Scrapping state recognition: What alternatives exist for Kosovo?

As recognition efforts grow stagnant and EU accession remains out of reach, experts argue that Kosovo could ensure greater benefits by joining international organizations that deal with ‘smaller, technical’ issues.

Kosovo celebrated its anniversary of the declaration of independence this February, but the ‘newborn’ nation still struggles with international recognition of its existence.

Back in 2008, not even the biggest pessimist would have envisaged that a decade later, Kosovo would still be facing such hardened opposition from European Union member states and neighboring countries to its legal status.

Regardless, celebrations on February 17 were vibrant and positive, with the entire country splashed blue and yellow, and Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj celebrating Kosovo’s “irreversible path” to an ever-stronger position on the geopolitical map and UN, NATO and EU membership.   

Less flashy, but perhaps even more fundamental to developing the Kosovo brand, domain names, country and telecommunications codes for Kosovo, and ascribing to technical human rights mechanisms are the way forward for Kosovo’s meaningful recognition, according to experts.  

In 2017, Madagascar and Bangladesh became the two newest states to recognize Kosovo, and an independence day gift saw Barbados following suit on February 17 this year. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the country is officially recognized by 114 countries, and Kosovo is “fully committed to lobbying for international recognition of Kosovo, aiming to enhance the international position of Kosovo and establish diplomatic relations with the vast majority of UN member states.”

However, following reports of Burundi, Suriname and Guinea-Bissau withdrawing their recognition, and rumors of Egypt following suit, a pattern of campaigns aimed to decrease Kosovo’s international legitimacy has been forming despite Kosovo’s continued resistance.  

Illustration by Trembelat for Prishtina Insight.

James Ker-Lindsay, professor at St. Mary’s University and visiting fellow at the European Institute for the London School of Economics, said that there is a compelling debate as to whether recognition really matters anymore for Kosovo.

A fixation on state recognition is understandable, of course. But Kosovo isn’t likely to get many more. James Ker-Lindsay

“A fixation on state recognition is understandable, of course. But Kosovo isn’t likely to get many more,” Ker-Lindsay said, arguing that recognition from countries in the South Pacific and Caribbean targeted by Kosovo officials will not make a difference to Kosovo’s political or economic standing, statehood, or support for entry into international organizations.

In a  press release issued following Serbia’s claims of de-recognition by Suriname, the Kosovo Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated their awareness of “the strong efforts and malignant aims of the neighbouring country, Serbia, in undermining the international legitimacy of the Republic of Kosovo.”

Ker-Lindsay said that Serbia’s efforts have recently become more hawkish, but inexplicably so.

“In the last year or so we’ve seen that their efforts to delegitimize Kosovo have become much more aggressive, and it’s not clear yet why. People naturally assume that the reasons for Serbia to delegitimize Kosovo’s international standing is about reclamation of territory, but this hasn’t seemed to be the case for a long time,” he said. “Attitudes are changing and Serbia itself is evolving. In fact, five years ago I would have said that all indications were pointing to Serbia giving up on reclaiming Kosovo and being happy to let it go.”

Serbian President Aleksander Vucic last year called for an ‘internal dialogue’ to solve the issues between Belgrade and Prishtina on the status of Kosovo in his op-ed for daily newspaper Blic, stating, “we must try to be realistic, not lose or give away what we have, but not expect to receive what we lost long ago.”

Kosovo Foreign Minister Behgjet Pacolli declared on January 31 that Guinea Bissau had re-confirmed its recognition of Kosovo as independent, confirming that Kosovo has doubled its efforts to secure widespread diplomatic recognition in response.

However, dragging out the battle for recognition and fixation with EU accession agreements and negotiations is exactly where Kosovo institutions are going wrong, claims Gezim Krasniqi, research fellow at the University of Edinburgh.

“We’re in a strange situation now. With the latest enlargement strategy, we see that Kosovo is promised an EU path based on merits on paper, but without the approval of every single government in the EU, Kosovo will not progress,” said Krasniqi.

Illustration by Trembelat for Prishtina Insight.

It is difficult to see how Spain would ever change its position to support Kosovo’s entry into the organization, given its own recent internal secessionist movement in Catalonia last October, according to Krasniqi.

“Kosovo could be a shining example of democratization, and the five non-recognizing EU member states would still not express formal support,” he said. “It has more to do with the state’s position on independence and its own geopolitical interests in the region, which are most of the time not sensitive to the level of democratization or economic development.”

The EU itself continues to benefit from the ‘creative ambiguity’ of Kosovo’s status, he explains, as the organization is able to sustain its role as a ‘facilitator’ between Serbia and Kosovo.

“The EU will treat Kosovo as a state for all intents and purposes, but formally will not recognize it as such, as it must remain impartial to Serbian interests and the interests of the 5 non-recognizers,” Krasniqi said, explaining that the EU’s bargaining power would diminish were Kosovo’s international position in the EU become stronger through recognition.

“On the one hand, this shows how incapable the EU has been to forge a common position with regard to Kosovo statehood, and on the other how powerless the main EU countries have been in terms of their diplomatic efforts toward recognition of Kosovo to increase cooperation and stability in the region.”

In a recent report on EU member states’ policies towards Kosovo, Ker-Lindsay explained that Kosovo’s allies such as Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom are moving away from support for bilateral recognition from countries, including the five non-recognizing countries, and towards lobbying for Kosovo’s entry into various international organizations.

