The West can solve the Kosovo problem

BY Jamie Shea   /  19 February 2019

This year marks the 20th anniversary of NATO’s decision to intervene against the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians by Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosević. The humanitarian campaign, which lasted from 24th March until 10th June 1999, led to the withdrawal of Yugoslav armed forces from Kosovo, and the establishment of United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) – before the country went on to declare its independence in 2008. Measured against its objectives, the campaign remains NATO’s most successful intervention, both in its immediate effect of ending the repression of the Kosovar Albanians and its longer term impact on peace and stability in the region.

As of today, Kosovo has been recognized by 103 out of 193 United Nations member states, 23 out of 28 members of the European Union member states, and 25 out of 29 NATO members. But it is not recognized by Serbia. As such, neither country can accede to the European Union – normalization of relations with neighbouring states is a key precondition for states wishing to join the EU.

The achievement of a comprehensive and legally-binding settlement to the issues that continue to divide Belgrade and Pristina must be a priority for the new EU leadership that will be appointed after this May’s European Parliament elections.  The EU-facilitated dialogue that was started by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and continued by her successor, Federica Mogherini, has brought many tangible benefits in areas such as border management, trade and telecommunications.

Beyond the well-known political differences on issues such as recognition, this dialogue has improved the daily lives of people on both sides of the border. So it needs to be continued. Yet to be successful, commitments made have to be kept, for instance in energy or the functioning of the courts system. Dialogue has to be based on trust.

A successful resolution must include Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence, unblocking the path for both countries towards eventual EU membership, and enabling Kosovo to join both NATO and the United Nations.

This will require political will, unity and cooperation between Britain, the European Union, and the United States, which continues to have a key diplomatic role to play in bringing peace to the Western Balkans, as we have seen at every stage of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Anything short of this and momentum will be lost, undermining what has been achieved to date in the ongoing EU-facilitated dialogue.

Between 2009 and 2014, Baroness Catherine Ashton worked with President Thaçi, then Kosovo’s Prime Minister, and the Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dačić, to bring about a 15-point “First Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalisation of Relations”, initialled but not signed on 19th April 2013. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also instrumental to the process, as were countless figures from across British and European politics.

Following the conclusion of the Brussels Agreement, as it was known – which was supported by the European Union, NATO, the OSCE, and the United Nations – the European Commission officially advised that work start on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with Kosovo, and accession negotiations began with Serbia. The SAA was signed by HR Mogherini and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Mustafa in October 2015.

In recent months, however, progress has threatened to be stalled. Suggestions of border changes have divided the international community as well as Kosovo’s government, and disputes have erupted particularly in response to the campaign that Russia and Serbia have been conducting to block Kosovo’s membership of international organisations, most recently Interpol.

While optimism remains the prevailing sentiment in the country, there are clear signs that exasperation is growing. In November, Kosovo implemented a 100% tariff on Serbian goods, as a sign of its frustration that Serbia had campaigned to block its Interpol bid.

Attempting to mitigate the fallout, the US embassy in Pristina encouraged the policy to be revisited, and implied that its support for Kosovo might not be unconditional: “We caution against assuming that Kosovo or any other friend of the United States can take actions that run counter to our strategic interests without facing consequences to our bilateral relationship.”

Remarkably – for a capital city that features a statue of Bill Clinton – the warning garnered little attention in Pristina. The tariffs remain stubbornly in place, and represent a firm obstruction to further progress being made in the dialogue, particularly as they represent a violation of the Central European Trade agreement.

The US statement is a timely message to Pristina: That it needs to stick to its international commitments. Yet even more importantly, this incident should serve as a wake-up call to all the friends of Kosovo that the current blockages cannot go on indefinitely if Kosovars are to retain their trust in the West and commitment to Western values. It is strong but not unbreakable; and as we have seen elsewhere in the region there are many other powers and forces, with less benign intentions, that are ready and able to exploit popular frustrations and occupy a vacuum left by lack of Western attention and engagement.

President Thaçi has been clear. He has stated that Kosovo is ready to reach a comprehensive agreement with Serbia, and that his country seeks no other destiny than that of belonging to what he calls the Euro-Atlantic community. He continues to call Kosovo ‘the most pro-Western country in the world’.

As we have seen elsewhere in the Western Balkans even inspired local leadership still needs the support and encouragement of the major players outside the region. The fear of regression and backsliding is one reason for more engagement. Yet the Kosovo issue is one that the West can solve; and in doing so achieve another, much needed success; for the region but also for the security of the whole of Europe.

Jamie Shea was NATO spokesperson during the 1999 Kosovo war, and is now a Professor of Strategy and Security at the University of Exeter.