Perspectives | Democracy

The West is more interested in Kosovo’s image than its problems

By - 08.11.2018

International efforts to create a reflection of an imagined self doesn’t benefit citizens.

NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 is — unsurprisingly — remembered by Kosovo Albanians as the moment of their liberation and the source of their much publicized good-will towards the U.S., the U.K. and “the West” more generally. It is not difficult, therefore, to explain why Kosovo Albanians love the West; it is more difficult to determine if the West loves Kosovo.

When the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, few could have imagined that 10 years later the West’s role as a global superpower would be put to the test in Kosovo. While the eyes of the world were on the wars engulfing Serbs, Croats and Bosnians in the first half of the 1990s, the plight of the Kosovar Albanians was effectively ignored. As Christopher Hitchens noted, while separatists across the globe boasted an array of international supporters, “there was probably no cause with fewer friends than that of Kosovar Albanians.”

That all changed rapidly of course, and once NATO launched Operation Allied Force, events in Kosovo took on a truly global significance. The intervention, however, was less about Kosovo — or Yugoslavia — and more about cementing the unrivaled status of the U.S. and “the West.” Indicatively, the operation was, according to General Wesley Clark, then Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, no less than: “…a battle about the future of NATO, about the credibility of the United States as a force in world affairs.”

Most sensible Kosovar Albanians understand this; certainly, when I put this explanation for NATO’s intervention to an Albanian friend in Prishtina many years ago, he simply said, “Of course we understand it was not all about us! But in 1999 — for once in our history — we Albanians were lucky.”

Given the oppression visited upon Kosovar Albanians by Milošević’s regime, few of course asked NATO troops, “why are you really here?” as they rushed back to their homes and villages when Serbian forces left. As time has gone on, however, the motivation behind the West’s interest in Kosovo has become more obviously problematic.

Kosovo’s image problem

For much of the past 200 years, the image of Kosovo has been more important to many interested outside parties than the welfare of the people who live there. As is widely known, ‘Kosovo and Metohija’ has an almost mythical resonance for certain Serbs; its importance goes beyond any material or geopolitical value, and rests largely on Kosovo’s potent symbolic worth.

This symbolism played a key role in the revival of Serbian nationalism in the late 1980s, and ultimately, the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Kosovo is also of great importance to Albanian nationalists, not least because of the establishment of the League of Prizren in 1878.

But since 1999, Kosovo has also acquired important symbolic value for the West; the intervention itself was vaunted as illustrative of the West’s power and benevolence, but the importance of Kosovo did not end with the military campaign. For almost 20 years Kosovo has been subjected to the most invasive and ambitious state-building effort ever launched; this poverty-stricken, post-communist, war-ravaged place — whose very status was the subject of dispute — was to be transformed into a democratic, free-market, multi-ethnic, independent state that would become the example of success that “the planet needs.”

“Surely,” one might well ask, “this attention and these transformative goals are a good thing?” Many other states would certainly have loved the attention Kosovo has received since 1999; as Nelson Mandela once noted: “We in Africa and Asia…envy the readiness and willingness on the part of the international community to intervene and commit resources to the reconstruction of Kosovo.” And yet, while conditions on the ground for the majority of people in Kosovo have improved dramatically since 1998, the attention lavished upon Kosovo has come at a price.

“Kosovo and 3,000 easy regulations on the way to Europe.”

To answer the question posed at the beginning — “does the West love Kosovo?” — one might consider looking beyond the platitudes to the actual policies implemented since 1999. During this period one can identify a list that says a lot about the relationship between the West and Kosovo.

There has been direct interference in Kosovo’s political system with various international bodies having turned a blind eye to, or indeed being accused of colluding in, corruption and electoral fraud. Kosovo has not become a member of NATO, and in fact external sponsors have warned against Kosovo — a nominally independent country — establishing its own army.

