One-on-one | Politics

Roland Gjoni: Kosovo is simultaneously ‘too big’ and ‘too small’ of an international issue

By - 19.09.2019

Legal and political scientist talks geopolitics, Albanian nationalism and domestic tensions in Albania.

Albanian academic Roland Gjoni has spent a lot of time advising governments and organizations. 

As a political affairs and legal researcher, Gjoni has had 15 years of experience working for the UN Headquarters and its mission in Kosovo, the EU, USAID, the World Bank, UNDP and UNCTED. His areas of expertise range from political and constitutional reforms, justice, rule of law, anti-corruption and countering violent extremism. 

Gjoni has a postgraduate degree in constitutional law and human rights from Columbia University School of Law where he was a Fulbright Scholar, and a law degree from Tirana Faculty of Law. He has also previously worked as a lecturer in Constitutional Law at the American University in Kosovo and has published on ethnic politics, divided societies, Balkan affairs and conflict resolution. 

Having recently obtained his PhD in political science from University College Dublin (UCD), specializing in Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict, he still resides in Dublin, where he is furthering his research in this field.

K2.0 sat down with Gjoni to talk about Albanian nationalism, the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, the Kosovo-Serbia negotiations and the current political situation in Albania.

Photo courtesy of Roland Gjoni.

K2.0: As a conflict researcher, what unique features differentiated the Kosovo War of 1999 — and the Albanian-Serbian conflict in general — from other conflicts in the world?

Roland Gjoni: Inter-ethnic conflicts may have similarities, but they generally dominate the distinctions, which in cases remain unrecognizable, leading to a misunderstanding of conflict dynamics and possible solutions.

In the case of Kosovo, one of its features is the fact that the conflict originated prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia, although many conflict analysts begin their analysis with Milošević’s rise to power, the Fushë Kosovë speech and the use of Kosovo Serbs to begin the process of rescinding Kosovo’s autonomy. 

In fact, the Kosovo conflict cannot be understood without studying it as part of the conflict and rivalry between Albanians and Serbs in the region dating back to at least 1878, when the first symptoms of the Ottoman Empire’s decline in the Balkans were seen.

Another feature is the way the conflict developed and NATO’s decisive intervention as the only and perhaps unrepeatable case of NATO’s collective action against Yugoslavia. Even the way of administering Kosovo after 1999 makes Kosovo sui generis [unique], because despite the agreement to halt the killing of civilians, there has been no agreement on making Kosovo a state within the UN, NATO and the EU, as noted even in the fundamental differences between EU states on Kosovo’s independence.

What is worth noting is that due to the origins of the Kosovo issue in the decisions of the international conferences of 1878 and 1913, this issue is still unresolved and it is wrong to think that this topic was concluded on February 17, 2008.

In fact, Serbia’s battle to halt the finalization of the state of Kosovo and curb the growth of the Albanian factor in the Balkans has seen great success since 2011, and has been helped not least by the failure of elites in Prishtina to consolidate the state, as well as by the inability of Tirana to assist Kosovo in the international arena.

So the war is probably over, but not the Albanian-Serbian rivalry in the Balkans.

Various Albanian intellectuals and politicians speak of an Albanian “progressive nationalism.” Is there such a definition in academia and can Albanian nationalism be described in this way?

It is very common for politicians and intellectuals to speak positively of their own countries’ nationalism as “peaceful,” “progressive” and “inclusive” and other nationalisms as “exclusive,” “chauvinist” and “violent.” These definitions are not supported by contemporary theories of nationalism and are problematic when confronted with historical records. Statements about a “progressive Albanian nationalism” assume the existence of a unified Albanian nationalism as a cohesive movement with noble objectives and a progressive political program.

Contemporary academic scholarship views nations as “zones of conflict” where different social actors, groups and political parties, often with competing and antagonistic political goals, strive to speak and act on behalf of the nation. As in the case of other nations, Albanian nationalism is a political ideology invoked by various organizations, parties, movements and leaders in Albania, Kosovo and other Albanian-speaking communities that attempt to advance the “Albanian national cause.” 

