Kosovo: a bad case of poor leadership


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

In my long-distant student days, I enjoyed travelling around France in a beaten-up old Morris Mini during the summer holidays. Arriving at rail crossings on country roads I was always intrigued to see a sign that said: ‘Danger. Un train peut en cacher un autre.One train may hide another’ or in other words, an immediate and visible hazard can divert your attention from another coming up right behind.

This French railway sign is a good guide to security crises. Western democracies can be so engrossed in dealing with one particular crisis at any given time that they fail to spot an emerging crisis elsewhere until it suddenly explodes and demands attention. This has been the case this past week with Kosovo where, notwithstanding its focus on Ukraine and Russia’s aggression, NATO had to send 700 extra troops to this Western Balkan state to reinforce the 4,000 troops in the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) mission. The reason was violent protests by ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo, which resulted in 30 KFOR soldiers being injured by projectiles, incendiary devices and gunfire, some of them seriously. As the protests continued, NATO placed another battalion in its Operational Reserve Force for the Western Balkans on high alert.

The reason for the anger of Kosovo’s 80,000-strong Serb minority was the decision by Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, to appoint four Kosovar Albanian mayors to run the four municipalities in the part of Kosovo populated by ethnic Serbs north of Mitrovica and the Ibar river; this followed local elections held in the north last April. The problem is that only 3.5% of the electorate went to the polls, which were almost totally boycotted by the Serb community. The Serbs never accepted the outcome of the conflict in Kosovo when NATO intervened in an air campaign in 1999 to drive the Serbian army and police out of the former Yugoslav province and to pave the way for Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence in 2008. They have looked to Belgrade for protection and have been determined to maintain their distinct identity rather than be progressively assimilated into Kosovo’s political institutions and civil society. As they live along Kosovo’s northern border with Serbia, it has been easier for them to receive financial and political support from Belgrade, and for Belgrade to set up parallel security and administrative structures in the north, than is the case with those Serbs living in enclaves like Gračanica or Klokot in central Kosovo who have by and large been more willing to integrate.

In a political climate where mistrust is endemic and passions are raw on both sides, small even administrative steps such as license plates can provoke severe reactions

Since Kosovo broke free from the Serb administration in 1999, tensions between the Serb community and the Kosovo Albanians have broken out repeatedly.  Erroneous reports of boys drowning in a river after being chased by dogs have been enough to set off rioting extending over several days. More recently tensions have flared after Kurti tried to impose on the Serbs in the north an obligation to switch their cars from Serbian to Kosovo license plates or face steep fines. At first sight, this may seem a reasonable measure as proper car registration is necessary to levy tax on vehicles and ensure that they are safely maintained and insured. Few countries allow their citizens to drive around permanently with foreign license plates. Yet the Serbs saw this as a threat to their identity and special status. In a political climate where mistrust is endemic and passions are raw on both sides, small even administrative steps such as license plates can provoke severe reactions. Hundreds of Serbs left their positions in the Kosovo police and security forces as well as the national and local administration after the license plate decision and six months later, almost none have returned. 

Kurti took the view that establishing a municipal government in the north could no longer be postponed and that if the Serbs rejected the opportunity to elect their own local representatives, then they had only themselves to blame. The local elections provided in his eyes a legitimate mandate to move ahead and so he sent Kosovo’s special police north to the municipalities of Mitrovica, Zvečan, Leposavić and Zubin Potok to occupy the municipal buildings and install the mayors. This unilateral step and the almost inevitable ensuing protests have provoked an unusual condemnation from Kosovo’s backers in the United States and Europe. Washington cancelled Kosovo’s participation in the US-led Defender Europe military exercise. The US Ambassador in Pristina, Jeffrey Hovenier, said that Washington would stop pushing for Kosovo to be allowed to join international organisations like Interpol or UNESCO.

The Quint group – the US, United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy – called on Kurti and Kosovo President, Vjosa Osmani, in Pristina with a message to de-escalate the situation and refrain from further unilateral measures. The Quint also called on President Vučić in Belgrade with a similar message given Serbia’s all too evident inclination to manipulate these situations to destabilise Kosovo and reinforce its control over the ethnic Serb minority, which is constantly portrayed in Serbian media as an oppressed minority. Fortunately, after two days of rioting, KFOR managed to calm the situation, the protests continued but largely peacefully and Kurti reversed course and announced his willingness to re-run the municipal elections in itself an admission that a turnout of 3.5% does not make the elections legitimate or democratic. The presence of Vučić and Osmani at the meeting of 45 European leaders of the European Political Community (EPC) in Moldova gave French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and European Union leaders, Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, the opportunity to meet with the two leaders and pressure them to de-escalate the situation and to return to the EU-sponsored talks.

Yet the lesson of Pristina’s engagement with its Serb minority since 1999 is clearly that unilateral measures, insufficiently prepared and poorly communicated, do not work and only drive the Serbs further away from Pristina rather than encourage them to integrate. So, what could a new, more constructive strategy look like?

