By Marc Weller
Counselling caution in the exercise of Kosovo’s foreign policy is not the same as suggesting that Pristina must bow to every demand made by the international community. It is right to point to the unbalanced treatment of Kosovo, especially when compared to the easy rehabilitation of Serbia. Kosovo is also entitled to argue for its interests.
However, the present leadership has chosen the wrong targets for its new assertiveness. The boundary issue, ethnic relations and the Special Chambers all touch raw nerves with the international community. These are among the most sensitive international issues at the best of times, even among states in far less volatile regions. They are all the more sensitive in relation to Kosovo. They do require handling, but very careful and delicate handling. Moreover, in all of these instances Kosovo appears to oppose its own commitments and agreements.
The time to voice concern and offer alternatives would have been before the commitments were made. To undo these commitments now is not possible without tarnishing Kosovo’s standing in ways the country cannot afford. Instead, attention should be directed towards the careful management of issues where previous action cannot be reversed, and to ensure that no further mistakes are made in the important upcoming period for Kosovo.
This is all the more important, as this year and next will be crucial in charting the future of both Kosovo and Serbia, including the upcoming negotiations on normalization of relations between the two and closer relations with the EU. There will be no alternative for Kosovo to form a national consensus on the key aspects of its external relations if it does not wish to end up in isolation while Serbia develops its relations with both Russia and the EU.
PART II: Kosovo’s Foreign Policy Constraints
Kosovo’snewly assertive foreign policy is a result of frustration with the limitations imposed upon Kosovo by the international community. After the period of formal supervision through UNMIK, these constraints still manifest themselves in the strong role exercised by international players, in particular the US and EU, in relation to its domestic policies.
This is coupled with what is experienced as unjust pressures applied against Kosovo. These include the demand that it must settle its border with Montenegro before the EU might contemplate visa liberalization, the insistence that Kosovo must proceed with the rather unbalanced project of the Special Chambers for war crimes in Kosovo, and the need to respect the constraints placed upon Kosovo in the Ahtisaari peace plan accepted upon independence.
Additional international demands which stick in the throat of Kosovo politicians and elements or the public relates to the establishment of an association of Serb municipalities in Kosovo in order to progress the normalization process with Belgrade.
These pressures seem particularly unjust to the Kosovars, especially as no such demands have been made in relation to Belgrade. Yet, Serbia was the author of the genocide in Bosnia, launched the conflict in Croatia, and maintained the repression in Kosovo. It caused the death of between 10,000 and 15,000 Kosovars during the conflict of 1998/9, while forcibly displacing nearly half its population. Still, Belgrade has failed to accept its own responsibility for the suffering inflicted upon the region. Indeed, instead of contrite apology, it continues to maintain an at times aggressive campaign against Kosovo’s statehood and against Kosovo’s membership in international organization.
Very recently, there have been overtures from the President of Serbia, suggesting that Belgrade too has to accept and live with the past and its consequences. However, these are counter-balanced by disruptive moves. This included the launch of a train towards Kosovo, bearing provocative Serb nationalist symbols and proclaiming Kosovo to be part of Serbia forever.
Moreover, Serbia has failed to deliver many of its commitments made during the normalization process with Kosovo thus far. Nevertheless it always seems to be Kosovo that is singled out for international criticism and for further demands for concessions to Belgrade.
Against this background, a certain degree of impatience with the international community, including Kosovo’s allies, is understandable. However, mature politics consists of recognizing realities, swallowing irritations and calmly shaping a calculated response through statesmanship, rather than through erratic action.
The first step in this process consists of understanding the special and particular situation occupied by Kosovo. Clearly, for those living within Kosovo, there are many challenges of daily life connected with the economic and perhaps also the deadlocked political situation. Yet, such frustrations can also be experienced in other states.
What is less obvious when living in Kosovo is the unique and, even after ten years of statehood, still vulnerable position of the state within the international system. Kosovo is not a state like any other.
