26 June 2018

The Kosovo case – decisive for the European future of the Western Balkans

Stelian Teodorescu

In the summer of 1991, when fighting between Serbian militias and Croatian troops heated up, the international community was becoming aware of the inevitable disintegration of former Yugoslavia, but also of the beginning of a regional conflict that could no longer be ignored and which threatened stability and peace across all of Europe. This disintegration process of former Yugoslavia was amplified, on one side, by the rapid secession of Croatia and Slovenia and the beginning of the Bosnian War (May of 1992), and on the other by a lack of consensus at European Community and UN level, regarding the status of the countries detaching from the former Yugoslavia.

Image source: Mediafax

[ Romanian Version HERE ]


Even after the intensification of the US’s diplomatic involvement in the region, especially in managing the peace process in Bosnia (1995), ethnic tensions from within the former Yugoslavia continued to grow in intensity. Extreme violence continued after Serbian leaders in Belgrade launched military operations with the objective of suppressing separatist tendencies in the province of Kosovo. We should highlight here that the growth of separatist tendencies in Kosovo was not only a result of prior examples created by the secessions of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also a result of tensions generated by prior events of importance during the evolution of former Yugoslavia’s situation coming about in the gradual centralization of power in Belgrade. Other factors were the reduction of powers in Kosovo (1988-1990) and the abolishment of the province’s autonomy (July of 1990). In the context of the magnitude reached by the Kosovo conflict and that of the proven impossibility of international institutions to identify a solution both viable and accepted by all parties to stabilize the province’s situation, NATO had a military intervention in 1999 to avoid a possible genocide, end the conflict and enforce peace in the region.

The decisive moment which preceded and contributed decisively to the creation of Kosovo’s declaration of independence was the referendum organized in 2006, in Montenegro, with the EU’s blessing. A referendum which enshrined the country’s independence from Serbia and the recognition of the Montenegrin entity as a UN member state. The idea that, subjectively, separation from Serbia was permitted to former Yugoslav republics, especially to a Slavic orthodox republic like Montenegro, while almost two million ethnic Albanians had to still be part of the Serbian state, proved to be unsustainable and determined Kosovar leaders to ask for a proclamation of independence, shattering any possibility of an alternative solution.

It became obvious that Belgrade’s different approaches to similar cases served to further determine ethnic Albanian Kosovars to unilaterally declare their independence (17.02.2008). Especially as they benefited from favorable circumstances generated by the province’s placement under international administration (2001), but also by the Ahtisaari Plan which stipulated independence under the supervision of the international community (2007).

As expected, Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence generated a large number of controversies and, implicitly, differing points of view at international level. The most eloquent argument in this regard is that, up until 17.02.2018, Kosovo has benefited from a number of 115 official diplomatic recognitions, under the two thirds threshold necessary for the UN General Assembly to issue a decree. Statistically, Kosovo’s independence is officially recognized by 111 (58%) of 193 member states of the United Nations, 23 of 28 (82%) member states of the European Union, 25 of 29 (86%) member states of NATO and 36 of 57 (63%) member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

International recognition of Kosovo








Source: International recognition of Kosovo / https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_recognition_of_Kosovo


The Kosovo case gained a new perspective and dynamic following the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), issued in July of 2010, which labeled the unilateral declaration of independence as an act that does not contradict rules of international law. In this context, Pristina stepped up its messages in favor of new recognitions of Kosovo’s independence, while Belgrade continues to try to convince the international community that the province’s secession is an illegal action, capable of creating a dangerous precedent for many other of the world’s regions. Starting with September of 2010, the declaration of independence and, implicitly, the consolidation of this new statute for Kosovo benefits not only of the International Court of Justice’s favorable advisory opinion, but especially  from the effects of invoking and supporting “the principle of the self-determination of nations” at European level.

The latest evolutions show that Belgrade is tackling the “Kosovo case” with pragmatism, being interested both in accession to the EU and preserving its position regarding Kosovo.

Recently, in the context of the ongoing process of EU accession, Belgrade’s leaders changed their attitude and accepted a new cycle of negotiations with Pristina, under EU mediation.

