Perspectives | Politics

Two contested agreements and Kosovo’s political domination

By - 08.09.2016

Andrea Capussela argues that Kosovo's deals with Montenegro and Serbia aren't a cause of instability, but a manifestation of its real causes.

Quoting Besa Shahini and referring to the Brussels agreement on the Association-community of Serb Majority Municipalities and the agreement with Montenegro on border demarcation, Eraldin Fazliu writes on K2.0: ‘“The government enlists the power of the international community to pressure everyone into simply accepting the agreements.”’ He adds: ‘A further accusation that has been leveled at the two agreements is that their strong backing from the international community has served to bypass democratic values and debate in Kosovo. The agreements were signed without any debate at home, fueling frustration and confusion about what exactly they entailed.’

I broadly agree with these critiques, but would like to argue that these two agreements are much less a cause of instability than the manifestation of its real causes — incidentally, this was my own contribution to Fazliu’s piece, contrasted with Shahini’s opinion, yet I suppose that our views don’t differ too much.

I also believe that the crisis really began in the second half of 2014, when a small opening for political change was shut down by the forming of the LDK-PDK coalition government.

My starting point is that the two agreements seem not to be without sense, particularly problematic, nor of great importance. Nothing about them justifies the long political crisis that ostensibly revolves around them.

Demarcating the border avoids controversies about where the line exactly runs. This is a good thing, of course, even though I don’t see Kosovo and Montenegro going to war on that should uncertainty remain. Likewise, whether demarcated or not the border is likely to remain vulnerable to smuggling.

It is true that there is disagreement about whether Kosovo loses territory or not, but the matter seems unclear. Taken at face value, the arguments of the government seem plausible, whereas the opposition has not (to my knowledge) shown maps contradicting them. The problem, I suppose, is that experience has taught Kosovars not to take their government’s words at face value — in other words, the primary problem of the agreement is the lack of credibility of the government that signed it.

The other problem is that the EU made it a condition for visa liberalization. This is Brussels’ right and may well be justified due to procedural technicalities of some sort. Yet the final decision is a political one, and it would seem ironic if Kosovo were denied visa liberalization for this reason and not because of another condition, far more important; namely having an efficient and trustworthy law enforcement system.

As to the Brussels agreement on the Association-community, I begin with the observation that Kosovo’s Serb community remains segregated in its enclaves; there has been no tangible progress in this respect for 15 years. I am not sure about the effects of the agreement, and I share the criticism about its use, direct or indirect, of the ethnic criterion in the governance of the law enforcement sector, in breach of the principle of equality.

Yet the agreement was welcomed by Kosovo’s Serb community. If they think that it will improve their lives and help reduce their marginalization, I would equally welcome it (trusting that the mistakes committed in the negotiating room can be remedied through open, reasoned debate).

I welcome it also because I don’t think that it creates problems for either Kosovo’s constitutional structure or for the coherence of government action. The real problem resides in the grossly excessive decentralization rules of the Ahtisaari plan, now irremediably part of the Constitution, which apply to all municipalities, not just the Serb-majority ones.

The real issue, as the K2.0 piece says, is that these agreements were imposed. The West imposed them on Kosovo’s elite, first, and then the latter imposed them on Kosovo’s parliament and electorate, without debate. So these agreements bring two causes of discontent to light: They are the product of a stunted democracy that is politically dominated by foreign powers.

I think that those protesting against the two agreements are really protesting against this; against a corrupt, incompetent, irresponsible and undemocratic political elite, which is guided by foreign powers like parents guide little children, and is, in turn, protected by them like parents protect little children. The two agreements are the occasion — visibly, a good one — for protesting about all of these things, which are the real causes of political instability.

Of these causes, the political domination of Kosovo by foreign powers is the result of its own recent history, and of power relations. Kosovo was effectively created by the U.S. and its main allies, and still largely depends on their political support. During the Cold War Washington and the Christian Democrats who ruled my country, Italy, had a similar relationship, in which docility (but not subservience) was exchanged for support (which brought also many good things to my country). Of course, the Cold War is over and the U.S. needs Kosovo now far less than it needed Italy then.

