The Kosovo-Serbia quagmire: the neglected geopolitical crisis

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The Kosovo-Serbia quagmire: the neglected geopolitical crisis

The Kosovo-Serbia quagmire: the neglected geopolitical crisis

capesic Europe 14/06/2018 Comments

At first glance, Kosovo does not currently represent a major geopolitical fault line. Indeed, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Ukraine, the so-called Arab Spring, the threat –territorial and otherwise– posed by the Islamic State (IS), the disrupted nuclear deal with Iran and the instability in the Korean peninsula or the South East China Sea have taken the focus away from this young and troubled state in South Eastern Europe. Unlike in the late 1990s, where it was omnipresent in the Western media, Kosovo is today conspicuous by its absence in Western TV –and mobile phone– screens, twitter discussions and arguably in the agendas of most policy makers.

If the old proverbial phrase ‘no news is good news’ holds water, we could come to the conclusion that the situation in Kosovo in 2018 is unproblematic or at least fairly settled. In light of the data that I have gathered after several years of research in Kosovo, however, it is not too far-fetched for me to claim that such conclusion would be entirely mistaken. In the next paragraphs, I will argue that despite the absence of violence, the Kosovo conflict is ongoing and unsettled. This fact is potentially poisonous not just for Kosovo itself but also for the region, for the EU and even for the already tense geopolitical relations between Moscow and Washington.

In order to set up the scene, it is necessary to begin with a succinct historical overview. It is not very well known that the first significant pro-secession movement in Yugoslavia did not start in Croatia or Slovenia but in Kosovo as early as 1968. Kosovo can therefore be seen as the first and last act of the Yugoslavian tragedy. Not least because the ethno-territorial rifts in this former Serbian province played a crucial role in the collapse of Yugoslavia. In the late 1990s, an armed conflict between Yugoslavian government led by Slobodan Milošović and an armed ethnic Albanian guerrilla –the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)– erupted. While at first, Washington had labelled the KLA as a terrorist organisation, it did not take long for the US administration to change its mind and start supporting, training, arming and eventually empowering the group. From the very beginning, this conflict attracted the attention of the international community, or rather the Western states that viewed themselves as the representatives of that community.


After a failed negotiation –Rambouillet – labelled by Henry Kissinger an ‘excuse to start bombing’, NATO launched “Operation Allied Force”, with the official purpose of ‘protecting civilians’ in Kosovo in March 1999. The Kosovo mission could be seen as NATO’s baptism by fire as it was the first time in its 50 years of history that the transatlantic organisation waged a war. The operation was useful for a wide range of reasons which were not necessarily connected to Kosovo. For starters, it provided NATO with a purpose at a time when the very existence of the organisation was being questioned. The operation may have also worked as a smokescreen for deviating the attention from internal controversies, it is worth remembering that the operation temporarily coincided with Clinton’s domestic troubles related to a renowned scandal of a sexual nature.

At any rate, NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign prompted a wide range of multifaceted political and territorial impacts, both intended and unintended. Perhaps the most fundamental has been the fact that since June 1999, that is, since the end of “Operation Allied Force”, the Yugoslavian/Serbian government has not exerted control over its former province, losing the de facto sovereignty over the territory. The process to consolidate Kosovo statehood, supported by Washington and most of its European allies has been characterised by controversy and, indeed, a great deal of bumps on the road. When Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence on February 17th 2008 these difficulties did not dissipate. Quite on the contrary, the declaration made them more visible.

The vivid illustration of this is Kosovo’s inability to join the UN. As a result of this and despite its notable number of recognitions (about 110), Kosovo is unable to rid itself of the parastate status. This implies being an entity which de facto enjoys sovereignty but is de jure unable to fully legalise it via UN membership. Thus far Kosovo represents one of the most advanced cases in the pariah league of wannabe states where we find entities such as Trandsniestr, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Somaliland.

The EU-led Brussels agreement, signed in 2013, can be seen as an attempt to solve or at least circumvent this Gordian Knot. The rationale, from the Brussels perspective appears to be rather straightforward. Given the fact that both Serbia and Kosovo have aspirations to join the club, the EU is in a position to use the old formula of conditionality in the form of the carrot of accession to exert leverage on both actors. One of the problems with this policy instrument is that the EU is not thrilled by the idea of ‘importing’ further problems and perhaps as a result of this, the EU has begun with the most arduous criteria: the ‘normalisation of relations’. The term ‘normalise’ is, of course, deliberately vague. A European diplomat admits that the term is deliberately polysemic and that its meaning fluidly evolves depending on the interaction between actors. For all Kosovo officials I have talked to, nevertheless, the meaning of the term is crystal clear; it means nothing less and nothing more than full mutual recognition, in other words, Belgrade’s recognition of the Kosovo state. This process is prima facie due to be completed by mid-2019.

