Perspectives | Politics

‘Kosovo has little to do with Catalonia or Basque Country’

By - 02.04.2024

Now that Spain has recognized Kosovar passports, what comes next?

In one of the most deeply-rooted Catholic traditions in Spain, the three Wise Men come to Spanish homes with gifts every January 6. Or, if you’ve misbehaved during the year, they bring coal. 

On January 6, 2024, as if it were a gift from the Wise Men, Spanish institutions announced that they would accept Kosovo passports.  

While I was opening my gifts, my phone started buzzing with messages giving me the best present possible. Finally, my country was behaving with common sense. After three years of living and working in Kosovo, all the friends I have made here will be able to meet my family when they come to Spain with me this summer. 

Kosovo in Spanish politics

Since Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, there has been no shortage of experts explaining Kosovo’s place in the larger picture of Spanish politics. This is because Madrid has still not recognized Kosovo’s independence due to the fear of appearing to legitimize the Basque and Catalan independence movements.  

Some might explain Spain’s current attitude toward Kosovo as a right wing nationalist obsession, but the truth is more complicated.

The current government, which is led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, has negotiated with Catalan and Basque independence forces. Sánchez is the leader of the Socialist Party (PSOE), Spain’s main leftist party. As prime minister, he has had a less antagonistic attitude toward independent forces than his predecessors. This may be influenced by the other leftist parties that PSOE was forced to enter a coalition with: Unidas Podemos (UP) during Sánchez’s previous mandate and SUMAR in his current one. 

The main secessionist parties, Esquerra Republicana (ER) and Junts Per Catalunya — both Catalan — and EH Bildu and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) — both Basque — allowed Sánchez to form a government after snap elections in July 2023 resulted in a splintered parliament. Sánchez’s willingness to work with these parties and his overall attitude, it seems, has resulted in some changes to Spain’s position regarding Kosovo.  

Sánchez’s willingness to work with these parties and his overall attitude, it seems, has resulted in some changes to Spain’s position regarding Kosovo.

The main right wing party in Spain is the People’s Party (PP). PP was in power, with Mariano Rajoy as prime minister, in October 2017, when Catalans seeking to vote in an independence referendum were violently confronted by police forces sent by the central government. The referendum was organized by Catalan regional government to ask Catalans about their views on the possibility of independence from Spain. It was ultimately deemed illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court and the European Commission. 

In 2018, Rajoy refused to attend the EU-Western Balkans Summit due to “the presence of Kosovo.” Additionally, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) threatened Spain because Kosovar athletes were banned from competing in Spain with their flag and anthem during the Rajoy premiership.  

Sánchez as prime minister: a new approach? 

Sánchez has not shunned Catalan and Basque parties since reaching power, even going so far as to support a law that would amnesty the Catalan leaders responsible for the 2017 referendum in order to gain these parties’ support and thus form a government.  

This good feeling seems to have reached Kosovo. Sánchez hasn’t refused the presence of Kosovo representatives during international meetings, something that had not been seen since Kosovo’s independence. In fact, when Sánchez met Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti at the EU-WB6 Summit in October 2021, it was the first time that a Spanish leader publicly greeted a Kosovar leader.  

The possible recognition of Kosovo by Spain has always been influenced by Spain’s domestic politics. Indeed, the proximity of Spanish elections to Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 affected the government’s decision about possible recognition. At that time, the Spanish government was immersed in negotiations with Basque pro-independence forces, according to documents from the U.S. Embassy in Madrid leaked by Wikileaks.  

It has taken over 15 years for Spain to go from refusing to attend international meetings due to Kosovo’s presence to receiving Kosovo’s President, Vjosa Osmani, in La Alhambra (during the 2023 EU-WB6 Summit, which was hosted in Granada). 

Independence is a tense issue in Spain. Right wing politicians and voters are inflexible on this topic, both in Spain and abroad. This can be seen in the right’s reaction to the Amnesty Law, which removes legal liability for people who were accused of separatist activity. 

The law, a concession by Sánchez’s PSOE to separatist parties in order to form a government after the last elections, has been approved in Spain’s Congress and now awaits approval in the Senate. The right wing reaction is characterized by accusations that Sánchez is “breaking Spain.”

When at last the recognition of the Kosovar passport was confirmed, there was a lot of excitement in Kosovo. Although I understood that excitement, a part of me wished that the announcement would not become public in Spain for fear of what it would unleash in Spanish domestic politics.  

