Three years after independence, Kosovo still struggles for recognition

Kosovo faces a host of challenges in its fourth year of independence, not least the quest for diplomatic recognition.
Martin Wählisch Behar Xharra
17 February 2011

“Dawn rolling over, the clouds bring the rain, it’s time to start over, time to join hands.” These were the first lines of Kosovo’s 2010 campaign to reach out to the world. The lyrics give an idea of the country’s continuing challenges. Today, Kosovo is celebrating the third anniversary of its independence. Despite all arguments against or for the secession from Serbia, Kosovo is consolidating its statehood gradually. Political, social and economic difficulties are still enormous. International ties are thin, but growing. 

Internal turbulence and international reputation

The previous months have been intense for Kosovo. In September 2010, President Fatmir Sejdiu resigned after the Constitutional Court ruled that he had breached the constitution by staying as a party leader while being in office. In October 2010, the coalition partner, the LDK (Democratic League of Kosovo) withdrew from the government led by the PDK (Democratic Party of Kosovo). In November 2010, the Parliament passed a vote of no-confidence. Shortly after, Kosovo held its first parliamentary elections since declaring its independence. The election results confirmed a simple majority for the PDK, which is about to form a new government with various smaller parties. The events had been a serious test for the young democracy.

Organ trafficking, organized crime, corruption: Kosovo struggles quite a lot with its image in the news these days. Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi has been recently linked to war crimes in a report by the Council of Europe. The EU Rule of Law Mission to Kosovo, EULEX, announced the opening preliminary investigations if evidence is provided. Allegations have already harmed the legitimacy of the government in the past. Swiss news asked whether Kosovo’s “founding myth” of a just war is at stake. Though it is individual politicians that are put in the spotlight, the perception of a whole country is once more shattered abroad.

Positive achievements are automatically undermined. As the European Union Progress Report 2010 [pdf] highlights, the Parliament of Kosovo has made progress on institution-building. Kosovo has achieved significant steps forward regarding decentralization. The government has launched judicial reforms. The turnout of Kosovo-Serbian voters increased in the last elections, which is a sign of improved integration, though boycotts and abstention continue. Kosovo even made it on the New York Times travel list for 2011, placed before Okinawa, Budapest and Miami.

The search for recognition

Kosovo remains in an international limbo. So far, only 75 out of 192 UN member states have acknowledged the new state. Though the International Court of Justice ruled that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was not illegal under international law, about two thirds of the international community is reluctant to establish formal contact. Most lately, Oman, Guinea Bissau and Qatar established diplomatic relations. The EU is divided: Greece, Romania, Spain, Cyprus and Slovakia rejected a joint EU decision on Kosovo’s status. Africa, South America, the middle east and Asia simply do not have Kosovo on their radar.

Legally, there is no fixed number of recognitions at which a territory officially becomes a state. For UN membership the Security Council has to agree. An admission to the global organisation is, however, difficult at the moment. Russia or China would most likely use their veto power. Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin has already made clear that Moscow will not allow the cancelation of the UN Resolution 1244, which confirms Serbia’s territorial integrity. In parallel, Russia supports the independence of Georgia’s breakout regions Abkhazia and Ossetia.

Recognising the needs of Kosovars 

Further recognitions are crucial for Kosovo’s development. Aside from the high political sensitivity of the matter, the consequences for Kosovar citizens are real. In a report by the Soros Foundation, Kosovo was listed as one of the most isolated countries in the world. Kosovo is lags behind even Afghanistan on the issue of visa liberalisation. Afghani passport holders can cross twenty-two borders without restrictions. Kosovars can only travel to five countries visa-free: Turkey, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia and Haiti. “Male, unmarried, under 30, good luck,” can be often heard in the lines in front of the consulates in Pristina. Education and job opportunities outside Kosovo are a reverie. Options are limited for young Kosovars facing an unemployment rate of 45 percent, which is one of the highest in Europe.

Local entrepreneurs face closed doors. Domestic commerce documents are simply not recognised overseas due to the lack of diplomatic relations. Insurances for Kosovo are still among the most expensive in the world. At the same time, Nato is downsizing its mission thanks to the stabilising environment. Although Kosovo imports goods and services worth around 200 million USD from neighbouring countries such as Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina, it is impossible for Kosovo to reciprocate exports. The reason is not a shortage of capacities, but non-recognition. The Economic Initiative for Kosovo (ECIKS) announced that trade of “Made in Kosova” products has slightly increased. The renewal of the EU preferential trade agreement meanwhile failed. Goods from Kosovo brought into the market of the European Union will therefore need to pay extra tariffs.

And the list goes on: Kosovo cannot receive its own web IP address, posing a threat to online purchases, internet banking and national cyber security. An international postal or telephone code is denied. Mobile phone calls are channeled costly through Slovenia or Monaco. A lift of air traffic limitations is expected to be addressed in the next talks between Belgrade and Pristina. Kosovo athletes cannot even join international sports associations. Taiwan is a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), yet it is recognised by only 23 states. The world Judo junior champion, a Kosovar, will most probably need to emigrate to Albania or Azerbaijan in order to compete for a London Olympics 2012 medal.

Realities of a new Balkans

The Balkans are changing. The region has been transformed since the times of a united Yugoslavia. Whereas the role of the predominantly Serbian populated North of Kosovo might give some leverage in negotiations, Belgrade is aware that the independence of Kosovo is irreversible.

The new Kosovo government would benefit from strengthening dialogue with its diaspora. Statistically, eight countries sent recognition letters in 2010 – the year before, it had been eleven. In comparison, more UN members recognise the Palestinian state. Countries indifferent to Kosovo’s independence have not been approached persistently enough. Kosovo set-up twenty embassies, but not a single one of them is in Africa, South America or south-east Asia. A strategy which still bears potential is the “Big Brothers-Big Sisters” principle: Ankara and Riad could be reactivated as catalysts to lobby for Kosovo in the middle east, Lima and San José for Latin America, Japan and South Korea for south east Asia.

“The sun slowly rising, shining on earth. The sky’s open minded, today.” The last paragraph of Kosovo’s nation branding ad sounds euphemistic. It will need improved efforts from inside and outside Kosovo for the country to find its place on international maps. Further recognitions will be decisive for the speed of progress in Kosovo, particularly for economic growth and enhanced life conditions of its people. The international community should embrace the transforming Balkans. Friendly diplomatic relations with all sides would contribute to a stable peace in the region.

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