View of the city of Prizren.

The Western Balkans: Kosovo – The Young State in a Difficult Environment

The status of Kosovo is still disputed. In some cases, lines of conflict have simply been frozen and polarization continues. However, open military confrontation has so far been prevented. About the evolving statehood of the youngest country in the Western Balkans.

With the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency in the USA in 2009, the American focus shifted to domestic politics. In one way or another, the Western Balkans ‘sort of capitulated’ to Brussels. Efforts have been made to start negotiations between the neighboring states of Kosovo and Serbia.

The overthrow of Zoran Đinđić‘s successors and the coming to power of Milošević's pendants in Belgrade were even seen as an opportunity, especially in Brussels. In the second decade of the new century, Vučić and Dačić sat opposite Hashim Thaçi, the former political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and then prime minister and influential figure of Kosovo. The meetings in Brussels were meant to start a dialogue that would lead to Serbia's recognition of Kosovo. According to the Brussels approach, technical issues should first be clarified before recognition is discussed. The ‘portfolio’ of Kosovo-Serbian relations was handed over to the Commissioner for External Relations or the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (EEAS).

Initially, it was Baroness Lady Ashton who, as High Representative, took the first steps towards de-escalating relations between Kosovo and Serbia. She was the first high-ranking female official to bring together prime ministers of Kosovo and Serbia—then Thaçi and Dačić. Vučić was still sitting in the second row of the government, preparing to take office, but primarily waiting for the ice to be broken at meetings with Kosovo leaders. Everything that followed the meetings between Lady Ashton and the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia revolved around technical agreements, such as the participation of Kosovo Serbs in the institutions of Kosovo, their integration into the institutional life in the communities where they were the majority, the acceptance of the local police and judges, etc.

Tough Steps

Three people are sitting at a table.
European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini (center), Kosovo President Hashim Thaci (right) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left) at a meeting on the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue process in Brussels, Belgium, July 18, 2018, photo: EU POOL / AA via picture alliance

All these steps proved to be tough, and the meetings lasted for many hours. Even during these meetings, it was more or less obvious that not every one of the ‘technical’ agreements reached would actually be fulfilled. Two central topics weighed heavily on the atmosphere of Thaçi's meeting with Dačić and later with Vučić. Firstly, the recognition of Kosovo by Serbia, secondly, autonomy for the Serbs in Kosovo. In two agreements reached in 2013 under the mediation of Lady Ashton and in 2015 after the appointment of her successor, Federica Mogherini, Kosovo assured that municipalities with a Serb majority in Kosovo would be allowed to establish an ‘Association of Municipalities’.

This organization (Asociacioni I Komunave me shumicë Serbe në Kosovë) would represent the interests of the Kosovo Serbs. However, as Kosovo failed to fulfil its obligations under the 2013 agreement, the EEAS returned to this issue with Federica Mogherini.

Belgrade, which represented the Kosovo Serbs through Vučić, did not want to continue negotiations without putting the issue of the Serbian association of municipalities on the agenda. Threats that the integrated Serbs, who were already part of Kosovo's institutions, would withdraw raised alarm not only in Brussels, but also in Berlin, Paris, London and Washington, culminating in the demand for autonomy to be granted to the Serbs.

In 2015, Kosovo actually started to work on the task of establishing the agreed association in negotiations with President Thaçi and Prime Minister Isa Mustafa. However, before this could happen, it was necessary to consult the Constitutional Court of Kosovo to determine whether the agreement, both in its entirety and in its clauses, was in conformity with the constitutional order of Kosovo. The Constitutional Court in Kosovo is highly regarded; the fact that it has dismissed two presidents and one government since 2008, when it was established with Kosovo's independence, reflects its power and the respect it receives.

In its recommendations on the Association of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo, it is stated that the agreement to establish an association of Serb municipalities in Kosovo is valid, but that some of the clauses agreed to in Brussels violated the constitutional order of Kosovo. The point was that the Serbs should be granted executive powers, which would affect Kosovo's constitutional order. As a result, the promise to establish a community of municipalities was suspended after considerable political turbulence in Kosovo.

The Council of Europe's special envoy claimed that, during the Kosovo war, Thaci had part in the trade of human organs of captured Serbs, taking place in a mountain camp in Albania run by the insurgent army of Kosovo Albanians.

In 2013, the intransigent leader of Kosovo, Hashim Thaçi, who had already served two terms as prime minister and aspired to the presidency, was facing the biggest difficulty of his political career: the accusations of Swiss parliamentarian Dick Marty, the Council of Europe's special envoy, who claimed that, during the Kosovo war, Thaci had part in the trade of human organs of captured Serbs, taking place in a mountain camp in Albania run by the insurgent army of Kosovo Albanians.

