Zeman turns his back on his legacy, but is faced with international law.
The President of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman demonstrated his personal style of foreign policy during his diplomatic visit to Serbia on September 11.
Considering the prosperous relationship that Czech diplomacy has continued to build and maintain for a number of years with the Republic of Kosovo, which the Czech government recognized as an independent state in May 2008, it took only a few statements by the president to cause widespread confusion.
Speaking at a press conference together with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić a few minutes after his arrival in Belgrade, Zeman already expressed his distinct lack of affection for Kosovo:
Vučić: “We are very pleased and very glad to see you here.”
Zeman: “It is a pleasure for me. I like Serbia.”
Vučić: “We know —”
Zeman: “And the Serbian people.”
Vučić: “— we know that you support us.”
Zeman: “I dislike Kosovo.”
Vučić: “Thank you so much. We wish you all the best.”
Zeman: “Oh, yes.”
With such an entrance, it did not take long for him to acquire a brilliant reputation in Serbia.
Zeman caused even more outrage during the press conference, where he promised that he would discuss with Czech constitutional officials whether it would be possible for the Czech Republic to withdraw the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state — an idea immediately dismissed by the Czech Republic’s foreign minister, but according to Zeman fully supported by Lubomír Metnar, the minister of defense.
Zeman’s statements caused a fuss in the Czech Republic, as he personally took the decision, as prime minister in spring 1999, to participate in the bombing operation against Yugoslavia. All NATO member state representatives — including Zeman — had the opportunity to veto the bombing of Serbia at the time.
Following’s Zeman’s latest remarks, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš stated that he saw no reason for the Czech government to change its position and revoke the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, but that constitutional officials would certainly discuss it. The prime minister said this at a press conference in Prague, after talks with the prime ministers of the other countries of the Visegrád Group (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary) and the Western Balkans.
Former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek, whose government recognized Kosovo as a state in 2008, had a poignant retort on twitter:
“Miloš, you will not remedy the bombing of Belgrade. If you’re making a fool of yourself, please leave us out of it…”
Belgrade seems to be quite successful at reducing the number of recognizing states.
Some say that these are only empty worded statements meant for Zeman to gain more appreciation from the Slavic brothers he praises so much. Maybe, but there are still two major issues.
One concerns the Czech position in international affairs, and that is that the Czech Republic loses democratic legitimacy when one individual speaks without coordination with the government and diverges from the foreign agenda of the state. This is a particularly unethical policy for a president of a parliamentary democracy such as the Czech Republic.
Next is the fact that such a statement could lead to a domino effect, which would please Serbia, since it is now known that they have been investing greatly in de-recognition campaigns. This came to light because of the scandal in the Central African Republic (CAR), where the local media uncovered a payment of 350,000 euros from the Serbian government to the CAR’s foreign minister, in return for a verbal note stating the “de-recognition” of Kosovo.
Moreover, Serbia seems to be quite successful at reducing the number of recognizing states. While prominent supporters of Kosovo’s independence still include the United States and most EU members, according to Belgrade, recognition has already been withdrawn by 15 states worldwide, including Madagascar, Suriname, Burundi and Papua New Guinea.
The cherry on top of Zeman’s visit to Serbia was when he attended a news conference, at which he pointed to the recent resignation of Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Ramush Haradinaj following an invitation for an interview by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers. “Let me express a personal but even stronger view, that a state headed by war criminals does not belong to the community of democratic states,” he said.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić thanked Zeman for this straightforward attitude.
But here Zeman is sitting and negotiating with a skilled propagandist who is portraying his country as a victim to the world, while leveraging his narrative skills to drive his individual political ascent — by portraying himself simultaneously as victim and savior.
It is no secret that Zeman is trying to devote much of his attention to the East, especially toward Russia and China.
Sitting and negotiating with someone who refuses to accept that genocide in Srebrenica was committed against innocent people. Sitting and negotiating with someone who is being accused by his own people of authoritarianism and muzzling the media. Sitting and negotiating with someone who served as minister in the government of Slobodan Milošević, who himself was formally charged with 29 offenses, including genocide, complicity to commit genocide, crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva convention.
This only shows how little has changed in Serbian politics since the 1990s, despite the claims made by the “pro-European” Serbian president, who seems to be a “great leader” to Zeman.
Identifying the roots of Zeman’s stance toward Kosovo
Zeman is a fairly controversial figure in Czech politics, since he has diverged from the official agenda on several occasions. Although he has previously acted as a supporter of the European Union, in recent years he has been criticizing it to a greater extent.
Before his second presidential term began in 2018, the widespread public opinion was that his election as president would lead to favorable conditions for the geopolitical rudder to be turned toward the East. Today, it is no secret that Zeman is trying to devote much of his attention to the East, especially toward Russia and China. In this aspect, it is crystal clear and understandable what led Zeman to express these anti-Kosovo sentiments in Belgrade.
What is also known is that in Serbia, China’s trade and Russia’s geopolitical interests meet: China is playing an increasingly active role in Serbia, as part of its expansion of influence into Central and Eastern Europe. Russia, on the other hand, has been successfully asserting itself in Serbia for centuries.
Moreover, after the collapse of Yugoslavia, Russia remained Serbia’s only important international ally. They gave Serbia the chance to emerge from the isolation in which they were being pushed by the West.
To conclude, this seems like a win-win situation for a man who loves to provoke and stir cheap controversy. What is better than a partner who shares the same views and values as yourself?
Is it possible to withdraw recognition?
Recognition comes about by a unilateral declaration, which can be explicit or implicit — for a state to exist in the international community, it must be recognized by other states. Once recognition has been given, it implies that the recognized state or government is entitled to the rights and privileges granted by international law.
Following the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States of 1933 — signed only by American states, but universally accepted as a restatement of customary international law — every state needs to display some essential features, called “attributes of statehood,” in order for other states to recognize their independence.
It has been 11 years since Kosovo proclaimed its independence, and this independence has by now become a hard, unquestionable fact. Kosovo fulfills the criteria of statehood and has successfully established itself on the international scene.
Article 6 of the Montevideo Convention states that “the recognition of a state merely signifies that the state which recognizes it accepts the personality of the other with all the rights and duties determined by international law.”
Significantly, it adds: “Recognition is unconditional and irrevocable.”
A case such as this one, where the Czech Republic is now considering the revocation of its recognition of Kosovo’s statehood, can be characterized as one where political interests are prevailing over the respect for international law.
The president is supposed to represent the state externally in line with its interests and official policy.
The Czech Republic has never revoked the recognition of any state in the past. The Czech government, through its Resolution No. 635 of May 21, 2008, recognized the Republic of Kosovo and agreed to establish diplomatic relations. This was de jure recognition, i.e. full and final legal recognition of the state.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also pointed out that the Czech Republic has reached several important agreements with Kosovo. “The Czech Republic has a clear interest in maintaining international agreements with the Republic of Kosovo, including the obligations arising therefrom for both parties,” the ministry said in a statement following Zeman’s remarks.
If the Czech Republic were to cease to recognize Kosovo, the implementation of these agreements could involve unimaginable difficulties.
The president is supposed to represent the state externally in line with its interests and official policy. This begs the question, what interests does Miloš Zeman truly represent when talking about Kosovo in Serbia?
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.