Five inconvenient truths about Kosovo

If Kosovo is ever to be the functioning state its supporters think it is, considerable attention will have to be paid to issues of power-sharing between Kosovo Serbs and Albanians, reduction in the dependency the United States and other powers place in  highly corrupt individuals to ensure stability and order, and an honest assessment of conflict resolution with Serbia that defines what Kosovo’s status is within an international legal framework.

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Conflict Background


By Michael Rossi 

On April 19, 2013, Prime Ministers Ivica Dačić of Serbia and Hashim Thaci of Kosovo initialled an agreement pertaining to a series of political, economic, and institutional measures that have been lauded by the European Union as the first step in “normalizing” relations between the governments in Belgrade and Pristina. For Serbia, there is indeed much to celebrate as the agreement is seen by many as meeting the necessary criteria to (finally) qualify for membership talks with the European Union; a process that since 2000 has been nothing less than a feat in its own right. While actual EU membership remains years away and a specific date of membership has yet to be determined, the beginning of formal accession talks symbolizes another victory for European integration, as the country often regarded as the keystone in stabilizing one of the most volatile regions of the continent is finally (re)joining the community of nations it belongs to.

For Kosovo however, there is a less clear picture of what these agreements might yield beyond promises of a better future and some sort of affirmation of sovereignty and statehood that, while upheld by roughly one half of the world’s countries, still remains disputed in the international arena. What is truly surprising in the wake of these agreements is the curiously muted tone from the Kosovo Albanian camp, which usually boasts that every and any agreement made with Serbia has “recognized” Kosovo, “accepted reality”, and other rhetorical phrases of triumphalism that are as clichéd as they are redundant. This time, rather than loudly proclaim some victory in Brussels, Thaci has sounded far more guarded in his statements to international media, suggesting instead that peace and stability can finally be achieved between Belgrade and Pristina, and that the Kosovo Serb community stands to potentially gain the most from these agreements. To show how pragmatic he seems to have become, he even pressured Lulzim Peci, Pristina’s appointed liaison officer to Belgrade, to resign after just two days because of the latter’s statements on relations normalizing only after Serbia recognizes Kosovo.

Though this certainly doesn’t indicate Pristina has suddenly softened its rhetoric on sovereignty and efforts to control the Serb-dominant regions of Kosovo that have, rather successfully, managed to stave off its influence thus far, it does reveal the limited maneuverability and options its leaders have with respect to a territory they regard as sovereign and independent. What is more is that the details of the agreement have yet to be implemented and are still debated between Belgrade and Pristina in terms of the presence and functionality of Serbian-based institutions such as telecommunications, energy, and the role of the police and judiciary which in theory are to operate within Kosovo’s institutional framework, but in reality have a high probability of taking on autonomous lives of their own due to the continued absence of Pristina’s authority and legitimacy.

It is therefore worth noting that for all the accolades and praises that supporters of Kosovo often give to the fledgling statelet, its controversial leadership, and to themselves for believing they have secured the proverbial “peace in our time”, the work is incomplete and without formally addressing a series of issues that have been dismissed, ignored, or hoped would somehow go away since 2008, the territory stands a high chance of remaining within political, economic, and diplomatic limbo for the foreseeable future. Though many are loath to admit them, Kosovo suffers from five inconvenient truths that if left unattended, risks making it another failed state resulting from international mediation and compromise.

1. Kosovo’s Status Remains Indefinitely Disputed

The most inconvenient truth regarding Kosovo is the fact that there is no agreement on what it actually is. Its supporters refer to it as an independent state: as the so called “last chapter” of the Yugoslav saga, and as Europe’s “newest state”. Its detractors range from calling it an occupied province of Serbia to an international protectorate with limited authority. Whatever the titles and classifications, all can cite some legal justification for taken premises, and often the same source. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 remains the last internationally consensual agreement on Kosovo, and affirms the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia and by extension Serbia as its legal successor; however, it also schedules Kosovo’s “final status” to be a matter of future international decision – a decision its supporters was reached in 2007 and realized in 2008. Likewise, the interpretive advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on one hand did not rule against the illegality of territorial entities declaring independence, but on the other did not outwardly decide whether to justify Kosovo’s declaration of independence.