Consider the case of the Catalans. Their campaign for independence was conducted against a Western European government, supposedly constrained in its actions by European standards of human rights and democracy. Despite these advantages, their campaign for independence has not succeeded as yet. The international preference for maintaining the status quo, and the territorial unity of existing states, was too strong. Even an otherwise moderate state like Spain was in the end internationally unconstrained in taking vigorous action to try and stifle the spirit of independence.
Kosovo’s success in achieving independence against the wishes of the central government in Belgrade is a unique and very rare case that goes against the very grain of the international order. With a few noteworthy exceptions, most self-determination movements operating outside of the colonial context have failed, often causing much loss of life and tragedy in the process. The international order tends to privilege territorial stability over the self-determination of populations.
Kosovo, like the other two recent exceptions of Eritrea and South Sudan, succeeded against the odds, due to the long-term and unerring dedication to independence of its people and leaders, and their willingness to endure suffering in order to move towards statehood. In Kosovo’s case, the excesses of the Milosevic regime in the former Yugoslavia also undermined the claim for continued unity of the Socialist Federal Republic.
Yet, the eventual success of Kosovo’s campaign for statehood still required absolutely extraordinary steps. This includes the use of significant armed force by NAT—the launching of an actual war–against a sovereign state on the European continent. Such a circumstance would have been deemed unthinkable during the Cold War years and its aftermath of the 1990s.
This action was taken against the preference of most leaders, even in the West, who maintained ties with Serbia reaching back to World War II. It jeopardized relations between the West and Russia, which emerged as Serbia’s key ally in the process. And it divided the EU. Several of its members still have not recognized Kosovo, given their anxieties that the spirit of secession might also infect them.
It then took close to a decade and billions of (admittedly wasteful) international funding to provide for international administration of Kosovo while the international diplomatic terrain was prepared for independence. Even then, the final status process lead by MartiiAhtisaari turned out to be highly divisive.
Independence in the absence of agreement from Serbia, and from the UN Security Council, could only be contemplated in close collaboration with those states that had come to support Kosovo since the NATO intervention. They, and NATO, provided the umbrella under which this dangerous action going against the grain of the international system could be carried through successfully.
Their presence forced Serbia to oppose the secession through diplomatic, rather than military means. This first took the form of the challenge to Kosovo’s statehood in the International Court of Justice—a challenge defeated spectacularly with very strong legal and diplomatic backing from the Western states. This resulted in a demand by the UN General Assembly that Serbia should now focus on the EU-led normalization process of its relations with Kosovo, rather than undermining its existence.
However, Serbia has continued to obstruct Kosovo’s absorption into the international system. True, Kosovo has obtained some 114 recognitions from among the 194 or so other states of the world. This is in excess of the aim of achieving recognitions from more than half of the global population of states. However, due to its close relationship with Russia, Serbia has managed to frustrate Kosovo’s attempts to enter into the United Nations and associated agencies. It recently defeated Kosovo’s application for UNESCO membership, seen as the easiest point of entry into the UN System, by the narrowest majority of votes, outmanoeuvring Kosovo in the process and antagonizing some of Prishtina’s allies, who had counselled against this step at that point..
The release of confidential US Wikileaks correspondence shows that Serbia has even invested in trying to persuade states that recognized Kosovo to de-recognize it, on occasion using financial and other inducements in the process.
Serbia’s position has been strengthened by Russia’s determination to assert itself again on the global scene. This campaign has ranged from action in Ukraine to its intervention in Syria. Serbia has benefitted as President Putin’s only close ally at the heart of Europe. This has resulted in important agreements relating to energy and military defence support. And, it has given Belgrade the reassurance that it can continue to rely on Russia diplomatic cover for the indefinite future. Indeed, at the end of December, President Putin formally agreed to insist to stand by Serbia’s side in any negotiations about Kosovo, while pledging the delivery of modern air defence missiles to Belgrade.
This, in turn, has reduced the efficacy of Brussel’s threat of slowing down the EU association process as a means of influencing Belgrade. Close relations with Russia now seem to be preferred by many in Serbia to rapid EU integration. Serbia can play the card of relative unconcern about possible EU membership with far greater force than before. Suddenly, it is the EU that must fear ‘loosing’ Serbia, rather than Serbia fearing to lose its chance of EU early entry.
