Dr. Alon Ben-Meir
It is time for Kosovo’s Prime Minister Kurti to wake to the reality in which he finds himself and demonstrate the statesmanship and the vision to do the right thing for his country’s security, stability, and progress
New York (The Hawk): The recent flareup in Northern Kosovo brought about as a result of the local elections in the Serb-majority municipalities and the demonstration by ethnic Serbs that followed was unnecessary and most unfortunate. It should not have come to this unfortunate state where US Special Envoy for the Western Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, issued what amounts to an ultimatum demanding that Prime Minister Kurti immediately de-escalate the conflict, institute a new election, and implement the Ohrid Agreement or otherwise face consequences. Kurti seems to ignore the fact that without the full support and the backing of the US and the EU, Kosovo does not have strong enough legs to stand on. By defying the US and the EU’s attempts to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo, Kurti has shown severe shortsightedness which he must now correct because he must maintain good standing with his most critical allies who are committed to Kosovo’s independence, well-being, and security.
It is one thing the protect and safeguard the territorial integrity and independence of the country, as Kurti indeed has an obligation to do; it is another thing however to be fixated on four Serb-majority municipalities in the northern part of Kosovo as if the future of Kosovo is entirely depended on their unconditional subordination to the central government.
The recent elections offer a good example of Kurti’s obsession with these municipalities. The ethnic Serbs made it clear nearly two months ago (right or wrong) that they intended to boycott the elections. Nevertheless, Kurti went ahead with the elections in which only 4 percent of the population voted, resulting in the election of four Albanian mayors. Although technically the election was fair and free, it did not reflect the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the population in these areas.
What made matters worse is Kurti’s insistence that the newly-elected mayors assume their duties in the official government buildings, which further heightened the tension, precipitating the demonstration of ethnic Serbs. Kurti added fuel to the fire by dispatching the police to quell the demonstrations which turned violent and ended up causing injuries to nearly 50 KFOR peacekeepers.
Gabriel Escobar was correct to state that: “We’re seeing that choices are being made despite our partnership, and that is a signal to us, we can’t not accept that as a signal. At some point, when we want to re-establish that coordination and partnership with this [the Kurti] government, we stand ready. Because we always stand with the people of Kosovo, that doesn’t mean that we have to stand with an individual who doesn’t share that instinct to cooperate and to coordinate.”
This, of course came on the heel of the nearly tireless negotiations for the Municipalities Association agreement which Kurti refused to honor, albeit there is nothing in the agreement, which I carefully examined, that compromises Kosovo’s independence in any shape or form. But for Kurti, who is zealous about Kosovo’s independence and suspicious even of the US’ unmitigated commitment to Kosovo’s sovereignty, still balks at what the US and the EU want to achieve for Kosovo. Afterall, if Kurti casts Kosovo’s fate with the West, he must demonstrate that he is a worthy and reliable partner on whom they can count to play his role to maintain calm and cooperate in every which way in the process of normalization with Serbia.
This does not mean by any interpretation that the US and the EU favor Serbia over Kosovo; to the contrary. For them, Serbia is a significant party to this whole debacle, they seek its cooperation because Belgrade exercises significant influence over the ethnic Serbs in Kosovo and because they seek to distance President Vucic as much as possible from Russia’s Putin. This is particularly important at this juncture when the Ukraine war is raging and Putin is doing all he can to destabilize the region.
The total sum of this whole unfortunate development is that Kurti has now diminishing control over the four municipalities while frustrating his most valuable allies to a point that led the US to bar Kosovo from further participation in the NATO defense exercise “Defender 23.” If nothing else, this sad episode has only further distanced Kosovo’s integration into the EU to the chagrin of its population, whose future well-being is intertwined with the EU—a fact that Kurti, in spite of his occasional disdain toward the West, must not forget. Prime Minster Kurti, who told CNN last Tuesday that he would not surrender the country to a Serbian “fascist militia,” completely mischaracterized the reality on the ground. To further state that “we cannot have a privileged minority because Belgrade is lamenting for the loss of Kosovo in 1999 when NATO intervened to stop the genocide of the regime of (Slobodan) Milosevic,” is another misreading of what must be done now to defuse the tension and restore amicable and trusting relations with both the EU and the US. Now it is time for Kurti to wake up to the reality and accept without any reservation the three demands that the US and EU emissaries Escobar and Lajcak have clearly and ambiguously stated. He should immediately schedule new elections, withdraw the police forces to maintain calm, and execute the Association of Municipalities Agreement without any further delay. Indeed, restoring full cooperation with the US and the EU is central to Kosovo’s future as an independent country.
To be sure, Kurti has now the opportunity to show statesmanship and a clear vision as to where he wants to lead Kosovo. His country’s fate rests with the West and he must stop short of nothing to nurture and carefully guard Kosovo’s relations with the only allies that he can count on.
*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.