Over the past two years I have written several opinion pieces about the situation in Kosovo and how successive governments have in fact failed their people. But when Prime Minister Kurti assumed power, I felt gratified that Kosovo finally elected a prime minister who would rise to the occasion and lift his country from its 12 years of doldrums.
With the best intensions however, Kurti’s priorities did not fall in line with what the public wants and needs. He became obsessed with what Serbia’s President Vucic says or does, and in particular he wanted to assert his power on the ethnic Serbian community in Kosovo as if his country’s true independence rests entirely on this community pledging allegiance to Kosovo’s flag. I still believe that Kurti can change course and put his country on a trajectory consistent with his vision to make Kosovo an independent and prosperous democracy if he only reprioritizes his domestic and foreign agenda.
There are five facts that Kurti seems to ignore which could have dramatically changed the course of Kosovo for the better.
EU and US Guarantors of Kosovo’s Independence
To begin with, the EU and the US are ultimately the guarantors of Kosovo’s independence and would not offer any solution to Kosovo’s problems, including its conflict with Serbia as well as with its ethnic Serbs, that would under any circumstances compromise Kosovo’s independence and territorial integrity.
After all, these two powers together made it possible for Kosovo to become a sovereign state, and ensure its independence and long-term security. It would be strategically self-defeating if they were to renege on their commitment. Kurti has demonstrated shortsightedness by not following their advice, and instead of strengthening the critical ties between his country and the EU-US he rebuffed them, especially in connection with the need for new elections in the predominantly ethnic Serb-majority areas in North Kosovo.
The most recent election was boycotted by the Kosovar Serbs; only five percent of the total population of the area voted and elected Albanian mayors – one of whom received only 100 votes – who certainly do not represent the vast majority of the population in those areas in spite of the fact that the election was free and fair, as everyone knew well in advance of elections that the Serbian community would boycott them. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated in response to the unrest, “We strongly condemn the actions by the Government of Kosovo that are escalating tensions in the north and increasing stability.”
It is perplexing as to why the Prime Minister of Kosovo, a country that depends almost exclusively on the US’ and EU’s political backing, economic aid, and security guarantees would defy their recommendations in connection with the majority-Serb municipalities in Kosovo when in fact collaboration and cooperation with the EU is central to Kosovo’s integration. This has led US figures, including US Ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill, to state bluntly about Kurti: “We have some very fundamental issues with him on whether we can count on him as a partner.”
The Association of Serb Municipalities, which was agreed upon several years ago, should have been implemented by Prime Minister Kurti soon after he assumed power. To be sure, instead of working hand-in-hand with the EU and enjoying its support, the EU ended up imposing severe sanctions on Kosovo while setting back the process of integration.
Kosovo Central to West’s Balkans Strategy
Second, Kurti does not appear to appreciate the fact that for the US and the EU, Kosovo is part and parcel of their overall strategic interest in the Balkans, especially now when the Ukraine war is raging and Russia’s President Putin will do everything in his power to destabilize the region. And given the religious, historic, and cultural affiliation between Russia and Serbia, it is obvious that Putin would exploit that relationship to the maximum extent to serve his immediate interests.
Thus, for the US and the EU to reduce Putin’s influence on Vucic, they need to accommodate Vucic, of course only up to a point, without compromising Kosovo’s national security. This is not to suggest that Vucic’s refusal to recognize Kosovo and his lack of cooperation are acceptable, but alienating him unnecessarily is counterproductive to both Kosovo’s national and the US-EU’s strategic interests.
Third, Kurti has and continues to devote inordinate time to the majority-Serb municipalities as if subordinating them to his own political doctrine will secure Kosovo’s independence. Starting with the dispute over license plates, to the discord over the Association of Serb Municipalities, to the ill-fated elections in the Serb-majority areas among some other frivolous issues did nothing but distract him from his primary task of attending to his people’s needs.
Indeed, regardless of how far Serbia might go to prompt the Kosovar Serbs to engage in any kind of anti-government activities, they cannot threaten Kosovo’s independence in any meaningful way. Although Vucic will not admit it, he knows only too well that he cannot now or at any time in the future seize the Serb-majority area in Kosovo, and certainly he will not realize his claim that Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia.
Alienating the EU
Fourth, it is rather puzzling that for a prime minister who ardently seeks to integrate Kosovo into the EU, he is alienating the very Union he wants to join while failing to take all the necessary measures to meet the EU’s socio-economic, political, and democratic standards. From the day he rose to power, Kurti should have invested most of his time, resources, and political sway to drastically improve the living standard and quality of life of every ordinary Kosovar.
He should have focused on much of what he promised to do if elected. This includes economic development, by attracting domestic and foreign investments to provide job opportunities and prevent the brain drain which is affecting every industry and eroding Kosovo’s social fabric. In the first half of the year, the government spent only an abysmal 18 percent (€150 million) of its allocated €844 million budget for capital investments. The country’s brain drain is growing; ten years ago 15,000-20,000 Kosovars left the country each year in search of better job opportunities, in the last five years, the number has nearly doubled to 30,000 per year.
Kurti also promised to improve the educational system by building new schools, increasing pay for teachers, and creating easy access to up-to-date textbooks; modernize much of the crumbling infrastructure; provide better and more affordable healthcare; improve housing conditions; and certainly, weed out corruption which allows officials to squander huge amounts of financial resources while engendering Kosovars’ deep distrust towards their government.
Serbia’s EU Bid
Fifth, although Vucic does not want to alienate Russia because of the aforementioned reasons, Vucic still wants Serbia to integrate into the EU. He knows that Serbia’s future prosperity and growth rests with the EU and to achieve that, he will have to meet the EU’s standards by fully adhering to democratic principles and human rights and elevating socio-economic conditions in the country. But recognizing Kosovo’s independence remains a central condition for Serbia’s admission into the EU.
Since the EU has a vested interest in admitting the Balkan states into the EU and preventing Russia from establishing a strong foothold in any of the Balkan states, the EU needs to create a conducive atmosphere to achieve that objective. For this reason, the EU wants to create an even playing field that would allow Serbia to distance itself from Russia while gaining some ground toward EU integration. Emmanuel Macron warned on Monday that “France and Germany have made their promises on visa policies and other economic issues, which will be reviewed if both parties do not behave responsibly. We must be very careful in this regard, especially when the stability of the Western Balkans is at risk.”
But for that to happen, Kosovo must also play its part. That is, the less Kurti alienates Belgrade and the more cooperative he becomes with Serbia, the more he puts Vucic on the ‘defensive.’ This is by no means an appeasement of Serbia at the expense of Kosovo, because in the final analysis both countries must resolve their conflict if they seek admission into the EU.
I believe that Kurti might have what it takes to change course and focus on what the people are yearning for. They want jobs, they want opportunities, they want to grow and prosper, they want to feel safe and secure, they want to be free to express themselves without harm, and they want to be heard. This is a wake-up call and Kurti will do well to listen before it’s too late.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.