Beyond a shared language and shared memories of common suffering and injustice usually harking back to 1878 or 1912, there are important particularities between various strands of nationalism pursued by different Albanian political organizations at different periods of time.  

Even if we assume the existence of an overarching Albanian nationalism, it is hard to label it as a progressive and benign political ideology. Many theorists of nationalism have argued that strong state institutions, particularly “national armies,” have been responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed in the name of expansionist nationalist projects. 

In the case of Albanians, although an Albanian state has been recognized since 1913, Albanian nationalism is rarely encouraged by the state of Albania, which for most of the period since its formation has been unable to promote a state-led version of nationalism, due to a lack of strong state institutions.

Albanian nationalism is generally reactive and not proactive, largely mobilized in response to shifting geopolitical power configurations.

Both historically and today, Albanian nationalism is polycentric, most of the time developing and organizing outside of state borders and has very strong diasporic elements. In fact, Albanian nationalism shares a lot with nationalist movements of divided nations like the Irish or stateless nations like Basques or Palestinians where non-state actors, both pacifists and militants, have been more important in driving or influencing nationalist politics than the state. 

While it may be true that for most of the time Albanians have been the “losers” in the Western Balkan ethno-national rivalries since the emergence of nation-states in the 19th century, historically there have been sporadic cases where Albanian nationalist organizations have engaged in the expulsion, killing and deportation of other groups, including unarmed civilians.  

From this perspective it is an interesting phenomenon to study, but its fluidity and polycentric nature can also be a sign of weakness when compared with other state-led or state-promoted nationalisms of better-established nation-states.

Archival image. Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Another defining feature of Albanian nationalism is that it is generally reactive and not proactive, largely mobilized in response to shifting geopolitical power configurations. This can be seen historically in 1878, 1913 and 1944, or even later in Kosovo in 1981 and 1989, when mobilization mostly took place when the survival of the ethnic Albanian communities faced external threats, or when political elites mobilized to protect their privileges achieved under imperial or supra-national projects. 

In sum, instead of calling it “progressive nationalism,” it is more accurate to describe Albanian nationalism as a defensive, reactive and polycentric political phenomenon rather than as an expansionist ideology striving for dominance of other groups or nations.

How do you assess the recent interviewing of former KLA soldiers and commanders by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, as well as the Chambers in general?

Those charged with crimes against humanity or war crimes will have to answer to the court based on their own individual responsibility, but the damage to Kosovo’s reputation internationally has been significant since the endorsement of Dick Marty’s report in 2011 [by the Council of Europe].

One of the most negative effects of the report has been to completely alter the narrative surrounding the Kosovo conflict. At the end of the war, the dominant narrative about Kosovo in the international community was that Yugoslav forces had committed egregious crimes committed against unarmed civilians and that the international community intervened to stop those atrocities. 

Twenty years after the conflict, no one speaks about the fact that only six people have been convicted by Serbia’s justice institutions, for around 13,000 victims in Kosovo. There is also almost no mention of the more than 500 killed children and about 20,000 victims of rape at the hands of Yugoslav military and paramilitary organizations. 

All these perpetrators can be identified by examining military and secret service archives, because the crimes were not committed by UFO’s, but by military, police and paramilitary structures that operated in their designated areas of command responsibility.

While no crimes should go unpunished, regardless of ethnicity and political affiliation of the perpetrators, the limited jurisdiction of the specialist chambers casts a long shadow on international justice and creates the impression that the crimes of the Yugoslav forces have already been dealt with.  

My expectation is that the court will continue to work for at least 15 years, and during this period more arguments will be produced to promote the narrative that both parties to the conflict are equally responsible for the crimes committed during the conflict. In fact, I think the damage has already been done, as the vast majority of the international opinion will only remember that according to Marty’s report and the EU Investigative Task Force, the KLA leadership has engaged in killings of Serb civilians and organ harvesting. 

Most people will not pay attention to the outcome of the criminal trials, regardless of whether they end in criminal sentencing or acquittals of the KLA members. 

