While there have rarely been more envoys and special representatives mandated to help solve the Kosovo-Serbia dispute, it is hard to think of a time where there has been so little coordination, political vision and tangible plans to deal with unfinished business in the Western Balkans.
As a result, Kosovo, which in itself has never been more divided on the way forward, is left in an impossible situation having to choose between the American promise of a quick solution under the US presidential envoy’s unconventional and non-transparent diplomacy, a process led by an aimless EU, or the status quo. Undoubtedly, none represent a compelling prospect.
Twenty-one years since the NATO military intervention halted Serbia’s ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the young republic remarkably finds itself isolated internationally and at odds with the very powers — the US and the EU — that made its existence possible.
At the centre of Kosovo’s disagreement with the West is Kosovo’s decision in 2018 to introduce 100 per cent customs tariffs on Serbian goods in response to Serbia’s campaign to prevent Kosovo from gaining recognition worldwide.
Both the EU and the US opposed tariffs on the grounds that they are an obstacle to the resumption of Kosovo-Serbia dialogue. For the first time in decades, Kosovo found itself on the receiving end of international criticism, with the West effectively succumbing to Serbia’s demand for an unconditional lifting of the tariffs as a condition to resume the dialogue.
Internally, the tariffs created a rift. A combination of external pressures and internal political disputes brought down the government in July 2019, triggering an early election. With dissatisfaction over the mismanagement of post-independence years running high in Kosovo, a new election brought about a renewed trust in democracy as a new generation of voters instigated a political change.
The governing parties, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) and the Social Democratic Initiative (NISMA) — all of them led by senior leaders of the 1998–99 war, suffered a sweeping defeat. A pro-reformist opposition led by Vetevendosje (Self-Determination), a leftist protest party, and the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), a centre-right traditional party that vowed to fight corruption and tackle high unemployment came out as winners.
But the promising reform-minded agenda gave way quickly to international pressure to jump-start the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia as the most pressing matter.
Kosovo’s newly-established government quickly cracked under pressure, with the junior coalition partner LDK caving into US demands for immediate suspension of the tariffs and opposing Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s strategy to introduce trade reciprocity to Serbian goods.
The escalating US pressure spearheaded by Richard Grenell, the US presidential envoy for peace talks between Kosovo and Serbia, and internal disagreements over the coalition’s handling of a range of issues including the management of COVID-19 pandemic, prompted a no-confidence vote in parliament which brought down Kurti’s government after a mere 50 days in office.
President Hashim Thaci’s decision to give the mandate to nominate a new prime minister to Kurti’s former coalition partners in the LDK generated a new constitutional stalemate, with the Constitutional Court paving the way for a new government led by Kurti’s former deputy premier, Avdullah Hoti of the LDK and supported by the AAK, NISMA and ethnic minorities.
Hoti’s government, which is considered illegal by Vetevendosje and illegitimate by many, abolished reciprocity measures imposed by Kurti’s government, thus removing a longstanding obstacle to resuming dialogue with Serbia.
The political crisis openly displayed a widening rift between the US and European capitals in their strategy and actions on Kosovo. For the first time, Washington and Berlin stood on opposite sides.
Moreover, the US position to support the fall of the government during the looming health crisis remains perplexing and unprecedented in the last two decades of strong US support for Kosovo’s democracy and statehood.
It prompted the chairman of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Eliot L. Engel, to openly criticise the US administration’s “tactics” for unjustly pressuring its staunchest ally.
While the issue of tariffs has been an important element in Kosovo’s recent fall from grace internationally, the real cause lies elsewhere. Specifically, the decade-long short-sighted approach adopted by the US and the EU in the Kosovo-Serbia dispute.
The West’s road to perdition in Kosovo
Kosovo is a product of a transatlantic political consensus that is crumbling by the day as a result of Donald Trump’s presidency and the EU’s inability to reform.
In the first years of its independence, Kosovo managed to overcome strong opposition from Serbia and Russia to its international standing due to the solid support it enjoyed from its key Western allies. It gained recognition from an ever-increasing number of UN members and became a member of various political and financial institutions.
But, largely void of any major violence, subsequent American and European governments grew complacent over engagement with Kosovo even though Serbia showed no signs of giving up its claims over Kosovo.