Kosovo’s accession to the EU remains highly unlikely, while its near neighbors have joined or moved closer. Kosovo has, in recent years been asked to — some would say been forced to — agree to a series of policies that fundamentally undermine both its character and sovereignty, from the border deal with Montenegro, to the establishment of the Specialist Chambers.

The present momentum internationally in favor of redrawing Kosovo’s borders further highlights the superficial nature of the commitment to Kosovo’s sovereignty. Perhaps most illustrative though, is the fact that Kosovo and Belarus are the only countries west of Russia not entitled to visa-free travel to the EU. While there is talk that this is about to change, there is something clearly odd about expressing a commitment to a people’s welfare, whilst simultaneously keeping them from your door.

Kosovo is expected to cherish multi-ethnicity, undertake transitional justice, and embrace an array of good governance benchmarks because Kosovo’s external sponsors like to imagine this is what they themselves embody.

Kosovo has been the recipient of sustained external good-will from the West, whilst also being asked to fulfill a seemingly ever expanding list of standards and benchmarks that must be met before it can be treated as an equal. There is a growing sense within Kosovo that when one set of criteria is met another appears; this, indeed, was parodied by Jeton Neziraj in “a play with four actors…” when a meat inspector tells a Kosovar butcher he must implement the EU’s standards contained in a manual titled, “Kosovo and 3,000 easy regulations on the way to Europe.”

In practice, it is difficult to imagine the European powers agreeing to implement the policies they expect of Kosovo. Would the U.K., for example, establish a special court to prosecute crimes committed by British troops in Kenya? Would France agree to a court on Algeria? Italy on Ethiopia etc. It’s highly unlikely.

The West’s contemporary engagement with, and attitude towards Kosovo, is illustrative of a historical trend whereby the Balkans is portrayed as a zone of violence, populated by unenlightened locals, who need benevolent outside help to mature. In Vesna Goldsworthy’s “Inventing Ruritania” she describes the Balkans as like “…a dolls house into which ‘grown-up’ powers can reach to show the natives how to behave and where to place the furniture.”

The trade-off

The expectations placed on Kosovo appear to be a function of the fact that Kosovo has become a reflection of how the west likes to imagine itself, both in terms of its own internal character, and its capacity to undertake benign transformative projects. In this sense, Kosovo is expected to cherish multi-ethnicity, undertake transitional justice, and embrace an array of good governance benchmarks — contained in the Kosovo constitution written by internationals — because Kosovo’s external sponsors like to imagine this is what they themselves embody.

This is why Kosovo has evidenced a curious disjuncture between its actual progress and the transformative claims made about its progress since 1999 by external actors. For the internationals, it matters less what Kosovo actually is; the main thing is how it appears, and how it can be portrayed.

If Kosovo is to have any actual propaganda value, of course, there is a need, above all else, for order. In the context of the disorder that characterized Kosovo in the 1990s, this may seem like a good thing. Order, however, comes at a cost; the prioritization of order — as a means to crafting the image of progress in Kosovo — demands obedience from the local elite.

The price of obedience demanded by the locals charged with ensuring order, however, is collusion. Thus, the international community and the local elite have become locked together in a mutually dependent relationship.

The international community has proven willing to tolerate the corruption perpetrated by Kosovo’s political elite, so long as they continue to extol the virtues of the internationals’ transformative project and the “progress” being made, whilst also ensuring there is no resumption of overt conflict.

This explains why the elite have been willing to accept measures they clearly dislike, captured perhaps most tellingly by the then Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi supporting the establishment of the Specialist Chambers, whilst simultaneously describing it as “the biggest injustice and insult which could be done to Kosovo and its people.”

The people of Kosovo, however, bear the costs of this trade off. It is they who endure the domestic corruption, and the corrosive effect it has on education, healthcare and infrastructure within Kosovo. They are instructed to behave, to be eternally grateful, despite the various promises made not materializing. They must watch as outsiders laud the ‘progress’ they have enabled them to make, progress that they struggle to see inside Kosovo, while joining the promised land of the EU appears increasingly like a fantasy.

Feature image: Besnik Bajrami / K2.0.