Stopping the rot: Relaunching Kosovo’s foreign policy

Professor Aidan Hehir recommends a more robust approach to dealing with Serbia, a reduced focus on recognition from peripheral states and the pursuit of a genuinely independent foreign policy.

Today, Kosovo is beset by an array of internal and external challenges that pose a profound threat to its very existence. The forthcoming elections are, therefore, arguably the most important in Kosovo since the conflict in 1999. 

Despite the optimistic predictions made in July 1999 and again in February 2008, Kosovo’s international status has not been consolidated. In fact, in many key respects, it has gone into reverse. 

Throughout this year a number of conferences and publications have reflected on the 20th anniversary of NATO’s intervention and the initiation of statebuilding in Kosovo. As most have noted, Kosovo is today in a significantly better state than it was when UNMIK and KFOR were first deployed. 

But while there is a lot to cheer, the successes have to be viewed in the context of the many failures and regressions Kosovo has endured. Indeed, it is telling that many who have sought to talk up Kosovo’s success have reverted to comparing the situation today with that in 1999. Naturally, compared to a time of civil war, ethnic cleansing and systemic oppression, the Kosovo of today is a vast improvement, but this a very low bar for determining success. 

The promises made in 1999 – and again in 2008 – didn’t merely suggest that the people of Kosovo would no longer be killed. The visions advanced portrayed a hopeful future for Kosovo as an independent state, a member of the EU and NATO, and a harmonious multi-ethnic democracy that would serve as “an example to the world.”

Clearly these goals have not been achieved and progress has effectively stalled. As a result, Kosovo is currently floundering in the international doldrums and, without an innovative strategy that navigates a new direction, will continue to languish in a state of corrosive paralysis. Kosovo’s future is contingent on addressing the following five issues. 

Relations with Serbia

The issue of Serbia will naturally continue to be a major issue in Kosovo’s future foreign policy. Very obviously, the Serbia of 2019 does not have the same image problem as it did in 1999; Serbia may well be governed by authoritarian individuals with toxic pasts who remain wedded to an exclusionary nationalistic narrative on Kosovo, but this has clearly not hampered Serbia’s steady progress towards greater international support.

It is clear that Serbia is much further advanced on the path towards EU membership than Kosovo, a remarkable fact given what occurred in the 1990s. 

The new government in Kosovo must change its approach towards Serbia; this should involve a more robust articulation of the facts, regarding both what happened in the past and what is happening today. 

Those within the EU pushing for Serbia’s integration must be confronted with the stark reality; namely that Serbia has continued to shield perpetrators of war crimes from censure, and essentially refused to engage meaningfully with efforts to identify the locations of those victims of Milosevic’s aggression whose bodies have yet to be recovered. 

To redress this, the government of Kosovo could, for example, refuse to conduct any further negotiations with Belgrade until the Serbian government agrees to undertake a series of remedial initiatives akin to those undertaken by other states guilty of historical acts of mass violence and aggression.

This approach would have greater legitimacy, of course, if the Kosovo government itself demonstrated a willingness to provide greater support to local organizations working to establish the facts about what happened during the conflict, fully cooperate with efforts to prosecute those who murdered civilians from minority communities before, during and after the NATO intervention in 1999, and help identify the location of the remains of the more than 1,600 people still missing. 

Ultimately, by allowing the issue of criminal responsibility for what happened in the 1990s to slip down the agenda during Prishtina-Belgrade talks – at the behest of Serbia patrons within the EU – successive governments in Kosovo have enabled the Serbian government to avoid having to address the very issue that should fundamentally undermine its credibility and international legitimacy.


In recent months Serbian government officials have proudly proclaimed that a number of states have de-recognized Kosovo. While the veracity of these claims are not always clear, it is certainly the case that the de-recognition campaign waged by Serbia – with Russia’s support – is gaining traction. 

This is, of course, a function of the fact that the West’s power has declined steadily since 2008, while Russia’s has increased. This has meant that Kosovo’s key patrons have significantly reduced their efforts to promote Kosovo’s statehood, while those pursuing the de-recognition campaign have enjoyed greater leverage. 

Gaining formal recognition is of course important for Kosovo and the campaign to do so should not be abandoned, but the importance of recognition is arguably not as great as some appear to assume. 

Given their veto powers at the UN Security Council, Russia and China will always be able to block Kosovo’s membership of the UN regardless of how many other states recognize it. Likewise, Kosovo cannot join the EU so long as Spain, Romania, Slovakia, Greece and Cyprus continue to view the recognition of Kosovo as a threat to their own internal cohesion. 

Facing this stark reality, it is surely time to rethink the recognition strategy. It is highly unlikely that Russia, China and Spain will change their position any time soon, and they are certainly not going to do so simply because Kosovo gains further recognition from a handful of small states in Africa and the Asia-Pacific. 

In this sense, rather than continue to simply ask to be treated as a sovereign state, Kosovo should focus on behaving like one. 

This should involve first consolidating its relations with those states that do recognize it. For example, there is no point have Poland listed as recognizing Kosovo if Kosovo does not have a full diplomatic presence there. Poland was among the states that did not vote for Kosovo in its bid to join UNESCO in 2015, despite the fact that it has recognized Kosovo since 2008.

Additionally, Kosovo should seek to play a greater role in those international organizations in which it is a member, and to forge their own path in so doing. Kosovo cannot reasonably be deemed independent if it blindly follows dictates issued from Washington when it speaks at international forums. 

