Perspectives | EU

Is Kosovo’s international love affair coming to an end?

By - 10.02.2018

Political reaction to this week’s EU enlargement strategy shows marked shift in tone.

When in May 2016 the EU Commission proposed lifting visa restrictions for Kosovars, two conditions remained before Kosovars would be able to move freely in the borderless Schengen Zone: a “strengthened track record in the fight against organised crime and corruption,” and a newly added condition: ratification of the 2015 border demarcation deal with neighboring Montenegro.

Back then, the country’s leading politicians did not complain about the extra condition — far from it. Instead, they celebrated the news. “After decades of isolation, there won’t be any waiting in front of embassies, no more visa rejections,” President Hashim Thaci wrote on his Facebook page. He added that this wasn’t a present from the EU, but a well-deserved result of the government’s work.

Two years on, that condition, which was seemingly overlooked at the time, has caused protests, blocked the working of the Assembly for many months and brought down a government, while Kosovar citizens remain isolated, with no certainty when this long standing process will be concluded.

On Tuesday (Feb. 6) this week, the new EU enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans was published. Sold by the High Representative of EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policies, Federica Mogherini, as “a clear path for all Western Balkan partners,” it however seemingly offered Kosovo little in the way of optimism for a European future, using ambiguous language and more carrots than sticks.

“This is an unbalanced approach and favors Serbia.”

Enver Hoxhaj, deputy prime minister

Kosovo remains a “potential candidate country” to join the EU, while the only phrase that mentions its European perspective provides no timeline, reading: “Kosovo* has an opportunity for sustainable progress through implementation of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement and to advance on its European path once objective circumstances allow.” This stands in contrast to Kosovo’s northern neighbor Serbia, as well as Montenegro, which were both announced as “frontrunners” with a guideline accession date of 2025.

Unlike on other occasions in the past decade when Kosovo’s European perspective has appeared blurred, the soft language of constructivity toward the EU was notable in its absence in the reaction of Kosovo’s leaders. In its place, Prishtina’s political leaders have instead begun to raise their voices in criticism.

“The advancement of Serbia and grouping [Serbia] as a frontrunner is quite unjust, when Serbia all the time has developed deconstructive politics toward Kosovo and other countries in the region.” Deputy Prime Minister Enver Hoxhaj told K2.0. “This is an unbalanced approach and favors Serbia.”

His words echo those of the official press release from Kosovo’s government, issued on Tuesday after the strategy was published, stating that it “treats Kosovo asymmetrically and vaguely with regard to its European future, mentioning only the conditions and not Kosovo’s final station,” it read.

Known as having been a close partner of the international community since the war, Thaci’s discontent in his Facebook response to the EU strategy was also distinctly different in tone to his usual overtures over the years. “This strategy has failed to give clarity to Kosovo’s membership to the EU,” he wrote, before also adding that “Kosovo will not deepen in despair.”

Continuation of a trend?

The more critical tone of statements, particularly from Thaci, continue an increasing tension in relations between Kosovo’s political leadership and the international community in recent months. In October 2017, Thaci spoke out against Kosovo’s international partners, saying they had broken a promise to lift visa restrictions in exchange for the establishment of the Specialist Chambers to try leading KLA leader for alleged war crimes.

The QUINT member states (the U.S., UK, Italy, France and Germany) denied Thaci’s claim, saying in a statement that: “There was no deal done between the International Community and Kosovo regarding the creation of the Specialist Chambers.” Thaci has never responded to this claim.

Just two months later, on Dec. 22, tensions with the international community were raised still further, as 43 deputies from the coalition government attempted to launch an initiative to abolish the Specialist Chambers. Paradoxically, most of those who backed the initiative had voted for the creation of the Chambers in the first place, and it is widely believed to have been driven by Thaci, who had been the leading proponent of creating the Hague-based court back in 2015.

The reaction of the international community was swift and severe, warning Kosovo’s authorities that abolishing the Specialist Chambers would lead to international isolation. Following the pressure, the initiative to abolish the Specialist Chambers was shelved.

Growing frustration

The latest criticism to the EU’s Enlargement Strategy however is also a sign of growing frustration amongst Kosovo’s elites at a perceived injustice in terms of Kosovo’s treatment at the hands of the EU.

There is a series of accomplishments, which the European Union should recognize and accept, as a serious commitment toward making a fundamental progress in our country’s European path,” read the government’s statement, reacting to the enlargement strategy. “With its new Government, Kosovo has promptly and efficiently implemented key priorities listed in the European Reform Agenda (ERA 2017), thus making significant progress in fulfilling the [Stabilisation and Association Agreement, SAA] general criteria. The government of Kosovo expected such progress to be sufficient in enlightening Kosovo’s path to acquiring the candidate status, as was the case with all other countries of the region… .”

Such frustration was also emphasized by Deputy Prime Minister Hoxhaj, who suggests that Kosovo has played its part in what has been asked of it, and had been unfairly treated by the EU. “Kosovo had continually shown pro-western commitment, while on the other hand, this strategy was clearly disbalanced between states,” he told K2.0.

The feeling of having been victimized is not reflected across all parts of Kosovo’s government, however. In a press conference on Wednesday, Minister of European Integration, Dhurata Hoxha, also said that the government’s “expectations had been higher,” but took a slightly different tone, admitting that Kosovo had not kept pace with required European reforms. “We have managed to fulfill only 30 percent of the SAA agreement. We can do more; there are challenges ahead but it does not mean that we cannot meet them and speed up the next phase,” Hoxha said.

“This approach can change if in the future Kosovo conditions the EU in the dialogue process with Serbia."

Donika Emini, international peace and security researcher

Donika Emini, an international peace and security researcher at the Prishtina-based think tank Kosovar Center for Security Studies, believes that even claims that 30 percent of the SAA have been implemented do not stack up. “Up until now, since the signing of the agreement, Kosovo has not had the institutional continuity to commence the implementation of this agreement as it should have done,” she told K2.0.

“However this process is long, and Kosovo should be serious that it takes the reforms seriously, and this would probably position Kosovo in a more favorable position in order to demand integration. But to do this we have to have a lot of political will to implement reforms, and this government looks like it will not have that approach.”

Emini is also critical of the EU’s approach toward Kosovo, but believes this has a longer history and that Kosovo’s approach to its past interactions with the EU have partly brought about its own downfall. “The EU has had an asymmetric approach, even in the dialogue [since 2011] facilitated between Kosovo and Serbia, but Kosovo has never conditioned the dialogue in order to change such an approach,” Emini said, before going on to state that it is not too late to do.

“This approach can change if in the future Kosovo conditions the EU in the dialogue process with Serbia. If Kosovo conditions [the EU] with having the right to officially apply to join the EU [as a Candidate Country] by 2019.”

Indeed, Kosovo’s role in being crucial to Serbia’s accession, as well as the stability of the region in general, could work in its favor, with the EU asserting in its strategy that a “comprehensive, legally binding normalisation agreement is urgent and crucial” for both Kosovo and Serbia’s European paths.

There are already indications that Kosovo’s government is considering taking a more assertive stance with the EU, with Enver Hoxhaj telling K2.0 that he wants benefits in exchange for Kosovo’s future commitment to dialogue with Serbia. “If Kosovo does not get visa liberalisation after it fulfills its duties within 2018, this dialogue will lose the meaning, and not only in a political sense, but also [in terms of] its support from citizens,” Hoxhaj said.

Developments over the coming months should indicate whether the recent change in tone from top officials in Kosovo are an indication of a shift in relationship with the country’s international partners, or mere hot air to deflect the blame for a lack of progress in domestic reforms.K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.