There is expectation that a final agreement decided by Kosovo and Serbia would be able to break the EU deadlock, but that this would not include any formal recognition of Kosovo, an idea Serbian President Aleksander Vucic waved goodbye to at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year.

Kosovo’s Deputy Prime Minister Enver Hoxhaj, however, recently expressed his expectation for mutual recognition to be the outcome of technical negotiations between Belgrade and Prishtina.

“The idea should be for Serbia to recognize and accept that there is a separate political authority in Kosovo, not to intervene in its internal affairs and not to prevent Kosovo from joining the UN,” Krasniqi explained.

However, it is unclear what the consequences of this agreement would be for entrance into larger international organizations, particularly as any agreement with Serbia would have no effect on Russia’s position, one that is crucial for UN membership as a permanent veto-carrying member of the UN Security Council.

“No agreement with Serbia would be necessarily binding on Russia, who may say it’s not in their interests to give a green light to Kosovo in terms of membership,” said Krasniqi. “Russia’s intervention was instrumental in securing the Surinamese government’s decision to withdraw recognition of the country. Financial and military aid from someone like Russia is obviously more important that formal relations with Kosovo, who can provide nothing of the sort.”

American support has been crucial, but the challenge for Kosovo now is to find its own feet and start acting as a state. Gezim Krasniqi

The strategic and geopolitical goals of sovereign and independent countries form the largest barrier to Kosovo’s progress in terms of membership of almost every organization, Krasniqi added.

Despite the promise of the Greek Foreign Minister Nikolaos Kotzias in 2015 to support Kosovo’s membership in international organizations during his visit to Prishtina, Greece voted against Kosovo’s bid to join UNESCO. This was a result of pressure from Serbia’s government, according to Krasniqi, connecting the issue of membership to lack of protection of orthodox cultural and religious heritage in Kosovo.

“Countries will change their position and do what they want on the basis of what is best for their people, their country, and the political interests in their region. Even if some countries don’t have anything against Kosovo per se, anti-American countries that view Kosovo as a symbol of American intervention in the world will vote against them as well,” he said.

Illustration by Trembelat for Prishtina Insight.

“American support has been crucial, but the challenge for Kosovo now is to find its own feet and start acting as a state. It needs to show some resilience and capability to form its own geopolitical and strategic goals in foreign policy and relations.”

While Krasniqi and Ker-Lindsay paint a relatively hopeless picture, both envisage a future where focus is placed on technical organizations and policy initiatives by Kosovo, engaging in development for its own sake.

If ‘nation branding’ is what Kosovo is interested in developing, Krasniqi suggests, there are quicker and more beneficial routes that Kosovo should take.

“While joining the UN would eliminate a lot of barriers for Kosovo in terms of development, it’s possible to focus on other organizations that are technical rather than political,” said Krasniqi.

Similar to UNESCO, technical organizations affiliated with the UN exist but do not require general membership in the UN for admission nor any decision on the legal status of the country itself. In particular, the UN Statistics Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, which could secure Kosovo its much-needed country and area codes, which would facilitate smooth travel for citizens with Kosovo passports, and the International Telecommunications Union, which would provide standardization of Kosovo’s country calling code.

However, even the most fundamental technical organizations have their setbacks in terms of membership.

The International Organization for Standardization in Geneva which would grant Kosovo its .ks top-level domain, requires a decision by the UN Secretary General and evidence of ‘recognition’ by the UN, or, similar to the case of Taiwan who has the domain name .tw, register itself as a province, and not an independent country.

“Joining these agencies won’t be seen as any kind of major diplomatic victory for Kosovo, but will have great benefit for Kosovo and its people,” he said.

More than two thirds of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe have recognized Kosovo, yet in the ten years since independence there appears to have been no formal bid made for membership.  

“Membership in the Council of Europe grants access to join the European Court of Human Rights. This would provide robust mechanisms for the citizens of Kosovo to address potential issues of human rights violations,” Krasniqi explained.  

A decision to invite a state to become a member of the Council is made by its Committee of Ministers, giving each member state one vote. It requires a two thirds majority, which Kosovo may readily be able to secure, along with an acceptance of the values of political liberty, freedom and democracy, but no submission of particular evidence of the country’s ability to secure such moral standards for its people, illustrated by the membership of countries such as Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan who, despite numerous allegations of human rights violations from their year of entry to today, were not refused membership.

A 2016 decision of the Council of Europe invited the Kosovo Assembly to send a delegation of three of its members to participate in some of the Council’s work, with no right to vote. Deputy Prime Minister Enver Hoxhaj has since communicated Kosovo’s intention to submit a bid for membership later in 2018, citing a new presidency of the Council that would support Kosovo’s membership as marking the opportune moment to submit such a  request.

Strengthening negotiating power within the European Union remains something the Kosovo government should look to focus on in the future, rather than focusing on Kosovo’s European Reform Agenda alone.

“Kosovo has a very small mission in Brussels and within the Ministry of European Integration,” Krasniqi stated.

Since the signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement and the European Reform Agenda, only a fraction of the benchmarks in the agenda have been met so far. Without the possibility for Kosovo institutions to provide the adequate manpower for meaningful functional negotiation and administration in complex multilateral settings, progress will remain ineffective, Krasniqi explains.

“Experts in negotiation with the capacity to mobilise themselves and Kosovo’s position regarding the European Commission should be the focus of foreign policy development, because political participation will not move beyond symbolic importance without human capacity to negotiate.”

Illustrations by Trembelat for Prishtina Insight.

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