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Flag of Kosovo on a soldiers arm.

Kosovo: consolidating its statehood remains an uphill struggle 16 years after independence

Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia on February 17 2008. It was a day full of joy and hope for a country that suffered atrocities including ethnic cleansing, genocide and rape at the hands of Serbian forces during the Kosovo War (1998–1999).

The country is now recognised internationally by more than 100 states and has become a member of some international organisations. Kosovo has also established itself as one of the most functional and vibrant democracies in the Balkans.

But neighbouring Serbia doesn’t recognise Kosovo’s independence and ethnic Serbs living in the country’s north have largely rejected Kosovo’s state authority. So, in 2011, the EU and the US brought the two countries together for talks on normalising relations.

The talks initially yielded some agreements that were hailed as “historic”. The Brussels agreement in 2013, for example, defined the conditions for large-scale devolution of northern Kosovo and opened the way to membership of the EU.

But, since then, ambiguous language and a lack of goodwill between Serbia and Kosovo has meant that these intentions haven’t delivered significant changes.

Accommodating Serbia

The breakdown in cooperation has been exploited by Serbia to undermine Kosovo’s standing as a sovereign state. Serbia has strengthened its parallel structures (a set of Belgrade-run institutions in Kosovo) which are in the country’s Serb-dominated north, lobbied against Kosovo’s bid to join Unesco and Interpol, and orchestrated an aggressive derecognition campaign against Kosovo.

Instead of normalising relations between Pristina and Belgrade, some people argue that the talks have become a tool for the EU and the US to normalise their relations with Serbia’s president, Alexander Vučić.

Concerned about Serbia’s potential to destabilise the Balkans, Brussels and Washington have adopted a lenient posture towards Vučić, aiming to pull Serbia away from Russia’s influence. Russia’s war in Ukraine and its potential security implications for the Balkans (where Serbia is considered Moscow’s proxy) has, contrary to any reasonable expectation, amplified this approach.

The Kosovo government’s attempts to extend state control of ethnic Serbian municipalities in northern Kosovo, for example, have been criticised by the EU and US. On February 1, Kosovo’s central bank restricted all cash transactions anywhere in the country to euros, effectively banning the Serbian dinar.

But the EU and US attitude has emboldened Vučić to intensify his efforts to undermine Kosovo. He has used Kosovo Serbs living in the north to stoke tensions and make the country ungovernable.

In June 2023, three Kosovan police officers were detained by Serbian forces who accused them of crossing the border illegally. And tensions boiled over in September when a group of heavily armed men mounted an attack in northern Kosovo, leaving one Kosovan police officer and three gunmen dead. A Kosovan Serb politician called Milan Radoicic has claimed to be the mastermind of the attack.

The international community condemned the attack and called for further investigations to hold those responsible to account. However, there still hasn’t been any official public assessment of the attack, nor have any sanctions been imposed on Serbia. Meanwhile, the EU has imposed sanctions on Kosovo, accusing the government of failing to take steps to defuse the crisis in the north.

An armed police officer standing on a road lined with Serbia flags.
An armed Kosovan police officer in northern Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs do not acknowledge Kosovo’s independence. Georgi Licovski / EPA

Other priorities

This imbalanced approach to the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia is expected continue in 2024. There is growing frustration with Vučić’s autocratic grip in Serbia, but in the view of Brussels and Washington there doesn’t seem to be any better alternative than talking with Belgrade. Vučić is perceived as someone with enough popular legitimacy to sell Serbs a final settlement with Kosovo.

Kosovo’s concerns about the current approach to the dialogue between the two countries are legitimate having seen Serbia’s actions in the past. But it hasn’t much room for manoeuvre.

The stream of countries recognising Kosovo’s independence has stalled. In fact, Israel is the only country to establish diplomatic ties with Kosovo in the last six years.

Stopping Serbia from sliding further towards autocracy would be the best option for achieving peace, stability and countering Russia’s influence in the Balkans. But that would require time and a total revision of the current dialogue format.

Alexander Vučić sat at a desk addressing a press conference.
Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, addressing a press conference in Belgrade, Serbia in April 2023. Andrej Cukic / EPA

An uphill struggle

With a war in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas conflict stretching resources and causing political tension, Brussels and Washington will seek to put out any potential flames in the Balkans. The current US and EU administrations are likely to push Kosovo to bend to their demands and give Vučić something that he would be happy to live with.

Pristina has already agreed to some form of self-government for Kosovo Serbs. And, with European Parliament and US elections looming this year, where anti-establishment parties are on track for big gains, current leaders may rush to strike an imperfect deal between Kosovo and Serbia.

There’s also a chance that the EU and the US could find themselves being drawn into crisis management elsewhere if war in Ukraine and the Middle East continues to cause ripples way beyond their borders. Kosovo could be caught between meeting the international community’s demands to grant more sovereignty to Kosovo Serbs and a potential abandonment by its western partners if it doesn’t deliver on their requests.

Whichever way Kosovo chooses, the consolidation of its statehood will remain an uphill struggle.

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