Edward P. Joseph is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute.
Will there be one European order or two? That is the unavoidable question looming over high-stakes US and EU diplomacy on Kosovo.
Elaborating the author’s statement to the British Parliament, this article explains why the question of Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is no different from that of Ukraine. Indeed, it is Kyiv that is best placed to affirm the Western order by recognizing Kosovo. Ukraine’s recognition can unlock Pristina’s pathway to NATO, advance the intensive diplomatic bid between Serbia and Kosovo, and inflict a severe blow on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has spurred unprecedented transatlantic solidarity, Europe remains deeply divided over Kosovo and the Western intervention that led to Pristina’s independence fifteen years ago. Four NATO-EU countries—Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain— and one EU-only country, Cyprus, refuse to recognize Kosovo, blocking Pristina’s path to NATO and the EU. At the same time, by affirming Serbia’s sovereignty claim over Kosovo, these non-recognizing states also affirm Serbian and Russian narratives of victimhood at the hands of the West.
The implications are as serious as if five EU countries recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Because the non-recognizers condition changing their stance on Belgrade’s prior recognition of Kosovo, the United States, EU, and NATO are dependent on the autocratic whims of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. The artificially protracted Kosovo stand-off empowers Belgrade and Moscow to collaborate on a shared agenda to protract disorder in the Balkans. European divisions over Kosovo hand Putin his core grievance for the continuing Russian assault against Ukraine and the West.
Intensive US-EU efforts to broker an interim normalization agreement between Serbia and Kosovo are hampered by these same intra-European divisions. Kosovo is pressed to implement autonomy for its Serb community without the assurance that Belgrade will respect Pristina’s sovereignty. So far, the non-recognizers refuse to commit to recognizing Kosovo, even if the US-EU proposal is signed, leaving Kosovo short of its bedrock requirement for security: an unblocked path to NATO membership.
Even if hardline Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti agrees to establish the “Association of Serb Majority Municipalites,” the risks don’t stop there. Russia is already emphasizing its intention to block Kosovo at the UN Security Council. This gives Vucic increased incentive to scuttle the US-EU deal through renewed tensions in the north of Kosovo, or, even if he signs, to tighten relations with Russia. The deal could see Belgrade more dependent on Moscow (and Beijing) to prevent Kosovo from joining the UN, a “red line” according to senior Serbian officials.
In short, there is no avoiding the need for a uniform NATO position on Kosovo.
As the European country most exposed to threats against its sovereignty and territorial integrity, Ukraine is in a unique position to catalyze the non-recognizers to change their stance. For starters, Ukraine’s recognition will create the context that officials say Athens needs to recognize Pristina as well.
Joint Greek-Ukrainian recognition of Kosovo will prompt the other three NATO non-recognizers, including Spain, to reexamine a position that empowers Russia and its partners to threaten the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the non-recognizers themselves. Pragmatism will replace years of paralyzing dogma, as Romania, Slovakia, and Spain join their Greek and Ukrainian colleagues in uniform recognition of Kosovo. Pristina’s unblocked pathway to NATO effectively ends the dispute with Belgrade, paving the way for mutual recognition—and Serbia’s decisive break from Russia.
Whether in the Balkans or Ukraine, stability rests on one, Western democratic order, without compromise on underlying principles. Unity across the Atlantic is the only way to achieve it.
This article sets out:
- The implications of European divisions over Kosovo for the Balkans and Ukraine.
- The complications that the non-recognizers pose for US-EU diplomacy with Serbia and Kosovo.
- The potential for the Serbian-Russian relationship to tighten in the wake of an interim deal.
- The ways that Kyiv’s recognition of Pristina catalyzes a uniform position on Kosovo across NATO.
