Kosovo’s allies call for renewed support, not more sanctions

After decades of near unconditional support for Prishtina, the US and EU blamed Kosovo’s PM Albin Kurti for provoking a crisis in the north of the country. However, some of Kosovo’s allies now believe that the response has gone too far.

A letter signed by the heads of ten parliamentary foreign affairs committees addressed to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, criticising their approach towards de-escalating tensions between Kosovo and Serbia has provoked predictably strong reaction in the Balkans.  

Noting Kosovo had “faced significant repercussions” for its actions following a Serb boycott of local elections in municipalities home to ethnic Serbs, the letter criticises the “lack of pressure on Serbia.” 

“The current approach is not working,” says the letter, whose signatories include chairs of the foreign affairs committees in the US Senate, UK parliament, Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada, and German Bundestag along with over 50 politicians from Czechia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ireland, and Iceland. “We would ask that the international community learns from our past and ensures we do not adopt a Belgrade-centred policy for the Balkans.”  

The letter was received warmly in Prishtina—which has largely been blamed for the crisis. Kosovo has been the subject of sanctions, including the cancellation of its participation in joint military exercises and suspension of efforts to increase international recognition of the country.  

Belgrade meanwhile responded coldly. Angered by the signature of Oleksandr Merezhko, the chair of the Verkhovna Rada committee on foreign policy and inter-parliamentary cooperation, when Ukraine does not recognise Kosovo, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said, “Ukraine is a friendly country to us. I think [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky is smarter than Merezhko. Because imagine: if Ukraine recognises the independence of Kosovo, it will lose everything in one day.”  

The roots of the current crisis 

US and EU pressure on Prishtina has been met with domestic scepticism and criticism by policymakers and citizens used to Western capitals siding with Kosovo against Serbia since the war in 1998 and 1999 that ended with NATO intervention to prevent the further ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians.  

Kosovo’s appreciation for Western support is no secret, although many outside of the Balkans know little of it besides the viral song Thank you USA and Prishtina’s multi-storey Bill Clinton artwork and George Bush Boulevard. 

But after decades of near unconditional support for Prishtina, Western leaders blame the current Kosovan prime minister, Albin Kurti, for going too far and provoking an unnecessary conflict just as it seemed his country and Serbia were finally prepared to reach some kind of deal. 

In April, ethnic Serbs in north Kosovo boycotted local elections to pressure Prishtina to finally create a Community of Serb Municipalities—a key part of a plan agreed upon by the leaders of both states this spring that would eventually normalise relations between Serbia and Kosovo  

Kosovo and Serbia had previously agreed to form a Community of Serb Municipalities as part of the 2013 Brussels Agreement to allow Kosovo’s Serb minority to collectively develop policy regarding their economic development, education, health, and urban and rural planning. Kosovo, however, has not yet to implement that part of the 2013 agreement, and Kurti has made statements questioning its constitutionality. 

Due to the Serb boycott of the local elections, ethnic Kosovar Albanian candidates won mayorships in Serb-majority cities with under four per cent turnout. Despite these mayors lacking legitimacy in the eyes of the ethnic Serb minority over whose governance they would be entrusted, Kurti decided in late May to authorise the use of police officers to install the Kosovar Albanian mayors into specific municipal buildings.    

A NATO-led peacekeeping force (KFOR) is tasked with maintaining the peace in the region, but Kurti did not consult with US or EU officials in advance and ignored advice from the US, France, Italy, Germany and United Kingdom warning him not to force the issue.  

The move to install Kosovar Albanian mayors prompted protests from local Serbs which escalated into clashes with KFOR that injured 30 peacekeepers and about 50 civilians. While Western leaders were furious that Kurti’s unilateral move endangered the troops meant to protect Kosovo, he refused to back down and has been slow to implement the de-escalatory measures demanded by Washington and Brussels.  

In the meantime, Kurti has enraged its neighbour, NATO member North Macedonia, by visiting its city of Tetovo—home to a large ethnic Albanian population and the centre of a 2001 Albanian insurgency by a paramilitary group celebrated in Kosovo—and flying irredentist ‘Greater Albania’ flags and Kosovo flags but no Macedonian flags. Kurti’s August 11 visit to Tetovo came as North Macedonia has played a key role hosting normalisation talks between Prishtina and Belgrade and just days after the letter urging more support for Kosovo from NATO members. 

Courting Belgrade 

The letter came as prominent voices in foreign policy have increasingly advocated for Kosovo in the media.  

“Within the past year, Kosovo has sought to carry out the normal functions of government within its borders only to be faced with condemnation and even punishment by the United States,” wrote Eliot Engel, the former chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the US House of Representatives and longtime ally of Kosovo, in Foreign Policy. 

“I have reluctantly reached the conclusion that in the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia, Washington has been appeasing a semi-autocratic bully— Vučić —and has become a bit of a bully itself, pushing around and intimidating the smaller, more vulnerable Kosovo. It’s behaviour that’s beneath the United States, and it’s time to reset the approach.” 

Installing mayors may indeed be a “normal function of government” elsewhere, but with cities in north Kosovo physically sub-divided along ethnic lines and policed by NATO troops, a different calculus is necessary to maintain peace. 

Washington and Brussels’ courting of Belgrade is based on their assumptions that pulling Serbia away from its historical ally, Russia, and into the Western fold is key to the long-term stability of the Western Balkans. Serbia is a key actor in supporting the increasingly separatist Republika Srpska in Bosnia and a holdout on sanctioning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.  

Prishtina depends upon the West for security and diplomatic support and is not in a position to seek aid from rivals like Russia or China, which do not recognise Kosovar sovereignty, so Western leaders have less to lose by focusing pressure on it to back-down.  

If Kosovo reruns the local elections in Serb towns and takes action to create the Community of Serb Municipalities after a decade of dragging its feet, it could begin to put normalisation with Serbia back on track—and ultimately see its international recognition, and thus EU membership prospects, boosted and regional stability secured.  

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