This accusation first appeared in the British media and was then investigated by Marty. It led the Council of Europe and, consequently, the European Union, supported by the United States, to force the Kosovar government to change laws and set up special chambers to investigate organ trafficking and war crimes in Kosovo. The government and parliament were then led by Thaçi and his party. The court, which is based on the laws of Kosovo, was to sit in The Hague; the investigators, prosecutors and judges should be international.

The pressure to set up a separate court for such an egregious charge also prompted the Americans to take over the investigation, while the Europeans had to provide the funds as well as the judges for the trial. If Kosovo were to reject the court, the matter would be heard in the UN Security Council, and neither Russia nor China would object to the internationalization of this instrument. Pushed against the wall in this way, Thaçi agreed to vote in favor of an establishment of this court, even though he knew that he would be the main subject of investigation and possible indictment.

At first, the the investigation into Thaçi seemed to be an opportunity to advance the dialogue. In Brussels, it was seen as an opportunity for Kosovo to arrive at the requested concessions to the Kosovo Serbs, while Serbia would be content with the fact that its leader Vučić was seen—especially in Berlin, but also in other EU countries—as the main director of the future of the Western Balkans, and this despite the fact that in spite of its EU accession ambitions, Belgrade not only did not impose sanctions on Putin after Russia's annexation of Crimea, but also considered himself to even be a kind of ambassador between the EU and Putin.

Remaining Mystery

When the idea of an exchange of territory between Kosovo and Serbia was put forward, all previous agreements (about 33) were rejected. Some of which had remained unimplemented, others were of considerable importance, -. To this day, it remains a mystery who was the initiator behind the rejection.

This happened at a time when the situation in Kosovo had reached a certain level of normality and representatives of the Kosovo Serbs participated in the executive and judicial branches and began to respect the laws of their newly formed state.

Some analysts say it was President Trump's new administration that pushed talks on the exchange of territory between the two countries. The fact is, however, that the Trump administration has never advocated such an exchange; it only stated that the American government would respect such an agreement if it were reached between the parties.


A man carries an EU flag and places it next to a Serbia flag.
A protocol officer carries the EU flag before the press conference of U.S. President Donald Trump's envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, Ambassador Richard Grenell, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Belgrade, Serbia, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS | Darko Vojinovic via picture alliance

With a high degree of probability, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Mrs. Mogherini – although she has never publicly admitted it – may not only have been informed about that development but may have been even actively involved in the negotiations in which, based on actual geographical maps, Thaçi and Vučić had agreed on an exchange of territory between Kosovo and Serbia.

It is safe to assume that they were supported by the U.S. Ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell, who had, at the time, been appointed Special Envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue by the U.S. president. However, at this time, the general political focus was on the global pandemic and the ensuing vaccination campaigns.

However, the Kosovo government under Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, who for decades was considered Hashim Thaçi's main rival, took a different approach. For eight years, Haradinaj had been indicted and eventually acquitted by the International Court of Justice of crimes allegedly committed during the former Yugoslav wars. As prime minister, he imposed tariffs on Serbian goods imported into Kosovo.

This was a response to Belgrade's blockade of Kosovo's application for membership at Interpol. Belgrade, using a destructive policy, continued to buy the support of third countries – especially from Africa and the Pacific –to counter and thwart Kosovo's international recognition efforts. While Prime Minister Haradinaj was determined to implement this policy towards Serbia, the Kosovar president, however, had more or less already concluded his agreement on the exchange of territories with the Serbian president.


Europe was Divided

Europe was divided, with the EEAS, led by Mogherini, unequivocally in favor of this "deal". At the time, Berlin and London, in particular, did everything they could to prevent the territorial exchange agreement, as it would open Pandora's box not only with regard to the entire Western Balkans, but also to other regions in Europe – especially the Ukraine and the ongoing development on the Crimea.

The pressure on Haradinaj, who had already gone through two trials before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), in particular the invitation to be questioned by the prosecutor of the Special Chamber headed by the American attorney Jack Smith as well as the immense political pressure to lift tariffs on Serbian goods, eventually forced him to resign.

After this step, it was initially thought that with the upcoming early elections in Kosovo, an agreement would be reached between Pristina and Belgrade. However, for the first time, the leader of the left-wing opposition, Albin Kurti, won the elections and assumed power. But due to protracted negotiations to form a government and, above all, the lack of coordination with his coalition partner, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), the former opposition leader and election winner Albin Kurti lost the confidence of his government partner after just a few weeks and subsequently had to face a vote of no confidence in the Kosovo parliament.

Today, it is known that the overthrow of Kurti's administration was co-sponsored by the Trump administration, then represented by Richard Grenell, the White House Special Envoy. Grenell recently announced that, in addition to the agreement to be signed between Pristina and Belgrade, an agreement had also been reached on the closure of the special chambers in The Hague and, as a result, the possible dismissal of the charges against Thaçi.