The Unavoidable Kosovo Challenge for Europe, the United States, and Ukraine
“The question for us now is to be or not to be,” proclaimed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the British Parliament in March, 2022, less than a month after Russia invaded his country. Now is the time for Zelensky to help Europe answer this question as it pertains to the European order. Besieged Ukraine can end years of paralyzing European division in the Balkans by recognizing Kosovo.[i]
Kyiv’s bold decision will catalyze high-stakes US and EU diplomacy between Serbia and Kosovo. With a uniform European stance over Kosovo, Washington and Brussels will be able to decisively end the dispute between Belgrade and Pristina, curtailing Moscow’s designs in a still-fractured region. Russian President Vladimir Putin will suffer an indelible blow, losing the core grievance for his war against the West, and causing a break with his key ally in sowing disorder in the Balkans, Serbia.
Kyiv’s recognition of Pristina instantly reframes the Kosovo question as a matter of urgent European security—a binary, existential choice between two different orders, no different from the choice the West faces in Ukraine. Inspired by the heroism of the Ukrainian people, and guided by the Biden administration, Europe has remained unified for a year, recognizing the threat to order that Putin’s war poses across the continent.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the West’s intervention in Kosovo, divisions plague Europe. Four EU-NATO states, plus one EU-only state, Cyprus, refuse to recognize Kosovo, which emerged as an independent state following NATO military intervention in 1999, interim UN administration, and US-led, consultative political intervention in 2008. The obduracy of these four members of NATO—Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain—is particularly damaging. These “NATO 4” countries deny Pristina a pathway to Alliance membership, which is the sine qua non for Kosovo to emerge as a fully secure independent state, rather than a NATO protectorate.
Conversely, once Kosovo has an unblocked path to NATO membership, Serbia’s refusal to recognize its former province is rendered moot, a point that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has acknowledged.[ii] In addition to paving the way for a final settlement of the Kosovo question, NATO 4 recognition of Kosovo would also shatter Serbia’s destructive relationship with Russia.
The ironclad security that comes with Alliance membership, renders largely meaningless Moscow’s UN veto of Kosovo. Out of necessity, Vucic would abandon his destructive “two chairs” posture, and unequivocally embrace Belgrade’s path to the EU and to NATO, an organization vital to Serbia’s military, political, and even economic advancement.
Europe’s Choice on Kosovo: Putin’s Order or the Western Order?
By speaking with two voices on Kosovo, Europe gives Putin a weapon against Ukraine and the West. The split within NATO over Kosovo goes to the fundamental question of how to tackle the ethno-national, historical, and territorial differences that pervade the region, and much of the continent. From Ukraine to Spain, from the Baltics to the Balkans, Putin’s primary objective is to divide Europe by exacerbating these fractures. Putin’s order demands submission to a Moscow-centered sphere of influence, achieved through raw power and the subversion of democracy through hybrid means.
By contrast, European order relies on democratic coexistence, embraced and enforced by voluntary membership as co-equal states in NATO and the EU. But order requires consistency. If Europe cannot agree about the legality and validity of its own actions in fostering Kosovo’s independence, then there is a gaping hole in European order that Putin will continue to exploit. The Russian president will continue to simultaneously apply Kosovo as both a “legal precedent” affirming the Russian invasion of Ukraine and an “illegal act” vitiating the Western rules-based order.
This is not theory. Putin and other Russian officials have linked Kosovo and Ukraine many times, including in explicit form at the end of 2022. NATO’s circumvention of Russia at the UN Security Council in 1999, and the US-led consultative process that led to Kosovo’s 2008 independence—over Russian and Serbian objections—are the touchstone events in Putin’s anti-Western worldview.
Compounding the problem, the non-recognizers not only reject Pristina’s independence, they affirm Belgrade’s sovereignty claim over its former province. This means affirming the anti-Western values that go along with it. In other words, because Europe itself refuses to uniformly confront the facts that led Kosovo to become independent, so can Belgrade. This allows Serbia to perpetuate its claim to victimhood, demanding “compensation” for the self-inflicted loss of Kosovo.
