The big news out of the Balkans this week is that Belgrade might ask Serbian voters to choose between recognizing independent Kosovo and the European Union. On 18 September, the Serbian daily Novosti reported that a referendum was on the table after German officials suggested that Belgrade must ultimately recognize Kosovo to join the union, despite statements to the contrary by EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele earlier this month.

Novosti cited unnamed sources in the office of President Tomislav Nikolic, a Kosovo hawk along with much of Serbia’s new government. Nikolic insists he will give up the EU for Kosovo, which is still a Serbian province under the constitution. Prime Minister Ivica Dacic says Belgrade will never recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. In July, Vuk Jeremic, Serbia’s former foreign minister and the incoming president of the UN General Assembly, said Kosovo would join the UN “over my dead body.”

A well-connected source in Belgrade told me she doubted the report, saying it was probably just a “shot in the dark” by a journalist fishing for a story. She also said Belgrade might have leaked the information to gauge public opinion as it develops a long-promised “Kosovo policy” ahead of the resumption of EU-backed talks between Pristina and Belgrade this fall – negotiations that Brussels says are a pre-condition for Serbia’s European integration.

Bottom line, my source suggested, a referendum was unlikely. But then Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told journalists that one is indeed on the table, although as a last resort.

My first response was that Brussels wouldn’t stand for this. In the interest of regional stability, it wants both Serbia and independent Kosovo in the EU one day and, I assume, would intervene against an “either-or” vote the same way it did last year in Bosnia, when the Republika Srpska (RS) was days away from holding a June referendum challenging the legitimacy of the Bosnian state and the peace process. For those unfamiliar with the latter case, Brussels sees a breakaway RS, one of the two semi-independent entities created by the Dayton Peace Accords, as a threat to the stability of Bosnia and the region. If the referendum went forward, Brussels told RS President Milorad Dodik, his personal assets would be frozen and he would not be able to travel in the EU. Then EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton traveled to Dodik’s office in Banja Luka, presumably to issue the threat in person. The referendum was canceled.

My second response was that, assuming Nikolic, Dacic, and the like are as hawkish as they claim, a referendum could backfire on them. Kosovo, Balkan analysts often say, is becoming less and less of an issue to the Serbian public. But after looking at some relevant polling data, I’m not so sure.

In 2011, 64 percent of Serbs agreed with the statement, “Kosovo has to remain part of Serbia,” according to the Gallup Balkan Monitor. This is down from over 70 percent in 2009 and 2010, but still high and just a few percentage points shy of the five-year average.

On the critical question of whether Belgrade should give up on Kosovo in exchange for EU membership, Gallup only has data from 2010, when 71 percent said it should not. Combined with polls showing a steady drop in public support for EU membership since 2010, Gallup’s numbers signal that Kosovo could indeed be a deal breaker.

Belgrade plans to roll out its anticipated “Kosovo policy” after next week’s UN General Assembly. I still doubt a referendum is in the cards. But I’ll update this post with any relevant developments in the coming days.

Picture of a March celebration in Belgrade after Serbia won coveted EU candidate status from Flickr

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email: adam.cardais@tol.org.

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