Arrest Warrant for the President

Hashim Thaci and his lawyer in the court in The Hague.
Hashim Thaci, right, and his lawyer David Hooper, left, appear for the first time before a judge of the Kosovo Special Chambers in The Hague, Netherlands, Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS | Jerry Lampen via picture alliance

But these agreements were objected, first and foremost, by Germany and Great Britain, but above all by the American prosecutor Jack Smith, who issued an arrest warrant for President Thaçi on the same day the latter was supposed to board a plane to the White House, where he was to officially sign the agreement with Vučić on the territorial swap and the dissolution of the Special Court. The events can justifiably be described as a political thriller.

In Kosovo, a government led by Kurti's opponents under Avdullah Hoti decided to travel to Washington to sign another agreement with Vučić. This agreement focused primarily on economic cooperation and Israel's recognition of Kosovo's independence. At the White House, Prime Minister Hoti and President Vučić, under the "blessing" of President Trump, signed an economic cooperation agreement with the commitment to set aside political issues and look towards the future.

The recognition of Israel naturally came with the condition that both Kosovo and Serbia relocate their embassies to Jerusalem. Kosovo took this step, while Serbia did not. The Europeans hardly waited for the upcoming free elections in Kosovo.

This was also supported by the decision of the Constitutional Court, which accepted an appeal by Kurti's party based on the fact that a deputy who had been convicted of a crime and whose immunity had not been lifted took part in the vote of Hoti's government. The decision to overthrow the Hoti government, Thaçi's trip to The Hague, and most importantly, the country's return to elections for the second time in a year, gave Kurti his comeback. In the February 2021 elections, Kurti secured a landslide election victory, with the majority of Kosovo voters giving him 50.03% of the vote, the absolute majority and the confidence to govern alone for the next four years.

For the first time, Kosovo had a prime minister who could govern alone with his own party. Kurti's promises were significant, but even greater were the hopes of the international community that there would finally be progress of the domestic dialogue, as the political wing of the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) - with Thaçi in The Hague and Haradinaj in opposition - was severely weakened.

Kurti, a veteran of Kosovar politics, had been a leader of the student movement in the late nineties. Arrested during the NATO bombing by Milošević and the former information minister and current Serbian president Vučić, he was released in 2001 and continued his political activities, first in civil society and then with his own political grouping.

For the first time, Kosovo had a prime minister who could govern alone with his own party.

As a radical leftist, Kurti opposed the Rambouillet agreement that led to the NATO bombings in 1999, the UN and EU civilian missions in Kosovo (1999-2008), and the proposal of Finnish President Ahtisaari that led to Kosovo's independence. For a decade, Kurti deemed the only solution for Kosovo to be the unification with Albania. Realizing that the idea of a Greater Albania was not feasible, he decided in 2011 to enter the Kosovo parliamentary scene. He condemned corruption but did not abandon the idea of unification with Albania, criticizing the corrupt political elite and concessions to Serbia.

A decade later, he won the election with 50% of the vote for his "Self-Determination" party. Kurti was the long-awaited change for the citizens of Kosovo and also for the international partners, especially for the German government, which had diligently helped to remove the stumbling blocks on his way to power.

But after two and a half years in government, Kurti does not seem to differ much from his predecessors: Albanians from Kosovo are emigrating massively to Germany. Nepotism and corruption continue to reign supreme, and the party dominates public institutions. During the summer months, Kosovo's media reported that the Special Prosecutor's Office is investigating 5 ministers of the Kurti government for corruption and mismanagement. These reports have not been refuted by either Kurti or Kosovo's Special Prosecutor's Office.

At the international level, talks on "normalization" of relations between Kosovo and Serbia are a priority. While Serbian President Vučić is reluctant to accept the Western plan, the Albanians in Kosovo, with Kurti at the helm, also remain cautious.

For the first time in its new history, Kosovo says "no" to its Western liberators and sponsors. Not openly, of course; a "no" to the US, Germany, France and Britain would not be enforceable. The Kosovars only hear: Kurti says "no" to the self-government of the Serbs in Kosovo. Although he had accepted the Brussels and Ohrid agreements on the "normalization" of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, neither Kurti nor Vučić have begun to implement them.

While Serbian President Vučić is reluctant to accept the Western plan, the Albanians in Kosovo, with Kurti at the helm, also remain cautious.

The Kosovar Prime Minister justified this by saying that "the agreement must be fully implemented." The Serbian president argued that "first of all, the Association of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo must be formed," and then the other problems could be addressed. Since the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, and his Special Envoy for Dialogue, Miroslav Lajčák, were unable to mediate in this situation, they proposed punitive measures against the Kosovo government.

In May of this year, after the local elections in four municipalities with a Serb majority, in which only 3 per cent of the population participated, Prime Minister Kurti decided to forcibly install Albanian mayors in these municipalities. This was seen as a provocation by the Kosovo Serbs, who began massive protests that led to violence against NATO peacekeepers stationed as a barrier between the Kosovo special forces and the violent Serbian protesters in northern Kosovo.

