Biden presidency no magic fix for Kosovo

The election of Joe Biden as US President brings the curtain down on an era of insanity, but given his past record and the diminishing power of the West, Kosovo cannot expect its problems on the international stage to be instantly solved.

Trump’s defeat has come as an enormous relief to many across the globe. His narcissism, contempt for facts, and propensity for divisive hate-speech, ensured that the past four years have been one of the most disturbing, and surreal, episodes in US history. 

On foreign policy alone, the Trump administration has severely strained US-Europe relations, undermined the International Criminal Court, set-back attempts to deal with climate change, and initiated an escalating rivalry with China. 

He has encouraged the emergence of a new authoritarianism internationally, imperilled global democracy and fundamentally undermined respect for human rights. Given all this, Joe Biden’s election has unsurprisingly led to an explosion of optimism, including in Kosovo.

Indeed, there are many good reasons for Kosovo welcoming a Biden presidency. Unlike Trump, Biden has a good understanding of the country’s contemporary history. He has a long track record of engagement with the Balkans, and he has been a vocal critic of Serbia for decades, especially in the late 1990s. 

His support for Kosovo’s independence is well established, and his visit in 2016 to inaugurate the naming of a street after his late son Beau, suggests he has some emotional connection with the country. 

During the course of the election campaign Biden issued a statement outlining his ‘Vision for US relations with Albania and Kosovo.’ In this statement, Biden invokes memories of his history of “standing up to Milosevic’s aggression” and initiating the resolution to authorise NATO’s military intervention in 1999.

Biden stated that Kosovo’s independence is “irreversible” and outlines a plan of action including “reversing the Trump Administration’s imbalanced approach towards Kosovo and Serbia.” He also promised to work with the EU to reinvigorate the dialogue, pursue justice for war crimes and grant visa liberalisation for Kosovo citizens.

The statement has, of course, been warmly welcomed by the majority in Kosovo. It is worth remembering, however, that there is often a difference between what candidates promise during an election campaign and what they actually do once elected. 

The first obstacle to the realisation of Biden’s vision for Kosovo is the simple fact that the US is far less powerful today than it once was. Gone are the days when the US could exert irresistible leverage over its allies, and indeed its foes. Kosovo benefited most from US support at precisely that time when the US was at its zenith, and the decline in American power has impacted on Kosovo’s international status. 

Today, Kosovo’s very existence is increasingly in doubt. Recognitions of Kosovo’s independence have gone into reverse, and appeasing Serbia, rather than supporting Kosovo, has become a more important priority for Western powers engaged with the region. 

This shift towards treating Kosovo as an inconvenience rather than an ally worthy of steadfast support, cannot be attributed to Trump’s election in 2016. It is the product of a much greater force, namely the redistribution of power at the international level away from the West. Biden’s election will not reverse this. 

Second, given the array of enormous challenges facing the US, it is difficult to imagine that Biden will prioritise Kosovo. It increasingly appears to be the case that the international community is content with nothing happening in Kosovo, regardless of the fact that this has many negative implications for the people living there. 

In reality, so long as Kosovo continues to be peaceful it will not attract international attention. Given that the idea that ‘ancient’ grievances make the situation intractable has gained renewed currency, few in Biden’s administration are likely to point to Kosovo as an attainable foreign policy success. 

It is also clear, given the farcical nature of Trump and Richard Grenell’s diplomatic engagement with Kosovo, that becoming the subject of international attention does not readily translate into making progress. 

Yet, even if Biden does seek to engage meaningfully with Kosovo, this will not automatically bolster Kosovo’s bid to consolidate its international status. In fact, his historical record suggests otherwise.

During the eight years that Biden was vice-President, Kosovo endured some of the most costly blows to its sovereignty: the Serbian association agreement, the border deal with Montenegro, and the establishment of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers all occurred during this period. 

As such, the process by which Kosovo’s sovereignty has been eroded, its international status stalled, and its relationship with Serbia reversed in favour of Belgrade, began during Biden’s two terms as vice-President. 

Finally, corruption has constituted a perennial problem for Kosovo, rendering it an archetypal case of state capture and inflicting huge damage to its domestic development and international standing.

Again, this corruption prevailed long before Trump became President. Since 1999, a succession of European governments and US Presidents have tacitly tolerated the behaviour of the powerful cabal wielding enormous power within Kosovo. It is difficult to believe that Biden will reverse this policy, especially given that in 2010 he hailed Thaci as ‘the George Washington of Kosovo’. 

So long as Western powers, including the US, utter effusive platitudes heralding their support for Kosovo, whilst simultaneously enabling the corrupt elite to plunder the state’s resources, there are few grounds for optimism about Kosovo’s future. 

In fact, those in Kosovo who imagine that Biden’s victory will solve all Kosovo’s many problems are likely to find (like all those internationally who have rushed to proclaim the dawn of a new glorious era) that while replacing Trump may well herald the end of a period of insanity, it does not constitute a silver bullet. 

The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

Dr. Aidan Hehir is a Reader (Associate Professor) in international relations at the University of Westminster (UK). He teaches at the RIT Kosovo Summer School, and his research interests include statebuilding and the laws governing the use of force.


09 November 2020 - 13:02

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