The diplomatic and legal ambiguity has made recognition of Kosovo a matter of individual state policy rather than a collective international agreement, as was with Montenegro and South Sudan. This has enabled a number of countries with separatist problems of their own to not only withhold recognition but officially declare no intention to recognize without either Serbia’s consent or a new UN resolution. A number of these non-recognitions come from states that have effectively blocked Kosovo efforts from gaining membership in the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, and even the IOC and FIFA. In an effort by the EU to ensure Belgrade’s continued cooperation at the negotiating table over the years, all meetings about Kosovo and with Kosovo officials operate under a “status neutral” framework in which Serbia is under no pressure to recognize Kosovo’s independence while giving concessions to and extracting concessions from an entity it no longer controls.

As such, Kosovo’s sovereignty remains disputed with no indication an agreement on status will result from any of the EU-moderated talks currently underway. As long as Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence and is under no pressure to recognize, other key states around the world have stated they will not either. So long as this arrangement exists, Kosovo cannot advance towards full sovereignty and each new agreement with Serbia renders weaker whatever sovereign control Pristina currently claims towards Serbian-dominant municipalities.

2. Kosovo is a Multiethnic Society in Image Only

Kosovo’s multiethnic character that is frequently lauded in the West is largely, if not entirely, a product of international crafting. The proposed settlement on Kosovo composed by Marti Ahtisaari, envisioned Kosovo within a multiethnic and culturally plural framework that would be enforced through a series of institutional rights for minorities embodied in decentralized municipal government. While on paper and in theory this provides substantial rights of self-administration within a loosely structured framework of authority from Pristina, in reality it reinforces ethnic boundaries by separating antagonistic communities with political and institutional means of maintaining parallel realities with little to no reason to interact.

This is especially true now that an initial agreement between authorities in Belgrade and Pristina have recognized the establishment of a new Association of Serbian Municipalities that not only affirms substantial degrees of autonomy for northern Kosovo, but also extends the distinct possibility of similar rights and functions to at least six other Serb-dominant municipalities in the center and south. These municipalities had been previously regarded as somewhat “integrated” into Kosovo’s political and legal framework, but the “enhanced competencies” that the Ahtisaari Plan had already envisaged for Kosovo’s Serb community have now been given additional legislative and executive competencies in managing day to day affairs which, if taken with the understanding of most Serbs’ wish to keep Pristina at a notable distance, will make these municipalities truly the “parallel institutions” many have been accusing the north of operating under for years.

In other words, multiethnicity in Kosovo exists in relatively the same manner as multiethnicity in other post-conflict states like Bosnia, Lebanon, Iraq, Cyprus, Azerbaijan, and, in all likelihood, Syria: a state designed around significant degrees of decentralization where internal municipalities, regions, republics or cantons are shaped around near-homogeneous ethnic enclaves and entities that function as self-sustaining units with a high degree of effectiveness. Where the dominant ethnic constituency calls for greater centralization under its authority, the ethnic minority perceives it as an attack on their rights of self-determination, and responds with stronger wishes to either maintain or, if possible, expand the powers and responsibilities of areas of control. Knowing Kosovo’s additional problems of sovereignty, achieving a level of stability akin to that of Bosnia or Lebanon would almost seem a success story (no sarcasm intended). Were this to happen, Kosovo might gain full international sovereignty, but at the cost of its internal unity and cohesion.

3. The Independence Provided is Not the Independence Sought After

As indicated above, key international powers had envisaged an independent state of Kosovo that offered significant degrees of decentralized powers to local communities. This however was not what the majority of its inhabitants wanted. The ironic paradox of Kosovo’s supervised statehood is that the nature and scope proposed for independence was neither a realization of the international community in granting a goal of Albanian nationalism since 1912, nor was it understood to be a reward for Albanian resistance and a simultaneous punishment for Serbia following the cessation of hostilities in 1999. Rather it was understood to be the best of a series of bad options stemming from an increasingly unstable region. In other words, independence, which Albanians ultimately wanted, would be designed, structured, administered, and defined as an international initiative that would be considerably different from what Albanians actually envisioned.