How do you see the debates going on in Kosovo over the possibility of exchanging territories with Serbia, but also the general negotiation process with Serbia in general?

My view is that while the EU-facilitated dialogue was supposed to normalize relations and unlock the European integration process of both countries, the process largely failed to normalize relations and only Serbia made progress in the EU integration process. From the outset, the EU did not treat Kosovo as an equal party to the dialogue.

While most people recognize the fact that the status quo and a frozen conflict are dangerous, it does not automatically follow that any move beyond the status quo is positive.

In addition, Kosovo’s leadership made some serious strategic mistakes during the dialogue, weakening the international position of Kosovo and increasing Serbia’s influence over the internal constitutional system of Kosovo, through the promises made to the Association of Kosovo Serb Municipalities and the creation of Srpska Lista.

When Serbia realized that the prospects of EU membership were not realistic, given the internal disagreements within the EU about the future of the enlargement, initial attempts to normalize relations started to falter and exposed the limits of EU dialogue. Instead of opening the EU dialogue to international scrutiny, the EU High Representative appears to have embarked upon a completely different process, facilitating discussions between the Presidents of Kosovo and Serbia on territorial adjustments.

This development shifted the dialogue from a citizen-focused process, designed to tackle some of the negative consequences of the frozen conflict on the daily lives of Albanians and Serbs, to a completely ethno-centric and un-European process of partitioning Kosovo along ethnic lines.  

While most people recognize the fact that the status quo and a frozen conflict are dangerous, it does not automatically follow that any move beyond the status quo is positive. The land swap idea in particular is not good, and although it enjoys some support in various European capitals that are happy to accept short term fixes, it may potentially have disastrous consequences for the stability and security of the Western Balkans and the European continent.

For Serbia, the land swap is not the final and definite solution for Kosovo, but another step in the process of further diluting Kosovo’s statehood.

This is because the entire process rests on several fundamental flaws that should be addressed.

First, the land swap is not the “Grand Finale” as it is often referred to as, because Serbia has not agreed to recognize Kosovo at the end of the process, and the EU cannot force Serbia to recognize Kosovo when the EU itself does not recognize Kosovo as a state. Serbia has merely stated its willingness not to object to Kosovo’s UN membership if a favorable deal can be achieved, which would allow Vučić to sell it as a victory in Belgrade. 

If Serbia had been interested in partitioning Kosovo or exchanging the northern municipalities with the Albanian settlements in Presheva Valley, it could have done so many years ago. Before the 1999 war, during the Ahtisaari Process and after, Serbia has tried to indefinitely postpone recognition and use Kosovo’s “unfinished statehood” status as a geo-political bargaining chip to strengthen its regional position.

Having succeeded in weakening Kosovo internationally through the EU-facilitated dialogue, Belgrade is now very well positioned to further complicate Kosovo’s statehood. Therefore, for Serbia, the land swap is not the final and definite solution for Kosovo, but another step in the process of further diluting Kosovo’s statehood. 

Any bilateral process that questions Kosovo’s statehood will de facto suspend Kosovo’s international subjectivity and may be interpreted as a tacit acceptance by Kosovo that without Serbia’s consent, the independence declared in 2008 is meaningless and open for negotiation. At the same time, Serbia will continue to project itself as a flexible party that has no red lines and no taboos, just as it has been able to use the dialogue to weaken Kosovo internationally.

Illustration by Bes Bajrami / K2.0.

Second, the idea that a “land swap” will lead to Kosovo’s membership in the UN is also unfounded, because UN membership has nothing to do with Serbia. Many of the proponents of the land swap try to link Kosovo’s partition with UN membership by suggesting that Russia has been part of the secret diplomatic talks and that the Kremlin has signaled its willingness to unblock Kosovo’s membership in the UN. At best, this is a very naïve way of analyzing international relations, which are far more complex and multi-dimensional.

Advocates of the land swap in Prishtina assume that the geopolitical interests of Belgrade and the Kremlin overlap when it comes to Kosovo. This is factually untrue, as Russia is a very aggressive geopolitical actor and its interests only partially overlap with Belgrade, even when it comes to the question of Kosovo. 