This puts Belgrade between a rock and a hard place. The elephant in the room that has been recurrently procrastinated by all actors involved, except Prishtina, is that Belgrade may have to make a (hell of a) decision: keep its European integration path by relinquishing Kosovo or keep the claim on Kosovo while sabotaging its EU membership aspirations. In this context, we shall understand President Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić announcement, made in June 2018, of organising a referendum so that Serbian citizens decide what should be prioritised and, most importantly what should be sacrificed. The choice is not an easy one as many Serbs regards Kosovo as the cradle of their nation.

Belgrade is not the only actor facing existential dilemmas. The core problem of the EU with regards to Kosovo is that it does not speak with a single coherent voice. Five EU states (Spain, Romania, Greece, Slovakia and Cyprus) representing nearly 20% of the member states, have thus far refused to recognise Kosovo. The apparently incompatible differences over Kosovo, a territory in Europe’s backyard, put into question the very term ‘common’ which the EU so steadfastly uses when referring to its foreign policy. In the case of Kosovo, in particular, there seems to be a dominance of the member’s states national interest over EU collective goals. Indeed, all these non-recognisers have internal issues related to secessionist or minority conflicts and are therefore frightened by the idea of a Kosovo contagion.

Out of the five EU non-recognisers, Spain is the state with more political weight and it is also the one with a more intransigent position. In EU diplomatic circles there is the common understanding that if Spain relax its intransigence, the other four member states would follow suit. Prishtina’s policymakers and diplomats are, in turn, well aware of Spain’s ‘internal issues’ and the fears those issues trigger regarding a potential contagion from Kosovo. Prime Minister Haradinaj’s recent statement in a Spanish newspaper emphasising that Kosovo would never recognise Catalonia’s independence epitomises Kosovo’s acknowledgment that the main impediment to obtain Madrid’s recognition is Catalonia. Spain seems to be trapped by its own domestic territorial anxieties. In other words, Spain’s obsession with Kosovo comes with a political price in the sense that Madrid’s fears that Kosovo could become a precedent for Catalonia confirm the argument that Kosovo constitutes a precedent. By dealing with this as if Kosovo was a precedent, they make it so.

The crux of the matter is either a solution is found under the common framework or a set of not-so-groovy scenarios rise to the surface. These alternatives invariably involve reopening the Pandora Box, that is, engaging in further border alterations (i.e. Albania and Kosovo unification) in what the EU likes to call the Western Balkan region. The problem for Kosovo is that the legalisation of its statehood depends on too many premises: Serbia needs to fully recognise Kosovo, the five EU non-recognisers need to change their mind, and most significantly, Russia and China should not veto Kosovo’s membership at the UNSC. With these elements in mind, it seems that Kosovo’s legal consolidation of its statehood is a long way to go. The Kosovo quagmire is far from over.

Jaume Castan Pinos


Jaume Castan Pinos is Associate Professor in International Politics at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU). He is also member of the Centre for War Studies and the Department of Border Region Studies at SDU. Jaume completed his Ph.D in International Politics at Queen’s University Belfast (2011). Prior to this, he earned a Postgraduate degree in Pedagogics (2007) and a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science (2007) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. His current research focuses on territoriality in the Balkans. He authored the book “Kosovo and the Collateral Effects of Humanitarian Intervention” (Routledge, 2018). Contact: jaume@sam.sdu.dk


Photo 1: People taking part in celebrations of the 10th anniversary of Kosovo’s independence in Pristina, Kosovo, 17/02/2018 (Source: Reuters).

Photo 2: Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) headquarters damaged after NATO bombing on 23 April 1999 (Source: Gisela Gorbalán, 2017).

Photo 3: Meeting between Hashim Thaci, President of Kosovo (L), Federica Mogherini (C), EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Aleksandar Vucic, President of Serbia (R), in Brussels, 24/03/2018 (Source: Top Channel).

Photo 4: Mural in (Kosovska) Mitrovica. It means (Kosovska) Mitrovica: Kosovo is Serbian, Crimea is Russian, 10/03/2017 (Source: Allan Leonard / CC and JPI).