Perspectives | Foreign Relations

Kosovo must use this moment to reframe the narrative of the past

By - 23.02.2021

The incoming government needs to make a vital addition to the state’s foreign policy.

Last March, in the middle of a pandemic, the people of Kosovo faced the added turmoil of a toppled government. Some even called it a Trump-led coup. But the Kosovar people had the final say during their recent parliamentary election that marked the highest voter turnout since the country declared independence in 2008. 

The election ushered in a landslide, record-breaking victory for the likely new Prime Minister Albin Kurti and his progressive Vetёvendosje (VV) party. It spelled an even bigger victory for Kosovo’s democratic consolidation after years of political infighting, contested elections, and a legacy of state capture. 

With VV’s victory based on a platform of anti-corruption, jobs, economic restructuring, social welfare and social justice, expectations are sky-high. 

While reforming Kosovo’s domestic structures will be a herculean effort on its own, internationally, Kurti’s new government will also face what is perhaps the greater existential challenge — defending and bolstering Kosovo’s sovereignty amidst neighboring Serbia’s successful campaigns of “derecognition” and revisionist history.

Herein lies the foreign policy dilemma.

What venues are open for Kosovo to pursue its required foreign policy objectives of international recognition, domestic sovereignty and security? Such a foreign policy feat demands that Kosovo assert its independence while also strengthening relations with the U.S. and the EU. 

Herein lies the foreign policy dilemma: Kosovo cannot fully assert its sovereignty and apply pressure on Serbia without backlash from Western actors, and it cannot maintain its statehood and security without external support. 

One of the more powerful solutions may lie in shifting the international narrative in Kosovo’s favor.

Here are the available policy options for Kosovo’s new political leaders, some more tenuous than others: 

1. Follow the U.S. and EU’s lead

VV has foreign policy scars from the recent past. After all, it is less than a year since the Kurti-led administration was removed from power after 52 days via a push from the Trump administration looking to replace the upstart government with more malleable old guard politicians. 

Despite Kosovo’s long-held aspirations to cement its domestic and international sovereignty, it must still prioritize strong ties and goodwill with the U.S. and the EU for its survival. Kosovo should surely take advantage of its strengthened, favorable relationship with the U.S. now that Joe Biden, a longtime ally of the Albanians, is president. 

After all, it was the U.S. that drove the 1999 NATO rescue of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians from a Serbian state-sponsored campaign of ethnic cleansing. It was the U.S. that protected and guided Kosovo to its independence in 2008. 

Whether Kosovo’s political elites and citizens like it or not, Kosovo’s existence still largely depends on U.S. security and economic assistance. 

2. Assert its sovereignty — but at a steep cost

But if decades of support from the U.S. have not succeeded in convincing the remaining half of the UN’s members and five EU members to recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty, what makes us think that this alone will do the job? During this time, Kosovo has gone out of its way to keep its international partners happy, from establishing the Specialist Chambers to signing a controversial border agreement with Montenegro. 

In the meantime, Serbia’s campaigning has convinced at least 15 countries to “revoke” their recognition of Kosovo. 

If Kosovo’s leadership is serious about moving away from its colonial dependencies, it cannot simply be at the beck and call of the U.S. or the EU, sacrificing its citizens’ interests for a speck of international goodwill, which has yet to even bring forth visa liberalization for Kosovars within Europe. 

Here’s the problem. Kosovo can’t act unilaterally without international punishment, as confirmed by the tariffs fiasco of March 2020. During a deadly pandemic, the Trump administration froze 50 million dollars of vital financial assistance to Kosovo and threatened to remove U.S. peacekeeping from the area. All because Kurti wouldn’t remove the tariffs on Serbian goods without concessions.

Time and time again the international community asks that Kosovo offer all of its carrots to Serbia and then punishes Kosovo when it refuses.