While the Kremlin and Belgrade may share an interest in blocking U.S.-led efforts to make Kosovo a fully-fledged member of the international community, Russia has far greater strategic goals in its “near abroad” and will only support Serbia to the extent that it can further its own interests in the Balkans and elsewhere. For one thing, Russia will try to connect Kosovo’s UN seat with Western acceptance of Crimea’s annexation, or try to get a similar treatment for South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria. 

In many ways, Kosovo is simultaneously “too big” a question for Russia to remove its veto at the UN without major concessions from the U.S. and the EU, and “too small” an issue for the U.S. and EU to concede Russia’s territorial ambitions against neighboring countries with large Russian speaking populations. 

In addition, China does not have the same interests as Russia and is not obliged to remove its veto over Kosovo’s membership in the UN just because Russia may signal a change of policy. China is widely recognized as one of the most rigid supporters of the principle of territorial integrity of states, and will find it difficult to support solutions that can be used as a template by Taiwan or Tibet in the future.

It is true that if land swaps take place, the principle of inviolability of borders cannot be sustained and Kosovo’s statehood as declared in 2008 will be seriously questioned.

Third, it is unclear how a land swap may lead to accelerated European integration for Kosovo.  Spain and other non-recognizing EU members such as Cyprus or even Slovakia have expressed in strong terms that they will not recognize Kosovo, regardless of what Serbia does. 

While Serbia may be able to get closer to the EU as it has done since the launch of the EU-led dialogue in 2011, the same cannot be said about Kosovo. Kosovo’s European future is uncertain due to the current shifting priorities within the EU, away from EU enlargement and toward internal reforms and the containment of the crisis in the Western Balkans.  

Fourth, when advocates of the land swap in Prishtina are confronted with the arguments made above, they try to neutralize the opponents of Kosovo’s partition by arguing that Kosovo’s statehood has failed and that once the land swap is finalized, Kosovo will immediately join Albania. To accept that Kosovo is failing as a state does not automatically mean that giving some territory to Serbia will make Kosovo a more successful state.

If for some reason Kosovo agrees to the territorial exchange under international pressure, its implementation on the ground will be very difficult due to the lack of popular support.

It is true that if land swaps take place, the principle of inviolability of borders cannot be sustained and Kosovo’s statehood as declared in 2008 will be seriously questioned. However, should Kosovo and Albania decide to merge into one state, it is not clear how one could prevent territorial implications in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Macedonia.  

Finally, it is often said that no one should stand in the way of a peaceful and mutually agreed upon solution between Serbia and Kosovo, even if this involves territorial exchange. It is often argued that a “dangerous solution” is much better than a “dangerous frozen conflict.” 

But based on international experiences, conflict resolution efforts are prone to failure without the support of a majority of key political leaders and voters. Except for the president of Kosovo, all other political leaders, political parties and the majority of the population have come out against territorial exchange. Polls have shown that over 75% of Kosovo’s population is opposed to land swaps, and that over 30% are willing to take action in order to halt the partition of Kosovo.

To conclude, I would say that it is very unrealistic that an agreement to partition Kosovo will take place, and if for some reason Kosovo agrees under international pressure, its implementation on the ground will be very difficult due to the lack of popular support.  

Recently in Albania, there has been a clash between the ruling majority and the opposition, as well as between the prime minister and the president. How do you see this entire situation?

When it comes to Albania, what we have seen for many years is a clear case of “arrested development.” I say “arrested development” because on the one hand, Albania has all the ingredients to be a successful country and even to become a regional leader in the Balkans. 

It is a beautiful country with a young population, a very resourceful diaspora and a potentially outsized geopolitical influence due to the special ties with Kosovo and its role as a “mother state” to Albanian communities in Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

Just take one example of the missed opportunities; since 1992, Albania has produced around 60,000 students with graduate diplomas, over 15,000 with postgraduate degrees and about 900 PhD’s from Western universities. To have 900 PhD’s outside your country of 3 million inhabitants is a brain drain of catastrophic proportions. Imagine what would happen to Germany if 27,000 Germans with PhD degrees would leave the country. 