Finally, Kosovo can do more to increase its prominence and credibility as a state if it engages more creatively with progressive international campaigns such as those on climate change, the treatment of refugees, women’s rights, and initiatives related to transitional justice. 

Engagement with many of these campaigns does not necessitate international recognition, and would enable Kosovo to position itself on the international stage in a benign, constructive way. This would, of course, enable Kosovo to present itself as an engaged international actor and improve its credentials as a state deserving of recognition. 

The “Internationals”

One of the more pervasive tropes about Kosovo internationally is that it is a U.S./U.K. sycophant, slavishly obeying orders from Washington and London. Likewise, within Kosovo, the “internationals” continue to wield significant power both through the foreign embassies and the vast network of aid/development organizations who have cultivated a range of compliant domestic civil society organizations that pursue the agenda of their international paymasters. 

It is hardly a surprise that the Albanian community in Kosovo continues to view the U.S. and the U.K. as heroic liberators given what happened in 1999; likewise local civil society organizations have naturally amended their priorities to access the funds held by international donors.

However, the reality is that the compliant strategy pursued to date has had significant negative repercussions. To put it bluntly, Kosovo cannot expect to be treated as an independent state if its foreign policy is dictated by Washington. Kosovo of course needed Western support in 1999 and in the years afterwards, but at some point the metaphorical umbilical cord has to be cut lest the growth be retarded. 

Not only does Kosovo’s deferential attitude towards certain Western states discredit it in the eyes of many in the non-Western world, within the West many have evidently come to view Kosovo as a mere dependent willing to bend to every whim, undeserving of full respect. 

This is arguably most obvious with respect to the continued refusal to grant Kosovo’s people the right to travel in the Schengen zone without a visa. This wholly unjustifiable policy simply smacks of disrespect; respect is not gained, of course, by those who doff their caps and dutifully follow all commands issued by their masters. 

In this regard, the new government must be willing to pursue a genuinely independent foreign policy; this does not mean behaving in an actively hostile way towards Western allies of course, but rather demonstrating that while Western support is valued, it does not necessitate servility. 

Kosovo cannot afford politicians who claim that “there is no need for foreign affairs as we are in the same club with U.S.”, as outgoing prime minister Ramush Haradinaj once stated.

There is no shortage of well trained, highly articulate individuals within Kosovo capable of forging a truly independent foreign policy strategy for their country and it is their views – rather than those of the U.S. and U.K. embassies – that should be adhered to.  

Kosovo’s image

In relative terms few people have visited Kosovo, and it remains synonymous with ethnic conflict and war. Worse still, Kosovo has increasingly been portrayed as a breeding ground for Islamic militants, and a haven for drug smugglers and people traffickers governed by a corrupt criminal cabal. 

While many of the negative stories about Kosovo are wildly exaggerated and/or cynical Serbian propaganda, it cannot be denied that many of Kosovo’s political elite are heavily involved in criminality and corruption, both within Kosovo and abroad. 

Kosovo is not, of course, unique in this respect, but the impact of this is especially corrosive for Kosovo given its contested international status. It is naturally difficult to attract international support for Kosovo’s statehood while Kosovo appears to be an endemically corrupt narco-state governed by ex-militants heavily implicated in various criminal enterprises. 

So long as the corrupt elite in Kosovo wields power – both formal and informal – other states will be disinclined to alter their stance on recognition. The most obvious remedy for this is for the electorate to vote for “clean” politicians and for the police and judiciary to properly investigate institutional criminality. 

International Engagement

Linked to the above problem of Kosovo’s international image is the need for a new strategy on international engagement. Kosovo has been too insular to date and narrowly focused on marco-level engagements with a small number of states and issues. 

Indeed, it is remarkable how little is known about Kosovo outside its borders; while this may seem a somewhat secondary concern, in reality Kosovo is essentially missing out by not leveraging what is termed “soft power” internationally. 

The Albanian diaspora is famously vast and surely more could be done to engage with these groups to promote Kosovo’s cause. Many individual politicians with Albanian heritage of course do just this, but too often the diaspora’s engagement is limited to sending home remittances and attending weddings in the summer. 

Other states – most notably Ireland and Israel – have effectively leveraged their diaspora abroad to promote their issues and improve their image, and Kosovo should do likewise.

Additionally, Kosovo is uniquely illustrative of a wide array of issues which have come to dominate international relations in the post-Cold War era, such as civil war, humanitarian intervention, statebuilding, refugee flows, transitional justice and recognition. It is therefore potentially hugely attractive to a wide array of students, scholars and journalists. 

More can be done to reach out to such communities abroad to facilitate their engagement with Kosovo. Many visit Kosovo already to undertake research, but too often this is done in a way which positions Kosovo as a passive lab-rat to be poked at and studied by “experts”. 

Kosovo and its people in fact have the credentials to present themselves to the world as a living repository of knowledge with much to teach. The end result of more engagement on this basis would be a greater appreciation of Kosovo internationally, more opportunities for the people of Kosovo to display their own agency, and the development of a new international image. This would require, of course, significant governmental support and the initiation of a global outreach campaign. 

Note: This is part of a series of articles delivering solutions to Kosovo’s biggest problems. These analyses are compiled by our team of internal and external experts and are being written with the aim of feeding political parties’ programs with ideas on how to resolve these problems. Kosovo citizens deserve to hear more than just noise, confusion and senseless prognosis by civil society and the media, hence we are providing ideas for all those who are seriously competing in the October 6 parliamentary elections.

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.

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


21 September 2019 - 10:25

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