European Western Balkans

From Contestation to Cooperation? Kosovo Non-recognizers’ Positions and the New Political Landscape

Vjosa Osmani and Albin Kurti; Photo: Twitter / albinkurti

A piece by Miruna Butnaru Troncotă and Cemaliye Beysoylu.

The landslide victory of Albin Kurti’s anti establishment Vetevendosje Movement in the Sunday 14th of February snap elections, right before the country’s 13th anniversary of independence, marks a beginning of a new era in Kosovo politics. Kurti and his anti-establishment party has cultivated electoral support by promising mostly domestic reform.

His victory indeed, brings new hopes and a breath of fresh air to domestic politics by dethroning the old guards that has dominated Kosovo’s political scenery for the last two decades. Yet what impact will this have on Kosovo’s international status and particularly on the position of five EU non-recognizers? Here we make some predictions on Cyprus and Romania’s likely reaction to the new turn of events.

For the last two years, Kosovo has been consumed by a series of crises ranging from an escalating tension between Kosovo’s President and Prime minister, fall of first Kurti government due to a no-confidence vote in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the indictment and detention of President Hashim Thaçi for war crimes, followed by the Constitutional Court’s decision to annul the fragile coalition government of the Avdullah Hoti and a new snap elections for February 2021.

Domestic hardship has been coupled with freezing relations with Serbia; rising external pressure from non-recognizers and other EU member states. Despite the increased polarization, Kurti’s VV scored 47.9, gaining the highest percentage of support that any party has ever received in Kosovo’s highly fragmented political scenery. Such victory is a strong indicator of citizens disenchantment with established parties and a demand for change.

Kurti’s victory will no doubt have an impact beyond domestic matters. Particularly the new government’s position regarding the dialogue with Serbia and Kurti’s comments on Kosovo’s relations with Albania is likely to have strong reverberations particularly in European circles. But how will the EU’s five non-recognizers will respond? Below we are assessing Romania and Cyprus’s likely position towards Kosovo in the foreseeable future.

Romania’s Approach on Kosovo: from a rigid NO to a relative openness and flexibility

When reviewing the last 13 years and the main official statements by Romanian decision makers on the issue of Kosovo recognition, there are several stages one can observe.

First, it all started with a fierce NO. Back in 2008, just one day after Kosovo declared its independence, the plenum of the two chambers of the Romanian Parliament, in agreement with the position of the President and the Government of Romania, noted that it regrets that negotiations “in the right spirit of international law” have failed and announced that it does not recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Next, in 2010, after the ICJ opinion, before the International Court of Justice, the Romanian MFA State Secretary Bogdan Aurescu pleaded in favour of Serbia’s position, arguing that allowing the unilateral secession of Kosovo “would lead to extremely severe consequences for the international judicial law.

This would mean that any province, district, county or even the smallest settlement from any border of any state would have the international law’s permission to declare its independence and to obtain secession”. Moreover, the Romanian President at that time Traian Băsescu has continued to take a steadfast stand for non-recognising Kosovo until the end of his second mandate.

A visible change in Romania’s rigid policy occurred for the first time in 2012/2013, when the new head of the Romanian government, Victor Ponta, leader of the Socialist Democratic Party, indicated, on several occasions, that he militates rather for a swift recognition of Kosovo than for an inflexible approach. This was for the first time when a Romanian politician made such a statement. Second such remark came in 2013. Shortly after the signing of Brussels Agreement for the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina and just before the European Council in June 2013, when a certain date for the beginning of accession talks with Serbia was expected, Mircea Geoana, a senator of the Social Democratic Party serving as the High Representative of the PM Ponta at the time, explicitly advocated for the recognition of Kosovo.

This new position was neither shared by the President Băsescu nor it reflects a significant change in how the Romanian political class sees the Kosovo issue. The move was rather a result of diplomatic pressure from the U.S, Romania’s strategic partner and a clash between the polarised views of the President and the Prime due to political competition, did not bring any U turn in Romania’s policy. However, in Romania, the constitutional prerogatives of the President are essential to the recognition or non-recognition of a state so this episode was slowly forgotten.

Romania’s subsequent President Klaus Iohannis, who has started his second term in 2019, had no official position on the matter. An exception was in 2018, when in an official meeting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, he unexpectedly proposed to Belgrade and Prishtina to consider Romania as a mediator in the Dialogue, considered beneficial for the EU integration process. This sparked harsh reaction and strict rejection of such proposal in Pristina.

