Kosovo turned fourteen on 17th of February. Celebrating the anniversary of its independence, the hope for long-awaited democratic transformation of the country remains.
Kosovo represents one of the most complex pieces of the jigsaw that is the Western Balkans. The declaration of independence that came on 17 February 2008 created a new reality on the ground in Kosovo and spawned a set of challenges both inside and outside of the Western Balkans. Fourteen years since independence, the struggle to gain international recognition persists, with membership of key international multilateral organisations yet to be realised. Internally, Kosovo’s institutions remain weak, but the country remains stubbornly on its path towards democracy.
Creating a new state
The period after the NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia in 1999 marked intense peacebuilding led by the international community. Kosovo was immediately placed under international tutelage by the United Nation Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) under the auspices of Resolution 1244. Between 1999 and 2008 in particular, Kosovo was a hub for international organisations and NGOs. This phase saw the emergence of the country’s provisional institutions – a hybrid form of institutions co-governed by the international community and local actors, although it should be said, with a limited role for the latter group.
The declaration of independence took place after the so-called Vienna negotiations which set out the final internationally agreed status for Kosovo. It became clear early on in these negotiations that there would not be a desirable ending for Kosovo, as Kosovo and Serbia didn’t agree any common goal. However, the process concluded with the Marti Ahtisaari Plan – named for the former Finnish President who guided the process – which set out not just the foundation for the independence of Kosovo, but also the shape that the newly established multi-ethnic state should take. The plan focused primarily on practical issues of governance in Kosovo, where minority rights would occupy a central place.
Navigating the new reality
Internally, in 2008, Kosovo entered a state-building process which raised many complex challenges. This process took place simultaneously with the democratic transformation of the country – which for other countries in the region had already begun in the early 2000s following the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. The process of state-building happened with half an eye on the European Union (EU) – which in 2003 had formally acknowledged the prospect of enlargement to the Western Balkan countries in the framework of the Thessaloniki Summit.
Transferring competences away from the international community in Kosovo proved to be a difficult process. Add to this the fact that Kosovo continued to have its independence supervised until 2012 by the International Community Office (ICO) and EULEX (the EU Rule of Law Mission) which had been present in the country since 2008 (as a replacement for the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo/UNMIK which to date remains present in Kosovo under Resolution 1244). While the process of transferring competences from the international actors to local political actors has been taking place, challenges persist. Kosovo’s institutions have remained weak, and political instability has shaken almost every government that has held office. Strengthening the rule of law – similarly to other countries in the region – remains one of the biggest challenges which has an ongoing detrimental impact on the process of completing the statehood process which began officially in 2008.
Externally, international diplomatic recognition decreased significantly after 2008 as the world began shifting from the U.S.-sponsored position that supported the case of Kosovo. Fourteen years on, Kosovo continues to struggle to gain recognition by two countries in its region (namely, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) and five member states of the European Union (Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain), thus creating massive political obstacles for Kosovo to advance in its drive for EU membership. The lack of diplomatic recognition and international support was also one of the key obstacles which prevented Kosovo from gaining membership of UNESCO and INTERPOL. Thus, UN and EU membership, and the unblocking of Kosovo’s path internationally remain a distant goal and are heavily dependent on the outcome of the ongoing Kosovo- Serbia Dialogue (discussed below).
Furthermore, a de-recognition campaign led by Serbia has had a detrimental impact on Kosovo as many countries have withdrawn their diplomatic recognition, further eroding Kosovo’s position in the international arena.
Completing statehood through the Kosovo – Serbia Dialogue
Incomplete states with partial recognition tend to become an obstacle for the international system – in the case of Kosovo a burned of the U.S. which has been investing immense political capital to complete Kosovo statehood internationally. Moreover, the case of Kosovo also risks generating instability in the region which would in turn have a detrimental impact in the EU. This is even more pertinent following the invasion of Ukraine and the the crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina each of which will impact the security architecture in Europe.
Trying to find a solution which would potentially bring recognition for Kosovo, in 2011 the EU and the UN General Assembly launched the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue, which is directly facilitated by the EU. The overarching goal of the dialogue would be the prospect of a path to EU membership for both countries. For Kosovo, the dialogue would achieve what the Vienna Negotiations failed to realise – a solution which included Serbia’s recognition, and which paved the way for Kosovo to complete the recognition saga and become a UN and NATO member. Meanwhile, EU membership would also depend on the country’s willingness and capacity to deliver the necessary reforms set down by the EU.
More than one decade of negotiations has produced only minimal results. What started as a process which aimed to normalise relations between Kosovo and Serbia turned into a conflict-prevention exercise in which the EU (un)intentionally got directly involved.
