In-depth | Elections2021

Elections 2021: A different perspective on foreign policy

By - 11.02.2021

With elections happening almost every two years, K2.0 listens to ideas on solutions amid dubious promises.

Although elections have become a common occurrence in Kosovo, discussing what is genuinely important for the lives of constituents is rare.

In political party rallies, televised debates and what is written and said by and about political parties, there is a lot of talk of party calculations and maneuvers, polls, slogans and individuals; and less on the practical issues that would inform voters of what to expect after the electoral campaigns. In principle, the electoral campaigns themselves should serve this purpose — so that voters know what they are voting for.

Amid all of this and, above all, to challenge this context, we at K2.0 spoke with experts in various fields. Through their answers we have endeavored to list some of the issues that are not discussed but will be important for voters when they head to the polls on February 14.

Through the series “Elections 2021, a different perspective” that comprises eight articles, each focused on one specific field, we elaborate on what exactly is not receiving due attention, what is the current situation and what should be done to change things in favor of the citizens. We also try to inform voters and make their well-being the focus of the discussion by providing forward looking solutions.

A different perspective for our country in the region and in the world.

The issue of foreign policy dominates the public debate in Kosovo, be it during election cycles or otherwise. At the same time, it is a department where Kosovo has stalled, especially when it comes to its consolidation and legitimacy at the international level.

The recent recognition by Israel that came as a result of the Washington Agreement — signed by Kosovo and Serbia in September 2020 at the White House during the Trump administration — seems to be the only good result of an agreement that has otherwise polarized the local political scene, an effect that is regularly produced.

The lack of internal political coordination and clear strategies have left Kosovo’s progress at the international level in limbo.

This stagnation is especially noticeable in the protracted dialogue with Serbia, which has continued occasionally without any clarity about a future conclusion and lack of membership in international structures and mechanisms, processes which were left behind even before being temporarily stopped by the current government as part of the Washington Agreement. Furthermore, in recent years, we have read and heard more about Serbian government lobbying for other countries to “withdraw”  Kosovo recognitions than about the commitment of the Kosovo government to bag new recognitions.

However, these stalemates are not separate from geopolitical dynamics and movements of power in the global political order, meaning that the “Western allies,” on which Kosovo’s international position relies heavily, may have changed their priorities and political concerns compared to those they had 10 years ago.

In these circumstances, Kosovo’s great aspirations for EU integration or UN recognition do not even come into question.

Be that as it may, political parties more or less continue to make the same promises in their governing programs: Defending sovereignty; membership or any form of promotion in relation to the UN, EU, Council of Europe and others; progress in international relations with the five non-recognizing EU countries; and reconfirming the EU and the US as strategic partners.

Thus, the LDK in its program mentions two main areas of foreign policy: EU Integration and the Dialogue with Serbia. But both of them only include general points of intent. On EU Integration, the LDK, in addition to promising membership in international organizations and increasing participation in regional and international cooperation mechanisms within the European integration process, also envisages approaching reforms at the EU level. As for the dialogue with Serbia, they broadly promise that if mutual recognition with Serbia is not achieved, then “full reciprocity” — whatever that means — will be applied.

Similarly, the PDK aims for membership in the United Nations (UN), the NATO Pact and the Council of Europe, as well as obtaining the status of candidate country of the European Union (EU), presenting the removal of political obstacles through agreements, which are not sufficiently clarified. Unlike other parties, the PDK also addresses the issue of “recovering” Kosovo’s image in the international arena and blanes political opponents for hurting diplomatic relations with certain countries.

In the framework of goals for expansion in the international arena and adding dynamism to multilateral relations, in addition to membership in INTERPOL, UNESCO and the Council of Europe, AAK goes one step further, aiming for obtaining recognition by the five non-recognizing EU countries.

On the other hand, VV does not even reference the aforementioned in its priorities. It supports the aspirations regarding the EU in terms of reestablishing the Ministry of European Integration as the main address for relations with the EU, without further elaboration in this aspect, and among other things, it mentions strengthening cooperation with countries that Kosovo does not have firm bilateral relations with yet, organizing diplomacy through artists, athletes and between cities.

In the regional aspect, relations or cooperation with other countries in the region are bypassed by all these parties, and the only focus is strengthening relations with Albania.

For a more thorough elaboration of Kosovo’s domestic and regional foreign policy, we spoke with people who understand the political ebb and flow inside Kosovo and outside of it, including: Assistant Professor the political science department at Virginia Tech Besnik Pula; director of the CiviKos Platform Donika Emini; assistant professor of international relations at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) Vjosa Musliu; and policy analyst and editor/co-founder of Sbunker, Agon Maliqi.

To our questions about what we lack, what aspirations we should have and how change could come about, the experts answered:

What do we lack?

Besnik Pula, assistant professor, political science department at Virginia Tech:

In the larger picture, my view from the outside is a sense that political discourse in Kosovo cannot break from a mold that has evolved over the last 10 years. This is a political discourse that has been constructed in the interaction between the old ruling parties and the new challengers in Lëvizja Vetëvendosje, focused on the themes of corruption, European integration, and economic development to expand employment. These are undoubtedly serious issues. 

However, it is striking to me that two major challenges to the world barely register in Kosovo’s political discourse. These are, on the one hand, the Covid-19 public health crisis, and second, the environmental crisis. One might say that the other issues: Corruption, the EU, employment, are more “existential” questions. But what is more existential than health and environment? 

"Kosovo needs a strategy that will complete its affirmation as a member of the international community. This requires a truly international approach to foreign policy, rather than reliance on a few allies and partners to do Kosovo’s bidding for it in international bodies."

The Covid-19 crisis is a public health crisis that has taken the lives of millions around the world, thousands in Kosovo alone. It has wreaked havoc on the global economy and posed so many challenges to public health systems by demonstrating their utter inadequacy in a crisis. The Covid-19 crisis is also, according to health experts, one of potentially other new viral threats that humanity will face. Together with the ecosystemic, economic, and social challenges presented by environmental change, the inability to bring these critical issues into contemporary debates in Kosovo is a serious political failure.

In the more immediate view, Kosovo has numerous difficult challenges in the international arena and with economic development. In the first domain, Kosovo needs a strategy that will complete its affirmation as a member of the international community. This requires a truly international approach to foreign policy, rather than reliance on a few allies and partners to do Kosovo’s bidding for it in international bodies. This strategy has clearly failed and Kosovo has over the last decade remained in the halfway house between a contested political entity and full international statehood.

Donika Emini, Director of the CiviKos Platform:

The key element missing today in public discussions among the political elite in Kosovo is the basic understanding that the geopolitical order and the balance of powers has drastically changed in the past decade. To describe today’s international environment as complex is an understatement. The bi-polar world in which Kosovo was considered the “triumph of West” is seriously challenged today. As the world is becoming multipolar with numerous centers of powers, in Kosovo there is a lack of understanding of the detrimental impact that it can have in its (in)complete statehood internationally.

The first challenge is the inability to find a purpose in foreign policy. While this is the fate of small states navigating in a world where the power asymmetry allows little space for maneuvering, Kosovo does not seem to go beyond its infant foreign policy approach of 2008 focused on diplomatic recognition and occasionally membership on international cooperation mechanisms.

Secondly, purposeless foreign policy: Kosovo — unintentionally — perhaps due to the lack of the country’s clear strategy, has channeled its foreign policy and the EU integration process through the ongoing dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. This has led to limited success in foreign policy.

On the regional level, in spite of it being an integral part of our foreign policy strategy and part of the EU conditionality, there is growing hesitation for Kosovo to become part of the regional plethora. This has been reflected in the ongoing discussions over the Mini Schengen initiative and regional economic area mainly fearing the agreement of Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Vjosa Musliu, assistant professor of political science at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, VUB:

Over the past twenty years, there has been a tendency from politicians and civil society actors in Kosovo to separate the “internal politics” (i.e. functioning state structures, sound and reliable public institutions) from “external politics” (i.e. what Kosovo’s place should be in the region and in the world). Such a separation is both logically implausible and politically unproductive as it builds on the presumption that there is a clear, almost Cartesian demarcation of what is foreign and what is domestic. Quite the contrary, rather than being two separate dimensions, the two are interrelated and co-constitutive.

"The way how the so called ‘technical dialogue’ between Prishtina and Belgrade has been conceptualized and carried out so far has been in a way as if the main addressee is not Kosovo, Serbia, Kosovo Serbs or Kosovo Albanians, but rather the EU itself."

The presence of Western (and) European structures in Kosovo have been complicit in further reinforcing such a division. For example, in relation to EU-Kosovo relations, such a separation between the domestic and the international has led to a constellation in which doing politics in Prishtina has been conducted to (mainly) tick benchmarks and evaluation criteria of technocratic bureaus in Brussels rather than building functioning systems and institutions. It is as if the demos of these policies are not the people living in Kosovo but rather EU structures and institutions in Brussels.

Similarly, the way how the so-called “technical dialogue” between Prishtina and Belgrade mediated by the EU has been conceptualized and carried out so far has been in a way as if the main addressee is not Kosovo, Serbia, Kosovo Serbs or Kosovo Albanians, but rather the EU itself.

Agon Maliqi, policy analyst and editor/co-founder of Sbunker

The first thing that we lack is the consolidation of statehood in multilateral institutions that would give statehood the stamp of legality; first and foremost the United Nations (UN), the Council of Europe, NATO and others. This continues, in a way, holding the normal functioning of the state hostage.

"The fact that we are blocked on the global level, and also European one, is used by Serbia to block us at the regional level as well."

But even if they are often unachievable, either due to geopolitical reasons like obstructions by Russia or China, or because we cannot agree with Serbia — Kosovo needs to try and unbar itself in the second level. We are not yet part of multilateral institutions in Europe, including the easiest one, the Council of Europe, and others like NATO and the EU. We effectively do not have a Euro-Atlantic perspective. It is talked about, but it does not exist so long as the five EU member states and four NATO states — because Cyprus is not part of NATO — do not recognize us.

Now, the more you zoom in, these restrictions are reflected in the region. Namely, the fact that we are blocked on the global level, and also European one, is used by Serbia to block us at the regional level as well; so, we do not have, first of all, normal movement between us and Bosnia and have asymmetry in trade relations and very high costs. So even at the regional level we are limited in what we can do.

What aspirations should we have?

Besnik: At minimum, we should aspire for societies that guarantee basic rights, including social and economic rights, to citizens. Kosovo also appropriately aspires to having its place in Europe and in the world. For a country like Kosovo, international engagement and foreign policy plays an important part of that, as does thinking creatively about its own economic transformation in ways that develop skills, provides jobs, and is sustainable.

Donika: Kosovo needs to work toward becoming a stability factor in the region, to be recognized as a stability factor and part of the European and Euro-Atlantic integration processes. Security should be used as a foreign policy tool that has been effective for other countries in the region. Kosovo should aspire to not only become a stability factor but also a security provider as part of various international missions (cooperation as a third party with EU, NATO or its member states). Regionally, becoming part of the Adriatic Charter should be a short term objective for Kosovo.

Supporting regional cooperation (multilaterally) is the key, this goes beyond Western Balkans, including the entire South Eastern Europe. Kosovo should aspire to become a reliable partner regionally. 

As far as the EU membership is concerned, Kosovo should aspire to establish communication with five EU non-recognizers by using its strategic partners. This will not only help Kosovo bilaterally but also be used as a solid foundation toward full recognition in case Kosovo and Serbia sign the normalization agreement. Kosovo should continue the battle for diplomatic recognitions and seek building alliances internationally. However, all political maneuvers in this regard should be fully coordinated in order to feed each other and push the country’s foreign policy agenda forward. 

Vjosa: Because of the way Kosovo was established as a state, it is nearly impossible to think of Kosovo without thinking about the political and financial implications that the US has in it on the one hand, and the EU membership on the other. Whereas both of these [US and EU interventions] can be used as forces for good and can instill productive developmental changes, more often than not, it seems that Kosovo is hostage to the idea of becoming a member state of the EU.

"The rise of Chinese influence in many areas of the so-called ‘Global South’, an incremental moral and political decline of the (neo)liberal democracy, as well as the environmental war, are tangible indications that the world order or the US supremacy are not as they were in 1999."

The work of the coming government should be to re-evaluate the relations with the EU taking into consideration the actual developments in the EU and in the world at large. For Brussels, the enlargement to the Western Balkans is clearly at a low point or on “life support”; there has been growing sentiment for reverting back to “sovereign politics’”among many of the EU member states West or East; Brexit is the most tangible proof of that. Yet, inside Kosovo, the EU portrays itself and is reified in turn by the local political elite as intact and not amenable to crises. Even though crises are not inherently bad or dangerous in and of themselves, both parties [the EU and Kosovo] should renegotiate the relations based on the changing realities inside the EU.

The same holds true for Kosovo’s place in the world. The “world” that features in the tropes and understandings of Kosovo’s ruling political elite seems rather oblivious or unaware to the changing realities in world politics. The rise of Chinese influence in many areas of the so-called “Global South,” an incremental moral and political decline of the (neo)liberal democracy, as well as the environmental war, are tangible indications that the world order or US supremacy are not as they were in 1999. Kosovo’s place in the world will also fluctuate and shift as a result. 

Agon: There are two ways. [First] to finish up the dialogue. But since we have no internal consensus and no room for compromise beyond Ahtisaari, we are in a difficult negotiating position. So we can aim to overcome this deadlock at least at the European level. It is difficult for us to change the mind of Russia, or even China, to unbar ourselves at the level of the United Nations. We have reached the pinnacle of what we can achieve in the world with bilateral recognition. That means, the previous strategy of moving forward with bilateral recognition is not valid.

