Perspectives | Foreign Relations

Becoming Kosovo: Independence, legitimacy, future

By - 16.02.2018

The achievements of the past decade are at risk if political leaders don’t overcome divisions and prioritize national interest.

On February 17, 2018, Kosovo marks the 10th anniversary of its Declaration of Independence. Kosovo has much to celebrate: Within two decades, it has transitioned from war to peace, from an authoritarian regime to democracy, from a socialist to a market economy, from international administration to supervised statehood, and Kosovo is now gradually integrating itself into the European and international community.

Despite many internal and external constraints, Kosovo has managed to build the foundations of a modern state in less than two decades, while generating widespread international legitimacy and support for its independent statehood by securing extensive diplomatic recognition and membership of international organizations. Yet, its journey to full consolidation of independent statehood and sustainable peace is not over, which exposes the nascent state undecidedly to several futures.

Independence and recognition

While Kosovo has argued that its statehood is not constitutive of diplomatic recognition, in practice diplomatic recognition has played an important role in strengthening its ontological security, as well as creating grounds for the further consolidation of domestic and international sovereignty. Kosovo’s quest for diplomatic recognition and membership of international organizations is a distinct case that illustrates the resilience of emerging states for surviving and navigating through the messy fabric of the existing international order, which is inhospitable toward newcomers. By December 2017, Kosovo had obtained recognition from 115 sovereign states, it has established diplomatic relations with 87 countries, and joined over 50 regional and international organizations.

These achievements cannot be solely attributed to Kosovo’s powerful friends without acknowledging the pivotal role that Kosovo’s own discourse-based performative diplomacy has played in the struggle to secure international affirmation of its sovereign statehood. Kosovo’s political leadership has intentionally cultivated this strategic dependency to ensure international political support and engagement for Kosovo’s transition to full statehood and international recognition. The conundrum of Kosovo’s diplomatic success lies in the complementarity of efforts undertaken by Kosovo’s own diplomatic efforts combined with the support provided by its international partners, and entanglements with other situational factors.

For many in the West, Kosovo is a success story of creating a state from scratch whose hard-won statehood was a remedy of last resort following Serbia’s grave human rights violations, and whose wide diplomatic recognition was granted to promote democracy, multi-ethnicity and regional peace. However, the support of influential states has not been purely altruistic without any strings attached.

Frequent electoral cycles and protracted stalemates in government formation resulted in losing the momentum for securing recognition from several states who were close to confirming recognition.

Kosovo’s international partners have constantly conditioned their international support with domestic political, economic, and security concessions regarding democratic and institutional reforms, the rule of law, accommodating minorities and economic development. Geopolitical considerations also feature: Support for Kosovo’s independence is often framed as the most optimal solution to maintain stability in the Balkans and to mitigate regional conflict.

Kosovo’s quest for diplomatic recognition and membership of international organizations has not only been shaped by global and external forces, but also by domestic engagements, political developments, and formative events, which have variously served as enabling and impeding factors. After independence, the political agenda in Kosovo was dominated by constant domestic crises derived from political conflict between the government and opposition on government formation, local resistance against the EU-facilitated dialogue for the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, EU conditionality and pressure for institutional reform and tackling corruption and organized crime, as well as socio-economic problems with employment, migration, and increased religious extremism.

However, the relative political stability that prevailed in Kosovo between 2008 and 2014 corresponded with the highest number of recognitions as well as significant progress regarding membership of regional and international bodies. During this period, Kosovo joined the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, the Regional Cooperation Council and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, among other bodies. The more stable Kosovo institutions became, the more resources and attention were devoted to the campaign for diplomatic recognition. During these years, on average Kosovo managed to annually secure around 10 recognitions and join two or three international organisations.

Unfortunately, after 2014, delays in forming governments and paralysis within the government and parliament unintentionally stalled Kosovo’s proactive diplomacy, which had stalled the momentum previously gained in advancing international participation. In particular, frequent electoral cycles and protracted stalemates in government formation resulted in losing the momentum for securing recognition from several states who were close to confirming recognition, as well as allowing Kosovo’s opponents the space to pursue their counter-recognition strategy unchallenged. These domestic developments not only tested the extent to which Kosovo’s institutions were capable of running the country without external interference, but also directly impacted on Kosovo’s ability to dedicate sufficient resources and attention to the recognition process.

The state of legitimacy

The aspiration for independent statehood has been one of the major political goals that has united most Kosovar citizens in the hope that wide international recognition would bring collective ontological security and reduce Kosovo’s vulnerability to external exploitation and discrimination, thereby ultimately promoting democratic self-government. But to date, independent statehood has not delivered Kosovo’s citizens with the well-deserved political space and infrastructure for self-determination, democratic governance, and economic prosperity.

So far, the utility of Kosovo’s widespread recognition has been mainly symbolic: reinforcing Kosovo’s sense of belonging to the community of independent nations. For those individuals at the forefront of the recognition campaign, securing recognition for Kosovo simultaneously secured them personal recognition, which has often translated into domestic legitimacy and political power.  