For Pristina, there are grave risks in giving the Serbs a degree of autonomy at a time when Belgrade still refuses adamantly to recognise the independence of Kosovo

In the first place, Kurti and his government drawn from the Self-Determination Party need to back away from their narrow Kosovar nationalist rhetoric and change their communications vis-à-vis the Serb minority. There are certainly illegal parallel structures in the north, interference from Belgrade and troublemakers in abundance determined to instrumentalise any dispute to instigate violence and chaos. The parallel structures inevitably descend into organised crime and corruption over time, which give them every incentive to prevent the central government from exerting its authority and clamping down on smuggling and illegal economic activity. Yet every time the Kosovo leaders speak about the Serb minority, it is only to talk about the violence, the troublemakers and Belgrade’s involvement rather than to acknowledge the anxieties of the Serbs and to announce steps to reach out to them positively. If an entire group or community is always described as a bunch of renegades and rioters, then it should come as little surprise if it begins to act accordingly. Pristina needs a communications strategy that does not prevent decisions as faits accomplis without consultation and feedback. It needs to prepare the ground carefully by engaging with focus groups and local Serb leaders and influencers. It needs to do a much better job explaining the benefits rather than penalties to the Serb community of the administrative measures that it is planning. Persuading Serb police and security personnel as well as local government officials to return to their posts without sanction is the first step in building confidence between the majority and minority communities.

Next is to set up the Association of Serb Municipalities. This reform was agreed in principle between Pristina and Belgrade in 2013 but it has not been implemented. The idea has a long genesis as it was first put forward by the UN envoy, former Finnish president, Marti Athisaari, after the 1999 conflict. Looking for ways to reconcile ethnic Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo, he understandably proposed EU-style solutions whereby the majority would grant the minority certain rights in self-administration, culture, education, police, judiciary and social services.

The Serb community now sees the establishment of the association as proof of Pristina’s good faith in addressing its anxieties. Yet Pristina has hesitated to move ahead, aided by a decision of the Kosovo Supreme Court, which declared the association unconstitutional as it addressed the status of only one minority in Kosovo and not the others admittedly much smaller in number. For Pristina, there are grave risks in giving the Serbs a degree of autonomy at a time when Belgrade still refuses adamantly to recognise the independence of Kosovo and enable it to feel secure within its borders. It looks apprehensively at the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina where the Serb entity, the Republika Srpskaled by the firebrand Serb nationalist, Milorad Dodikhas blocked political and economic reforms in the country, opposed its relations with the EU and NATO, and has constantly threatened to pull the entity out of Bosnia altogether.

The Serbs in northern Kosovo have not eased the fears of Pristina either when they have demanded maximum powers for the association, which would de jure and de facto separate it from the rest of Kosovo. Thus, Pristina prefers to crimp the powers of the association to limit its potential to develop into a separate state and to threaten the unity and sovereignty of Kosovo. Yet notwithstanding all these hesitations, the association has become such a crucial test case in relations between Belgrade and Pristina, as well as in the latter’s relations with its ethnic Serb community, that there is no way to abandon it. Pristina has to deal with the legal and constitutional issues, not hide behind them, and agree on a format and implement it. As with all forms of devolution, it doesn’t need to be the final word but can be modified as inter-ethnic relations in Kosovo evolve.

The EU and the Western democracies need a strategy to support the forces of democratic change in Serbia and to constrain the nationalists

In third place, the EU and the US need to engage Belgrade to adopt a more constructive stance vis-à-vis Kosovo. Belgrade tends to use every crisis in the north to replay its historical psychoses towards its former province, reopening and relitigating old wounds rather than looking to the future and move on. This refusal to recognise reality and the verdict of Serb misrule in Kosovo leading to the latter’s transformation into an independent country is akin to France refusing to accept the loss of Algeria or the UK the loss of the Republic of Ireland. It leads Belgrade to play up the problems in the north to restate its claims to Kosovo or at least to determine its future. Inflated rhetoric and exaggerations regarding the situation of the ethnic Serbs in Kosovo only open the door to the Russian and Chinese propaganda machines to boost this narrative and demonise Pristina. It is also not helpful when Belgrade sends its forces to the border with Kosovo orVučić and his defence minister, Miloš Vučević, make high-profile visits to the troops stationed there as if to suggest that they are seriously contemplating military intervention in Kosovo.

Serbia’s obsession with Kosovo is harmful to its development as a democracy and potential future membership of the EU. It stokes nationalism and makes the country vulnerable to Russian disinformation and manipulation. Belgrade needs Russian support to block Kosovo from joining international organisations like Interpol. It also diverts Serbia from tackling its real problems. For instance, in recent weeks there have been two mass shootings, including one in an elementary school in Belgrade, triggering mass protests. The shootings have pointed to the fact that the country is awash with illegal weapons and the government has rushed to tighten the gun control laws. The opposition accuses Vučić of increasing authoritarianism and has been demanding his resignation. It is high time that Serbia relinquishes its nostalgia for the old Yugoslavia and the possibility it gave Belgrade to exert hegemony over its neighbours. The country needs to focus on its domestic challenges, modernising the economy, strengthening its institutions and civil society, improving the judiciary and safeguarding independent media. The EU and the Western democracies need a strategy to support the forces of democratic change in Serbia and to constrain the nationalists. Simply relying on the slow and highly technical process of EU accession to democratise Serbia and make it more cooperative with Europe is not sufficient or realistic.

