully fulfilled to this day.

Beyond the “economic normalization of relations” – what has been (partially) implemented?

In the agreement officially named “economic normalization of relations”, only 8 of the 16 provisions referred to economic cooperation between Serbia and Kosovo. Half of the agreed provisions concerned other (political) issues, and it was there that the most concrete results were achieved in the first year of implementation.

Provision 15 of the Washington Agreement, which at the time was considered essential for easing tensions between Belgrade and Pristina, provided for a one-year moratorium on Kosovo’s application for membership in international organizations and on the Serbian campaign to withdraw recognition of Kosovo. It was fully implemented, thanks to American engagement. Even after the formal expiration of the moratorium, the two sides indeed continued in the following months to adhere to the gist of the provisions.

However, in May 2022, the Kosovo government applied for membership in the Council of Europe, which provoked a negative reaction from the Serbian leadership and an explicit reference to the then-somewhat forgotten Washington Agreement. Aleksandar Vučić pointed out that in case of Kosovo’s violation of the agreement, Serbia will also return to the campaign of withdrawing recognition. Although no new recognitions of Kosovo’s independence were announced in the previous year, Serbian officials have repeatedly claimed that they have notes on the withdrawal of recognition by several countries.

On the other hand, the European proposal on the path to the normalization of relations accepted by Aleksandar Vučić and Albin Kurti in February this year, in Article 4, contains Serbia’s obligation not to prevent Kosovo’s membership in international organizations. Given the confusing statements about the implementation of the European proposal, it remains unclear to what extent the two sides will adhere to the provisions in this domain.

The final provision of the Washington Agreement – the only one that differs in the documents signed by the Serbian president and the Kosovo prime minister – has also been largely fulfilled. Serbia agreed to open a representative office of the Chamber of Commerce in Jerusalem, which was already done in November 2020, but still did not move its embassy to Jerusalem (as foreseen by the second part of the given article) by the deadline of 1 July, 2021, nor was it done in the following period. The mutual recognition of Kosovo and Israel, defined in provision 16 of the document signed by Avdullah Hoti, followed in February 2021, and Priština opened an embassy in Jerusalem before 1 July of the same year.

At the beginning of October 2020, the joint Merdare crossing was integrated and operationalized, as stipulated by the Washington Agreement. Although two agreements on integrated management of crossings were concluded under the auspices of the EU-mediated dialogue, it is indicative that only after the inclusion of this issue in the Washington documents, integration took place within a month. Additionally, as of March 2022, the Merdare crossing is fully operational, after the Serbian side opened both sides of the joint crossing.

Another issue that was addressed by the Washington Agreement, as well as numerous other agreements within the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, since it represents one of the main open disputes, concerns the finding and identification of the remains of missing persons. The two sides promised to step up efforts and appoint liaison officers to handle these activities. Already during September 2020, more remains of Serbs and Albanians were returned. After the partial stagnation that followed, there were certain developments in the previous period as well, but under the auspices of the EU dialogue. On 2 May, 2023, Aleksandar Vučić and Albin Kurti agreed on a declaration of joint cooperation in discovering mass graves and identifying other missing persons, using satellite data, laser mapping and other advanced technologies.

Among the elements of the Washington Agreement that do not directly concern the relations between Belgrade and Pristina and which were included at the insistence of the Trump administration, due to the wider geopolitical interests of the US, as well as the campaign before the presidential elections, are the announced diversification of energy sources in Serbia and Kosovo and the ban on the use of 5G equipment procured from “unverified suppliers”.

Both sides have begun implementing measures and are working to diversify energy sources with American support. Regarding 5G equipment, Kosovo and the USA signed a joint memorandum on the “clean network” of the fifth generation as early as 2020, while Serbia, on the other hand, did not officially ban equipment from unverified suppliers, but did not buy it in the past period, so it can be stated that this provision has been partially implemented.

Normalization of economic relations between Serbia and Kosovo – insufficient results and implementation independent of the Washington Agreement

The central part of the agreement from the White House was the economic aspects of the relationship between Belgrade and Pristina. This reflected the Trump administration’s approach to mediating the dialogue, where economic normalization was put at the forefront.

Provisions 1 and 2 relate to the implementation of the agreement on the Belgrade-Pristina highway and the Belgrade-Pristina railway. The two parties are expected to cooperate with the Export-Import Bank of the United States  (EXIM) and the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and sign a memorandum of understanding to agree on the operationalization of the Belgrade-Priština road and rail connection, as well as additional financial support of DFC for loans granted to small and medium enterprises.

DFC signed joint declarations on cooperation with the governments of Serbia and Kosovo in September 2020 and established an international presence in Belgrade, opening a (first overseas) regional office. The agreement on encouraging investments in January 2021, with the next Biden administration, which in principle supported the implementation of the Washington Agreement, made it possible for the DFC regional representative office to start activities.

In 2022, DFC, in cooperation with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), provided banks in Serbia with three loan guarantees in a total value of 120 million dollars to help micro, small and medium enterprises. In December 2022, a new guarantee scheme worth up to 400 million dollars was agreed with the Government of Serbia to support the Serbian economy. The management of DFC visited Kosovo several times and according to the available data, loans were approved to support investments in renewable energy.

