The following article, that looks back at the West’s Kosovo policy in 2015, was originally published on December 30, 2015 in Koha Ditore in Albanian (accessible below).
2015 was perhaps the most intensive political year in the short history of the Kosovo state, both from the standpoint of Western Kosovo policy and from an internal political perspective. The year began with progress in the Prishtina-Belgrade dialogue that had been blocked for basically a full year and with a massive refugee crisis during the 2014⁄15 winter. Kosovars voted with their feet, expressing their deep disappointment and despair with the country’s political system after their June 2014 vote had been devalued by a politicized judiciary and a Western backroom intervention. Instead of realizing their hope for change, Kosovo citizens created what would later in the year become the Balkan route of the European refugee crisis. The year ended with a Brussels decision on visa liberalization that left Kosovars with mixed feelings about the EU and their own state, and with a Constitutional Court ruling that may unblock the dialogue yet open a Pandora’s box, but definitely will not solve the internal political crisis.
In between these events was the August 25 Agreement on basic principles and elements of the future Association/Community of Serb majority municipalities that led to the country’s deepest political crisis since gaining independence and a failed bid for UNESCO membership.
Since the end of the war in 1999, the West has tried to manage and balance two main challenges in Kosovo – solving the country’s status and putting the country on a successful track towards democratic transformation; in 2015, both aspects were bound together, but in a negative way. Following the initial success of the April 2013 Agreement towards finally securing full sovereignty for Kosovo, the West traded the democratic question for making the dialogue its top priority; it meddled in the coalition formation process in 2014 which brought short-term relief, but contributed to an even deeper internal political crisis in Kosovo in 2015 that endangered the future of the dialogue in its entirety.
As the year comes to a close, the April 2013 Agreement is about to enter its third year of implementation delay – reason enough for a brief review of the dialogue process. After the summer 2011 violent unrest in the north of Kosovo, German Chancellor Angela Merkel shifted Western Kosovo policy in a new direction. From an EU and wider Western perspective, this was a positive development – for several reasons: First, the EU had finally started to become a serious actor despite its internal divisions on Kosovo’s independence. Second, it put an end to Belgrade capitalizing on the EU member states’ split over Kosovo regarding its “EU and Kosovo” policy by turning the game around and telling Serbia it needs the support of the (then) 22 Kosovo independence recognizers, but not the 5 non-recognizers, in order to enter its club. Third, Germany, the EU’s reluctant hegemon, finally took a leadership role on a foreign policy issue. And fourth, Berlin told Belgrade what Serbia’s political elites had known since 2008 – that Kosovo is definitely gone and that they can forget about any ideas of territorial partitioning – and made it the basis of the dialogue policy.
Yet the dialogue approach – helping Kosovo gain full sovereignty through full integration of the Serb minority and removal of Serbian state institutions from its soil via Serbia’s EU-accession process (to be complemented by a political dialogue) – was from the beginning burdened with a multitude of challenges that needed to be addressed:
a. For the EU, the dialogue was a highly sophisticated enterprise unprecedented in the history of the Union’s foreign policy, and particularly of its integration policy, that demanded enduring and consistent German leadership, to be reinforced by UK cooperation and US support.
b. Key strategic issues remained open from the very beginning, especially the question of the end point of the dialogue. What would be the final result of “full normalization” of relations between Kosovo and Serbia – recognition of Kosovo’s independence by Belgrade or something less than that? And how could Serbia’s obligation fixed in the April Agreement – that it won’t block Kosovo’s EU perspective once it becomes an EU member – be guaranteed? This raised the question of whether the EU/the West had a master plan for the dialogue.
c. To pressure Kosovo Serbs in the north into complying with the new course of integration into the Kosovo state, the West needed to allow Serbia initially to gain a greater foothold in Kosovo; but it demanded a strategy on how to later reverse the process and get Serbia out of the Kosovo state for good.
d. The task of integrating police and judicial structures in the north into Kosovo’s institutional system would be difficult enough, but another related key task would have to be tackled later – ending the rules-free environment in the north in which for a decade and a half, Serb policemen, prosecutors and judges basically learned to not do their job.
e. The regime in Serbia upon which the EU depends for cooperation in the dialogue proved early on to be authoritarian rather than democratic.
f. Even if the EU (and the US) successfully handled all these challenges, the fact that Serbia was substantially ahead in the EU-integration process meant that Brussels, Germany and other key players needed to develop an adequate communication strategy that would build trust in the dialogue process among Kosovo’s policymakers and citizens and assure them that it will ultimately produce the desired results.