Effectively, the non-recognizers hand the ability to block Kosovo to the very state that remains embittered about its loss. Because the West needs Serbia to settle the Kosovo dispute, Belgrade is largely exempt from scrutiny. Leverage over Kosovo empowers Putin’s strategic partner, President Vucic, to sustain Serbia’s faux EU candidacy while practicing autocracy at home and subverting the EU and NATO aspirations of Serbia’s neighbors. On the most important European crisis since World War II, the West allows Serbia to align its foreign policy with Russia, not the EU.
Serbia’s ultimate aim in Kosovo is nearly identical to Russia’s aim in Ukraine: to compel a weary West to countenance the partition of an independent country, thus validating aggrieved nationalist narratives. Kosovo’s partition would advance Putin’s hope of a trade of Russia’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence in exchange for international recognition of Russia’s claim to Crimea at the UN Security Council. This idea has been promoted by some Western academics, even though the deal would validate the Russian order in both Ukraine and the Balkans.
In short, Europe is torn between affirming its own authentic, democratic values and, out of fear, affirming the competing values of autocratic power and aggression. Before February 2022, leaving Kosovo in limbo posed a regional problem; after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is a European—and transatlantic—problem. As long as Europe remains divided over Kosovo and the principles that led it to become independent, there are no agreed principles for European order.
The US and EU Need Ukraine to Achieve Unity on Kosovo
At present, the Biden administration is working intensively with the European Union for an interim agreement that would see Serbia accept Kosovo as independent—a major breakthrough—while leaving Kosovo’s sovereignty open to question—a major risk. The key condition is that Pristina establish up front a form of autonomy for Kosovo’s Serb community.
The challenge is less the terms for the proposed “Association of Serb Majority Municipalities,” which could be benign, than the sequence. In most any peace settlement, autonomy for a separatist group, particularly one backed by a larger, hostile neighbor, is a final status issue. The prerequisite is full and complete acceptance by the separatist group of the sovereign rule of the country in which autonomy is exercised. This is the key condition that Croatian Serbs accepted in 1995, when they were granted a Joint Council of Municipalities, a balanced arrangement that has stood the test of time.
In this case, the US and EU are asking Pristina to establish autonomy up front, without clear assurances that Kosovo’s limbo status will end. By establishing the Association now, Kosovo will be ceding its only point of leverage in a highly imbalanced negotiation with Belgrade.
Decisive resolution requires unanimity across NATO. Only this will supply the assurances that all parties, Kosovo and Serbia alike, need to make US-EU diplomacy viable. Ukraine can be the catalyst to achieve unanimity. By affirming Kosovo’s independence and the Western values that led to it, Kyiv will confront the non-recognizers with a binary choice: either to stand with Zelensky on Kosovo, or to stand with Putin. The logical answer for all European governments, including those concerned about their own internal order, will be to follow Ukraine’s lead and embrace European unity—over Kosovo as over Ukraine—as the only true guarantor of security.
Divisions over Kosovo Empower Serbia and Weaken the West
Decades of Western frustration in the Balkans can be summed up this way: “Because [four NATO] countries do not recognize Kosovo, the West ‘needs’ Serbia more than Serbia needs the West.” By conditioning their recognition of Kosovo on Belgrade’s own, prior recognition, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain hand Serbia leverage over Kosovo, creating structural dependency in the West.
This dependency explains why the West has allowed EU candidate Serbia not just to ignore its obligations to put sanctions on Russia, but to openly flout them. Belgrade hosts the Russian propaganda platforms Russia Today and Sputnik Serbia. To the alarm of US officials, Belgrade reportedly hosts the Wagner Group, whose operations in Serbia will be watched by a vocally pro-Russian official, Aleksandar Vulin. Contradicting Vucic’s assurances to the United States and EU, the Serbian president handed Vulin the most sensitive portfolio in the government.
