European Western Balkans

Blame EU liberals for Kosovo’s inevitable shift to realism

Lunacek with Thaçi; Photo: President of Kosovo

Kosovo’s statehood is not just the result of a popular will for self-determination. It was made possible by the value-based liberal international order dominant in the post-Cold War era.

In 1999, NATO drove out Yugoslavia and the UN suspended its sovereignty over Kosovo due to its policy of ethnic cleansing. In 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence based on the same liberal rulebook. Through a contract with the West, it agreed to present itself as a special case, not a precedent for secessions, and gave strong safeguards for the Serbian minority.

As a “sui-generis” case, Kosovo was recognized by 114 countries, joined many multilateral institutions and started a contractual relation with the EU. The belief was that full international legality – UN membership – would eventually come as Serbia would slowly accept reality. Serbia’s aspiration for EU membership was thought to be the magic wand, because it would expose it to EU conditionality.

Having no other viable alternative, Kosovo played along patiently with the multilateral approach. It took part in an EU-facilitated dialogue with Serbia for seven years, incurring heavy domestic costs. The dialogue consumed political discourse and shifted it away from real-life issues. The lingering tensions and insecurity empowered a corrupt and incompetent political class with patriotic credentials from the war.

While the domestic costs of the dialogue pilled-up, the international payoff never came. Western multilateralism lost steam and couldn’t finish the Kosovo project as planned. The Obama Administration left Kosovo on the EU’s plate. Struck by multiple crisis, the EU lost its focus, unity and leverage. All the while, Russia became more assertive in the region.

Serbia’s EU membership bid ended up having the opposite effect from the one intended in getting the Kosovo knot resolved. Instead of getting conditioned, Serbia got appeased for fear of shifting towards Russia. Serbian President Vučić became the EU’s adored reformer even as he played regional hegemon and limited freedoms at home.

He used this comfortable position to make slow tactical concessions to Kosovo while turning it into a political hostage. Asserting full control over Kosovo Serb politics, he used constitutional safeguards for Serbs to become kingmaker and saboteur in Kosovo.

Kosovo spent years struggling to get attention, stuck in a dialogue that was going nowhere while Serbia’s leverage and control increased. In one of the rare cases where it showed some international agency – the 2016 membership bid in UNESCO – Kosovo was reluctantly supported even by its closest allies due to other priorities. The bid failed.

By 2018, the EU effectively made clear that Kosovo could not take any step further in EU accession due to five non-recognizing states. Which means it has to sign a “comprehensive and legally binding agreement” with Serbia ASAP.

Vučić will only agree to a deal in which Kosovo makes a substantial concession. The EU can’t force his hand so it too expected Kosovo to cave. Preferably by adding a new layer of executive power for an Association of Serb-majority municipalities. That would make Kosovo dysfunctional and fully hostage to Belgrade. Not to mention that there would be no guarantee of a UN seat because of Russia.

Kosovo’s only two real choices are to sign nothing and wait for a better external environment (which is getting worse), or seek something outside of the traditional box.

Supported by powerful corners in the West, Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaçi decided to make a risky and somewhat Kissingerian realist move. He joined forces with Vučić in proposing an alternative solution that would also include some kind of “border correction” – i.e land swaps. The deal, preferred by Serbia, appeals to Russia as well, primarily by serving its interests in Ukraine.

This alarmed many Western diplomats and liberal opinion-makers because of its regional and global implications. Some suggest that Kosovo is backstabbing the value-based international order that enabled its statehood and is breaching its contract with the West.

While many raise valid concerns and fears, they fail to provide viable alternative scenarios in which Kosovo would not be the one continuing to carry global burdens. Kosovo’s contract with the West was the carefully designed Ahtisaari plan – which kept Kosovo unitary and functional. The original breach of contract is the expectation that Kosovo should make further concessions and become dysfunctional in order to appease Serbia.

As a proponent of multilateralism and defender of the dialogue, I too have been feeling pretty backstabbed for the past seven years by the same liberal voices who are now most worried. Most stayed silent in the face of Kosovo’s struggles for recognition, or even engaged in Vučić adoration while he suffocated Kosovo.

EU liberals and decision-makers created perverse incentives by rewarding Vučić for his bullying and destabilizing potential. So it was a matter of time before Thaçi said: “Hold my beer”!

“Border correction” is a terrible deal. As a liberal, I’m disgusted for having to look at maps. As a Kosovar, stuck between a rock and hard place, I can’t help but consider its merits. The stars might not align again for a deal in a long time. That deal is key to creating the space for a much needed political elite change in both countries.

Instead of just rejecting it outright and telling Kosovars to sit put and wait for miracles, Western liberals should focus on how to best contain the regional consequences and make sure liberal principles are sustained.

The EU could start by not making the same mistake again in appeasing Vučić – the EU accession frontrunner – and demand clear legal guarantees on Bosnia’s territorial integrity.

Any deal involving “border correction” will surely see blocking rights for Serbs in Kosovo’s Parliament gone. But it should also make sure that the Kosovo Serb community – the majority of which will in any case stay in Kosovo – has a viable future.

The northern part of Mitrovica should by all means remain part of Kosovo to provide Kosovo Serbs with an urban gravitation center. Kosovo needs a chance to redeem itself for having to get out of this hole by riding on the Devil’s wings. A border on the Mitrovica bridge would be the true Devil’s victory.

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