Beyond these episodic ambivalent official statements, what one can clearly observe in the last years is that Romania became one of the milder non-recognisers and has softened its approach in comparison to other non-recognizers. For example, in the meanwhile Romania has widely participated in international missions in Kosovo, becoming one of Europe’s main contributors. Moreover, it did not block any of Kosovo’s attempts to become a member of other international organisations. Romania acted constructively when in 2014 Kosovo was first invited to a SEECP meeting in Bucharest during Romania’s presidency. In a similar vein, when Kosovo started its one-year Chairmanship (2019/2020) of the SEECP in July 2019, neither Romania nor Greece oppose the event.

This openness continued when between 31 January-1 February 2019 Kosovo’s First Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Behgjet Pacolli attended the Informal meeting of foreign affairs ministers of the European Union, also known as Gymnich, that included a meeting between the foreign ministers of EU member states and candidate countries. One can not claim that this indicated a change in Romania’s logic towards Kosovo’s non-recognition, but could be interpreted as part of its overall support for the EU integration of the Western Balkans as a whole, that was added on its list of priorities during its 2019 Presidency at the EU Council. These are, in our view signs, that Romania’s rigid non-recognising position towards Kosovo became relatively milder in recent years.

Cyprus’s Approach on Kosovo: As Rigid as Ever

Cyprus has long adopted an uncompromising position as a non-recognizer, alongside Spain, becoming one of the most restrictive EU member state on the recognition of Kosovo.

Mainly two factors have contributed to Cyprus’ position. At a rhetorical level, denying recognition to Kosovo is a direct consequence of Republic of Cyprus’ adamant commitment to the principles of state sovereignty and territorial integrity. As in the case of other non-recognizers though, this commitment is fueled by domestic political concerns. Foreign policy of Republic of Cyprus has long been beleaguered by the failure to find a mutually agreeable solution with its own breakaway region Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, that has unilaterally declared independence in 1983. Due to the fears that recognition of breakaway territories may serve as an example or elevate Turkish Cypriot claims of statehood, Cyprus remains a fierce opponent of such moves elsewhere.

The issue of Kosovo is not really a matter of domestic concern in Cyprus. While public is largely apathetic, politicians finds strength in consensus amongst local political forces, where no party is willing to endanger the ‘national problem’ for foreign matters.

Secondly Nicosia’s cultural and religious ties through their common Christian Orthodox faith with Belgrade has a role to play. From the period of Balkan Wars to recent events, Nicosia has remained as a firm supporter of Serbian cause, condemning NATO’s 1999 military operation against Milosevic’ forces and later become one of the strong advocates of Serbia’s EU membership. Their struggle with territorial integrity and secession have only cemented this relationship.

In July 2012, while Cyprus was running the EU presidency, Cypriot Foreign Minister Erato Kozaku-Marcoullis chose Serbia for her first visit to a foreign country, visiting her counterpart Ivan Mrkić in Belgrade. The visit highlighted two countries mutual commitment to support each other’s territorial integrity, as Kozaku-Marcoullis reiterated Cyprus’ support to Serbia’s EU membership and Cypriot presidency’ is aim to push for opening of accession negotiations with Serbia.

In 2008, in a strong worded declaration, Cyprus’s Foreign Ministry asserted that Kosovo’s declaration of independence is violating international law. Cypriot President of the time, Tassos Papadopoulos even went further to declared on impulse that Cyprus would not recognise Kosovo even if Serbia does. Nicosia also abstained itself from voting to deploy EULEX -the EU’s largest ever civilian mission- and to this date did not contribute to its staffing.

Additionally, Cyprus’ quarrel with NATO member Turkey over its ‘national problem’ has prevented any formal cooperation to be launched between KFOR and EULEX.

Over the years, some non-recognizers have softened their approach and opted to engage with Pristina further. Greece, Slovakia and Romania, all, opened liaison offices in Pristina. Cyprus did not follow the course but learned to act constructively to find consensus with other EU member states.

Cyprus’s desire to avoid a label of ‘single issue’ member whose only concern is using the EU leverage to gain advantage over Turkey and Turkish Cypriot Community, has brought a new found realisation that she needs to reconsider its foreign policy. Rather than opting to block Kosovo’s European path in its entirety, she devoted her energy for carefully crafted policies that will not endanger the EU institutions neutrality and keep the EU missions in Kosovo fully adhered to the UNSCR 1244.

For instance, Cyprus insisted in having an explicit decision of the UN Security Council’ legally backing deployment of EULEX in accordance to UNSCR 1244’.

