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How the Quint must help Kosovo

The article was originally published on Koha Ditore website.

Finally, two decades after being separated from Serbia, and one decade after becoming independent, Kosovo has a government that cares about the common good. All governments say this, of course: but unlike those of their predecessors, I think that the words of this government can be trusted.

The task they face is daunting, however. There is the pandemic, and still no vaccines. And there is the heavy inheritance of two decades of misrule, predation, obfuscation, lies. What I would like to discuss is how Kosovo’s foreign friends can help the country.

Kosovo’s best friends are the powers that are usually called ‘the Quint’: France, Germany,  Italy, UK, and the US. They are the ones that chose to intervene militarily in 1999, and that made independence possible in 2008.

From the perspective of the human beings that live within the borders of Kosovo, however, having an independent state is a means to having basic goods such as political liberty, health, education, and a decent life. On this front, unfortunately, the Quint did not behave as Kosovo’s best friend: because it was them who supported the elite that has plundered the country for two decades, while stunting the maturation of its democracy.

And they did not do it by accident: they did it for their own political interests (because they could not admit to the whole world that Kosovo’s elite were not all Ghandis, as well as because there was an implicit pact with that elite: an exchange between docility and tolerance).

One could object that the Quint, and the whole West, sent a lot of money to Kosovo. This is true: between 1999 and 2014, for example, foreign aid equaled about 10% of GDP per year. But did this money help Kosovo?

In part, it certainly did. In part, it was stolen by the elite, cementing its control over society and prolonging its survival for much longer than its performance would have allowed. And in part it was spent on the donors’ petty projects, which did very little to help Kosovo.

The example I best remember is a project for the tagging of small ruminants, financed by the European Commission circa 2010, so that each animal could be identified through a unique number engraved on a small plastic tag attached to their ears. It did not cost much money, admittedly, nor do I deny the importance of knowing which sheep is Giacometta and which is Filippetta: but unless all farmers had access to a digital record system, which they did not, the ear tags would serve the function of adornments instead.

More importantly, that same year, right after having been showered with hundreds of millions of euros by a donors conference, the old elite decided to build a highway that Kosovo did not really need, or needed much less than other things (education, health, local roads, public transport), that was contracted out through an atrocious procurement process, and that cost (10% of GDP) perhaps three times as much as it should have. So two-thirds of the cost were due to either corruption or incompetence, or both. And yet all this happened without the Quint raising more than a timid finger.

European governments were particularly wrong in following this line, because over the long term the interests of the European Union’s citizens are aligned with the interests of Kosovo’s citizens: they both want this country to mature into an open and prosperous democracy, because this is good for the whole region.

So, how could the West, the Quint, and especially the Europeans make amends to Kosovo for their past mistakes? The answer is obvious: by supporting the policies of the new government, if they make sense.

And the best way to support them is to extend budget support to this government. Budget support is a form of aid that trusts the recipient government’s capacity to use it wisely and competently: it is money disbursed into the state’s coffers, for the state to spend on its own priorities.

This is the least that the West and the EU could do. And it would greatly help a government that now faces the task of starting afresh, after two dark decades.

None of this means that this new government should be given a blank cheque. Because nobody is entitled to a blank cheque, as well as because if they fail the old elite is likely to come back, probably in disguise, and Kosovo would sink. So, in its own interest, the new government must be scrutinised rigorously, by the public and by its external partners; and, when they deserve it, they should be criticised sharply. Even more, paradoxically, than the old elite: because if, as I believe, they have the best interests of their citizens at heart, they will listen.

To conclude, the form and amount of aid that will be sent to Kosovo are not technical questions: they are eminently political, and turn on the question of whether or not those governments desire Kosovo and the region to be governed in the interests of its citizens.

If Kosovo’s new government succeeds, in fact, the indirect effects on the region could be very valuable. If Kosovo’s citizens could shake a gang of thieves off their back, thanks to a fairly open public sphere and grassroots mobilisation, why cannot other peoples of the region do likewise? And if they see that the country grows, that lives actually improve, wouldn’t citizens in neighbouring states be tempted to try the same thing? If Kosovo’s new government succeeds, with some luck change might begin to spread through the region.

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