Since 1999, popular sentiment among Kosovo’s Albanian community has been noticeably antagonistic towards the remaining Serbian communities. Where Pristina sees its actions as establishing “law and order”, another term as clichéd as it is subjective, Serbs increasingly see “integrating” into Kosovo as largely surrendering to a government that has little intention of creating a truly multi-ethnic society since they feel they are still treated with suspicion, scapegoated in the media, occasionally harassed, and sporadically targeted by assailants that never seem to be caught by a police force which never seems to be interested in investigating. Memories of the war and years of oppression by the Milošević government still run deep in Albanian collective memory, and this animosity has only been reaffirmed by what many Albanians regard as inordinate degrees of power and privilege granted to the Serb minorities for a new state that, according to popular belief, should be theirs. Power sharing, local autonomy, continued links with Belgrade, a lack of interest by international powers in eliminating “parallel institutions”, and what has amounted to limited sovereignty and diplomatic deadlock have all tested the patience of Kosovo’s Albanian leadership who felt accepting the Ahtisaari Plan was a heavy enough price to pay in exchange for independence.

Any further agreements with Kosovo’s Serb community are largely seen as “concessions” to a group that comprises barely 7% of the population and wants little to do with the remaining 90%. This is why issues such as granting northern Kosovo some form of special status have been met with fierce resistance even though Pristina has neither controlled it, nor enjoys any practical authority there. As such, much of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leadership have displayed both little appreciation for, and little understanding of, the state they find themselves living in and instead choose to understand Kosovo as an informal appendage of Albania. The botched attempt by the Kosovo government in effectively invading the north to take control of the two crossings with Serbia Proper in July 2011 was a public relations disaster for Thaci both in terms of reaching out to the Serb community in the area as well as coordinating policy with the international powers and organizations that chided him for scuttling any hopes of a peaceful resolution. As a result, the local Serb leadership became empowered as never before, successfully thwarted any attempt by KFOR in securing free movement of passage, and even distanced themselves from Belgrade’s authority to become the de facto and practically de jure decision makers in the area.

Even if an agreement is reached, it still does not address the additional problem of most of Kosovo’s current leadership having direct connections with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and being linked with various organized criminal activities and wartime atrocities. Attempts by the ICTY and EULEX to bring various Kosovo Albanian figures to justice have done little foster reconciliation, as those who are indicted are widely considered heroes by a majority of Albanian public opinion, while others continue to remain in office amid charges. Many members of its upper leadership also enjoy diplomatic immunity from any prosecution at all, while maintaining close ties with the U.S. Government, whose officials often laud them almost to the point of comedic exaggeration as political visionaries, champions of peace, and forefathers of democracy. Much of this is rhetorical and in the eyes of the US probably a strategic necessity, but it does little to assuage public opinion among Kosovo’s Serbs that working with the Kosovo government can yield anything good, let alone honest.

4. Kosovo is Not a “Special Case”, no Matter how many Times the West Says It Is

Supporters of Kosovo’s independence, especially those in the United States, have long regarded the territory as sui generis, or a “special case”, in which the extraordinary decision on sovereignty was the only solution available after all other options were exhausted. Yet there is a vast difference between legally guaranteeing Kosovo’s unique case and simply saying it is despite numerous would-be separatist movements around the world that have watched Kosovo’s road to limited statehood with great interest, and in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, have used Kosovo as a precedent for declaring their own independence with support from Russia.

Kosovo’s “special case” has less to do with international law than it does with key powers having their way in Southeastern Europe who recognize the vox populi of one group in one region, but deny it to others. Regardless of the normative connotations associated with it, the rationale for Kosovo’s independence is that it is a one time solution that, apparently, has no relation to, nor should serve as a catalyst for, any other separatist movement or calls for border adjustment. Kosovo’s independence, its proponents argue, cannot and should not be a model for the territorial breakup of Bosnia and independence of Republika Srpska, or additional separatist movements among Albanians of the Preševo Valley in Serbia Proper and the Tetovo region of Macedonia. Most importantly, it should not serve as encouragement for the Kosovo Serbs north of the Ibar River to claim their own independence and rejoin Serbia. Kosovo’s supporters claim that to encourage any one of these movements is to open a proverbial “Pandora’s Box” that would completely destabilize the Balkans, challenge the very notion of sovereign borders, and increase the likelihood of a return to irredentist nationalism.