As Serbian officials readily admit, Belgrade casts its symbolic UN General Assembly votes for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity to protect its sovereignty claim over Kosovo. At the September General Assembly session in New York, President Vucic agreed to a foreign policy pact with Russia, designed “to justify the war in Ukraine.” Signed with the sanctioned Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, this deliberate embarrassment of the Biden administration came shortly after Vucic had met National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and other high ranking US officials.
Belgrade’s leverage over Kosovo explains why the United States turns to Vucic to rein in the separatist Bosnian Serb President of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, when Belgrade is the progenitor of the irredentist “Serbian World” idea, the projection of malign Serbian influence in its neighboring countries, including Bosnia-Herzegovina. Vucic exposed this charade when he sent both his foreign minister and his son to attend the illegal, provocative pro-Russian parade that Dodik organized in east Sarajevo last month. The two Serbian emissaries watched approvingly as Dodik praised Vladimir Putin. Belgrade has also exacerbated a severe political crisis in Montenegro. A pro-Russian party answerable to Belgrade could come to power in this NATO ally that has long been the target of Kremlin subversion. Serbia holds a tight grip on the Serb polity in Kosovo, and the lawless, volatile north of the country. Vucic has fended off Western scrutiny by alternately making concessions on issues like electricity payments while fomenting unrest over national license plate legislation.
Divisions over Kosovo Fuel Putin’s War against Ukraine and the West
The implications of Kosovo’s limbo status flow to the war in Ukraine. The accelerating instability in the Balkans validates Putin’s contention that Western order is illusory and arbitrary. The position of the non-recognizers also allows Putin to apply Kosovo as a “precedent” to dismember Ukraine, while he and other Russian officials accuse the West of dismembering Serbia. As Russia’s Ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko wrote in Serbia’s semi-official organ, Politika, at the end of 2022, Kosovo’s US-backed independence is “proof of the corrupt [Western] concept of ‘order, based on rules.’ Rules arbitrarily set by the West.”
With their dogmatic insistence on Belgrade’s absolute right to decide whether to consent to Kosovo’s independence, the non-recognizers ignore and conceal the mountain of Serbian transgressions that led to it. This allows Vucic to continue his narrative of victimization at the hands of the West, and ultimately to demand compensation for what, in reality, is Belgrade’s self-inflicted loss.[iii]
For Putin, Kosovo epitomizes the grievance against the West that underlies his case for war against Ukraine. The Russian president has repeatedly asserted that the cases of Serbia and Ukraine are “absolutely the same”—even mimicking NATO’s military actions in Kosovo at the outset of the invasion to underscore the point.
Westerners puzzled by the willingness of Russians to put up with their disastrous war-time leadership should note the central role that this grievance plays. As former Russian diplomat Alexander Baunov explained, “Putin’s supporters do not perceive the invasion of Ukraine as an act of aggression [so much as an] act of retaliation against the much more powerful West. In [their] eyes, any … resistance to the West is a victory … preventing further enslavement.”
The US-EU Struggle with Pristina over Autonomy for Kosovo Serbs
Determined to tackle the stand-off over Kosovo, the United States and EU have embarked on a bid to normalize relations between Belgrade and Pristina through an interim agreement. Working with its European partners, Washington and Brussels have for the first time presented both Kosovo and Serbia with serious negative consequences if either rejects the deal, along with incentives for accepting it. For Belgrade, the most forbidding threat is “the withdrawal of Western investments.” To accolades from Western diplomats, President Vucic has publicly backed the US-EU proposal, which was based on a prior French-German initiative.
Despite mounting pressure from the Biden administration, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti continues to give only qualified acceptance to the deal. Even after calls from senior State Department officials, Kurti has emphasized that the normalization proposal is merely a “good basis for further talks.” The Kosovo Prime Minister has noted that “many concepts in the proposal are generic, and we need to…discuss the implementation mechanism, the time sequence of implementation, and especially the international guarantees for this future agreement.”
