Perspectives | Foreign Relations

The West must finish what it started with Kosovo

By - 16.02.2018

The global context has changed in the past 10 years, leaving Kosovo in limbo.

I once heard a Westerner refer to Kosovo as “the periphery of the periphery of Europe.” It was said in a rather patronizing context. But I’ve increasingly found myself recalling the phrase, finding it a precise description of Kosovo’s impotent position in regional and global affairs, with centers and peripheries marking proximity to power.

When an earthquake strikes, there’s talk of an epicenter and affected areas. Likewise, in global politics there are epicenters of power which, when struck by seismic events like Communism or Trump, send tremors to peripheries like the Balkans. The impact here is often more devastating due to our weaker institutional foundations.

Balkan borders and politics have always been shaped by such tectonic shifts. Our modern “Big Bang” was the imperial rivalry that led to the Ottoman retreat and the creation of most of the region’s nation states. The latest earthquake to hit was the collapse of communism, which led to the peak of Pax Americana and our current EU & NATO liberal paradigm (and a few wars as an intermezzo).      

Every global power shift has left its own great mark on our peripheral region, like a tidal wave repositioning the sand patterns of a beach.

Nowhere have these shifts had a greater impact in determining outcomes than in Kosovo — “the periphery of the periphery.” Too powerless and underdeveloped to impose its will on the flow of events, and without an official seat at the table as a fully recognized state, Kosovo’s trajectory in the region is much more disproportionately dependent on hegemonic projects and the balance of powers.

When independence was declared in 2008, Kosovo hitched a ride on one of the last trains of Western unilateralism.

This is not to say that domestic dynamics aren’t important. State building and development efforts are key to ensure state viability and credibility. Throughout the independence struggle, Kosovo’s citizens and elites have been able to impose their subjective will, mostly by disrupting status quos. For example, the mass Albanian protests in 1981 and the rapid growth of the KLA in 1998 did change the course of events.

But as the story of the Kurds shows, you can’t just will yourself to a better position in international law — especially a UN seat — when the geopolitical cards are stacked against you. You need the wind to be blowing your way.

As Kosovo celebrates the 10th year of its independence still seeking that property title from the UN, it remains highly dependent on global currents, and finds itself on shaky grounds. That’s because the wind that blew favorably in our direction has lost steam.

It’s worth remembering that Kosovo’s path toward its current standing resulted from a unique set of contingencies. We essentially rode on top of the Pax Americana hurricane.

The NATO intervention in 1999, which drove Serbia out, happened at the peak of Western power, when it could afford to justify military action based on human rights. Similarly, when independence was declared in 2008, Kosovo hitched a ride on one of the last trains of Western unilateralism.

The Bush administration decided “enough was enough” and Europe was united enough to follow along with the sui generis argument that prevented Kosovo from serving as a precedent. The idea was that UN membership would be a simple process of getting Serbia and Russia to accept the reality on the ground.

Ten years later, it’s obvious that this strategy hinged on two big bets that haven’t played out very well.

The first bet was that there would be no earthquake in international affairs — namely, that the West would continue to be omnipotent in shaping regional developments. EU accession was seen as the magic wand that would both democratize the region and defuse nationalism, gradually changing hearts and minds in Serbia.

For as long as the epicenter held steady, the strategy worked. The EU-facilitated dialogue on normalization did help Kosovo integrate Serb parallel structures and consolidate its international presence in a few mechanisms, including a formal contractual relationship with the EU in the form of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement.

We live in the kind of illiberal era that makes strongmen hornier.

But just when Kosovo was supposed to enter the last lap of the marathon, the earthquake hit. The Eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, Ukraine, Brexit, the rise of illiberal regimes, the insecurity from an America under Trump.

The EU’s omnipotence and allure were suddenly replaced by a paralyzing self-doubt and loss of attention for the periphery. Revisionist forces like Russia and old nationalist sharks smelled blood.   

The most common argument you hear Serbian nationalists making today is that Serbia should not give in to the EU because “the international context is changing in our favor.” Things turned downhill for Kosovo ever since it became a viable and effective strategy for Vucic to play Russia against the EU, dragging things out and waiting for a better negotiating position.

The frustrations among Kosovar Albanians are those of unmet expectations and of not being able to see the end game. We negotiated and accepted the terms of the Ahtisaari Agreement thinking of it as a compromise. Many now ask whether Kosovo should stick to a contract in its entirety if the West can’t fully deliver.

The second big bet that the West made was the assumption that the strongmen with nationalist credentials were the only interlocutors able to drive the EU agenda. Democratization and the rule of law were thought of as a priority for the region, but they were given a back seat to reconciliation and security.

The leaders were democratically elected so there was no other choice. But the way in which they were embraced — including here a true love affair with Vucic — helped legitimize their control over institutions and led to their monopolization of the dialogue as a political tool.

Ten years later, this approach has left Kosovo and Serbia not only without a final settlement, but also in poor democratic shape. The EU Commission’s new enlargement strategy, which describes Balkan countries as marked by state capture and links to organized crime, reads like a medical experiment listing its side-effects.

The problem now “after the earthquake” is that the EU seems to have lost its sway and leverage over the strongmen to move both Kosovo and the regional agenda forward. Because now we live in the kind of illiberal era that makes strongmen hornier.

It’s unclear whether the West can muster the unity and strength it needs to finish what it started in 2008. But it has to, urgently.

The EU’s insistence on rule of law threatens established elite interests. Accession carrots are too longterm to influence immediate behavior. In this context, authoritarian regimes like Russia and Turkey offer themselves as appealing partners. And they might easily exploit the gap and become a decisive factor in redrawing the region’s political and security architecture.

While the external environment has gone from bad to worse, internally Kosovo is in fact not all gloomy. Looking back over the last 10 years, the country has has made some truly great strides and has shown resilience in the face of overwhelming challenges.

It has consolidated its state apparatus, overseen democratic transfers of power and built foundations (albeit fragile) for economic growth. Day-to-day ethnic tensions have been significantly reduced, while inter-ethnic violence has been virtually nonexistent. Civil society and media are among the most vibrant in the region. Underneath the visible elite failure, there is great social dynamism.

But the “periphery of the periphery” needs a strong final push from the epicenter if it is to succeed in the state building process.

The lack of UN membership creates a lurking sense of uncertainty, a fear of renewed conflict, and gives legitimacy to pan-Albanian aspirations. The endless process of negotiations is a drag on democratization and development in both Kosovo and Serbia, giving current elites a lifeline to remain relevant and engage in the art of sabotage.

It’s unclear whether the West can muster the unity and strength it needs to finish what it started in 2008. But it has to, urgently.

It has spent a decade luring and thus appeasing Serbia. The result is that it opened many other cracks throughout the region. It must therefore force Serbia’s hand sooner rather than later and end all illusions on Kosovo — for democratic Serbia’s own sake as well.

Kosovo’s fate should not be endlessly held hostage to Serbia’s schism. Brussels and EU capitals could follow the U.S State Department’s line in insisting that Serbia “can no longer sit on two chairs, especially when they are far apart.”

With the status issue resolved, EU conditionality on key areas such as the rule of law would take center stage. Stabilocrats would become redundant and the EU would become a natural ally to a new, more democratically-minded, political generation. One that could build genuine reconciliation and a true European Western Balkans.

The periphery has to take responsibility, but it needs the wind from the epicenter to blow in the right direction.K

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

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