So essentially, the way it seems to me, what would be most effective is [recognition from] these five EU countries [that do not recognize Kosovo]. This could be our main agenda and demand toward our allies. Because it is about recognition by NATO countries. Recognition of these five countries would give us more breathing space and remove the pressure from the dialogue with Serbia as something that must be completed at any cost and as soon as possible. We would strengthen our negotiating position. It would separate our Euro-Atlantic perspective from Serbia, because at the moment we are hostage to Serbia’s perspective.

And if we fail to do so, then we return to dialogue [the second way] — [for] whatever kind of compromise we are ready to make whether we are ready to do so. Because, otherwise the third alternative would be to remain trapped and isolated. Many say we can even wait, but are not calculating the costs of the current situation. Kosovo is losing more than Serbia from the current situation.

What changes are needed to fulfill aspirations?

Besnik: It seems that there is a lack of political imaginary, and a lack of spaces to develop and cultivate such an imaginary. Kosovo needs more people who can collectively think about the big picture, rather than engage in the wasteful and useless bickering that seems to characterize Kosovo’s political discourse these days, obsessed with personalities while addressing very few real issues and strategies. Pressing the EU to fulfill its pledge to support and ultimately offer membership to Kosovo is also critical. At a time of populism and xenophobia we should not tolerate the EU building more walls within Europe.

Donika: Foreign policy goals should be essentially aligned with the internal reforms. This is of crucial importance especially in fulfilling the EU integration agenda. Institutional capacities are of immense importance. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration which has been diminished in the past six month are the key in this process. The diplomatic network plays a key role in the implementation of Kosovo’s foreign policy goals. The key ministries should be strengthened to ensure better coordination in foreign policy activities.

"In order to increase the number of regional mechanisms which Kosovo is part of, Kosovo needs to develop a detailed plan/mapping of the most relevant initiatives and create a guideline/strategy on how to be effective in this regard."

In the case of Kosovo that is limited in its ability to participate in multilateral cooperation mechanisms, establishing bilateral ties with recognizing states will ensure diplomatic presence internationally. Strengthening diplomatic relations and cooperation with the key EU member states such as Germany and France are the key, re-established cooperation with the UK is imperative to be defined after Brexit. Lastly, strengthened cooperation with the US would positively contribute not only to gain international recognition and membership in multilateral mechanisms but also in the security aspects mentioned in the previous sections.

Kosovo is already a member of a number of relevant international organizations and financial institutions. In order to increase the number of regional mechanisms that Kosovo is part of, Kosovo needs to develop a detailed plan/mapping of the most relevant initiatives and create a guideline/strategy on how to be effective in this regard.

Vjosa: The main drive and a turning point for the new government — especially if a majority led Vetevendosje comes to power — would be to connect the two [domestic and foreign policies] and enact policies that lead to building sound, reliable and well functioning schools, hospitals and court rooms, the European perspective notwithstanding. 

It is irrelevant, technically speaking, whether ticking more boxes in Kosovo’s ambiguous relations with the EU, if more Kosovars continue to seek basic health care services in Serbia, North Macedonia or Turkey. It is irrelevant whether Kosovo scores slightly better in international indexes of human rights protection etc. if more and more young Kosovars start their adult lives with plans on how to work as care workers in Germany. While enhancing Kosovo-EU relations and performing well in international indexes is certainly important, continuing to decouple these from internal developmental processes is counterproductive if not dangerous.

Agon: I think the main thing is to dispel the illusions and not live in the fairy tales where we have been swimming for the past 7-8 years now — that is, with this strong conviction that the world is frozen in ’99 and the West will push us forward. This illusion must be shattered — no one has the political capital or the energy to solve this problem for us because we are so insignificant in the grand scheme of global issues. So, we also have to be a little more realistic.

"And one thing I can emphasize is not to become too EU-centric or US-centric but to define our own interests and play a few real political games as a state."

The second is not to turn — as we have done recently — foreign policy issues into domestic policy issues. In this way, we are failing to have internal consensus; we are blocking decision making about anything because everything is thus considered treason.

And one thing I can emphasize is not to become too EU-centric or US-centric but to define our own interests and play a few real political games as a state. The case of Israel is an illustration of this, where for the first time we go against EU foreign policy but at the same time we gain something. We were forced to take this step given our position. Since dialogue and integration are not leading us anywhere, we need to consider a few alternatives to bilateral engagement with allies. This means a slightly more strategic approach in relation to Albania, in areas such as defense, foreign policy. Or even deepening bilateral relations with the UK and other non-EU actors. So let’s create a more flexible approach to foreign policy in line with our interests. Always keeping in mind that our foreign policy is based on democratic values ​​and orientations.K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.