Perspectives | Politics

Kosovo’s U.S. Dilemma

By - 16.02.2023

How many times must Kosovo bend the knee to the U.S.?

Given Joe Biden’s record of supporting Kosovo, the majority of Kosovar Albanians celebrated his victory in the 2020 presidential campaign due to the hope that he would increase pressure on Serbia and provide more support for Kosovo’s sovereignty and integration into international organizations. These hopes have been dashed. 

U.S. officials in Kosovo, and the region generally, have provoked anger by praising the Serbian government and posing cheerfully with officials implicated in the Milošević-era oppression of Albanians in Kosovo. At the same time, they’ve been demanding that the government of Kosovo accept a deal with Belgrade which compromises Kosovo’s internal sovereignty. 

The situation reached its nadir in late January when the U.S. Special Envoy for the Western Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, frustrated by the Kosovar government’s position on the Association of Serbian Municipalities (ASM), stated that “one person and one party” would not be allowed to stand in the way of its implementation, promising “we will do it and I will do it by finding partners.” 

The threat was clear. The Kosovo government must do as the U.S. says or face subversion. It was by any standards a remarkably disrespectful way to talk about your ally’s elected government. 

Why the ASM has been deemed so essential is itself unclear; Kosovo’s Constitution provides the Serb community with extensive rights relating to language, education and political representation. Indeed, the privileges guaranteed under the constitution — itself essentially drafted by the U.S. and EU — are arguably more expansive than provisions provided to any other minority in Europe. The determination to force through the ASM does not, therefore, stem from a principled desire to provide a minority with rights it currently does not enjoy.

The U.S.’s stance appears even more unfair and short-sighted given that ever since Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party came to power in 2012, Serbia has become more authoritarian, seen restrictions in press freedom, strengthened links with Russia, all while stoking unrest in countries across the region.  

Kosovo now faces a huge dilemma due to the U.S.’s position. U.S. support has been vital over the past 25 years — the military intervention in 1999 and the 2008 declaration of independence would both have been impossible without it. There is, therefore, an understandable unwillingness to jeopardize this relationship — clearly it would be foolhardy to reject the demands made by your main benefactor (and the single most powerful country in the world).

Were Kosovar Albanians' struggles and sacrifices made so that Kosovo could become a U.S. supplicant?

Yet, there must also be some red lines — acceding to U.S. demands to implement a deal that will effectively imperil Kosovo’s sovereignty must surely be one of them. Afterall, cooperating with the U.S. only makes sense if it strengthens Kosovo’s international status. Were Kosovar Albanians’ struggles and sacrifices made so that Kosovo could become a U.S. supplicant? 

Resisting regression

The U.S. has made it clear for at least a decade that it seeks “stability” in the region. As a result, Bosnia became a frozen entity where a cold peace reigns and Kosovo became a phantom state — partly recognized, unable to join the EU, U.N. or NATO, but “stable.” In terms of Serbia, efforts were made to draw it to the West by offering it a series of concessions. These included turning a blind eye to the erosion of press freedom and democratic practices within Serbia, and a willingness to tolerate Serbia increasing its destabilizing interference in Bosnia and Kosovo. 

The U.S. preference for stability was facilitated by governments in Kosovo that acceded to U.S. demands, which resulted in leaders signing on to a series of deeply unpopular agreements that degraded Kosovo’s sovereignty, such as the ASM, the border agreement with Montenegro and the creation of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers court in The Hague. This was part of a strategy of winning the acclaim of the U.S. — Hashim Thaçi benefited from being heralded as “the George Washington of Kosovo” in 2010 — and in return they were tacitly allowed to engage in widespread corruption. Kosovo was thus left to languish in the international doldrums while becoming an archetypal example of state capture

Many of the old elite that benefited from adopting a servile stance towards the U.S. are berating the government for standing up to the U.S.

The people of Kosovo could not tolerate this. By 2016 many had given up hope and simply left the country, but those who stayed voted to expel the corrupt, compliant elite from power, hence the precipitous rise of Vetëvendosje. Their electoral success in 2019 made the implementation of the stability-orientated approach more difficult as the party and its supporters sought progress rather than stagnation. Hence the ASM impasse today.  

Naturally many of the old elite that benefited from adopting a servile stance towards the U.S. are today berating the government for standing up to the U.S. When they were in power Kosovo suffered mass out migration, chronic corruption and international stagnation. As such, the argument that Kosovo should once again simply do what the U.S. tells it to does not have much to recommend it. 

What can be done?

Amidst calls that the “time is now” to sign an agreement, any agreement, with Serbia, Kosovo’s government should adopt a patient and values-based approach. The current negotiations are taking place during a tumultuous phase in global politics, not least because of the war in Ukraine. 

The U.S. is having to quickly rethink its foreign policy approach given it has become increasingly clear that democracy is facing an existential threat; this will surely impel a new set of foreign policy priorities which involve providing more support to those who are standing up for democracy and the rule of law, especially in regions such as the Balkans where they face an imminent threat from aggressive authoritarians. As such, there are reasons to hope that sense will prevail, and the U.S. will adopt a new approach towards Kosovo and Serbia, particularly as the latter has continued to align with Moscow. 

The Serbian government's foreign policy is incompatible with democratic values

The threat posed by Serbia is not imagined; the evidence that the current government holds a set of values closely aligned with Vladimir Putin has been repeatedly presented by international organizations and human rights groups within Serbia. In short, the Serbian government’s foreign policy is incompatible with democratic values and the very principle of sovereign equality, and is as such a threat to peace in Europe. This will become clearer in the coming years as Vučić’s attempts to maintain links with both the West and Moscow inevitably unravel. 

Much like Milošević in the late 1980s, Vučić has unleashed nationalist forces throughout the region that he will find difficult to constrain. As his minions in Kosovo, Bosnia and Montenegro promote violent instability, their actions will lay bare the threat posed by those who are determined to rekindle “Greater Serbia.” The U.S.’s present policy of appeasing Serbia is, in short, destined to be soon discredited.  

In the interim, Kosovo must demonstrate its commitment to liberal values by strengthening its democratic and judicial institutions, promoting press freedom, tackling corruption, ensuring minority rights are respected and fostering friendly relations with its neighbors. More effort should also be made in improving relations with other powerful states whose support will compensate for any short-term reduction in support from Washington. 

Additionally, Kosovo should do what many similarly small states have done: focus on leveraging its soft power. Internationally acclaimed figures such as Dua Lipa, Majlinda Kelmendi or Jeton Neziraj have arguably done more to consolidate Kosovo’s international standing than the hundreds of fruitless meetings with EU officials in Brussels. Kosovo can, and should, do more to utilize the success of its athletes, writers, artists, entrepreneurs — and harness the power of the large Albanian diaspora to do so — to help establish itself as a recognized member of the international community. 

Ultimately, amidst the clamor to “compromise” and the calls to “respect Washington,” it is important to remember that the Kosovar Albanians will always live in Kosovo while the present U.S. administration’s policy towards Kosovo is inherently transitory. It would be foolish to accede to demands today that do long term damage; better to wait for these demands to be rescinded. 

Afterall, who remembers Richard Grenell? 

Feature image: Besnik Bajrami / K2.0.

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