Serbia’s participation in the EPC, which held its second meeting in Moldova last week, could be one useful mechanism, if it can develop permanent structures in areas like energy security, fighting organised crime and illegal migration, and cooperation on the resilience of critical infrastructure and combatting climate change. Yet 47 countries participate in the EPC and Serbia needs particular attention, along with other European countries, which aspire to join the EU or NATO, but are moving away from European values and in a more authoritarian direction, such as Georgia. For these countries – whether they have been declared EU candidates or started the accession process or not – the EU needs to institute a special monitoring process and a group of friends of the country to constantly engage with it and mobilise the EU structures at the earliest stage whenever it shows signs of nationalist behaviour or passing laws that run counter to European standards. 

As long as Serbia is well ahead in its negotiations with Brussels, it will treat Kosovo as a junior and unequal partner at best

Writers of articles on intellectual relations are always looking for innovative ideas and bold new proposals. Yet, in the case of Kosovo, the way ahead has been clear for a long time already and there really is no alternative: maximise the EU accession process to put pressure on Belgrade and Pristina to normalise their relations. As long as the extremists in northern Kosovo believe that they will always have Belgrade as their backer, even for the most uncompromising positions, they will feel little incentive to cooperate with Pristina’s efforts to introduce effective policing and local administration in the north or to integrate the Serbs into Kosovar society. At the same time, it is senseless for Pristina to expect much from the introduction of national license plates in the north or the installation of four Kosovo Albanian mayors in Mitrovica, Leposavić, Zvečan or Zubin Potok before its overall relationship with Belgrade has become less tense and more cooperative.

EU accession is the one lever that can compel Belgrade and Pristina to accept the necessary compromises that the nationalist leaders on both sides are loath to make. There is a good basis to build on. Negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina under the auspices of the EU and skilfully led by the EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and former Slovak foreign minister, Miroslav Lajcak, produced an agreement in North Macedonia to normalise relations. Under this agreement, Belgrade would recognise Kosovo’s documents and symbols, and halt its campaign to prevent Kosovo from joining international organisations. The agreement would also recommit both sides to implement the previous agreements they have concluded dealing with cross-border trade, customs, telecommunications and travel. However, Vučić has been adamant that the new normalisation agreement does not constitute Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo. The next step was for Pristina and Belgrade to agree on an implementation plan for this agreement but, unsurprisingly, the constant crises in the north have disrupted these follow-up talks and led to more bad blood. When Vučić and Osmani attended the EPC meeting in Moldova last week, they studiously avoided each other.

Here is where my one bold idea comes in. The EU should fast-track the accession process for Kosovo so that it can catch up with Belgrade’s accession track. In any case, the problems of authoritarianism, failure to follow EU foreign policy and corruption and the need for reform in Serbia mean that it will still be several years before that country is ready for EU membership. As long as Serbia is well ahead in its negotiations with Brussels, it will treat Kosovo as a junior and unequal partner at best. If the two accession processes are linked to Serb recognition of Kosovo and the full normalisation of relations, then both countries will benefit together and thus have more incentive to cooperate and even coordinate. The granting of EU benefits such as structural funds or market access can depend on Belgrade and Pristina adopting a joint economic plan and approach. This idea could have the merit of incentivising the political opposition and civil society in both countries to put pressure on the governments to work more closely together to secure EU pre-accession benefits. It may go against the current Brussels orthodoxy of assessing the merits of countries individually, but given the way in which the current tensions are putting a brake on the development of both Serbia and Kosovo, and potentially moving them away from EU standards with the risk of open conflict always lurking in the backgroundrethinking the accession approach just for these two candidate countries may be the best way forward.

Leadership abhors a vacuum and there is much more for security in Europe at stake here than whether four Kosovo Albanian mayors can sit quietly in their offices

Resolution of the Kosovo issue holds the key to peace in the Western Balkans as a region of secure Western-oriented democracies rather than fragile, semi-authoritarian states swinging between the West and outside powers like Russia, China or Türkiye. As NATO and the EU face up to the long-haul challenge of containing a revisionist and hostile Russia, having a Western Balkans firmly anchored in the Euro-Atlantic community is one less front for the West to worry about or for Russia to try to destabilise.

T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, may have had a point when he wrote in “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” that it is better to have local leaders make mistakes and learn from them than for foreign diplomats to do the job perfectly on their behalf. Yet this approach has been tried in the Western Balkans for decades already and there is little sign of leaders learning from their mistakes. Unfortunately, too many have shown little stature, vision or willingness to move the region from the past towards the future by their own efforts. So, the internationals need to step in not just to douse the flames of violence but also to provide a framework for regional and Euro-Atlantic integration. After all, leadership abhors a vacuum and there is much more for security in Europe at stake here than whether four Kosovo Albanian mayors can sit quietly in their offices in Mitrovica, Zvečan, Leposavić and Zubin Potok.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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