Perspectives | International Relations

Palestine, Kosovo and the dilemma faced by ‘small’ states

By - 02.06.2021

Kosovo’s new government balances principles and pragmatism.

Kosovo’s new government balances principles and pragmatism.

On May 16, Kosovo’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted:

The tweet provoked criticism for its overtly pro-Israeli stance; many Kosovar Albanians drew parallels between their own suffering at the hands of the Milošević regime in the 1990s and that of the Palestinians and urged the government to show solidarity with their plight. Others lamented what they perceived as the Ministry’s obvious attempt to win favor with the United States by blindly supporting its ally, Israel. 

Vetëvendosje came to power claiming to be above the tawdry, self-serving politicking that has blighted Kosovo for so long, and many of its supporters were therefore naturally disheartened, though the current Minister of Foreign Affairs — Donika Gërvalla — is from the Guxo political list rather than Vetëvendosje. 

Pro-Palestinian marches were held in Kosovo — as were much smaller events in support of Israel — and those critical of the position taken by Kosovo certainly have a case; while Israel does have a right to defend itself, it can only legitimately do so within the parameters of international law, something it has clearly failed to do

Kosovo, Serbia, Israel and Palestine

The relationship between Kosovo, Serbia, Israel and Palestine has never been straightforward. As is so often the case in international politics, principles have invariably been overshadowed by geopolitical considerations, with the parties adopting positions based on their respective stances on two keys issues; their relationship with the U.S. and their own desire to support or oppose the principle of self-determination. 

Under Tito’s leadership, Yugoslavia cultivated close relations with Palestine as part of the Non-Aligned Movement; after the Six Day War in 1967, Yugoslavia broke off diplomatic ties with Israel and officially recognized Palestine in 1988. Following Yugoslavia’s dissolution the friendship continued with Serbia, and in December 1999 President of the Palestinian National Authority Yasir Arafat — seeking to bolster his credentials as an opponent of U.S. hegemony — infamously invited Slobodan Milošević to attend a celebration of Orthodox Christmas in Bethlehem, thereby outraging Kosovar Albanians.  

Yet, Milošević’s regime also had close ties with Israel. Israel — eager to support a state also battling separatists — supplied arms to Serbia throughout the 1990s as it waged war across the region. 

During NATO’s intervention in 1999 Israel’s then Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon — echoing the views of many in Israel deeply concerned at the West supporting separatists — condemned NATO’s “brutal interventionism” adding, “The moment Israel expresses support for the sort of model of action we’re seeing in Kosovo, it’s likely to be the next victim.” 

Though the Kosovars and Palestinians share key traits, relations between the two have rarely been warm.

He also warned that an independent Kosovo “…is liable in the future to turn into a part of Greater Albania, and to serve as a base for radical Islamic terrorism — a core of which already exists there — that may spread throughout Europe.” 

Nonetheless, successive post-independence governments in Kosovo have overtly supported Israel largely because doing so is seen as bolstering their pro-American credentials; indicatively when six U.S. investors met with the then Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj in 2019, the conference table was curiously decorated with U.S., Kosovo and Israeli flags. Kosovo’s former ambassador to the U.S., Vlora Citaku, previously stated that the Kosovar people “look up to Israel as an example of how a state can be built.”

Additionally, though the Kosovars and Palestinians share key traits — most obviously a determination to secede from an oppressive state — relations between the two have rarely been warm. Three days after Kosovo declared independence in 2008, Yasser Abed Rabbo — aide to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas — stated, “Kosovo is not better than us. We deserve independence even before Kosovo.” 

Owing to its perception of Kosovo as a U.S. supplicant, Palestine has not supported Kosovo in its attempts to secure international recognition, and in fact voted against it joining UNESCO in 2015. 

Likewise, while Serbia and Israel may seem like obvious allies, Serbia has often supported the Palestinians, not least because of its own frosty relationship with the U.S. In 2011 Serbia endorsed Palestine’s successful bid to join UNESCO, in November 2012 it was the only country in the Western Balkans to vote in favor of Palestine being granted observer status at the UN, and in 2017 Serbia voted in favor of a UN General Assembly resolution declaration calling on states not to establish diplomatic missions in Jerusalem.

