An escalation of disagreements over the proposed Kosovo-Serbia land swap could take on a regional dimension and pose a security threat to Europe.
The covid-19 pandemic has not spared Kosovo or the wider Western Balkans. The country’s government initially handled the crisis in an efficient and timely manner, giving citizens relative confidence that they might avoid disaster. But many had not counted on the emergence of obstructionist political parties backed by an even more uncooperative president. And the pandemic is not the only crisis that looms large in the minds of Kosovo’s citizens. They also have to contend with a fierce internal political conflict and a state-building dispute that has deepened the divide in the transatlantic relationship.
The newly formed governing coalition of Vetevendosje and the Kosovo Democratic League (LDK), led by Prime Minister Albin Kurti, came to power earlier this year hoping to implement an ambitious reform agenda that focused on jobs and justice. Yet it also had to deal with several controversies, not least an effort to remove a 100 percent tariff on Serbian imports – which its predecessor imposed in response to Serbia’s non-recognition of Kosovo, leading to the collapse of an EU-facilitated dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade.
Kurti’s government agreed to replace the tariff with the principle of reciprocity (under which the favours, benefits, or penalties granted by one state to the citizens of another are returned in the same manner). Yet it came under incredible pressure from Ambassador Richard Grenell, US special envoy to the dialogue, to abandon both the tariff and the principle. The first cracks in the coalition appeared when the LDK began to echo Grenell, claiming that it did not want to endanger US-Kosovo relations and threatening to leave power if Vetevendosje insisted on reciprocity.
A few days into the covid-19 crisis, the government resisted President Hashim Thaci’s call for a declaration of a state of emergency, arguing that it should first take visible but non-coercive measures. The government feared that the president would use the enhanced powers granted to him under the state of emergency to operate outside of the bounds of the constitution. Kurti refused to facilitate the land swap Thaci had agreed with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. But Thaci is eager to remain at the centre of Kosovo politics and thereby allegedly avoid prosecution for war crimes in the Special Court (based in The Hague). As such, he seized the opportunity provided by the global health crises and, following the LDK’s lead, helped launch a parliamentary no-confidence motion on 25 March. The government was ousted by a margin of 82 to 38 less than two months into its tenure.
Kurti, as head of the caretaker government, insists on fulfilling his constitutional right to lead the negotiations, which would marginalise Thaci
The Pristina-Belgrade dialogue stalled in late 2018. Although the talks have not officially resumed, Grenell has organised meetings between Thaci and Vucic, thereby sidelining the European Union. Given that these meetings are marred by a lack of transparency, there is room to speculate that the parties are pushing for a solution that involves the land swap – although Grenell claims to have no knowledge of such a deal. Many citizens of Kosovo thoroughly reject the land swap – as do some in the United States and most EU countries. They worry that the creation of mono-ethnic states would incite further conflict in the Balkans, reignite the push for a ‘Greater Albania’, break up Bosnia and Herzegovina, and provide countries (particularly Russia) with a dangerous precedent in relation to other frozen conflicts in Europe.
In his push for the land swap, Thaci has few allies in Kosovo. Kurti, as head of the caretaker government, insists on fulfilling his constitutional right to lead the negotiations, which would marginalise Thaci. And there appears to be widespread public support for Kurti’s position, as his party has skyrocketed from 26.7 percent of the vote in the October 2019 election to 52.8 percent in the polls, and the LDK has dropped from 24.5 percent to 17.2 percent. All while Kosovo remains one of the most pro-US nations on earth.
Both Kosovo and Serbia are part of the EU integration and accession process. Although EU institutions and some member states welcomed the formation of the Kurti government and hailed the removal of the tariff, their response to Thaci’s political adventurism has been somewhat lukewarm. Indeed, it stands in stark contrast to, for instance, their strong reaction to an April 2016 dispute in Macedonia (as it then was) that could have led to internal conflict and instability in the region.
In the same vein, an escalation of disagreements over the land swap could take on a regional dimension and pose a security threat to Europe. Kosovo’s state-building project has always been a transatlantic issue rooted in regional and European integration efforts. Vucic has not only trapped Thaci in the belief that the land swap would resolve the dispute between their countries – he also appears to have convinced some EU member states and US officials to abandon the principle of the inviolability of borders that have guided transatlantic interventions in the Balkans.
With the EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy, Josep Borrell, having recently appointed a special envoy to the dialogue, it is now high time to restart talks between Kosovo and Serbia that are based on sound principles and include clear red lines. Unless the EU is involved in the dialogue, there is no guarantee that the countries will resolve the dispute in line with an EU membership perspective. In the hands of the Trump administration, which has tended to bully Kosovo and favour Serbia, the negotiations could prove detrimental to both transatlantic relations and lasting peace in the Balkans.
Engjellushe Morina is a researcher based in Berlin. She was the co-founder and chairperson of the Prishtina Council for Foreign Relations, a think-tank based in Pristina.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.