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Good Cop — Bad Cop

Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci (left), EU High Representative Catherine Ashton (second from right), and Kosovar President Atifete Jahjaga (right) at their meeting in Pristina on March 14. (Courtesy photo – RFE)

By Florian Bleber – In my home country Luxembourg, there is a traditional hopping procession(Sprangprëssioun) in the town of Echternach Tuesdays after Pentecost. It involves more than 10,000 people in a slow procession with  that takes two steps forward and one back. 
Ivica Dacic’s statements in recent weeks about about Kosovo remind a lot of this dance–Two steps forward, one back.

Last week, Dacic stated that “[f]or 10 years, Kosovo was taboo. No one could officially tell the truth…  Tales were told; lies were told that Kosovo is ours…the Serbian president cannot go to Kosovo, nor the prime minister, nor ministers, nor the police or army. Serbs can only leave Kosovo. That’s how much Kosovo is ours and what our constitution and laws mean there.”

Just later the same day he noted that Serbia would not give up Kosovo for a date to begin EU accession talks: “Serbia showed the will for a compromise in the talks with Priština authorities. We don`t have anything else to propose except the Kosovo independence and we will never do it. Everyone must know one thing: we won`t give up on our legitimate interests just to get a date for the start of EU membership. Don`t count on it”

Of course, such contradictory statements did evoke some comments and questions about what Dacic really meant.

It mostly means that Dacic seems to be well in tune with public opinion or at least is following them closely. Just as he made is flip-flopping statements, B92 published a new survey that suggest that his position is a good reflection of popular opinion. Not only does a majority consider him to be the best negotiator (61% approve and only 26% think a different negotiator would do a better job. Among the alternatives only Vucic is able to have some support), they also seem to share his views.

A clear majority of 63% think Kosovo is independent, mirroring Dacic first statement. At the same time, most (65%) would be willing to forgo EU membership if a return of Kosovo to Serbian rule were possible (28% take the opposite view), reflecting Dacic’s second position.

Of course, the latter options seems like a misleading choice: While EU membership is realistic, if far off, a return of Kosovo under Serbian rule sounds completely impossible.

Thus, the choice given is between a far off goal and an impossibility. So does this mean that Serbs prefer Kosovo over the EU? Not exactly, there is a different meaning to this number.

First, EU and Kosovo have been discussed as a pair for the past six years: first as parallel tracks and more recently increasingly as alternatives. The numbers suggest that citizens do not like to be forced to make a choice or if they do, they might choose Kosovo.

Second, if the alternative is between material benefits (the primary association with EU membership) and “patriotic duty”, Kosovo wins as a hypothetical patriotic-political correct answer. It would be hard to opt for the EU, as long as it is framed as a ‘selfish’ economic choice over the self-sacrifice choice of Kosovo.

This is even more so  as choosing Kosovo in an opinion poll has no practical costs or consequences. As a consequence, I would consider the poll as a reflection of pragmaticism backed up with a bit of hypothetical nationalist self-sacrifice.

Citizens can live with Kosovo as an independent country, but appear not willing to give up the symbol of the possible return of Kosovo to Serbia, i.e. full recognition.

So what does this mean for Serbian government policy? Dacic’s contradictory statements suggest that he understands public opinion better than any of his predecessors. Opinion polls over the past decade in Serbia have often pointed to similar conclusion as the latest poll. However, his predecessors were unwilling or unable to pick up on the pragmaticism and emphasized the desired and unrealist goal of keeping Kosovo part of Serbia.

When Dacic called the Serbian government policies a lie, he also clearly shifted the blame for loosing Kosovo to his predecessors.

The opportunity for making such an argument was missed first by Djindjic and then his successors. Of course it take a considerable Chutzpah to make this statement, considering that Dacic has not only been in government since 2008, but also supported Kostunica’s minority government 2004-7, but Dacic has managed to steer clear of Kosovo to have sufficient credibility in making such a statement.

This leaves Serbia in a more pragmatic and realistic position than any time in the last decade. Dacic’s good cop/bad cop routine is clearly intended to satisfy public opinion, but also to move Serbia towards living with this new reality.

This does not mean that he will not bargain hard and that finding a modus vivendi for Serbia and Kosovo will be difficult, but his statements suggest that the optimism of EU diplomats over the Serbia-Kosovo negotiations might be justified.

Florian Bieber is a Professor and Director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz . This post was originally published on Florian Bieber’s blog.

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