In search of a quick and shallow foreign policy victory via a backroom deal between Kosovo and Serbia’s presidents, all the pressure of compliance was placed on Kosovo while Serbia’s transgressions were ignored. The Serbian government refused to put the option of Kosovo’s recognition on the table, denied the state-sponsored crimes it committed against ethnic Albanians in the 1990s, and continued to wage its “de-recognition” campaign. 

Amidst fears of U.S. withdrawal of support and political in-fighting, Kurti’s government collapsed. In other words, when Kosovo wouldn’t comply, the U.S. was complicit in toppling its government.

Even though the new U.S. administration holds to friendlier forms of diplomacy, Kosovo still cannot exercise its sovereignty if it means defying the U.S. or EU without paying too steep of a cost. Time and time again — as in the case of transatlantic threats to create the Kosovo Specialist Chambers or else be referred to the UN Security Council — the international community asks that Kosovo offer all of its carrots to Serbia and then punishes Kosovo when it refuses. 

3. Stand up to historical revisionism

If Kosovo can’t exercise its sovereignty and act as an equal player because it desperately needs the support of its transatlantic bosses, what is left for it to do?

Kosovo’s new leadership should aspire to do more for itself even with their very limited options. 

Beyond strengthening U.S. and EU ties, seeking reciprocity in all international negotiations, and forming broader regional and international alliances, part of the solution relies on changing the narrative between Kosovo and Serbia, as this is the one dimension that Kosovo still has in its full control. 

It can sway other countries in its favor, especially Western countries interested in bolstering their normative images, and win the battle of public perceptions by reminding the world of the history that brought it to this moment. 

Kosovo must fight against narrations of historical equal culpability that define debates over its sovereignty today.

As I’ve found in my research, perceptions matter in international politics. Even the framing of an international conflict as one of ethnic civil war versus one of one-sided aggression or systematic killings can alter the chances of international intervention. Similarly, narratives of civil war and the resultant implication of equal culpability between Kosovo and Serbia alter the odds of external support for Kosovo’s sovereignty. 

This is why Kosovo must fight against narrations of historical equal culpability that define debates over its sovereignty today — for history is instead marked by the Serbian-sponsored ethnic cleansing campaigns against Kosovar Albanians, admitted by Serbian police officials themselves

Serbia is at the bargaining table across from Kosovo today because of what happened in the 1990s. Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević, the Butcher of the Balkans, committed crimes against humanity — although he died in prison before this could be proven in court. It is clearly documented that Serbian government’s forces killed more than 8,000 civilians and expelled around a million Albanians from Kosovo. 

Indeed, the trauma of ethnic cleansing of the late ’90s was not merely an anomaly in the history of ethnic Albanians in the region. Rather, it was the logical progression of a power asymmetry and decades of state-sponsored discrimination that can only be rectified by sovereign rule. 

The price of ignoring Serbia’s transgressions

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić denies these crimes today and has even publicly praised and embraced Milošević’s intentions for Serbian domination. In his address to ethnic Serbs in Kosovo’s Mitrovica in 2018, Vucic said that Milošević was “a great Serbian leader whose intentions were certainly for the best, but our results were very poor.”

Milošević’s “best intentions” remain on full display today. Since 2001, the remains of over 900 ethnic Albanian war victims have been found in four different sites across Serbia — including on sites belonging to the Serbian military — and more mass graves likely abound. Still, no one has been held responsible in Serbia for these cover-ups. Without even a hint of acceptance of responsibility and without political reform, no one can guarantee that the Serbian government will not repeat its past sins in Kosovo. 

Beyond the denial of this past, Vučić has defied U.S. demands time and time again with impunity. In January 2020, Special Presidential Envoy Richard Grenell demanded that Serbia end its “de-recognition” campaign against Kosovo, which was ignored. By the end of March, Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić outright refused once again and confirmed that Belgrade would continue its campaign even if Kosovo removed its tariffs. 

While the Serbian state is growing in its nationalism and genocide-denial, it is also gaining international influence via its connections to Russia and China. It is probably why the West has decided to woo Serbia with political carrots. It is part of the reason why Serbia’s “both sides” narrative has gained so much traction internationally. Simply put, favoring Serbia over Kosovo in ongoing negotiations is currently politically expedient for great powers.