In this context, Serbia and Kosovo signed in 2013 an accord for normalizing relations, mediated by the EU, agreement which allowed the Belgrade government to begin negotiations for accession to the union in 2014. Following months of EU-mediated negotiations, Kosovo and Serbia reached, ultimately, an agreement to normalize relations by which Belgrade was made to admit the Pristina government’s right to exercise administrative authority within Kosovo’s territory, by accepting to hold talks with it as a legitimate authority. Meanwhile, Pristina was convinced to grant the Serbian community present in northern areas of the province a special status, accepting self-government for Serbians in Northern Kosovo, as long as they admit to being part of the province, with Kosovo’s Constitutional Court giving the necessary authorization for the matter.

Despite the beginning of dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade; of the creation of Kosovar police and customs structures at its Serbian border; of the existence of a certain level of freedom of passage; of the functioning of courts in Northern Kosovo and of the participation of representatives of the approximately 120,000 ethnic Serbians in the electoral process and, implicitly, in the legislative and executive processes, dissension on the subject of Kosovo’s future, both at regional and international levels, continues to significantly mark the stability and future European integration of both Serbia and Kosovo.

Therefore, a succinct analysis of the current situation, ten years after the declaration of independence, highlights Kosovo as being an entity still marked by instability, security risks and, implicitly, by the necessity of hosting international forces to manage its problems. The different interpretations of principles from the Human Rights Charter or of UN resolution provisions, but also the gaps in legislation and differences of opinion which emerged at European and international level, continue to delay the already started process of recognizing Kosovo’s independence, in the context of this process being pegged as rather irreversible.

The uncertain perspectives of solving the Kosovo case significantly contribute to maintain a high level of incertitude regarding the perspective of the Western Balkans to accede to the EU. Therefore, the international community intensified its activities to identify a unanimously accepted solution for extending European structures in the Western Balkans region.

Spain, Cyprus, Romania, Greece and Slovakia have not recognized Kosovo’s independence, considering this as a potentially dangerous precedent.

International stability cannot be assured through the disintegration of multi-ethnical states, but by reforming such states and through efficiently and effectively managing problems pertaining to ethnic minorities. Any exception to the general rule that ethnic conflict should be resolved by reforming the state, and not by staging a secession by use of force, will certainly have destabilizing consequences for the international order and will also make mediation efforts very difficult in any part of the world.

We need to remark, though, that the five European states who have yet to recognize the independence of the former Yugoslav province have agreed to the EU starting negotiations with Kosovo, to help calm down nationalistic tensions in the Balkans. Judicial independence and limited results in the fight against organized crime and corruption remain major points of concern for all international actors who support the rule of law in Kosovo. It is possible that, in the next period, we will see extra pressure put upon the five states, but also upon Western Balkan states to solve bilateral disputes, develop cooperation and accomplish reconciliation in the region.

For Pristina’s leaders, the solution to resolve the Kosovo statehood problem stands in raising determination and intensifying EU actions to integrate the five remaining entities from the Western Balkans (Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina). Internationally, though, we see a strengthening of the assessment that the region’s stability is closely linked to the perspective of recognizing Kosovo’s independence and, implicitly, to assuring a stable and predictable political and economic climate. This comes in direct relation to the fact that the EU is the biggest commercial partner of Western Balkans states, accumulating more than 76% of the region’s entire trade.

Despite all of this, we can assess the fact that if Kosovo maintains an uncertain status, both Albanians and Serbians will permanently seek to consolidate their own position in the face of provocations from the region. These challenges, we have to admit, generate most of the times a high level on unpredictability for the political, economic, military and security evolutions in the Western Balkans. 

Across the main Western international players involved in managing such cases the following ideas are consolidating more and more:

- the existence of a “Kosovo model” is rejected;

- principles applied in the process of solving the Kosovo conflict can’t become a precedent for any other similar conflict in another region of the world.

- the existence of a “Kosovo model” is rejected;

- principles applied in the process of solving the Kosovo conflict can’t become a precedent for any other similar conflict in another region of the world.

In the context of a still uncertain perspective for the Western Balkans to accede to the EU a particular problem occurs regarding the future attitude of entities from within this region, and we can’t exclude that some of them, especially Serbia, might seek alternative solutions, which could contribute to the slowdown of started reforms.