Kurti's unilateral actions led to the imposition of punitive measures against Kosovo and thus to its isolation. Projects, and in particular European aid for the continent's poorest country, have been frozen. This new situation and the tragic game in which, for the first time, the child of the West rebels against the states that, in one way or another, had given birth to this republic, have led to considerable political tension in Kosovo.

Isolated and at the same time embroiled in a series of corrupt affairs within his government, Kurti seems to have no intention of abandoning his "clean hands" policy – despite weekly media coverage of grievances in his government -, nor does he seem to refrain from exerting pressure on the media and the Kosovo judiciary. Even more serious is the fact that Kurti does not want to keep his promise to withdraw the special police forces and the Albanian mayors from Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo and to organize elections in these municipalities. First, he wants the EU's "punitive measures" to be lifted, and then he will act, he says. Here the EU does not seem to be ready to budge.

Kurti does not want to keep his promise to withdraw the special police forces and the Albanian mayors from Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo and to organize elections in these municipalities.

The Americans seem to have turned their backs on Kurti, and it remains to be seen whether there will be a change following the letter signed by 50 Euro-American parliamentarians, including the heads of the foreign affairs committees of the United States, Germany, Great Britain, etc., calling on their political leaders to no longer consider Serbia as a the key factor for the troubles in the Balkans but as the main partner for peacemaking on the peninsula.

There is a possibility that the foreign policy of the EU and the US towards Serbia will not change even after this letter. The attitude of the US and the West towards Serbia has always remained unclear, ambivalent at best. On the one hand, the country was and is considered a candidate for membership of the European Union and should therefore theoretically be subject to the same harsh conditions and instructions that apply to all other candidate countries.

On the other hand, it is conceded that it presents the devastating nineties in a completely different light than all its neighboring countries, that it does not really recognize the results of the wars and that it maintains autocratic conditions at home that would not be tolerated in any other accession country. Serbia is seen as a troublemaker, and at the same time, it is considered a potential stability factor because of its relative size and strategic importance.

Between Ambivalence and Lurching Course

The uncertainty manifests itself in the Western attitude towards any conflict over Kosovo or Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the same time, this ambivalence gives Vučić the opportunity to take a slippery slope between East and West.

Since President Joe Biden took office in the United States, the motto has been that a viable compromise must finally be reached in the Balkans, especially in the two conflict regions of Kosovo and Bosnia, that binds Serbia and the Serbs in the long term and leads them into the Western camp. To this end, Washington has mobilized its most capable diplomats. The fact that they have achieved little success so far is not least due to the failure of Kosovo's head of government, Albin Kurti, who makes it easy for Vučić to maintain his swinging position.

Even in a situation where Russia and the West are on the brink of open conflict, President Vučić manages to navigate his country between the fronts.

Illustration: Handshake in front of European and Serbian flag.
Since President Joe Biden took office in the United States, the motto has been that a viable compromise must finally be reached in the Balkans, especially in the two conflict regions of Kosovo and Bosnia, illustration: Zerbor/Shotshop via picture alliance

While he does not impose sanctions on Putin's Russia, he nevertheless sells weapons to Ukraine. While maintaining a façade of sympathy for Putin, he is simultaneously allowing 200,000 Russian opponents and saboteurs of the war to enter Serbia. Since he is no longer the preferred guest in Berlin, he continues to invest heavily in lobbying in the U.S. And seeing that Kosovo remains isolated due to its self-destructive policies, he has all the time in the world to wait for Kurti.

All these possibilities are not available to Kurti. He can only count on the fact that his right to have his own assessment of the situation will be respected by the West and hope that Vučić will be condemned on this basis, and that Kosovo should be rewarded. But in the end, he will achieve exactly the opposite.

Kurti and Vučić's commitments to implement the Ohrid Agreement were made in the spring of this year. In the meantime, the Balkans are approaching autumn, and after this agreement, the situation has only worsened. Actually, the venomous rhetoric of Kurti and Vučić has intensified - for domestic political reasons. Both are sharpening their tone because they know they still have three months until Europe and the US enter a new election year. With Putin's war in Ukraine dragging along, and the European and US elections ahead, the scant efforts of finding a lasting and implementable solution for the Balkans that resolves the bitter conflicts between Kosovo and Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, seem to indicate that we will be back to where we were before – at zero.

About the Author
Beqë Cufaj
Author, Ambassador (ret.)

Beqë Cufaj (born 1970) was born in Deçan, Kosovo. He has written for the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) and the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) for years and has also published several novels and essay books. From 2018 to 2021, Cufaj held the position of Ambassador of the Republic of Kosovo in Germany. Today, he resides in Berlin with his family.