However, on the other hand, when it comes to the “Peace Highway” from Belgrade to Pristina, there has been no progress since DFC and EXIM signed letters of intent with Serbia and Kosovo in September 2020. The financing of the construction of the highway was provided by the Serbian side, independently of the Washington Agreement, from other means, primarily through the help of the European Union under the auspices of the Western Balkans Investment Framework, as well as from the European Investment Bank.

The construction of the section of the “Peace Highway” from Niš to Merdare has begun and the first part of the new highway, only 5 kilometres long, was recently opened. Regarding the Belgrade-Pristina railway connection, although initially, both parties expressed interest, there are no concrete steps towards the realization of the plans. Also, independently of the Washington Agreement, the EU finances the reconstruction of the railway from Belgrade to Niš, but the construction of a potential branch towards Pristina is still uncertain.

The matter of mutual recognition of diplomas and professional certificates was also important for the economic normalization of relations. It repeated the content of the Brussels agreements from 2011 and 2016.

However, technical and political problems, as before, blocked implementation. In November 2022, under the auspices of the Berlin process, three agreements of the Western Balkan six were signed, which, among other things, include the recognition of diplomas and professional qualifications for certain professions, and more tangible progress was achieved there, since Kosovo ratified the agreements, and they entered, after Government approval, in the parliamentary procedure in Serbia.

One of the more serious issues between Belgrade and Pristina, with repercussions on economic relations, concerned the use of Lake Gazivode. With the Washington agreement, both parties agreed to work with the US Department of Energy on a feasibility study with the goal of jointly using Lake Gazivode, avoiding further security and economic risks. In June 2021, the Secretariat of Energy actually sent a feasibility study to Serbia and Kosovo, which they did with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, proposing a joint management model based on the Columbia River located on the US-Canada border.

However, after the first step of the agreement was taken, the two parties did not publicly declare their acceptance of the proposal and the implementation stopped there. The current Kosovo government of Albin Kurti takes a particularly hard-line position on this issue, on whose initiative the Kosovo Assembly rejected the resolution on the implementation of the Washington Agreement in August 2021, considering numerous provisions, including the model for Lake Gazivode, to be extremely unfavorable for Kosovo.

What was not implemented at all?

Three years after the Washington Agreement, whose long-term scope proved to be modest, it can be seen that efforts to implement certain things were never undertaken, nor was the public aware of possible implementation plans.

Such is provision 5 of the Washington Agreement, which can also be brought under the framework of economic normalization of relations. It states that Serbia and Kosovo will access and fully use the Mini-Schengen initiative, which was launched at the end of 2019. While Serbia is one of the founders and leaders of the initiative which, from 2021, has been renamed the Open Balkans, Kosovo to this day resolutely refuses to join this form of economic connection in the Western Balkans, marking it as a project behind which “Greater Serbian” intentions lie and as “eternal waiting room” for membership in the European Union.

Several atypical articles of the Washington Agreement, which are not directly related to the relations between Serbia and Kosovo, but were potentially important for the Trump campaign and the interests of American officials, were also not implemented by the Serbian and Kosovo sides, or data on activities in this direction are not available.

One point concerned the increased control of passengers in air traffic, the mutual sharing of information and the operationalization of the system for verification and information from the US. Also, both sides initially pledged to work on the decriminalization of homosexuality in 69 countries.

Although the contribution that Serbia and Kosovo could make in this field is debatable, no activities were visible in the past three years. Moreover, the public learned that in 2021, Serbia withdrew its ambassador from Poland, immediately after he signed a letter of support for the LGBT community. Also, the president of Uganda was recently on an official visit to Serbia, Uganda being one of the countries that adopted the strictest laws regarding the criminalization of homosexuality.

The next element was the categorization of Hezbollah, in its entirety – both its military and political wings, as a terrorist organization. Pristina, even before the signing of the Washington documents, designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, which is why the inclusion of this provision for the Kosovo side was unclear, while the Government of Serbia did not officially adopt a decision that would categorize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

Finally, the central element of provision 11 of the Washington Agreement, which refers to religious freedom, including the protection of religious buildings and the restitution of property, has not been fulfilled to date. At that time, the importance of implementing court decisions concerning the Serbian Orthodox Church was emphasized – it is about Kosovo’s obligation to implement the decision of the Constitutional Court of Kosovo from 19 May, 2016 according to which 24 hectares of land is to be returned to the Visoki Dečani monastery.

However, the Pristina authorities refuse, even in this three-year period, to implement the decision. In addition, the formalization of the status of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the protection of cultural and religious heritage is incorporated into the new Brussels-Ohrid agreement of Serbia and Kosovo from 2023, which, according to experts, will again imply the priority of executing the court decision regarding Visoki Dečani.

Overall, despite greater expectations and bombastic announcements from the White House that the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo marks a turning point for the Western Balkans, it is obvious, three years later, that only a small part of the provisions of the Washington Agreement have been fully implemented, and that many issues, then included, are still open as points of contention in increasingly tense relations on between Belgrade and Pristina.

Source : europeanwesternbalkans