An opportunity to move things forward arose in 2010 when the International Court of Justice found that Kosovo’s declaration of independence did not violate international law. Instead of pressuring Serbia and other EU non-recognisers to honour the opinion, the West co-sponsored with Serbia a UN resolution that called for a dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, an effort almost completely botched amid the enlargement fatigue among key EU member states.
Over the years, the EU-facilitated dialogue in Brussels became a highly contentious affair. It neither ensured a meaningful integration of Kosovo Serbs -especially the ones in northern Kosovo — into the country’s political and social system, nor managed to dismantle and replace Serbia’s institutions in Kosovo. On the contrary, Serbia became a legitimised presence in Kosovo.
As the dialogue soon reached its limits and with the momentum shifting due to the 2014 refugee crisis in Europe, it effectively turned into a mechanism that maintained the status quo in Kosovo while enabling Serbia to advance on its EU path without ameliorating its position on Kosovo’s status.
The EU gave precedence to find a face-saving solution for the current Serbian leaders, who in the meanwhile have consolidated their grip on power domestically, over the needs and agency of local Serbs in Kosovo.
Under the auspices of then EU High Representative Frederica Mogherini, the Brussels dialogue degraded into a discussion between Thaci and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, on ethnic partition and land swap. This shift of focus from people’s rights to territory is in effect a legitimation of a disastrous political idea — redrawing borders along ethnic lines — more than 30 years after Slobodan Milosevic’s rise to power in Serbia.
By the same token, abolishing red lines in the dialogue also sowed the seeds of a major rift between the main transatlantic partners involved in the Kosovo issue.
Emboldened by Kosovo’s failure to garner support for membership of international organisations such as UNESCO, Serbia and Russia embarked on an aggressive campaign for derecognition of Kosovo’s independence. This new campaign was instrumental in Kosovo’s failed bid to join Interpol in 2018, which then became a casus belli for the tariffs issue between Kosovo and Serbia.
A wind of change in the transatlantic partnership
For two decades, the transatlantic partnership has been the bedrock of stability in the region and a major success story for both the EU and US. However, a post-Brexit, inward-looking EU and a Trump foreign policy in disarray have seriously undermined this partnership. Nowhere is this felt more dramatically than in the Western Balkans.
As a major US political, economic and military investment, Kosovo has for a long time garnered solid and bipartisan support in Washington. But, under Trump, the US policy has become unpredictable and does not seem to rely anymore on career diplomats who normally enable it to maintain a considerable degree of consistency.
Envoy Richard Grenell’s attitude is very personalised and aggressive. The only remaining coherent element in the US strategy in Kosovo, for the time being, is its insistence on the need for mutual recognition.
But the US position on a potential deal that involves territorial change is not entirely clear. In 2018, the then US National Security Adviser, John Bolton, made it clear that the US is open to an exchange of territory between Kosovo and Serbia as part of a deal.
Currently, neither Grenell nor Matthew Palmer, the US Special Representative for the Western Balkans, have categorically ruled out border change as an option, leaving many to question whether they tacitly support it provided that both parties agree to it.
On the other hand, the very floating of the idea of border adjustment/demarcation in public, and the implicit support of some of the former EU leaders, attest to the fact that the EU has no clear vision of how to solve the dispute.
Moreover, the fact that both the new EU High Representative Josep Borrell, and his Special Representative for the Dialogue, Miroslav Lajcak, previously opposed Kosovo’s independence in their capacities as foreign ministers, raised many eyebrows in Kosovo.
The EU’s leverage in Kosovo is seriously undermined by its prevailing Kosovo status-neutral approach and its failure to deliver on the oft-repeated promise to grant visa-free travel to Kosovo citizens. Unlike the US, which remains unequivocal in its support for an independent Kosovo that is recognised by Serbia, the EU’s final goal in the dialogue is very vague.
While the US and EU envoys intensify their attempts to resume dialogue in the coming weeks, the lack of transatlantic coordination as well as lack of a national consensus in Kosovo don’t bode well for the future of the country.
Kosovo’s potential failure in the coming months would not be its alone. It would also be a failure for the West’s longstanding policy and decades of investment in the region, with far-reaching repercussions.
Gëzim Krasniqi is a Lecturer in Nationalism and Political Sociology at the University of Edinburgh.
Adrian Prenkaj is a former Kosovo diplomat and former adviser to the fourth president of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga.
This article was originally published in Balkan Insight.