Looking back at the fate of these challenges after two and a half years of slow implementation, one has to conclude that none of these challenges was met; some were not even attempted. German leadership weakened under the pressure of other major European and world crises, as did UK support following a change of the country’s foreign minister and a move towards an inward-looking obsession with Britain’s role in the EU. In light of the EU’s weakness, the US opted for unilateral actions that either had no effect or made things worse. Serbia was allowed to imbed itself deeply into Kosovo’s political institutions, while zero progress was made on establishing law and order in the north. In addition, with the Srpska lista taking control over the Serb majority municipalities south of the Ibar-river, hard-fought progress in advancing local democracy and local self-governance there was fundamentally wiped out. The EU squandered the chance to build trust in the dialogue process and so while Serbia opened its first accession chapters in 2015, Kosovo citizens don’t know what is to be gained, if anything, with the signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA). At the same time, not only does the question about the end point of the dialogue remain unanswered by the West, but it is now evident that a master plan did not (and still does not) exist. Nothing demonstrates this strategic vacuum more clearly than the UNESCO fiasco. In the absence of a masterplan or immediate palpable results for the ruling parties to sell to their voters, the Kosovo government opted for a unilateral bid at UNESCO; as a consequence, the half-hearted support of its main Western allies vis-à-vis Serbia and Russia in high gear lobbying mode resulted in the loss of a few additional votes needed to bring Kosovo a step closer on its path to full international recognition. As German EU-leadership weakened, it naturally fell to the Brussels bureaucracy to fill the policy vacuum – for good reason this has raised fears in Kosovo that “progress” in the dialogue will be made at the expense of the functionality of the state. Finally, on the Serbian end, the Vučić government has undertaken a pro-European transformation of its policy on which it has thrived, yet no democratic transformation of Vučić’s genuinely authoritarian power base has taken place. To the contrary. Serbia has been substantially progressing along the path to EU-integration since 2013, despite the complete unsustainability of the West’s Serbia dialogue policy.
While implementation of the April Agreement has slowed since 2013, Kosovo has seen no progress in a democratic transformation or in economic development, and the West has been all but complicit with its policy of trading democratization for the dialogue. Even as it faced its first obstacle – the Kosovo political elites’ attempt to turn the amnesty law into a general amnesty – the EU and the US demonstrated their priority to keep the dialogue moving forward at the expense of major violations of the basic principles of the rule of law and parliamentary democracy. Taking the side of the grant coalition option in November 2014 after two highly suspicious Constitutional Court rulings constituted a logical continuation of that policy approach. And the EU’s and US’ muddling through with EULEX and the Special Court in effect reinforced Kosovo’s structural disease of selective justice. It’s a sad irony that in trading democracy, the EU and the US have done serious damage to both democracy and the rule of law in Kosovo and to their reputation among Kosovo citizens, but did not prevent further protracted delays in the implementation of the April Agreement, and even endangered the future of the dialogue through their contribution to the current political crisis.
For the West to fix its Kosovo policy and regain the trust of the country’s citizens in 2016, the EU and the US need to accept that the current policy approach is not sustainable. They need to revive the dialogue with a strategic vision that comprises credible answers to the structural challenges that exist. If the West is unable to take on this task, then perhaps it would be better to bury the dialogue entirely and look for a new policy approach. Whatever the solution, both the EU and the US need to immediately stop making compromises on democratic questions with the leaders in Kosovo (and in Serbia). And, just as importantly, they need to develop a principled, consistent strategy on the rule of law problem in Kosovo if they want a chance to regain Kosovo citizens’ trust both in the West and in their own political institutions.