Chief among these issues is how and when Pristina will establish a form of autonomy for Kosovo Serbs. US officials have reminded Kurti—with threats—that establishing the “Association of Serb Majority Municipalities,” is a prior obligation under the first EU interim agreement the sides signed a decade ago. Vucic, echoed by other Serbian officials, has insisted that “delivering the Association [or Community]” is a precondition for EU-brokered talks with his Kosovo counterpart.
Along with many (but not all) Kosovar Albanians, Kurti sees the Association as a threat to Kosovo’s internal order, another “Republika Srpska.” The United States and EU have repeatedly assured Pristina that the Association will have limited, non-executive powers, fundamentally different from the Serb entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Reiterating his bedrock demand for reciprocity with Serbia, the Kosovo prime minister asks why Belgrade is not also asked to grant minority communities their own association.
Objectively, few states would implement even a benign form of autonomy for a separatist minority which does not accept the sovereignty of the state in which autonomy is exercised, especially when this minority is backed by a larger, hostile neighbor. The successful model for the Balkans is in neighboring Croatia. In 1995, Zagreb agreed to a limited form of autonomy for breakaway Croatian Serbs only when they accepted unequivocal Croatian rule. It is no coincidence that, today, only in Croatia do Serbs bordering Serbia participate in political life as citizens, not zero-sum adversaries.
Pristina has no such assurances from Kosovo’s Serbs, or from Serbia. Concern over the premature establishment of autonomy for Serbs in Kosovo is central to Kurti’s position: “We cannot let the cart go before the horse. Looking for any kind of community before mutual recognition is like asking for a cup of coffee without a mug. It is not possible.”
Even if Kosovo signs the agreement with Serbia, a more serious obstacle looms: the refusal so far of the European non-recognizers to commit to changing their stance on Kosovo’s independence. Spanning the Kosovo Albanian political spectrum, Kurti and his opposition are aligned on the imperative of full recognition across NATO (and the EU), and the green light to NATO (and EU) membership that come with it. According to prominent Kosovo politicians, Kosovo is, at present, offered something far less: potential admission into the Alliance’s Partnership for Peace.[iv]
US officials grasp the obstacle that the non-recognizers pose, as detailed in a SAIS-Wilson Center report in January 2022. Washington demands unqualified acceptance of the US-EU proposal and at least formal discussion with Belgrade over the terms for the Association as the basis to appeal to the non-recognizers.
In sum, US-EU diplomacy is dogged by the same obstacle that has protracted the Kosovo dispute for fifteen years: the stubborn refusal of the non-recognizers to change their stance. This leaves diplomats saddled with a sovereignty gap, a breach between the risks Kosovo is being asked to take, and the assurances that the United States can provide.
The Risks of Tightening Serbian-Russian Relations
The inherent risks in the interim proposal do not end even if Pristina backs the Association and the agreement. The deal would put Kosovo and Serbia on an even bilateral footing, which is a vast improvement over their present imbalanced relationship. But Serbia and Kosovo will not be co-equals internationally.
Increased trade, cooperation, and connectivity between the two countries will not alter this fundamental imbalance. To illustrate, Serbia has the highest possible interpersonal and economic connectivity with Montenegro, and relations between the two countries are at their worst. It is Serbian leverage over Kosovo, not lack of trade, that drives poor relations between Belgrade and its neighbors.
In addition, the proposal is silent about Serbia’s interference in Kosovo’s other bilateral relations. There is no indication that Serbia would give up this avenue of pressure on Kosovo in the wake of the interim deal. Belgrade’s intensive de-recognition campaign against Pristina has pulled Serbia into alignment with an array of unsavory actors, including Iran and Venezuela. Last month, Serbian officials exulted as Togo confirmed that it has lifted its recognition of Pristina. This month, Vucic expressed “high appreciation” for Cuba’s support on the Kosovo sovereignty issue.