The paradox in this thinking is that a Pandora’s Box scenario could only happen after Kosovo’s secession, and not be galvanized by it. While it is true that there is a difference between what can be interpreted through ambiguous legal arguments and what can be realized and enforced through good old fashioned Realpolitik, the autistic logic of key Western governments is lost on no one, least of all Georgians and Russians where the latter type of foreign policy has overruled the former. Yet what is even more paradoxical about the declaration of independence of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and subsequent recognition by Russia in 2008, is the absolute refusal by the very powers that supported Kosovo’s road to statehood to extend similar recognition to these two regions; populated by people no less determined to have a country of their own. The ensuing arguments that Georgia’s territorial integrity cannot be violated, that negotiations must continue within a framework of international law, and that secessionist movements need to learn to live in the state they are in, not only contradict every reason for Kosovo’s sovereignty, but seem to pull the proverbial wool over the eyes of those wanting to believe that Kosovo is the only exception to secessionism and declaring sovereignty. It is the intellectual equivalent of a schoolyard argument, where “that doesn’t count because I said so”, seems a perfectly empirical position to take to those calling foul.

Even if Abkhazia and South Ossetia get no more than the miniscule number of recognitions they have already received, Russia’s diplomatic support, much like the diplomatic support Kosovo gets from the United States, keeps it on the map, albeit with the noted absence of a seat at the United Nations. In addition to dozens of irredentist movements around the world, contested regions like Nagorno-Karabakh, northern Cyprus, and Transdniestr; heavily autonomous regions like Catalonia, Basque Country, Republika Srpska, and Iraqi Kurdistan; and aspiring states like Palestine and Taiwan have all used Kosovo’s road to limited sovereignty as an inspirational model for their own national movements. It may not guarantee formal statehood, but Kosovo certainly demonstrates that the disputed status of a parastate can enjoy many of the functions and benefits of a sovereign country.

“Special cases” should not encourage “Pandora’s boxes”. But it has, and the United States and other supporters of Kosovo’s independence have had a difficult time attempting to defend the faulty logic that self-determination is acceptable in areas of their strategic interest and that the sanctity of sovereign borders must be upheld where it is not. Additionally, the need to include nightmare scenarios of copycat secessionist movements as a way of arguing for Kosovo’s “special case” is itself a contradiction in logic that Kosovo’s unique case is self evident. The argument for Kosovo being a “special case” is in the end little more than might-makes-right foreign policy by key powers. Given the opportunity for other states around the world to accumulate similar clout and influence of Washington, it is highly probable that other contested areas could (d)evolve into “special cases” in the future.

5. Unless Seriously Addressed, Kosovo will Remain a Frozen Conflict

Reports about Kosovo’s success since 2008 have run the gamut from rhetorically optimistic to empirically sober, yet all seem to ultimately focus on one factor over all others: stability. For the most part, Kosovo is as relatively stable as any of its Balkan neighbors, but this should not be interpreted as a ringing endorsement of its current situation. Stability suggests an absence of systemic breakdown, but does not necessarily imply institutional functionality, political authority or social legitimacy. Like most cases of international involvement in conflict-prone regions, arrangements in Kosovo succeeded in (largely) ending the violence, but left it entangled in a series of legal, diplomatic, administrative, and interpretive impasses that severely hamstrings much of its future options absent a definitive agreement on status with Serbia.

Kosovo’s independence from Serbia is assured, this much is certain. But to date there is no evidence to suggest that its disputed sovereignty will be resolved any time soon As stated above, the April agreements placed Serbia under no obligation to recognize Kosovo’s independence as accession talks with the EU were formally approved. Rather, a vaguely worded clause in the 15-point agreement stipulates that “neither side will block, or encourage others to block, the other side’s progress in their respective EU paths”. Serbia has little to fear from Kosovo blocking anything, but this gives little assurance to Kosovo that other states that have not recognized its independence will not hinder its uncharted road to full sovereignty. It is still too early to gauge how these agreements will affect Kosovo’s international standing, but it is fairly safe to predict that any new recognition will still not be enough to lift Kosovo out of the diplomatic limbo it has found itself in.