Framing violence as one of equal culpability is usually the first step in shielding aggressors from responsibility and repercussions.

As the U.S. bullied Kosovo’s government into obedience and as the EU-funded Specialist Chambers charged Former Kosovar President Hashim Thaçi and company for war crimes at the Hague, they simultaneously ignore the fact that the Serbian justice system has convicted only a small number of people for the death of 13,000 victims in Kosovo, of whom more than a thousand were children. 

Nor do they chastise Serbia’s procurement of sanctioned weapons from Russia, its illegal de-facto government in northern Kosovo, or its rising domestic authoritarianism. Instead, they demand that Kosovo make concessions on its very sovereignty and form of government to appease its one-time oppressor, as in the case of demands for an Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities

Such negotiation asymmetries partially arise due to a successful painting of false neutrality over the past violence in the Balkans. In the eyes of the international community, the blame for the conflict in Kosovo has been equalized now between Serbia and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, which inherently helps Serbian foreign policy and hurts Kosovo’s.

Framing violence as one of equal culpability is usually the first step in shielding aggressors from responsibility and repercussions. Serbia’s civil war narrative does this well. It slowly chips away at the history of a conscious, systematic Serbian governmental policy to displace, kill, and imprison ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.  

Serbia wins when it successfully advances the narrative of a civil war between equally powerful, equally culpable parties in the 1990s. These persistent “both sides” framings will make it easier to strongarm the weaker actor Kosovo into accepting a subpar deal with Serbia. 

Why is the international community asking Kosovo to woo its aggressor for concessions, instead of demanding that the aggressor concede?

The ultimate fear is that the Kosovar government will have to give Serbia amnesty for the atrocities it committed in the 1990s, perhaps even swap territory, in the face of international pressure. The fear is that even with these concessions, Serbia will only continue to deny Kosovo’s statehood, history and legitimate grievances. 

But the truth is that Serbia was the aggressor whose actions led to Kosovo’s demands for independence. Why is the international community then asking Kosovo to woo its aggressor for concessions, instead of demanding that the aggressor concede? 

The reality of the 1990s is under attack by revisionist leaders across the Atlantic who deny Serbia’s crimes and place the blame on “both sides.” Kosovo’s new government must create a campaign of its own to refute these claims of equal culpability for the violence of the ’90s and once again recenter any debates over its sovereignty on the accurate historical narrative — that of a people subjected to a state-sponsored campaign of mass atrocities.  

Reconciliation cannot happen by forcing the victims to compromise with their aggressors. It can only succeed when the aggressor is marked as such and compelled to rectify their past harms. Until the international community moves away from the “equal blame” narrations of the Kosovo conflict, it will place Kosovo on the receiving end of sticks while Serbia chases after its carrots. 

What can Kosovo do right now?

Kosovo can rely on its large ethnic Albanian diaspora to mount a strong public relations and media campaign against the “both sides” narrative. 

It should also make use of more U.S. Congressional hearings and other domestic and international public venues to present the mountains of evidence on Serbia’s war crimes. Such accounts exist in spades within government agencies, international and local NGOs and as personal narratives. The Kosovar campaign would then highlight the need for war reparations from Serbia, a renewed effort to report on the status of missing persons, and compensation for victims of war-time sexual violence. 

Kosovo-Serbia negotiations must be founded upon a reciprocal economic and political relationship and push for mutual recognition. Kosovo ought to take the reins of such negotiation demands because it is the aggrieved party, not the aggressor. But to do that, Kosovo must make the international community see it this way as well.

Up until recently, Kosovo has owed its existence to international support. Yet the resounding victory of Vetёvendosje in the face of international pressure is a peaceful act of revolution and an act of sovereignty in its own right. 

Kosovo should seize this moment and bolster its international standing through a strong public narrative grounded in its painful origins and its promising future. 

Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.