Kosovo as a state is not just a product of the popular will to self-determination, but also a product of the liberal international order that is now being dismantled. It was able to secede from Serbia and gain recognition from an overwhelming majority of Western countries (and others) based on the liberal understanding of international law that dominated in the age of US unipolar dominance. This was confirmed by the 2011 verdict of the International Court of Justice, which ruled that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was not in contradiction to international law.
Serbia’s sovereignty over Kosovo was suspended by the UN due to atrocities and ethnic cleansing in 1999. Independence was declared unilaterally in 2008 but through a multilateral process, led by UN delegated mediator Maarti Ahtisaari, which recommended conditional independence. Western powers served as guarantors, especially on the issue of minority rights, and were convinced that in time Kosovo would also be able to gain full legality by joining multilateral institutions and eventually also the UN.
Kosovo’s current crisis and dispute with its Western sponsors is primarily a product of the fact that over the last decade the international context that brought Kosovo to its current status in international affairs is no longer there. The sponsors are no longer able to deliver on the last mile and, in the meantime, Kosovo has also brought to the surface its domestic weaknesses as a new state with limited governance traditions.
The failure in the international arena is due to Serbia’s continued objections to recognize Kosovo and the support that it got from Russia and China in the Security Council, as well as from other states that fear secessionist movements on their borders. This is where the liberal international order met the wall of realism. And today Kosovo remains in limbo not just because of its own mistakes and weaknesses – which are plentiful, starting with elite corruption; failure to genuinely reach out to constructive elements in the Serbian minority; rough behavior in the international arena, etc. – but also because of a weakened West which, caught in multiple crises, cannot invest political capital on the marginal Kosovo project.
Kosovo is thus stuck in international limbo and isolation with no clear path in sight. It is unable to join NATO or continue any step further in its EU accession path due to a few non-recognizing member states. This has tremendous impact on domestic political dynamics and the everyday lives of citizens. The pathologies are similar to the ones experienced by North Macedonia over the past decade. The sense of insecurity from having to still deal with Serbia empowers a corrupt and incompetent elite with patriotic credentials from the war; Belgrade’s instrumentalization of the Serbian minority in Kosovo damages ethnic reconciliation and integration as Serbs are viewed as anti-state elements; and the isolation is a drag on economic growth. Kosovars are the only people in Europe unable to travel freely in the Schengen area, ten years after the rest of the region had visa liberalization. All of this partially explains the increasing frustrations and more confrontational attitude with the West. What adds to the frustration is the fact that after years of negotiations facilitated by the EU, where progress was achieved in improving inter-ethnic relations, the international context has strengthened Serbia’s leverage in the negotiations, as it was able to harness its ties with Russia.
The expectation now in many Western corners is that since the West has no instruments to pressure Serbia to recognize it, Kosovo should make concessions to get this done. One idea floated is for Kosovo to somehow allow Serbs to create a new layer of governance – the Association of Serbian Municipalities, as foreseen by the Brussels agreement in 2013 – with strong executive powers, a move that risks making Kosovo dysfunctional.
Kosovo would thus merely exchange its weak position in the international arena for a weak domestic one.
The issue that many forget is that for Albanians, the 2008 Ahtisaari Plan, which paved the way for independence, was already a compromise, albeit one reached with the West. Ahtisaari spent years designing a system that would provide maximum guarantees for minorities, including veto rights on constitutional changes, but would keep Kosovo unitary and functional. Kosovo then spent a decade in political turmoil trying to come to terms with the nature of the state and shrugging off the nationalist assault against the new symbols, multiethnic nature of the state, high degree of ethnic decentralization, etc. So from Kosovo’s domestic perspective, demands for further compromises are like asking North Macedonia in 2028 to come back to the table and concede even more on the name. It’s not feasible.
