The party’s over

After the initial euphoria, Kosovo faces an uncertain future

One year ago this February, Kosovo’s Albanian government, with the support of the United States and many leading nations of Western Europe, unilaterally declared independence from Serbia. In the days leading up to and following the declaration, Western analysts and policymakers euphorically predicted that this, the alleged last piece of a puzzle consigning the old Yugoslav idea to the dustbin of history, would usher in a new era of peace, stability and multiethnic co-existence in a region of Europe long regarded for festering tempers and short fuses.

Former Kosovo Liberation Army leader turned Western-backed prime minister, Hashim Thaci, proudly declared that within 48 hours of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, “100 countries” would recognize its sovereignty. Martti Ahtisaari, the UN Special Envoy appointed to build civil society in one of the most underdeveloped regions of Europe, crafted a plan to serve as the basis for Kosovo’s constitution based on Western civic principles, the rule of law, and far-reaching provisions for the political, social, and cultural protection of Kosovo’s Serb minority.

A year later, we find that much of the euphoria greeting Kosovo’s ascension to the concert of nations was decidedly premature. Instead of welcoming the world’s “newest democracy” with pomp and circumstance, Kosovo’s statehood has been greeted with muted applause, reluctant acceptance and an uncertain future. To date, only 55 of 192 countries have recognized its independence, and, while most recognized it within the first month, the expected “wave” of recognitions has halted to a trickle of U.S. dependencies. Kosovo has neither UN membership nor prospects for joining the European Union. Though there was little expectation Russia would acquiesce on its adamant refusal to support Kosovo’s independence, numerous countries throughout the world, including five within the EU, also say they will not recognize Kosovo. While many Western officials including Ahtisaari, as well as Kosovar Albanian officials in Priština, have accused Serbia, along with Russia, with “interfering” or “obstructing” Kosovo’s development, the fact remains that Kosovo’s sovereignty is and was ambiguous, and has been that way from day one.

Recognizing Kosovo’s independence was unanimous within the European Union. Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania and Greece all voice opposition to what they see as a violation of the territorial integrity of another state. Granted, this opposition has less to do with genuine support for Serbia as it does with fears of copycat separatist movements within their own states, but without EU unanimity, recognition of Kosovo became less an international obligation than an individual choice for each state. Most importantly, Serbia has not been pressured to recognize Kosovo, nor has it ever been officially stated that Serbia’s accession to the European Union is contingent on recognition. This, coupled with Russia and China’s steadfast refusal to pass a UN Security Council resolution recognizing Kosovo’s sovereignty, has remained a major barrier to Kosovo’s international standing.

On the diplomatic front, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić has been active in securing guarantees from many states in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and even Europe in support of Serbia’s position. While consensus among Kosovo’s Albanian population for independence is virtually universal, Jeremić’s negotiations with international bodies keeps Serbia a major player in Kosovo’s future. Most importantly, he has secured enough votes in the UN to send Kosovo’s status to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – a judicial body in The Hague meant to resolve disputes between states.

Though there is little expectation an ICJ ruling will definitively back one side or the other, there is the possibility a ruling could give Serbia additional leverage to bring the West back to the negotiating table, particularly in regard to the Serb-dominant municipalities and enclaves in Kosovo. Already, Serbia secured compromises with EULEX – the EU-governing body that was supposed to function as an executive authority for Kosovo’s political development. By pointing to the still in-force UN Security Council Resolution 1244 that recognizes Kosovo as part of Serbia and maintains Kosovo as “status-neutral,” Serbia has kept oversight of judicial, security, customs, cultural and economic matters in Serb-dominant regions.

Kosovo itself is as internally divided as it was a year ago. In fact, diplomats and policymakers who were whispering of de facto partition of the territory along the Ibar River, which separates the large Serb-held territory contiguous to Serbia proper from the rest of Kosovo, have all but conceded Serb control over this region today as an unavoidable reality. The ethnically divided city of Mitrovica, which the Ibar bisects, serves as the capital for Kosovo Serbs and the seat of a rival Kosovo Serb Assembly.

With KFOR soldiers separating Serb and Albanian communities in much of Kosovo, Serb enclaves are, at best, isolated pockets of resistance operating as autonomous cantons, and, at worst, ethnic ghettos. For the most part, Albanians and Serbs live separate lives.