Most troubling of all, the agreement could leave Belgrade more dependent on Russia to keep Kosovo out of the UN and other international organizations like Interpol. Dramatizing the risks for Serbia, Moscow has seized on Vucic’s statement that the US-EU proposal “means Kosovo’s admission to the United Nations.”
In fact, as Belgrade and Moscow understand, this is not the case. No vote on Kosovo’s application to join the UN can take place in the General Assembly until first approved by the Security Council, where Russia wields its veto. As Ambassador Botsan-Kharchenko recently stated, “Kosovo is still on the agenda of the Security Council. Final resolution of the Kosovo issue is not possible without the support of the Security Council, and that is the most important thing at this moment.”
Signaling that Moscow is intent on asserting its own interests over Kosovo vis-à-vis Ukraine, Putin’s ambassador added that: “The Kosovo issue will be resolved in other geopolitical conditions that will arise after the end of the conflict between the common West and Russia. In the current geopolitical conditions, a durable solution for some open regional issues, including Kosovo and Metohija, is not possible.”
This is a shift from Russia’s recent position of broad deference to Belgrade over Kosovo. Moscow is now overtly raising the stakes for Vucic, reminding Serbs that Russia is still the ultimate protector over the Kosovo issue. Instead of panic over the US-EU bid, the Kremlin appears to be counting on the Serbian president to avoid signing the agreement or, if he succumbs, to vesting even greater dependency on Moscow to block Kosovo.
Despite Vucic’s various claims to the Serbian public about the US-EU proposal, Belgrade has signaled no willingness to yield on Kosovo’s UN membership. On January 28, following Vucic’s major speech on the proposal, Serbian Defense Minister Milos Vucevic stated categorically that Kosovo’s membership in the UN is one of three “red lines” for Serbia, along with non-recognition of Kosovo as a separate state and formation of the Association.
The Biden administration cannot expect that Russia will relent over Kosovo at the Security Council the way that Moscow did over the European peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina in fall 2022, or over the 2018 Prespa Agreement that paved the way for North Macedonia to join NATO. Kosovo is of vastly more importance for Moscow—and for Beijing. Acting in its own interests, China is also likely to veto Kosovo’s membership in the UN.[v]
The US-EU deal could see the Serbian-Russian relationship remain intact, or even strengthened. Vucic would be under less Western scrutiny, as Belgrade wins continued plaudits for signing the agreement with Kosovo, and greater Russian insistence to toe Moscow’s line.
Serbia’s Strategic Orientation Rests on the Ability to Block Kosovo
With both Russia and the West escalating in Ukraine, the question is whether the United States, the EU, and NATO can afford to leave the Serbian-Russian relationship intact, and potentially strengthened, while Putin and Vucic still wield the Kosovo card. The Biden administration needs to urgently consider not just the costs of its approach to the Kosovo question, but the benefits and plausibility of decisive resolution.
Sharp, rare recriminations between Moscow and Belgrade over Kosovo illustrate how their relationship rests tenuously on the ability to block Kosovo.[vi] In September 2020, an anxious Moscow publicly berated Vucic after the Serbian president signed on to a US-brokered economic normalization plan with Kosovo. Last April, Serbian media assailed the usually revered Russian president as a traitor, after Putin once again invoked Kosovo as a precedent, angering Serbs who saw this as tacit recognition of Kosovo.
Once Pristina has an unblocked pathway to NATO membership, Belgrade’s strategic calculus shifts overnight. Serbia is surrounded by NATO members and states formally committed to joining the Alliance. Two-thirds of Serbian trade is with the EU. Germany, not Russia or China, is by far Serbia’s most important trading partner. Despite the oft-remarked Slavic connection to Russia, Serbian citizens are oriented to Western Europe and the United States for commerce and culture, not Russia or China.
