Kosovo symbol dispute shows limit of EU deal

By Jeton Zulfaj

The inconvenient truth that the EU-mediated negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia will not lead to genuine reconciliation is coming to light.


The deal, as stated in its title, aims at "normalisation of relations" between the two sides, including by holding local elections in the ethnic-Serb-dominated north Kosovo to choose people who will represent the region at national level.


But in recent developments, Serbia's PM Ivica Dacic has indicated that Kosovo institutions cannot put their logo, which says "Republic of Kosovo" on ballot papers because the logo amounts to a claim that Kosovo is a sovereign state, which Serbia continues to reject.


> Map Serbia & Kosovo


According to Dacic, the April deal, clinched in Brussels, does not permit the ballot logo move. He says the elections in the north, just like negotiations, should be treated as status neutral, and that Pristina's Central Election Commission, which is organising the vote, should have a facilitating role similar to the Vienna-based democracy watchdog, the OSCE.


His position has provoked anger and confusion among opposition parties and civil society in Kosovo.


But for its part, the Kosovo government has indicated it is willing to leave out the logo, as this would not breach its own laws.


The deputy foreign minister of Kosovo even said Kosovo could put logos of bears or bunnies on the ballot papers, as far as he is concerned, because, he believes, that by organising the elections, Pristina has attained its goal of extending its rule to the north.


But which goal does he mean exactly?


Kosovo has not achieved any kind of progress in these negotiations if its authority in the north is refused by local citizens. That is why the logo issue is important - it represent Kosovo’s authority.


The office of Kosovo’s PM, Hashim Thaci, also stated that “the decision for the logo belongs to the Central Election Commission [CEC] and not to the PM," or, in other words, if the logo is deleted it is not his fault.


This is an equally lazy excuse.


It is well known that the head of the CEC has been to the talks in Brussels and the PM's negotiators have given her instructions on how to handle the problem.


If the state flag does not fly in the voting centres, if there are no symbols of Kosovo's statehood on the ballot papers, then what will the elections achieve?


One might say they will merely legalise the previously illegal Serb parallel governance structures whose allegiance will remain not to Kosovo authorities, but to Serbian ones.


If they refuse to accept Kosovo’s symbols, they are refusing to accept that Kosovo's laws are valid on this part of Kosovo's territory.


And here let us recall that the state symbols are designed to represent not Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, but its multiethnic nature - they represent the fact that Kosovo is made up of many minorities and that it is ethnic neutral.


The EU, via its foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, has overseen the Kosovo-Serb talks with the expectation they will lead to a final reconciliation between the two sides.


It has not explicitly said that Serbia can only enter the EU if it recognises Kosovo's sovereignty, as do 23 EU countries already.


But if Serbia continues to undermine Kosovo's authority in the north and to demand that the parallel institutions remain, de facto, under its command, then what are the EU-mediated talks leading to - a situation which resembles a new Republica Srpska, the semi-autonomous Serb-entity in the Bosnian federation, the most unstable country in the region?


If the EU wants to maintain current borders in the western Balkans it should make clear to Serbia it will not tolerate the legalisation of a Serb protectorate inside Kosovo.


In the past, the EU has proved it can get Kosovo authorities to sign up to pretty much whatever it and the US asks them to.


But now it needs to exert pressure on the other side to make sure Kosovo remains intact and stable for the sake of peace in the region as a whole.


Symbols matter and both the EU institutions and EU countries' capitals know this.


The EU itself has tried to put its logo on EU countries' birth, death and marriage certificates. But UK politicians reacted by saying this amounts to trying to brand people as EU citizens "from the cradle to the grave."


The Union should say No to starting accession talks with Serbia not because it does not recognise Kosovo but because it is meddling inside Kosovo's territory.


Under the April agreement, Kosovo agreed to give Kosovo-Serb-majority municipalities a high degree of self-governance and a special status inside its state hierarchy.


But there should be no illusions these places will remain under Belgrade's sway.


The writer is a post-graduate student of European affairs at Lund University in Sweden and the holder of a Swedish Institute Scholarship. He is of Kosovar Albanian origin


EU Observer