Economically, Kosovo remains poor and dependant on international aid and émigré remittances. Organized crime and drug and sex trafficking remain sizable, if unofficial, sources of income. Scrap metal remains Kosovo’s biggest legitimate export, and, according Transparency International, Kosovo is the fourth-most corrupt economy in the world after Cameroon, Cambodia and neighboring Albania.

The Czech Republic reluctantly recognized Kosovo’s independence. It did not originally support independence, and long held the position that a final agreement must be hashed out between Belgrade and Priština. Though recognition finally came “because there was no other alternative,” according to reasoning in Prague, President Václav Klaus, for one, and public opinion polls opposed Kosovo’s statehood. During a trip to Slovakia last year, Klaus called Western intervention a modern-day Munich Agreement. As the Czechs currently hold the EU presidency and have prioritized Balkan integration, it remains to be seen what practical positions will be taken on Kosovo in particular in relation to Serbia’s EU candidacy.

As has been the case, the most troubling thing about Kosovo is the entrenched positions of both sides. Kosovar Albanians regard the region as free, sovereign and independent. Statements made by officials in Priština on the one-year anniversary alluded to Kosovo’s statehood as a culmination of Albanian self-determination stemming from 1912, and some ethnic Albanians voice support for an enlarged Albanian state that includes both Kosovo and parts of northwestern Macedonia. In a recent interview with the Serbian media outlet B-92, U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Cameron Munter referred to Kosovo as a “functioning state,” though in reality Kosovo is almost entirely reliant on international aid. Kosovo’s leaders have been promised eventual entry into the European Union, the World Bank and the IMF, though Russia says it will block applications where applicable, and with five dissenting EU member-states, EU accession looks equally a dead end. Meanwhile, Belgrade still regards the entire region as part of its territory despite the overwhelming Albanian desire never to be governed by Serbia again. While there is little doubt over Serbia’s continued control over Kosovo Serb sectors, no serious politician in Belgrade will risk his or her career by acknowledging Kosovo’s independence. Serb MPs have made frequent trips to Kosovo to meet with local officials, while treating the Albanian-led government in Priština as a small group of rogue secessionists.

Contrary to the predictions last year about Kosovo’s self-evident sovereignty, it remains a quasi-legal, partially sovereign dependency of Western powers. While no one expected Serbia to accept the loss of Kosovo, few expected it to be this resilient. Western arrogance that Serbia would somehow be forced to come to terms with not only the loss of territory, but key elements of Serbian historical memory and the cradle of the Serbian Orthodox Church, is a testament to the disconnectedness of Western foreign policies.

By promising the Kosovo Albanians the world and then failing to deliver on even the most basic elements of sovereignty, the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom marched blindly into a political stalemate that they might have thought controversial without ever foreseeing its intractability.

Neither the temptation of early EU accession nor threats of renewed political isolation deterred Serbia from working to preserve as much authority in Kosovo as possible. Unless serious negotiations with Belgrade resume, Kosovo’s status will remain ambiguous and incomplete as armchair diplomats continue to push for incongruent institutions on ethnic societies that are divided by their own self-serving historical memories and uncompromising prejudices.

While highly unlikely that Kosovo as a whole will ever be part of Serbia again, options remain. The first and most obvious is partitioning the region at the Ibar, giving the largest Serb-held territory back to Serbia, but this has been opposed by Serbian, Kosovar Albanian and international sides, each for their own self-serving reasons. Another option would be a bi-zonal confederation of two systems – one Albanian and one Serb – similar to the agreements reached in the Dayton Accords for Bosnia. A third is to simply recognize Kosovo for what it really is: an international protectorate that is governed by the European Union with Albanians and Serbs handling their own local affairs. This may very well be one option pursued in the wake of an ICJ ruling on Kosovo should it suggest alternatives to status that can be agreed upon by all sides.

Among the fogginess, what is clear is that a year after Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, it is the most “dependent” independent state in the world. The best that Western officials can claim about Kosovo is that ethnic tension has not exploded into open warfare.

Expectations have indeed been lowered for this volatile region of Southeastern Europe.

– The author is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He is completing his dissertation, Resurrecting the Past: Democracy, National Identity and Historical Memory in Modern Serbia. He has taught courses in comparative politics, international relations, globalization, political culture and theories of democratic transitions.

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