Yet, to win favor with the U.S. — and the comparatively less pro-Kosovo President Trump — Serbia did agree to relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem when it signed the Washington agreement in September 2020. But, as part of the agreement Israel also agreed to recognize Kosovo, much to Serbia’s anger. Israel’s ambassador to Serbia, Yahel Vilan, however, later stated: “Israel’s decision to recognize Kosovo was made under American pressure,” stating that the move “is definitely against our interests in Serbia.” 

In Washington, Kosovo also committed itself to locating its embassy in Jerusalem; while Kosovo becoming the first Muslim-majority territory to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was heralded by the U.S., it also angered many. Kosovo’s key ally Turkey condemned the decision, and the EU warned Kosovo — and Serbia — that the move would negatively impact on its membership applications. 

The decision was also condemned by The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Arab League, and it sparked a furious reaction from the Palestinian Foreign Minister. 

America first?

As is clear, the Vetëvendosje-led government’s response to the situation in Palestine is complicated by factors beyond its control. Kosovo’s relationship with Palestine is profoundly affected by both parties’ stance toward the U.S. 

Indeed, comparing those states that recognize Kosovo with those that recognize Palestine evidences a sharp divide largely — though not exclusively — along the lines of allegiance to the U.S. 

In this context, the tweet by the Kosovo Ministry of Foreign Affairs may seem to make strategic sense; the benefits of maintaining a close relationship with the U.S. outweighing the negative impact so doing has on the already poor relationship Kosovo has with Palestine. Yet, while angering Palestine and disheartening those with pro-Palestinian sympathies within Kosovo may indeed be relatively minor costs when compared to perpetuating an alliance with the U.S., there are other costs that come with adopting this stance. 

Kosovo’s campaign to seek international recognition as an independent state has been undermined for years by the perception that the majority Albanian community are “the lapdogs of the Americans.” Previous overly pro-U.S. statements made by Kosovo’s representatives have fundamentally compromised Kosovo’s credentials; indicatively, in July 2019, Kosovo’s then ambassador to the U.S., Vlora Citaku stated, “when it comes to major foreign policy objectives, Kosovo always follows the American position.” 

It would be a strategic mistake for the new government to focus narrowly on relations with the U.S. in its foreign affairs.

Kosovo’s independence claims will not be taken seriously if it unquestioningly echoes Washington’s agenda; in short, being seen as “the most pro-American country on earth” comes with some costs. There is, as such, a definite distinction between rational strategic behavior and self-defeating sycophancy. Previous governments in Kosovo have consistently fallen into the latter category; the present government has inherited their legacy of binding Kosovo narrowly to U.S. support on the international stage. 

While Kosovo is in many respects very fortunate to have been the recipient of prolonged U.S. support, the world is today significantly different to that of 1999 and even 2008. 

While it is still the most powerful country, U.S. power is in decline; as such, it would be a strategic mistake for the new government to focus narrowly on relations with the U.S. in its foreign affairs. The Hoti-led government’s assent to the Washington Agreement won it plaudits from the Trump White House, but it negatively impacted upon Kosovo’s relations with the EU, Turkey, the OIC and the Arab League. 

Kosovo will obviously need ongoing support from Washington, but it will also have to look beyond the U.S. for allies as its power wanes and its strategic interests shift. 

The dilemma faced by ‘small’ states

Kosovo’s response to events in Palestine highlights the dilemma all “small” states face; to adopt a principled approach to international affairs and risk dangerous isolation, or compromise by aligning with a great power’s agenda to receive support and ensure survival. Indeed, other states — such as the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan — were similarly caught between their alliance with Washington and sympathy for Palestine. 

Kosovo’s position, however, is more acutely precarious given its very existence is essentially a function of direct U.S. support, its international status remains contested and it faces an ongoing threat from Serbia. 

Therefore, while Vetëvendosje swept to power promising a more principled and genuinely independent approach, Kosovo’s inherent fragility and obvious need for external support, means that pragmatism is essential if the government is to implement its transformative agenda. The challenge for the new government is to ensure that alliances are maintained without compromising either core principles or perceptions of Kosovo’s independence. 

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.