However, if there is one thing that has stood out in the Sánchez government’s policies regarding Kosovo, it has been discretion. Sánchez has managed to take gradual steps toward acknowledging Kosovo’s existence as an independent state without giving opposition politicians an opportunity to use such actions against his government.

However, if there is one thing that has stood out in the Sánchez government’s progress regarding Kosovo, it has been discretion.

Independence in Spanish political discourse

The concepts of independence and territorial integrity are polarizing in Spain. Mentioning Kosovo in Spain — no matter why — produces a public reaction. This reaction is linked to the lack of quality information about Kosovo in Spanish.

For example, in 2022, when tensions in northern Kosovo increased due to implementation of reciprocity measures with license plates, Kosovo was a hot topic in Spain. Tweets in Spanish referring to Kosovo as a “NATO creation” or/and “a narco-state” were spread during those days. Such viewpoints reflect the simplistic viewpoint held by some that because the US and NATO intervened in Kosovo in the 1990s, Kosovo is but a neoliberal territory following US interests.

Responding to these reactions, I noted that “when we talk about Kosovo in Spain, right wing voices declare its existence as illegal — ignoring the ICJ’s ruling — because their defense of any national sovereignty is more important for them than the reality on the ground.” Conversely, “leftist voices cannot see beyond their anti-NATO feelings and for them to defend Kosovo would be to defend the West because it was this bloc that defended the Albanians in the 90s.” Thus, “Kosovo is the only issue on which the two Spanish political fronts agree.”

For these reasons, the so-called “Kosovo issue” is usually brought up by independent parties, as happened after the football match between the two men’s national teams in Seville in March 2021. During the broadcast on Spain’s state owned television channel, commentators avoided naming Kosovo, leading ERC and Junts to denounce the broadcast’s “journalistic manipulations,” which aimed to “[belittle] the Kosovar national team for political reasons.”

Kosovo was last mentioned in Spain’s legislative bodies in November 2021, when EH Bildu spokesperson Mertxe Aizpurua requested that Sánchez lead Spain to recognize Kosovo: “it is time that Kosovo’s sovereignty and legitimacy as a fully-fledged state is recognized.” PNV supported this petition.

That simple mention triggered, once again, a public reaction showing how many Spaniards refuse to accept any consideration towards Kosovo and how sensitive this topic is in Spain. 

What comes after recognizing passports? 

Kosovo has little to do with Catalonia or Basque Country. No two national self-determination claims are alike, as each is shaped by a specific historical, cultural and economic context. Kosovo and these two movements are no exception.  

Unfortunately, political communication is more linked with populism than with reality and Kosovo remains linked with the Catalan and Basque movements in Spanish political discourse.

Having this in mind, a multi-dimensional change to how Kosovo is discussed in Spain is needed. Firstly, political forces should not make irresponsible or misleading references to Kosovo, ruling out comparison with the Basque and Catalan cases, lending credence to the notion that a new direction with Kosovo would provoke a reaction from Catalonia or the Basque Country. 

Secondly, Spanish-language disinformation surrounding Kosovo must end. Civil society must be careful when echoing any information or statement on social media or in personal dialogue and journalists must be professional and informative when covering Kosovo, something many Spanish media outlets do not currently do. 

Having this in mind, a multi-dimensional change to how Kosovo is discussed in Spain is needed.

My country seems to want to forget not only Kosovo’s recent past but also its own. In 1999, Spain, along with other 31 countries, responded to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) petition for hosting 1,426 Kosovar Albanians as part of the Humanitarian Evacuation and Temporary Protection Program. Thousands of people lived that reality; I know many of them. Spain and its citizens seem to have forgotten that past, obviating the existence of people who live between the two countries.

I am not one of those people, but some are my friends. I am a Spaniard who arrived in Kosovo almost three years ago, just as misinformed as any other. However, I have learned and am still doing so, from a country that welcomed me long ago, just as Spain did during the 1990s with over 1,000 Kosovar Albanians. This is why my country’s behavior toward Kosovo is so frustrating. It’s not because of Spanish politicians’ lack of diplomacy during these 15 years, but because of the misguided opinions Spanish citizens spread daily.

But there is also another reality: in many cases, public opinion can change politics. And who knows — when my Kosovar friends come to La Feria this summer, they may change Spanish citizens’ opinions by talking with my neighbors.

It is possible that the Sánchez government’s discretion in accepting the Kosovar passport has initiated a period of learning and remembrance for the Spanish people. Through this learning, Spain will be able to regain common sense regarding Kosovo. And maybe, in the near future, the Wise Men will bring us the recognition of Kosovo.


Feature Image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0

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