It is unfortunate that no government has been able to attract successful Albanians and engage this powerful resource in the national economy. We still see leaders from the communist era in leading positions in parliament and in the Academy of Sciences, for example. 

Many of the shortcomings of Albania have accumulated since 1991, and cannot be simply attributed to Rama’s government. However, Rama is entering his seventh year with no significant domestic or international success, and this is a source of major disappointment.  

On the other hand, the opposition has failed to offer any positive alternative and instill hope in Albanian voters. While people generally have no doubts that Rama has failed to make good on the promises he made in 2013, a large number of people do not see the opposition as a credible alternative. 

This is largely due to the fact that the pillars of political power in Albania are largely the same that kept [previous Prime Minister Sali] Berisha in power for eight years. Political and financial power rests predominantly in a limited number of oligarchs who previously worked with Berisha and [former Prime Minister Ilir] Meta, and who are supported by large media groups whose owners have obscure business and political interests, but don’t serve the public good.

Local and international organizations have reported strong links between the Socialist Party and Rama’s close associates, and Albanian criminal organizations. There are serious allegations that the proceeds of organized crime and state resources are used to buy votes and secure the electoral dominance. Given the close links between the ruling party, business and media elites and the role of criminal organizations in Albanian politics, it will be very difficult to see political change with this kind of uninspiring opposition.  

Many independent analysts claim that Rama will continue to misgovern with impunity because he has the support of the U.S. and EU. I would disagree with this argument and argue that the main advantage that Rama has is the “weak opposition” and a lack of credible leadership. Therefore, a large number of Albanians are “voting with their feet” and leaving, due to the disappointment with the slow and painful transition that has only benefited a handful of politically connected people.

Those who have not decided to emigrate are either “politically demobilized” and do no turn out to vote, or have become cynical and sell their vote for a small price, which usually favors the ruling party that has access to more resources and jobs. By this, I do not mean to say that Rama is not responsible for the failures, because he has been in leading political positions for 21 years since 1998, but I am just pointing out that the opposition lacks credibility as well.  

In December, we had an unexpected student “explosion” in Tirana. After three decades, was this the spark of the birth of a new political class? Is there any need and space in Albania for a new political class?

The student protests appeared to have limited goals and many of their demands were more technical than political. However, they managed to expose Rama’s weaknesses, since for the first time it was not the opposition but a group of loosely connected student organizations that were challenging his policies and exposing the real failures of the education system.

Instead of opening the way to political change, the protests showed the limits of transforming social resentment and disappointment into meaningful political alternatives.

I think students achieved remarkable success because they were able to “beat Rama at his own game” by creatively and peacefully deconstructing the so-called reforms, and by showing that public universities are being neglected in favor of allocating resources to private universities with close links to the government.  

That the demonstrations were important is also supported by the fact that Rama tried to demobilize the protesters and discredit them as “manipulated by the opposition” or labelling them as Marxist-Leninists. Only when he saw that the students were winning the PR battle, he changed tactics and mobilized the entire state apparatus to fizzle out the protests through promises of deeper reforms and changed half of the government ministers, trying to appear to be responding to public resentment.

The protests were short lived, but they did expose Rama’s vulnerabilities and the fact that he largely succeeds because of the “dull and unreliable” opposition. The bad news is that instead of opening the way to political change, the protests showed the limits of transforming social resentment and disappointment into meaningful political alternatives.

With regard to your last question, I would say that more than a new political class, Albania needs a new way of doing politics that is closer to citizens’ concerns, more responsible in dealing with the national economy and natural resources, and less fixated on propaganda machinery and electoral engineering. It is hard to point at how those who are disappointed with Rama and the opposition will coalesce to create a new political initiative, but the students protests demonstrated that it is not impossible to challenge the mainstream political establishment. 

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The conversation was conducted in English and Albanian.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

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