In short, uniform recognition of Kosovo across NATO ends Serbia’s sovereignty claim. With his charade unsustainable, Vucic would have no option other than wholesale embrace of Serbia’s Euro-Atlantic perspective, including NATO membership, causing a rupture with Moscow. Indeed, Serbia’s generals and heads of the country’s substantial arms industry quietly pine for membership in the Alliance, particularly as they witness the risible performance of the Russian military.
Vucic’s public support for the US-EU proposal has brought Serbs to the threshold of reality on Kosovo. Recognition of Kosovo by the NATO four will leave the autocrat no choice but to take his citizens across it. What is missing is the catalyst for Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain to act, finally committing to recognize Kosovo on the basis of the normalization agreement.
Ukraine’s Recognition of Kosovo Can Catalyze the Non-Recognizers
Kyiv’s recognition of Pristina supplies the catalyst for uniform recognition of Kosovo across NATO in three ways:
First, as the country that, as President Biden has said, is “on the frontlines fighting to save … [the] essential democratic principles that unite all free people”, Ukraine has great moral authority. By recognizing Kosovo, Ukraine would thrust the Kosovo issue from a local Balkans issue to a front-rank issue of European security. Ukrainian recognition of Kosovo will instantly shatter the status quo for the non-recognizers. Instead of a choice between President Vucic and Prime Minister Kurti, those governments would be asked whether they stand with Zelensky on Kosovo—or with Putin.
Second, Ukraine’s recognition would give Athens the context that Greek officials say they need to recognize Kosovo. Athens already has good relations with Pristina, and has expressed willingness to recognize Kosovo to advance important Greek interests. Athens needs stability in the Balkans, and has an interest in preventing a partition of Kosovo, which would open the door to “Greater Serbia,” “Greater Albania,” and greater Turkish influence in the Balkans.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias has resolved potential implications for Cyprus in its stand-off with Turkey and the breakaway north of the country. Citing the 2010 International Criminal Court (ICJ) advisory opinion on Kosovo’s declaration of independence, Dendias has identified ironclad legal grounds to distinguish the Cyprus and Kosovo cases, protecting Nicosia’s position.
Ukraine’s recognition would amplify this sound reasoning. If Kyiv, like Athens, can see that international law favors the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, setting a high bar that Kosovo has cleared, then Romania, Slovakia, Spain, and the others should be able to do the same. Ukraine brings specific credibility on the fears shared by Romania and Slovakia of ethnic Hungarian separatism promoted from Budapest. As with the kinetic challenge from Putin, Zelensky understands that the best defense against Hungary’s hybrid threat is unity. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán would face complications attempting to exploit recognition of Kosovo by three of his neighbors.
Third, Greek and Ukrainian recognition would be the impetus for Romania, Slovakia, and Spain to reexamine the legality and rationality of their positions on Kosovo. Greek-Ukrainian recognition of Kosovo would finally remove the veil that the non-recognizers have imposed on the Serbian record that makes the Kosovo case unique, and not a precedent. Among other things, in the 1990s, Serbia expelled about half of the population of a Kosovo province, whose autonomy it revoked, and whose rights it took away when the Kosovar population for years lacked arms and was led by a pacifist. To this day, Belgrade does not offer full political rights to the Kosovar Albanians it claims as citizens. It is this Serbian record in the 1990s which best explains why Belgrade does not litigate its sovereignty claim at the Hague, while insisting that the ICJ advisory opinion it brought is narrow.
Liberated from dubious legal theories, Spain could weigh whether its sovereignty is threatened more by recognizing Kosovo (which has not even a produced a “precedent” in neighboring states with restive ethnic-Albanian populations) or by not doing so. It is Russia, not Kosovo, which has reportedly directed a letter bomb campaign targeting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and conspired with separatists in Catalonia, among other subversion.
