The EU debates over slapping an oil embargo on Iran and upping the pressure on Syria's Bashar Assad seem to have diverted the spotlight from the decision taken last week by the European Commission to open a visa liberalization dialog with the self-proclaimed republic of Kosovo in order «to eventually lift the visa obligation for citizens of Kosovo». European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström was quoted in a January 19 press release as saying: «Our commitment to visa liberalisation for the citizens of Kosovo is real, and I am very pleased that we can now start making concrete progress towards this goal». According to the same release, she also stressed following a round of talks with Kosovo premier H. Thaci in Pristina that «Whether and how soon citizens obtain the privilege of visa-free travel will nevertheless depend entirely on the Government of Kosovo's continuing efforts to implement reforms in the rule of law area and on concrete progress made on the ground».
Clearly, the list of criteria Kosovo needs to meet to earn the privilege of visa-free travel reflects Brussels' wider vision for the future of the province and of Pristina's relations vis-a-vis Belgrade. Specifically, Thaci's government is advised to launch biometric Kosovo passports and, which is particularly important in the context of the array of problems surrounding the self-proclaimed Kosovo independence, to implement substantial reforms in key areas such as border management. It should be borne in mind that the July, 2011 clashes between the Kosovo Serbs and the international forces which propped up Pristina were sparked by the attempts made by the latter to tighten the Kosovo «border management». The escalation made it impossible for the talks between Belgrade and Pristina to proceed as planned and provided Germany, Austria, and their EU peers with a pretext for putting the Serbian EU admission bid on hold. The decision unveiled on January 19 sends Pristina an easily readable message that it should at any cost secure a grip on the border between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia.
Cecilia Malmström and the whole European Commission are likely aware of the risks generated under the current circumstances by the visa liberalization initiative and even more so by such signals being addressed to Pristina. In fact, over the past months Mrs. Malmström has been preoccupied with the EU migration problems which echoed with a rise of radicalism across Europe and visibly contributed to the outbreak of its current crisis. While the EU headaches related to migration stem from the specific character of its own legislation, Brussels' intended involvement with Kosovo over the travel regime at the peak of the standoff between the province and Belgrade is a policy undisguisedly provoking a yet deeper conflict between Serbs and Albanians. The impression is that certain camps in Brussels and Washington hope to cite the refueled conflict as justification for irreversibly suppressing the Serb resistance in Kosovo and for leaving Belgrade completely shut out of decision-making in the affairs concerning the province.
Cecilia Malmström paid an official visit to Kosovo on January 19-20 to officially announce the travel liberalization talks and promised Tachi to remove a maximal number of obstacles to lifting the visa requirements. The news predictably popped up among the prime headlines of the Kosovo Albanian media which, with a reference to Mrs. Malmström, indicated that the corresponding liberalization roadmap might see the light of day as early as this spring.
The past couple of years saw Brussels scrap the visa requirements for the citizens of all non-EU Balkan countries, the duo of Albania plus Bosnia and Herzegovina being the last to get the perk in November, 2010. However, up to date the favor has been dispensed to republics uniformly recognized by all EU member-countries, which is not the case with Kosovo. By offering the regime to Pristina, the EU effectively violated the June 10, 1999 UN Security Council Resolution 1244 and brushed off several other internationally endorsed documents which explicitly denied Kosovo the independent status. It was still stated in a EU report released in November, 2008, half a year after the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo, that the legal framework for the province was set by UN Security Council Resolution 1244. Things have changed since the time, and at present – staunchly shelving Serbia's admission request - the EU pushes for the integration of Kosovo in the status of an independent country. European Parliament Rapporteur for Serbia Jelko Kacin dropped a hint a few days ago that Belgrade should spare no effort to normalize its relations with Pristina by March 1, the date the EU Council is due to convene on the summit level. At the moment, this ultimatum is what the roadmap fed to Serbia by the EU actually boils down to.