The series of agreements which have been reached have made only slight changes on the ground, most of these being on a technical level, regulating issues such as energy, telecommunications, freedom of movement and so on. However, the dialogue failed to address the elephant in the room, The Brussels Agreement (2013), which is part of the political dialogue among the heads of state, attempted to offer an acceptable solution, but the lack of sustainability and implementation saw limited impact being made.
While the dialogue has become more complex as a final deal seemed distant and the EU was losing its credibility to be in the driving seat, the idea of a ‘land swap’ between the two nations emerged. This idea has been considered to be of high risk and a complete violation of the liberal ideals upon which Kosovo has been built. The security repercussions of any potential land swap rose red flags among EU member states, some of whom feared a domino effect of border changes in the region – with Bosnia and Herzegovina foremost in people’s mind. However, while this idea was predominantly rejected by most EU member states, very little has been done to challenge the current status quo. To date, the U.S. alongside the European Union and the United Kingdom are investing political capital to create favourable political circumstances to resume the EU facilitated dialogue and pave the way for the final deal to be signed. This is particularly important due to political tectonic changes in Kosovo and the upcoming elections in Serbia, thus both countries will have their legitimate leaders to conclude the dialogue.
Democracy and EU membership
The prospect of EU membership is the key driving force behind the democratization process of Kosovo. With the extensive presence in Kosovo of international organisation with executive powers – including through EULEX – one would assume that EU membership would be a good bargaining chip.
Nevertheless, the situation on the ground tells another story. First, for the EU, Kosovo has been one of the biggest and hardest issues to deal with. These challenges have prevented the EU from having a common foreign policy approach in Kosovo, thus politically impacting the enlargement process toward Kosovo. In 2008, the newly created reality put the EU to the test. Without the recognition of all its members, the EU which already lacks a common foreign policy and security agenda – failed to effectively manage the case of Kosovo. To date, the EU does not explicitly offer any prospect of membership for Kosovo. The most notable strategic documents state that Kosovo should be given EU membership when the political circumstances allow – referring to the five EU countries who to date have refused to recognise the independence of Kosovo and to the open dialogue with Serbia.
To further complicate things, the EU failed to grant Kosovo visa liberalisation (a process which had formally started in 2012 when Kosovo received the visa liberalisation roadmap). Thus, while Kosovo has fulfilled the criteria since 2018 and the European Commission and the Parliament have given the green light.
All these elements jeopardise the credibility as well as the political power of the EU to oversee the delivery of the dialogue. Hence, Kosovo sees strategic partnerships with the U.S. and UK as key to getting to the dialogue process over the finish line.
The new government and the hope for democracy
Kosovo can be seen as a glimmer of hope, showing that change is possible in the Western Balkans. In 2021, Kosovo undertook a dramatic turn after the February general elections brought the leftist Vetevendosje – a grassroot civic initiative to power. Vetevendosje’s results make them the most popular left-wing political party in the history of Kosovo.
Vetevendosje victory marked a major shift in Kosovo political landscape. With Vetevendosje receiving a majority in the Kosovar Assembly, leading the government, and getting the Presidency in partnership with Vjosa Osmani’s list, the old ruling elite which governed the country since 2000 has been completely stripped from power. For the first time, Kosovo is governed by people who were not part of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the previous governments, thus marking a major change in the country’s political elite. Furthermore, Vetevendosje ran on the reform ticket promising to reverse state-capture and move the country toward democracy, by promising to fight endemic corruption and organized crime in the country.
Vetevendosje’s victory is also a novelty in terms of the ideological orientation of political parties in Kosovo. A complex party landscape in Kosovo left all political parties in ideological limbo, with most having no clear orientation. Thus, in addition to the reform ticket, Vetevendosje spoke to the citizens of Kosovo with leftist narrative focusing on social and welfare policies, consequently marking a shift from the former elites which have been accused of losing connection with the citizens.
While elections can bring change, the real question is whether they bring real change on the ground? With the promise to reverse state-capture and corruption, the country is being led by reformist President Vjosa Osmani and Prime minister Albin Kurti. Both ran in the election on a reform ticket and set expectations high that there would be a last push toward the finish line in the dialogue with Serbia and that there would be a strengthening of the rule of law.
Against all the odds, in an environment in which democracy is being seriously challenged, in Kosovo, the hope for democratic transformation prevails. While for the citizens of Kosovo the 2021 elections provided a glimpse of hope, it also further adds to the pressure on the current leaders to lead the country in probably it’s darkest hour. A multi-pronged approach is needed to address the internal challenges including the fight against corruption and to deliver on internal reforms in the country, whereas externally, the country’s leaders need to create a position in relation to the dialogue with Serbia, along with the country’s strategic partners, in completing the statehood jigsaw and to make Kosovo a story of success.
If you enjoyed this piece you might enjoy the rest of our ‘Spotlight on the Western Balkans’ series. The previous piece, on North Macedonia’s struggle to achieve EU membership can be found here.