Time for the EU to Step in Amid Failing U.S. Foreign Policy in Kosovo
22 May, 2020
“The Western Balkans belong in the EU” – this statement was made by European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during the recent EU-Western Balkans summit held on May 6th. The Zagreb Declaration reaffirms the EU’s “unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans”, highlighting increasing calls for strong solidarity with these nations in regard to the coronavirus pandemic. The current global health pandemic dominated most of the summit, as they discussed ways of tackling the COVID-19 crisis, and socio-economic measures in place to fight it such as aid packages. Actual ‘EU enlargement’ was not mentioned at this time, however the final declaration released at the end of the summit reads: “Increased EU assistance will be linked to tangible progress in the rule of law and in socio-economic reforms, as well as on the Western Balkans partners’ adherence to EU values, rules and standards.”
Increased assistance and aid is definitely crucial to the region during this time, especially as Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic recently insulted the EU and praised China for its medical assistance, and Kosovo’s government is currently reeling from a vote of no-confidence, leaving the democratically elected government and Kosovo’s citizens in a state of limbo with a Prime Minister currently in a ‘caretaker’ role during a global pandemic. The current political atmosphere in Kosovo, which has been disrupted under the pressure of COVID-19, and a failing foreign policy tactic from the United States, proves to be the proper moment for the European Union to play a stronger role in normalising relations between Kosovo and Serbia as both countries strive for EU accession.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused more trouble in Kosovo than just health-woes. As over 900 citizens of Kosovo have been touched by the virus, Kosovo’s government is collapsing at the seams. A vote of no-confidence during the infancy of Albin Kurti’s government, came following a power struggle between Prime Minister Kurti and President Hashim Thaci. As COVID-19 made its way into Kosovo in early March, President Thaci called for a state of emergency, an act that PM Kurti saw as an unnecessary measure given that there were only 19 people infected at the time, and 0 deaths. It was not hard for PM Kurti, or Balkan scholars and experts for that matter, to see that President Thaci’s call for a state of emergency had the added benefit of transforming the Presidential seat from a “ceremonial” position, to one with executive powers. As per Kosovo’s constitution, Article 131, declaring a state of emergency grants the President the role of “supreme commander of armed forces” in the form of general mobilization, and gives him the chairmanship of the security council providing him executive powers. The struggle over declaring a state of emergency, coupled with various calls by President Thaci on citizens to disobey valid security measures taken by Kosovo’s government, led to the ultimate vote of no-confidence in Kosovo’s Parliament. The disagreements over how to properly manage the pandemic created a prime opportunity for President Thaci, along with the leader of the junior ruling party of LDK, Isa Mustafa, to overthrow the Kurti government.
Additionally, President Donald Trump’s special envoy for negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia, Richard Grenell, assisted in unseating PM Albin Kurti, as he welcomed the no-confidence vote despite the country’s current battle against COVID-19. Instead of calling for political solidarity amongst the democratically elected government, Richard Grenell’s support of Hashim Thaci’s leadership, increased pressure on the junior party LDK, and lack of support for Albin Kurti, added to the political atmosphere for Kurti to be unseated. This is especially important to note due to the United States long standing impact on Kosovo, and their reputation amongst Kosovo citizens who are said to be the “most pro-American country in the world”. Richard Grenell and Albin Kurti have not seen eye-to-eye during their talks and negotiations with Serbia; Grenell has consistently called for Kosovo to concede to Serbia’s demands, without any reciprocity from Serbia. Last year Kosovo implemented a 100% tariff tax on all Serbian imports in retaliation for Serbia’s incessant ‘anti-recognition’ campaign lobbying against Kosovo’s statehood. Serbia has relentlessly advocated for international organizations and foreign nations to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo’s independence, and have blocked Kosovo from joining many international organizations (most recently, Interpol). To date, 18 countries have said to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo’s statehood, following meetings and talks with Serbia’s foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, however, none of them are EU member states.
Failing U.S. Foreign Policy
While Richard Grenell has pressed the Kosovo government, more specifically, PM Albin Kurti to withdraw the tax tariffs, very little if any pressure has been put on the Serbian side of the negotiating table to have them stop their anti-recognition campaign. Kosovo recently partially abolished the 100% tax on imports from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, in a sign of “goodwill” and a “good faith” towards furthering dialogue and negotiations with Serbia. However, Serbia has only met this with further strengthening their anti-recognition campaign on Kosovo.
Additionally, the U.S.’s Special Envoy Richard Grenell, has held meetings in the past with both the President of Kosovo and of Serbia. While their meetings lack transparency, and the specifics of their meetings remain unknown, many Balkan observers and specialists (including Kosovar PM Albin Kurti) fear they have opened the door to a vague and possibly detrimental deal, calling for a land-swap between Kosovo and Serbia. Following the ousting of Kurti’s government, and suspicions from international observers on the motivations and intentions of the U.S. government on pressuring Kosovo for a “quick-deal” with Serbia, Richard Grenell has since come out as saying that no such deal exists – however the damage has already been done. Kosovo’s government is currently treading water as their democratically elected, and highly rated (amongst public opinion) government has been ousted. Kosovo President Hashim Thaci attempted to reinstate a new government by bypassing elections, however his decree was quickly shut down by the Kosovo Constitutional Court.
Time for the E.U. to Strengthen Position
Given that these negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia are mandatory for their EU accession, this proves to be the opportune time for the European Union to not only reaffirm their support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans, but provides the Union with the space they need to take control of Kosovo-Serbia negotiations. As the current United States administration is seeking a “quick-deal” and “foreign-policy win” for the Trump administration, they are failing to properly support the budding democracy, and truly bring about needed reforms in both Kosovo and Serbia.
The European Union recently appointed Miroslav Lajčák, a respected politician and experienced diplomat especially as it pertains to the Western Balkans, to be the EU Special Representative for Kosovo-Serbia negotiations. Lajčák’s reputation, experience, and knowledge of the region is exactly what the two negotiating parties need to properly facilitate dialogue, especially compared to the U.S.’s envoy, who is limited in his experience of the Western Balkans and diplomacy. More importantly, Lajčák has firmly stated from the start of his post that the idea of land-swap is not on the EU’s agenda, nor should it be. This sentiment has also been reiterated by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas who said, that “games with borders” only prolongs the solution and instead leads to a dead end, and can also ignite nationalist sentiments among both sides. Instead the Union, who has already shown great support to the entire region in the fight against COVID-19 by way of aid and economic support, should further cement their position and vision for the two countries who hope to join the European Union.
The EU, who already has strong leverage in Kosovo through financial support, and support in reformation in rule of law, and democracy, have the opportunity to avoid instability in the region. This can only be done if President Hashim Thaci’s influence on international issues is curtailed, seeing as the Presidential seat under Kosovo’s constitution is more ceremonial than actual power-wielding. This is especially possible seeing how it is the role of the Prime Minister, as it has been in the past with former PM Ramush Hajradinaj, to handle negotiations with Serbia and matters of security. More so, in a recent study completed by Freedom House, Nations in Transit, Kosovo has recently come out as one of the most improved nations in the region when it comes to democracy, a category where Serbia was highlighted as having significantly decreased. With the proper support from the EU, Kosovo would only continue to improve. This support must be with the actual democratic institutions, and with the citizens of Kosovo who have exercised their democratic rights and voiced their concerns with the ousting of Kurti’s government through protests and debates. It should be the EU’s responsibility to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Additionally, the European Union should take this opportunity of failing U.S. policy to strengthen their ties with Kosovo, provide them visa liberalisations, and maintain aid and support in a post-COVID-19 world.