February 21. 2024. 6:50

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Republic of Kosovo at 15: A breakthrough in the making?

Fifteen years after Kosovo’s independence, Prime Minister Albin Kurti has the chance to write history – or set back Kosovo’s international integration for years, writes Andreas Wittkowsky.

On 17 February 2008, the Republic of Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. Prior to this, the UN Security Council had failed to grant Kosovo “conditional” independence based on the Ahtisaari Plan.

According to the UN Special Envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, an international supervisory body, would have secured far-reaching minority rights in Kosovo. Serbia rejected the plan, and Russia lent it its veto.

In spite of the EU’s desire to play a major role in Kosovo’s further development, five of the 27 member states did not recognise Kosovo’s independence either. This has since hindered Kosovo’s prospects of joining the EU, NATO and other international organisations.

Serbia, in particular, protested strongly against Kosovo’s “unilateral” declaration of independence. However, a legal opinion of the International Court of Justice, initiated by Serbia in the UN General Assembly, concluded that it was not contrary to international law.

Still, Serbia continued its policy of establishing parallel governance structures in Serb-majority areas, as already pursued during Kosovo’s UN interim administration after 1999. It also keeps a tight grip on the largest minority party in Kosovo, the “Serb List”.

Progress and Set Backs in the EU-mediated Dialogue

From March 2011 onward, the EU has been mediating a political dialogue between Belgrade and Prishtina. Initially, it focused on reaching an agreement on technical issues in order to improve living conditions in Kosovo and build trust between the parties.

The overarching goal, however, is a comprehensive, binding agreement that would normalise relations between Kosovo and Serbia and enables both states to further integrate into the EU.

In April 2013, Kosovo and Serbia signed the Brussels Agreement. Serbia undertook to abandon its parallel structures in Kosovo and – as far as possible – let them integrate them into Kosovo’s legal structures. In return, Kosovo was ready to establish an Association of Serb-majority Municipalities.

This collective ethnic body went well beyond the extensive individual minority rights that the Ahtisaari Plan foresaw and was, therefore, suspiciously received in Kosovo.

Called upon by Kosovo’s President Atifete Jahjaga, the Kosovo Constitutional Court ruled that some attributes of the planned Association were not in line with the constitution. Its implementation has stalled ever since.

Since 2021, Kosovo’s current Prime Minister Albin Kurti has been insisting on a “reciprocity” policy, i.e. all regulations concerning Kosovo and Serbia are to apply to both sides equally – from minority rights to international relations.

Instead of the previous EU policy of pursuing small steps, he is targeting a package deal in which nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon.

At the same time, he declared that his government does not see the Dialogue as a top priority.

Escalations and the Opening for a Way Out

Since then, the political climate has become rougher. Several times Kurti’s – essentially legitimate –reciprocity policy led to escalations. In November 2022, Kosovo’s police wanted to enforce the official car number plates in Serb-populated areas. Kosovo Serb officials reacted by leaving the Kosovo institutions.

Under the participation of radical groups, including the notorious Russian “Night Wolves”, roadblocks were erected in Kosovo’s North. Belgrade flanked this with the mobilisation of its troops and military overflights at Kosovo’s borders.

Provocatively, Serbia’s defence minister visited the troops accompanied by the Russian ambassador. This also shows how far Serbia is presently off a credible pro-European path.

While the barricades were removed after intense international diplomacy, the situation remains prone to escalation and is increasingly exploited for geopolitically motivated destabilising activities.

With a concerted diplomatic initiative, the EU, the USA and Great Britain now want to push for the conclusion of the comprehensive agreement between Kosovo and Serbia.

A re-drafted European proposal is on the table.

Without making it explicit, it provides for de facto mutual recognition. Kosovo and Serbia would guarantee each other, inter alia, the inviolability of their borders, territorial integrity and international exclusive representation.

This would also open the door for Kosovo to further integrate into the EU, NATO and other international organisations.

One condition for success is Kosovo’s willingness to put the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities back on the Dialogue agenda and engage in its implementation.

Currently, severe pressure weighs on Prishtina.

Still, the international community must exclude all attributes that would empower the Association to become a Republika Srpska 2.0, thus undermining Kosovo’s stability.

Also, the EU should give Kosovo assurances that it can gain EU candidate status based on the comprehensive agreement. Belgrade would see it with satisfaction if the agreement failed because of Kosovo.

Prime Minister Kurti can make a breakthrough – or set Kosovo’s international integration back for years.