Domestically and geopolitically, the decision to recognize Kosovo makes sense for Zelensky. A well-known member of Ukraine’s parliament, Oleksiy Goncharenko, put forward a bill in August proposing Kyiv’s recognition of Kosovo. This means that Zelensky’s decision to recognize Kosovo would command the support of the opposition European Solidarity Party, in which Goncharenko is a leading member.
In the author’s meeting and conversations with Goncharenko, the legislator emphasized that Ukrainian citizens grasp that there is no comparison between the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the one hand and NATO’s intervention and the subsequent independence of Kosovo on the other. Goncharenko has predicted that Ukraine will “soon” recognize Kosovo.
Ukraine would risk no countermeasures from Serbia, such as Serbian recognition of the annexation of Crimea or other territories that Putin claims. Doing so would immediately undermine Belgrade’s position on Kosovo. Putin, of course, will claim that Ukraine’s recognition of Kosovo validates the annexation of Crimea and the Donbas and nearby oblasts; but the Russian president already makes this claim based on prior Western intervention and recognition. Ukraine’s refusal to recognize Kosovo after the 2014 annexation of Crimea has not stopped Putin from continuing to make this argument today.
Conversely, resolving the Kosovo stand-off would end Putin’s hopes for a “swap” of Kosovo for Crimea at the UN Security Council. The US-EU proposal for Serbia and Kosovo expressly incorporates the principles of the UN charter, and adherence to these principles is a key provision in Zelensky’s own peace plan.
Coordinated with Washington, Berlin, Paris, Athens and the capitals of the other non-recognizers, recognition of Kosovo would demonstrate Ukraine’s solidarity with Europe, not just Europe’s solidarity with Ukraine. Above all, President Zelensky would be unifying the West against the threat from Russian-backed or Russia-inspired aggression and subversion, whether in Ukraine or in the Balkans.
By recognizing Kosovo, Ukraine would spur the process for Serbs and Kosovar Albanians to settle their dispute along European lines, not the Putin-style lines of partition. Putin would lose his close ally, Serbia, and his grip on the issue that epitomizes the baseline Russian grievance against the West.
Europe and the United States would gain visible proof that there is only one European order and the only way to defend it is by standing together—on Ukraine and on Kosovo.
[i] The author presented this argument orally in the British Parliament, during his testimony before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, in a hearing on the Western Balkans held on January 31, 2023.
[ii] Explaining his backing of the US-EU proposal over Kosovo, Vucic (inaccurately) cited Serbia’s inability to “prevent Kosovo from joining international organizations [including] … NATO”, in his speech to the Serbian people on January 23, 2023. In fact, Kosovo has no pathway to NATO, unless and until there is consensus across NATO on Pristina’s membership, which is not on the horizon. What’s significant is Vucic’s acknowledgement that Kosovo’s path to NATO creates a fait accompli for Serbia. See the broadcast of Vucic speech at 32:00 minutes.
[iii] In a June, 2020 interview with Reuters following his meeting with Lavrov, Vucic ruled out even EU membership as adequate compensation for recognizing Kosovo. Belgrade still seeks territory. As Ivica Dacic, the voluble Serbian Foreign Minister who hails from Kosovo, stated last fall, “The only realistic [solution] is to accept the actual situation on the ground, to know what is Serbian and what is Albanian.”
[iv] Meetings in Washington with Kosovo figures in February, 2023, and text communications the same month.
[v] Preserving Serbia’s sovereignty claim over Kosovo is a political and even emotional matter for Beijing. “Mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity” is a core principle of China’s foreign policy, a position Beijing emphasized throughout its 2009 Written Statement to the International Court of Justice on the Kosovo question. NATO’s 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade left three Chinese journalists dead – putative “aggression” [that] … “brought relations between China and Russia closer.”
[vi] Contrary to the views of some Western officials, Kosovo – not energy dependency – is the basis for the Serbian-Russian relationship. With US and EU assistance, Belgrade could deter Russian blackmail on gas, which accounts for only a small portion of Serbia’s energy needs.
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