Serbia, Kosovo and Albania: between unions and disunions

, by Alexis Vannier, Translated by Lorène Weber

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Serbia, Kosovo and Albania: between unions and disunions

For decades, the Balkans have been experiencing numerous and sometimes violent tensions, whether for ethnic, religious, geopolitical, cultural or energy reasons. However, the Prespa Agreement signed between Skopje and Athens on 17 June 2018, and which came into force on 12 February 2019, put an end to the name dispute around the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), which became North Macedonia. If the European Union managed to pacify the north and the east of the peninsula, the Western Balkans are still likely to experience serious crises, as the tensions between Serbia, Kosovo and Albania demonstrate.

Kosovo: between independence and unification

Kosovo declared its independence on 17 February 2008. Nevertheless, the country’s path to full and recognised independence still has a long way to go, especially concerning Serbia’s recognition. While the Albanian government has been facing tense demonstrations across the country since mid-February, the 43 MPs of the opposition Democratic Party resigned. They all accuse Edi Rama of corruption and electoral fraud, arguments which had already been used when the Democratic Party was in power.

However, this situation does not put a stop to the idea of a reunification with the Albanians living in the region, regularly evoked by both Albanian and Kosovan authorities. However, before that and with a view to peace, the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama calls Belgrade to recognise the independence of its former province or, at least, to pacifically solve the situation. At the same time, Tirana shares its embassies with the Kosovan diplomatic missions, and Edi Rama still evokes the possibility of a Great Albania and even suggests a common president to the two states, in a not so distant future.

This solution is a logical end to the removal of customs barriers between the two countries since the beginning of the year, establishing as such a “mini Schengen”, despite some concerns formulated by the USA and Europe. As a new commitment towards autonomy from Belgrade, Pristina decided to transform the Kosovo Security Force into a national army. This decision is obviously not well-regarded on the Serbian side, which considers it a ’pistol shot to peace’, but also on the NATO’s side, which said it is forced to ’re-examine [its] level of engagement’, given that NATO is already engaged through the KFOR mission.

The essential integration to Western Europe

For more than ten years, a large part of the Western Balkans made a priority of NATO membership – and so of a distancing from Russia. Slovenia joined NATO in 2004, Albania and Croatia in 2009, and Montenegro in 2017. North Macedonia is on the right track to become the thirtieth member in 2019, following the Prespa Agreement between Skopje and Athens on the country’s name. Bosnia and Herzegovina is also a candidate. Serbia, however, prefers to assure the support from its Russian ally. Kosovan authorities wish to join NATO eventually. Moreover, the three countries have made EU membership a political priority. This integration to the world’s foremost economic power would allow them to open their markets to foreign investments and to larger economic potential. Nevertheless, the three states haven’t reached the same stage.

Serbia has opened 16 of the 35 chapters required for joining the EU, which has added the normalisation of relations with Kosovo as a membership criterion. Even if some understand this chapter as an obligation for Belgrade to recognise its former province as an independent state, this is legally inaccurate. Actually, as it is the case for all the region’s candidate countries, the problems of corruption and flaws of the rule of law are the main impediments to Serbia’s EU membership.

In Albania, the will to join the EU is equally strong. Nevertheless, the structural, institutional, legal and economic challenges are key arguments for some member states reluctant to the idea of Albania joining the EU. France and the Netherlands, for example, expressed reservations concerning Albania, leading to a demand of one more year’s wait before the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.

Kosovo also wishes to join the EU, but the path is long and risky. Five member states do not recognise Kosovo’s independence, whether because of the secession from Serbia (Spain, Cyprus), for religious reasons (Romania) or for geopolitical reasons (Greece, Slovakia). In this context, the EU signed a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Kosovo in 2014, allowing for European legal support to improve the situation in the country in areas identified by Brussels, especially the fight against corruption and fraud, as well as the sharing of efficient administrative practices.

This agreement pursues the EULEX mission, handed to the EU by the UN Security Council, aiming at establishing democratic administrative institutions respecting the rule of law. The Kosovan president nevertheless warned Brussels that, if the negotiations failed, all the Albanians living in the region would be called to live in a one and single country. But such a threat, which would destabilise the region, is not likely to appease the relations with Belgrade or to accelerate the process towards EU membership.

Kosovo thus uses two levers to set up its independence at the international level, in front of a reluctant Serbia. It pursues its efforts to politically anchor itself in Europe through NATO and EU membership, but also by forging strong political and institutional links with Albania, culturally very close. But Pristina’s three-step waltz of independence, integration and unification can represent a threat for the region’s precarious stability.

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