However, diplomatic recognition and membership of regional and international organizations has not translated into tangible political and socio-economic benefits for the citizens of Kosovo. Bilateral recognition hasn’t translated automatically into membership of international organizations such as the UN, EU or NATO, or admission to multilateral treaties, which hold the key to access collective security arrangements and to benefit from legal, financial and logistical services.

The quality of peace in Kosovo today is not emancipatory, at best it is a negative hybrid peace.

On the domestic front, a spectre of pessimism has captured Kosovo today. It is a spectre of disappointment driven by an ungovernable peace, state capture by ethno-nationalist elites, the polarization of intra- and inter-ethnic relations, numerous international impositions, as well as the endurance of poverty, isolation, and inequality.

Two decades of international missions for building a state to enable peace, as well as building a peace to facilitate the creation of a state, resulted in creating a state reliant on external forces that lingers from the unresolved legacies of the past. The quality of peace in Kosovo today is not emancipatory, at best it is a negative hybrid peace. Both international missions such as UNMIK and EULEX and local ethno-nationalist elites have failed to alleviate the local population from structural violence, namely by providing equality, justice, fairness, the right to political participation, and the right of self-determination.

Kosovo citizens continue to remain the most isolated people in Europe. They cannot travel to countries that do not recognize Kosovo’s independence or its passport, while due to Kosovo’s economic situation and the likelihood that its citizens would seek employment abroad, most states impose a visa regime for all forms of travel, including casual tourism. This policy is most painfully inflicted by Kosovo’s closest normative power, the European Union, which thereby undermines its own soft power among Kosovo’s citizens.

The future state of the state of Kosovo  

Ten years since independence, many in Kosovo now feel that its international partners have left the country in limbo by failing to fulfil their promise to help Kosovo gain its rightful place within the international democratic community. One decade since its declaration of independence, Kosovo has not managed to secure recognition from all UN member states.

The path for international legitimation through individual recognition is lengthy and requires interacting with each state individually, which consumes extensive time and resources. To compound the issue, remote global developments such as the rise of transnational violent extremism, violent conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the Arab Spring, sudden regime change in Tunisia, and internal political instability in many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America continue to directly impact Kosovo’s prospects for international recognition and membership of international organizations.

These global developments have shifted the attention of Kosovo’s international allies away from the recognition process to deal with more pressing crises. In Europe, the financial crisis, migration and refugee situations, as well as Brexit have slightly reduced the pressure of EU institutions and member states on Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain to change their position on Kosovo’s independence.

Over the years, Kosovo’s international partners have laterally tried to encourage Kosovo’s leadership to take a more proactive role in the process of obtaining new diplomatic recognition and securing membership of international organizations. This discourse conferring diplomatic ownership on Kosovo is not a symptom of Kosovo’s diplomatic maturity but rather reflects the strategic withdrawal of Kosovo’s international partners from their commitment and promise to integrate Kosovo fully in the international community of sovereign and independent states.

Kosovo must also accept its portion of the blame here. In order to achieve its historical role of state consolidation, Kosovo’s diplomacy should not be an extension of domestic politics as it risks dragging the fate of the country’s international standing into the never-ending sagas of political paralysis, as demonstrated in the past four years by multiple struggles for power among all political factions. Instead, Kosovo should develop a professional and independent foreign service with a niche and normative diplomacy committed to strengthening the country’s position abroad.

Indeed, Kosovo’s prospects for joining the European Union and NATO in the near future are grim due to the extensive reforms required and the fact that some of the members of these organizations have not yet recognized Kosovo. Admission to the UN is unlikely without the consent of Serbia, Russia and China, who are increasingly becoming hostile towards the waning international power of the U.S. and European states.

A potential way out for Kosovo’s contested statehood would be to reach an agreement with Serbia as part of the journey undertaken by both countries to join the EU, which could require granting Kosovo’s Serb minority wider autonomy within the context of a complex arrangement in return for Serbia to implicitly recognize Kosovo’s independence and consent to its admission to the UN. This would end Kosovo’s decade-long quest for bilateral recognition, but could expose the country to the potential recursive secession of the Serb community.

The European Commission’s new enlargement strategy is a promising signal that a legally binding agreement between Kosovo and Serbia (reminiscent of a treaty of peace, friendship and normalization) remains the main precondition for advancing both countries’ EU integration paths. As is the mainstreaming of reconciliation and transitional justice in the Western Balkans’ European integration process, which is essential for regional peace, stability, and prosperity. However, for this to take place, the existing political establishment in Kosovo needs to radically change and drop harmful state-capturing and undemocratic practices (such as the public lynching of critical voices, corruption, organized crime and the sabotage of political opponents) to allow for a meaningful rebounding between the state and society.

If this scenario does not work, Kosovo will be obliged either to continue its current approach of seeking incremental integration into the international system, or to seek a radical change to its status by seeking functional and silent reunification with its kin-state of Albania. Such an unlikely move could result in redrawing political borders and a return to troubles in the Balkans.

Seen from this perspective, the question of Kosovo’s sovereign status is not yet entirely closed, and the next stage will be definitive in either making or breaking the country’s desire for becoming a fully-fledged sovereign state.

This essay draws on the author’s forthcoming book: “Acting Like a State: Kosovo and the Everyday Making of Statehood” (Routledge, 2018).

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

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