It’s significant that, through the European Parliament Resolution of 14.06.2017 referring to the 2016 Commission’s Report regarding Kosovo, the EU fully supports consolidation of the current status of Kosovo, hailing the coming into effect of the EU-Kosovo stabilization and association accord (ASA) on 01.04.2016 as an essential step of continuing the process of Kosovo’s accession to the EU. Kosovo is asked to continue proving its willingness and political determination to implement the roadmap convened with the EU and, last but not least, the leaders of the Serbian-Kosovar community are advised to fully assume responsibility regarding their place and role within Kosovo’s institutions, acting independently of Belgrade and constructively to the advantage of all of Kosovo’s residents.

We can judge that a success in solving the Kosovo case could represent a historical success at international level in the process of normalizing relations between communities belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions, with diverse populations which aspire to accede to the democratic and civilized worlds set to practically benefit from the identified solutions.

It’s important to also highlight that Serbia’s concerns regarding its European course are real, the EU not willing to make favorable concessions to Belgrade in regards to fulfilling requirements for accession to the EU; supporting this judgment an argument can again be made regarding the European Parliament Resolution of 14.06.2017, which clearly states support for Kosovo’s efforts to integrate in the international community, and also for its participation to all relevant regional and international organizations. But, at the same time, Serbia is advised to end any interference in this process.

Considering the EU’s firm requirements which Kosovo must meet, Pristina leaders are bringing back an important provocation in regards to transforming the Kosovo Security Forces into the Kosovo Armed Forces, a challenge which could have a significant impact upon the evolution of Kosovo-Serbia relations.

In this context, we can draw a number of scenarios regarding the evolution of the situation in Kosovo:

- The normalization of Kosovo-Serbia relations until 2019. In the context of this scenario, Serbia could become an EU member in 2025, while Kosovo would benefit from a liberalization of visas in 2019, and would become a member of the major international organizations. EU accession would be expected in the following period, with Serbia’s commitment to support Kosovo obtaining EU member status. Implicitly, such a scenario would contribute to the improvement of the economic situation both in Serbia and Kosovo, but also in the two entities passing difficult decisions. This would consist of Belgrade renouncing any claims on Kosovo province, while Kosovo would need to grant certain executive powers to the association of municipalities with a Serbian majority from Northern Kosovo. In this type of case, the international community could most probably be willing to grant financial and political stimulus packages in support of both sides. In the same context, we could see a change of stance from important international players like Russia and China, which would unlock the process of Kosovo’s recognition within the UN;

- Leaders in Belgrade and Pristina maintain their populist and nationalist rhetoric, and the frozen conflict between Serbia and Kosovo persists. This scenario seems realistic, as political leaders from Kosovo and Serbia do not appear willing to make concessions, the current leaders of the two entities even being two former enemies: Aleksandar Vucic was the Serbian Minister of Information during the Kosovo War, while Hashim Thaci was the military leader of the Albanian Kosovars/UCK. In such context, the main consequences would be a worsening of the political and economic situation in Serbia and Kosovo and, implicitly, a raise in the uncertainty regarding European perspectives of the two entities. The probability of a scenario like this could be heightened by a possible worsening of the economic situation and a decrease in the level of unity within the EU. This in turn would lead to the freezing of the extension process into the Western Balkans region and, implicitly, to Brussels losing its accession instrument which, until now, was one of the main tools for maintaining stability in the region. As a result, the influence of China, Russia and Turkey in the Western Balkans could rise considerably, such an evolution contributing to the exacerbation of current dormant tensions based in ethnic and religious extremism;

- The outburst of an armed conflict between Serbia and Kosovo, if the two entities’ perspectives to accede to European structures were to become unattainable. The probability of this scenario coming to fruition could be heightened by the influence of Russia, a powerful ally of Serbia who could continue to exercise its veto right in the UN Security Council to block Kosovo’s international course. This scenario coming into effect could provide impetus for a possible process of denying Kosovo’s independence. This in turn could trigger extreme counter-reactions from Albanian Kosovars, which might shake up the stability of Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and would compromise the Western Balkans’ European perspectives once and for all.

Currently, the independence of Kosovo seems to be the only feasible option available to the international community. Even if Serbia firmly announced its decision to give up on EU accession if it doesn’t receive any favorable compromises in the Kosovo case, authorities in Belgrade seem to understand the fact that the current situation in Kosovo is irreversible and, to a very large extent, the result of oppressive politics carried out by former Belgrade leaders.