The other problem is that the EU was thought to be the best mechanism for resolving the dispute due to both countries seeking accession and hence being subjected to conditionality. But the EU has proven to be increasingly impotent and unable to be impartial in arbitration. Structurally, it can’t treat Kosovo and Serbia as equal entities due to the five EU non-recognizing states. This is reflected, for example in the lack of any pushback by the EU against Serbia’s efforts to get countries to de-recognize Kosovo and prevent its membership in international organizations. And it is also reflected in the fact that Serbia can advance in EU accession stages as the dialogue proceeds, while Kosovo can’t move a single step further until it reaches a deal, as no step will be approved by non-recognizers. Germany as the most powerful country does not have that problem of neutrality, but seems not to see the sense of urgency in resolving the matter once and for all at the UN, preferring gradual steps and compromises from both sides. Germany seems to be OK with Kosovo waiting until Serbia is close to becoming a EU member for recognition to happen. Which could be 2023, or 2030, or never.
One part of Kosovo’s political spectrum led by President Hashim Thaci thinks that Kosovo can’t afford to wait for Serbia to be ready or risk making itself internally dysfunctional in order to appease what from Kosovo’s perspective are Serbia’s hegemonic demands. It is joined in this belief by the current US administration, which also shares the view that mutual recognition and UN membership should happen sooner rather than later. The US views this unresolved issue as a key factor that empowers Russia in the region, via Serbia.
This is why in these circles the idea of ’land-swaps’ or ’border correction’ became an option discussed during summer 2018, as preferable to a dysfunctional state or having no deal. Thaci most likely believed that this kind of deal would pass in a referendum because in a nationalistic society there is more affinity for the Preshevo Valley (the region in southern Serbia that would be exchanged) than the Serbian-majority municipalities in the north. The US has said that it does not prefer a deal involving borders necessarily but any deal the sides can agree upon. US President Donald Trump has even offered Thaci and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic a Rose Garden ceremony if they were to sign, an unusual interest of the top levels of this administration in an otherwise marginal issue.
But Kosovo’s internal political scene is in turmoil and has come out against the deal. It is convinced that what Thaci might have agreed with Vucic (an agreement no one has seen) is not a land-swap in which Kosovo would get the Preshevo Valley, but only a partition of the north, and that it’s a deal that can’t be implemented. Thaci worked secretively and did not make a serious effort to build domestic consensus, perhaps hoping to get all the credit for the deal. The many bridges he burned in the past through sneaky political maneuvering have now come back to haunt him. Especially Kosovo’s Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, a bitter rival whom Thaci humiliated politically in more than one case. Much of the anger against the agreement in Kosovo is related to disbelief in its salesman.
As this game was unfolding over the past few months, Kosovo and Serbia were flexing their muscles to gain leverage in negotiations. Serbia for months led efforts to get countries to de-recognize Kosovo or prevent its membership in international institutions simply to prove its leverage – as happened in the latest case when Serbia de facto blocked Kosovo’s
membership in Interpol. Kosovo responded in October by demonstrating effective control over the territory and imposing a 100% tax on goods from Serbia and Bosnia until Serbia recognized Kosovo, which turned out be tremendously popular in public opinion. It also received support from the US and other Western countries to establish its own army.
Having somehow swallowed the army, Vucic does not want to sit at the table with the taxes in place because he fears he would look weak and as having his hand forced to recognize Kosovo. The EU and US have thus put tremendous pressure on Kosovo to either revoke or at least temporarily suspend the taxes to allow negotiations to continue, as they believe an agreement could be near (or they know that in effect it has been reached by Thaci and Vucic). The US has sent high-level diplomats to Kosovo and even threatened to issue sanctions, only to be shunned by Haradinaj, in a rather unprecedented show of defiance against Kosovos’s main ally. The rest of the political spectrum (except nationalist party Vetevendosje) seems to have understood the magnitude of the problem and have shown signs of backing off.
Haradinaj has leverage because the political math doesn’t add up to remove him from power right now without elections, which almost nobody wants –even most of Kosovo’s opposition parties (due to internal problems or poor polling numbers). The taxes are believed to have increased Haradinaj’s polling popularity. The tax now has a life of its own and has little to do with the reasons it was put in place. It allows Haradinaj to become a gatekeeper on whether the dialogue continues and the final agreement is brought to the table. And in these efforts he might have tacit support from certain corners in the international community which do not want to see any border changes happening and would rather see the entire process fail. Kosovo’s impasse is as much a symptom of its own divide as it is a symptom of the transatlantic divide.
The views expressed are personal and do not reflect the affiliated institutions.