Nonetheless, it is in the interests of the Western powers to continue using a docile state for their own (self-interested, yes, but often benign) purposes. Since 1999 their policy shows that they (and especially Washington) are quite content with a Kosovo that has less the substance than the forms of democracy, as long as it remains stable. This strongly suggests that they (and especially Washington) see Kosovo as an instrument to be used for ends and policies that go well beyond the small state itself. And why should they give up a useful instrument, however small it may be?

So, I see little that Kosovo can do to bring its own political domination to an end. The imbalance of power poses a forbidding obstacle. Nor can the EU help much, because although seeing Kosovo develop is genuinely in its interest, the Union evidently had some difficulty in asserting it.

If so, the problem is that Kosovo’s domestic problems are linked to that domination, for in return for their docility the main Western powers have consistently supported Kosovo’s elite — which is a political, economic, and criminal elite — and protected it from political and legal accountability. Now, that elite already has at its service widespread patronage networks, a loyal electorate, the instruments of the state, the intimidation powers of the organization(s) that took over secret security force SHIK’s functions (after it was formally disbanded), and the inducements of corruption and co-option. The latter should not be underestimated — think of the former young democrats turned PDK propagandists, or the bright scholars studying abroad who say that things in Kosovo are not as bad as they seem.

Add to this stable Western support, and you have an answer to the question: ‘Why has such an evidently inadequate elite not yet been unseated?’ In other words, Western support for the elite is a colossal obstacle for Kosovo’s democrats, and one they can hardly remove on their own.

However the link between the external problem and the internal one works both ways. And the reason for this, I believe, is that the political and economic equilibrium on which Kosovo rests is not sustainable in the long- or even the medium-term.

If this is the case, the main Western powers would have an interest — even in a narrow realist perspective — to shift Kosovo onto a better equilibrium. They saw crises in Macedonia and elsewhere, and I suppose they would want to avoid similar ones in Kosovo.

I also suppose that they will assess — based in part on the current crisis with these two agreements — that the shift requires a different political leadership in Kosovo, not least because the current one elicits less trust among the population than the most precise instruments can measure. I don’t just mean that Kosovo should be led by different people — Kadri Veseli is a new face in the eyes of many foreign observers, if anything because he was not seen much in public. But also a leadership created through greater political competition, more and more reasoned public debate, and freer elections.

There was a small but potentially valuable chance of political change between June and November 2014, but LDK’s choices and the foreign embassies’ pressure closed it. Kosovo’s democrats might perhaps help Western powers to realize that that was a mistake, also from their perspective; to revise their assessment of the mid-term sustainability of Kosovo’s equilibrium; and to change their policy accordingly. This is fairly simple, because the main thing they have to do is to stop supporting the current elite, politically and financially.

In parallel, they should seek to avoid too much turbulence, but that is easy because Kosovo’s democrats have no reason to provoke violent unrest — it is the elite that could do that, to defend itself. And Western powers probably know where the elite’s weapons and money are hidden, so it should not be too difficult to keep them quiet.

Should that happen, I am confident that Kosovo’s citizens can set their own country on the path of material, civic, and political development. A better political leadership, incidentally, would not just accelerate its economic and democratic development but would acquire also greater credibility before Western powers. The power imbalance and recent history would remain, but Kosovo would earn greater respect among those powers.

Should that not happen, I doubt that Kosovo will improve fast enough to avoid either a crisis, if sufficient space remains for political protests, or a more decisive turn towards a soft and oligopolistic form of autocracy. In either case, Kosovo will remain dominated by the five — perhaps four, or even three — ambassadors.

Besides this, I have only one suggestion: May those who oppose the Brussels agreement say also what they propose to remedy the marginalization of the Serb community (and Kosovo’s other minorities). I fear that horizontal policies won’t suffice because they will take time, and above all because Kosovo’s Serbs too suffer from unemployment, weak rule of law and stunted democracy, like everyone else: but in addition they are gravely marginalized.

So, if not the Brussels agreement, what? Then maybe a fruitful discussion could begin among Kosovars on how to deal with this national problem; a discussion that would give to the bureaucrats in Prishtina and Brussels some much-needed new, and better, ideas.

Photos: Fikret Ahmeti / K2.0