Still, due to the fear of possible implication engagement with Kosovo may have on similar cases, Cyprus uses its veto power. For instance, Cyprus opposes granting EU visa liberalisation to Kosovo.

In 2013 the unforeseen meeting of Ioannis Kasoulides, Cypriot Foreign Minister at the time, with his Kosovar counterpart with Enver Hoxhaj and Kosovo PM Hasim Thaci, increased expectations of Cyprus to soften its approach, Cyprus’s official position has remained pretty much the same since.

Cyprus still refrains from any meaningful engagement with Pristina and continues to block Kosovo’s membership to other international organizations and platforms. Amongst 11 EU member states that have participated to the ICJ’s public hearing, Cyprus (alongside Spain and Romania) pleaded that Kosovo’s rights are limited to those that has been recognized by the UNSCR 1244 and declaration of independence has violated international law. She also voted against Pristina’s bid to join UNESCO in 2015, and to Interpol in 2018.

What to expect for the future?

In a recent interview for Euronews, Kosovo’s newly elect Prime Minister Albin Kurti suggested that the Dialogue with Serbia would not be a priority of his mandate. He also said that he would vote for uniting with Albania if a referendum would be organized. These statements sparked many reactions in both countries, and confirmed what many experts worried regarding the tensions that his political stances could have on the Dialogue with Serbia. How will these political changes in Kosovo impact Romania and Cyprus’s position?

In the case of Romania we should underline the fact that some of the most active voices mentioned in the previous analysis now hold different influential positions at the national level or in international organisations. This could be an aspect that needs to be taken into consideration when considering the future evolution of Romania’s position on Kosovo.

For example, Bogdan Aurescu, who wrote Romania’s position towards rejecting the ICJ opinion back in 2010 is now Romania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Also, Mircea Geoană, the Senator that pleaded for Kosovo’s recognition back in 2013 is now NATO’s Deputy Secretary General and  just recently declared that: “As a Romanian, I strongly believe that the future of the Western Balkans lies with the Euro-Atlantic community of advanced and prosperous democracies”.

Overall, the topic of Kosovo, in particular and the Western Balkans, is absent from Romania’s public agenda. They appear only periodically when certain events happen. Only very recently a new generation of young Romanian researchers started to write policy briefs on the region and on the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue in particular (such as Ana Cojocaru, Greta Roth, Radu Rauta or Dragos Ionita).

What one can expect in the near future is that, on one hand, Romania would not oppose discussions on Kosovo’s visa liberalization in the EU Council, as it has become more flexible on topics outside recognition. On the other hand, there are no significant signs of Romania’s political leaders reconsidering and re-evaluating the official approach on Kosovo. But we can definitely observe that Romania’s position became a bit more flexible and constructive, especially related to the EU integration process.

In the case of Cyprus, the situation is very different. The country remains the most difficult EU member state to convince, unlikely to change its position about Kosovo’s status with its own initiative. But looking back in the last 13 years confirms that Cyprus does not want to be perceived as ‘the odd one out’ in EU foreign policy.

Hence, a dramatic change of events in the Eastern Mediterranean and the fate of Cyprus conflict may push the small island nation to alter its position to cultivate support from other EU members.

Changes in Kosovo’s domestic politics or the electoral victory of VV is unlikely to soften Cyprus’s firm opposition to Kosovo’s independence. To the contrary, Cyprus is likely to harden its approach if Kurti government side-lines the dialogue with Belgrade or triggers a debate on the idea of reunification with Albania. Kurti’s recent statements on these topics could be triggering warnings in this direction.

Overall, beyond Romania’s and Cyprus’s specific domestic agendas on Kosovo, what we can predict is that in the context of the new EU enlargement methodology launched in February 2020 (that puts a greater emphasis on meritocracy, but also on the increased role of member states) and with Bulgaria’s veto against starting negotiations with North Macedonia in December 2020 there will be more space for obstruction and inflexibility on the Balkan region as a whole, including towards decisions on Kosovo’s EU path, from all the five non-recognisers and other EU member states alike.

This article is a part of the research project ‘Building Knowledge About Kosovo 4- Alumni Project’ financed by the Pristina-based Kosovo Foundation for Open Society 2020-2021. Miruna Butnaru Troncotă, PhD is director of Center for European Studies and Lecturer at the National University of Political Sciences and Public Administration (SNSPA) in Bucharest, Romania. Cemaliye Beysoylu, PhD is Lecturer in Politics and International Studies, at the Department of International Relations, Cyprus Science University Ozankoy, Cyprus.

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