Serbia will most likely get a formal date of accession by January 2014 at the latest. Kosovo on the other hand has been given the vague promise of entering into preliminary SAA negotiations, but no official timeframe has been announced, nor has any strategy been formulated. With five EU countries still not recognizing Kosovo’s sovereignty and at least Spain and Cyprus standing indefinitely firm on that decision, it is unknown what good promises future EU integration will provide, and whether Kosovo’s status will ever be definitively solved. Another challenge for Kosovo is membership in the United Nations, which remains ultimately blocked by a veto from either Russia or China at the Security Council. Despite some beliefs that enough recognitions could produce a majority support in the General Assembly to force a vote of membership that would make it unpopular for any permanent member of the Security Council to veto, this has not yet happened. A similar scenario with the Palestinian Authority has not dissuaded the United States from taking such a position.

International obstacles notwithstanding, internal problems also persist in Kosovo. The quick response by Serbian leaders in Kosovo’s de facto controlled north against the April agreement serves as a reminder that the region will not “integrate” into the rest of Kosovo as leaders in Pristina and elsewhere might want to think. The most likely scenario will be some form of parallel autonomy where Serbian-based institutions continue to operate if not in the open then at least covertly within some loose, and largely symbolic, framework of Kosovo authority. Beyond the saturated attention given to the north, as long as many members of Pristina’s political elite are protected by and remain overly dependent on Washington, Kosovo’s reputation as a consolidated liberal democracy will be in question. Opposition to the establishment exists, but largely consists of national populist movements like Self-Determination, which promotes a far more ethnocentric understanding of Kosovo’s statehood than the model crafted by the West, and at times supports efforts at creating a “Greater Albania”. Caught as it is between an unpopular leadership by its people and an unpopular opposition by its international sponsors, Kosovo independence will indeed remain “supervised” for the indefinite future. Additionally, Kosovo runs the risk of simply being neglected as an entity whose integration in international institutions are overshadowed by Serbia’s accession and stymied by a collection of conflicting arrangements and agreements over the years that keep it as much in diplomatic deadlock as the Palestinian Authority, northern Cyprus, or any other disputed territory and parastate.

Though Serbia has largely lost its leverage in keeping Kosovo as a frozen conflict, internal problems of authority, sovereignty, political mismanagement, and institutional dysfunctionality all seem to fill the proverbial vacuum. Serbia has been given a “green light” to the EU while Kosovo remains bogged down in conflicting and competing classifications that impede it from functioning as a normal independent state. Years of disputed status have actually produced a new generation of Albanian and Serbian elites in Pristina, Kosovska Mitrovica and elsewhere that have benefitted quite successfully from the lack of sovereign oversight, are quite happy to keep things as they are, monopolize the political scene through a combination of national populism and security dilemmas, and demobilize any opposition movement generally interested in reconciliation with the other side and empowering citizens to hold their elected officials accountable.

If Kosovo is ever to be the functioning state its supporters routinely think it is, considerable attention will have to be paid to issues of power-sharing between Kosovo Serbs and Albanians, reduction in the dependency the United States and other powers place in a handful of highly corrupt individuals to ensure stability and order, and an honest assessment of conflict resolution with Serbia that definitively defines what Kosovo’s status is within an international legal framework. If Serbia has to recognize Kosovo before becoming a full member of the EU, it is highly likely that additional guarantees of cultural and institutional autonomy will have to be given to the Kosovo Serb community beyond what the Ahtisaari Plan envisioned; possibly elevating the Assembly of Serbian Municipalities to a status similar to Republika Srpska in Bosnia. As much as the burden of responsibility has been traditionally placed on the shoulders of Belgrade, its goal of receiving a clear roadmap to Brussels has now been achieved. The new challenge will focus squarely on Kosovo and the new questions will be what Kosovo needs to do in order to be recognized as a legally sovereign state and what conditions are necessary to be considered a member of the European Union. If Serbia’s efforts up to now have been herculean, Kosovo’s efforts, particularly with the above-mentioned inconvenient truths remaining unaddressed, risks being Sisyphean.

Michael Rossi currently serves as Instructor in the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University and has recently served as Visiting Assistant Professor at the College of New Jersey. His current research centers around the role of historical memory and its association with political culture during transitions from authoritarian rule. He is also working on a manuscript that focuses on the role of state-sponsored memory in modern Serbia, a segment of which was recently published in Nationalities Papers titled “In Search of a Democratic Cultural ‘Alternative’: Serbia’s European Heritage from Dositej Obradovic to OTPOR”.

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