In an effort to revive the flame of EU ambition, Brussels has recently suggested that Serbia is a front-runner in the next round of admissions to membership, foreseen for around 2015. Others may have to wait in the cue far longer and may have to be satisfied with the second prize of the insubstantive ‘Berlin process’, intended to keep the likely Balkan losers in the race to membership engaged.
Serbia therefore occupies an important position in a geopolitical game between East and West. Kosovo cannot easily claim the same for itself. Its less advantageous position will be made worse if it takes on the appearance of an erratic player in foreign policy that cannot be relied upon, as has been the case recently.
Indeed, where Kosovo is concerned, the EU may be said to be in fact rather relieved that Kosovo has itself erected a significant number of stumbling blocks in the process of building closer relations with Prishtina. Many EU member states would privately admit that they are anything but keen to see Kosovo, a mainly Muslim entity in constant need of financial subsidy that is sadly gripped by corruption and other unhappy practices, as a EU member anytime soon.
Failure to ratify the Montenegro Border deal has removed pressure to grant visa-free travel—a concession that, for many Western European states had seemed like a bridge too far.
Such a concession had been granted to the Ukraine, perhaps in sympathy to its troubles in relation to a resurgent Russia. However, given the anti-immigrant mood throughout the continent, granting visa-free travel, even for a relatively small state like Kosovo, is not a popular act at this point. Its mainly Muslim identity may have contributed to this sense. Hence, it is much easier to blame Kosovo for failing to meet the stipulated requirements, rather than having to implement such a domestically unpopular pledge.
In addition to the border issue with Montenegro, the attempt to remove the Special Chambers on war crimes and other recent actions pose challenges to the EU mission in Kosovo. As its very name suggests, EULEX takes pride in its work to enhance the rule of law in Kosovo. Any actionthat seems to undermine the administration of justice thus offers additional reasons to slow down or delay discussions about association with Brussels. This may offer cover for the fact that many present EU members are less than keen on yet more, economically week and socially unstable members.
Kosovo will, on the other hand, need to continue relying on significant financial support from its Western partners, just as its population relies on the remittances for the many Kosovo Albanians who have used their enterprise, diligence and initiative to generate economic success in the West. There is little alternative. Albania certainly is in no position to offer major financial subsidies.
Hence, Kosovo will need to secure its economic future through three pillars. This includes deeper sub-regional integration and cooperation with its neighbours to help kick-start its economy. Second, there is the need to maintain the flow of financial assistance from the US, EU and other key, friendly states, and encourage further investment from those quarters. Third, it needs to try and encourage investment from non-traditional partners, which may include Russia and even China, to give them a stake in the success of the development of Kosovo.
None of these three pillars can be successfully constructed unless Kosovo can portray itself as a stable society, focused on economic development and the social health of its population, offering an educated and dedicated workforce. An adventurous and erratic foreign policy, pandering to nationalist constituencies and a sense of wounded national pride will not assist this aim.
This is all the more true, inasmuch as many of Kosovo’s ‘traditional’ friends and financial and diplomatic supporters have only acquired this tradition rather recently, as a result of their reluctant participation in the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999. This includes the UK and France. In both states there remains a sense that the traditional friend an ally, going back to the first half of the 20th century, has always been Serbia. Some think that the loss of friendship with Serbia was regrettable and retain significant sympathies for Belgrade. Other states, like Italy and Greece, have been given strong economic incentives to maintain warmer relations with Belgrade. They or their nationals have been offered, and have grasped with both hands, important infrastructure investment opportunities dangled in front of them by the Serb leadership.
Kosovo, on the other hand, has not yet made use of the opportunities for investment in the exploitation of its in part rich natural resources and in its developing infrastructure as a tool of forging strategic relations with states. Key decisions in this area seem to have been taken for different reasons by some Kosovo politicians seeking to advance their own personal standing with the one or other foreign state or investor, rather than the national strategic interest. This has squandered opportunities to build and develop strategic relationships.