A ‘unity team’ to strip Kosovo?

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci’s initiative for a “unity team” to represent Kosovo in negotiations with Serbia may strip Kosovo’s statehood down to its last item of clothing.

In a recently published piece in local media, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci flexed the idea of a “unity team” as a way to approach the next phase of the negotiations with Serbia. Before putting forth such a proposal in the last two lines of his piece, Thaci made sure to speak about the virtue of unity throughout his text. Many commentators have already dubbed Thaci’s idea as undoable, and for good reason.

Mimicking the “unity team” of the 2005-2007 Vienna negotiation process, which was established to represent Kosovo’s unified position in these negotiations, would be difficult, since the current political environment is quite different from what it used to be more than a decade ago.

To begin with, Vetevendosje, with their more or less consistent stance against unconditional negotiations with Serbia, by now have managed to win almost 30 per cent of Kosovars’ hearts and minds. Thaci and his backers, both domestic and international, cannot escape this simple fact, for any “unity team” to represent the political will of Kosovo’s electorate should include Vetevendosje, the largest single political party according to the last election results. Vetevendosje have already rejected the idea of such a team.

President Thaci and his “unity team” backers will also have to address the question of LDK’s support for the initiative. Although LDK helped bring Thaci to the State’s highest political position, PDK later supported the no-confidence motion that brought down the Mustafa-led government. LDK realized that helping Thaci become president was costly, evident in LDK’s loss in electoral support last June. If we are to believe that there is still some political rationality within LDK’s leadership, it is difficult to see why LDK would support Thaci’s “unity team” initiative, even with the immense pressure coming from the Quint embassies.

While the dim prospects of a “unity team” have to do with Thaci’s politically divisive character, I would move beyond such political intricacies (though they are important) and deal with the issue from a different perspective.  

The idea behind the 2005 – 2007 “unity team” for the Vienna process was to negotiate Kosovo’s independence with Serbia. Thaci’s idea behind a “unity team” for the Brussels process is to negotiate the recognition of Kosovo with Serbia. The problem with Thaci’s idea for the new “unity team” is that in his proposal, he opportunistically considers the Vienna “unity team” as a major success, and wants to build on its alleged successes.

There is no doubt that the Vienna “unity team” was a success story for Thaci, as it provided him with the paper he read in February 2008 declaring Kosovo’s independence, catapulting him to the highest echelons of power since then. At the same time, however, the Vienna “unity team” cloaked Kosovo with a poor veil of statehood. Ahtisaari, who brokered the deal, was quite aware that despite the weak foundations which he was proposing, the new state would be capable of functioning in the present international order if Serbia recognized it. Which means that Ahtisaari’s state was not designed to be immune to continued negotiations with Serbia on further rearrangements of its internal statehood. Excited about the symbolism behind the idea of independence after sustaining a decade of oppression, and then briefly fighting for it, Kosovo, represented in Vienna through the “unity team,” went on to unilaterally accept Ahtisaari’s proposal, which included Serbia’s demands during these negotiations (hence weak), but without Serbia accepting it (hence a mistake).

Metaphorically speaking, if we compare the basic elements of statehood to items of clothing someone must wear to protect themselves from the outside cold, Ahtisaari provided Kosovo with the basics, from socks and shoes to a shirt and jacket – except that they were all thin and patched-up. But at least the basics, regardless of quality, were included in the Ahtisaari Plan.

Having accepted Ahtissari’s Plan without Serbia agreeing on it, soon after independence Kosovo was pushed by its western sponsors into the next rounds of the so called “technical” and later “political” negotiations with Serbia in Brussels. I have written before about the consequences of all these rounds of negotiations, both in terms of benefits and costs. But to utilize the previous metaphor here, throughout the post-independence negotiations with Serbia–from March 2011 to the present day–Kosovo had some gains internationally, but in terms of its empirical statehood, it was asked to remove its shoes and socks, take off its jacket, unbutton its shirt, and now it is on its way to begin removing its belt.

“Winter is coming” can serve as a motto for the current unfolding international order. It remains to be seen how Kosovo will handle the cold barefoot, without a jacket, and already with an unbuttoned shirt.

Thaci is ready to further strip Kosovo, perhaps down to its last item of clothing. From Thaci’s proposal, it is clear that he wants a “unity team” to do this in yet another “difficult and complex” process, as he calls it, of negotiating with Serbia to gain their recognition and perhaps a seat at the UN. Both recognition from Serbia and a UN seat are neat goals, but the question that any “unity team” should discuss first is this: is it worth walking Kosovo into the UN naked before other nations of the world? Or, if Thaci wants to prove that he is genuine about initiating a “unity team” that would serve Kosovo’s interests (and its people regardless of gender, ethnicity, or religion), the same question should be posed to Thaci: would he be willing to be the first person to walk naked into the UN before the representatives of other nations of the world?

Lastly, if any “unity team” will be created to work on Thaci’s “difficult and complex” process of negotiating recognition with Serbia, it need not foolishly assume that Serbia will necessarily recognize Kosovo. The 2005 – 2007 “unity team” was fooled in Vienna, accepting Serbia’s wishes, without Serbia accepting the plan which integrated (most of) its wishes. Any “unity team” should furthermore not kid itself that Serbia’s possible recognition may automatically lead to a UN seat for Kosovo.

Anybody who is serious about this matter should answer two simple questions. The first being: Why would Russia agree to grant Kosovo a UN seat even if Serbia agrees? The second being: Are Kosovo’s western sponsors ready to agree on Russia’s demand to recognize Crimea as part of Russia, and Russia’s other de-facto states under its sphere of influence, just to get Russia’s consent for Kosovo’s UN seat?

Judging by the unfolding international order, the answers to both questions remain quite gloomy with respect to Kosovo. However, this should not necessarily be problematic. Perhaps learning how to live without recognition from Serbia, and without a seat in the UN, while keeping itself secure and its citizens warm, is a path that should be on the table as a possible policy. Kosovo should remain open to all the states that want to recognize it and to all international organizations that want to receive it in their family of states. But recognitions should not be conditioned or traded with Kosovo’s internal statehood. A Kosovo that is recognized, but stripped of crucial elements of its statehood, is not the way to go – even if it results in a seat at the UN. It seems that a contested, but a well covered Kosovo, prepared for the unfolding international order, is a much better option.

Shpend Kursani is a PhD researcher in the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the European University Institute, where he researches post-1945 cases of contested states.

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

read more: