Pandemic of discord: Will the EU allow Kosovo – Serbia peace to slip through its fingers?

The COVID-19 pandemic has engendered  an opportunity to reinitiate discussions regarding the controversial redrawing of borders along ethnic lines between Kosovo and Serbia.

Right when the COVID-19 crisis reached Kosovo, its government fell.

The Parliament ousted Prime Minister Albin Kurti in a vote of no confidence. The pretext was that he refused to enact a state of emergency that would legally justify the restrictive measures he had put in place in order to curb the Coronavirus outbreak.

Kurti claims he was concerned about transferring the government powers to the Security Council chaired by President Hashim Thaci. Yet Kurti added that his concern was less about the coronavirus threat, and more about his fear that Thaci would use the powers given by the new act to conclude a controversial deal with Serbia to redraw Kosovo’s borders along ethnic lines. In the weeks that followed, the deal seemed set to become reality.

There is reason for Europe to take this seriously, as it may well become a defining moment for nation-states in Europe. The question of redrawing borders underlines a larger crisis of the nation-state in which ethnic minorities play a key role. In some cases, the presence of large ethnic minorities has been perceived as a legitimate factor in the demarcation of borders. Yet it has also been used as a claim to legitimise ethno-territorial fantasies that brought the Western Balkans to war in the 1990s.

Although governments aim to present their borders as stable, the ideological nation-state is in flux, and nationalism is swiftly evolving across Europe. Amidst rising populist sentiment and ensuing xenophobia, ethnic difference is increasingly presented as a problem for the nation-state. If the fall of the nation-state has been predicted already, the pandemic crisis has only served to highlight and amplify its centrality in debates over the future of Europe by now rendering it a crucial component of public discourse. While the grave health and economic consequences of the Pandemic persist, the rapid political shifts that resulted from it can bring about structural changes that will be felt for decades to come, and have implications for Europe as a whole.

The pandemic crisis has only served to highlight and amplify the centrality of the nation-state in debates over the future of Europe by now rendering it a crucial component of public discourse.

The Kosovo-Serbia dialogue has remained in a stalemate for quite some time, with Brussels hesitating to take any decisive action. However, to address lingering tensions in the Kosovo-Serbia relationship, Europe must also look at its own complex history in relation to ethnic minorities and nationalism. Moreover, it also needs to learn from recent history in order to keep a very volatile situation under control.

Pandemic of discord: could it bring about ethnic borders in Europe?

Prime Minister Kurti and President Thaci had long disagreed on a proposal for territorial exchange as part of a potential Kosovo-Serbia final peace settlement. Kurti was worried Thaci would seize the opportunities offered by the COVID-19 Pandemic to move forward with this deal.

While the specifics of such a land swap are largely unknown, Thaci’s statement in 2018 announcing the proposal suggested it would unify Albanian majority areas in southern Serbia with Kosovo. In return, Serb majority areas in northern Kosovo would be united with Serbia.

The thought of redrawing borders along ethnic lines led thousands to protest in Kosovo’s capital Prishtina. Given the EU’s acquiescence on the matter, several civil society groups in Kosovo and Serbia, as well as former highrepresentatives to Bosnia sent open letters to then-EU High Commissioner Federica Mogherini, urging her to oppose the deal. For the past two years, the issue has galvanised intense public debate, particularly after it was revealed that the Kosovo government had in 2019 commissioned a Paris-based company to lobby in favour of a land swap.

Given the controversy, President Thaci later reframed his proposal with the more palatable framing of “border correction” (supposedly modeled on similar agreements between Belgium and the Netherlands) and promised that there would be no demarcation along ethnic lines. In promoting the proposal, he adopted a language grounded in liberal democratic values, speaking of normalization, reconciliation and the “preservation of a multiethnic spirit,” in line with EU aspirations. However, the ambiguity and complete lack of transparency of the proposal’s contents, as well as lack of concerted efforts to consult public opinion, has done little to diminish concerns.

The EU, given its prominence in the process, needs to be particularly wary of the risks of setting an ethnopolitical precedent in the Western Balkans.

The prospect of a final settlement between Kosovo and Serbia looks to be dictated by circumstance. The Trump-administration, eager for a foreign policy win, offered to host talks between Thaci and President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic in the White House on June 27th.

That is, until June 24th when Thaci was indicted for war crimes by the Special Prosecutor’s Office in the Hague, prompting the cancellation of the talks.

The timing was not an accident. The Court stated that Thaci was suspected to have made efforts to obstruct the work of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, and feared Thaci would attempt to negotiate amnesty for himself as part of a settlement with Serbia, as well as to overturn the law establishing the Court.

The EU now looks set to once again take charge of the dialogue, and has announced it will host a series of talks beginning with its Paris Summit in July 2020. To ensure that the Pandemic is not used as a pretext to rapidly conclude a final settlement between Kosovo and Serbia, it is imperative to critically address the EUs approach to peace and state building in line with its perspective on multiethnic states and minority rights. This is particularly urgent given its acquiescence to border change, and in light of what appears to be a race towards a final settlement for Kosovo and Serbia.

The Pandemic has facilitated conditions in which a democratically elected prime minister could be ousted, without proper opportunity for the governing party to elect a new prime minister. Social distancing measures complicated the opportunity to hold a snap general election and limited protests. This has not gone unnoticed in Europe. 15 European MPs signed an open letter urgently warning against “using the extraordinary situation caused by the Pandemic for political maneuvers that can damage the country, its reputation and the path to democracy and freedom.” It specifically called on political leaders to “waive the rapid signing of an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo if it threatens to risk the stability of the region (…) especially the case if the agreement provides for ethnic-geographical exchange of land between countries.” It concluded that any agreement must have public support and strengthen rule of law and democracy “beyond ethnic borders.”

Now is the time for the EU to take decisive action. Changes brought on by emergency measures enacted during the Pandemic may well affect the political landscape of Europe for years to come.

History has shown there are reasons to take this moment seriously. A state of emergency in the Western Balkans has through its history been used for political purposes. At times this has had dire consequences. Former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who initiated a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Western Balkans in the 1990s seized on the opportunity of a state of emergency, and under the authority of the latter, captured power legally. When protests had erupted over proposed amendments to strip Kosovo of its autonomy, Milosevic declared a state of emergency. This allowed him exceptional authority to amend the Yugoslav constitution and return governing power over Kosovo to Belgrade. Amidst the Pandemic, governments in Russia, Poland and Hungary have all taken advantage of the current state of emergency to acquire greater powers internally.

The EU, given its prominence in the process, needs to be particularly wary of the risks of setting an ethnopolitical precedent in the Western Balkans. This extends beyond the Balkans – given Russia’s assertion of its right and obligationto protect Russian ethnic minorities everywhere, the EU may find itself inadvertently endorsing ethno-territorial claimssuch as that of Russia to parts of Ukraine, Moldova, The Baltics and Central Asia.

A future for the (multiethnic) state?

EU officials and academics have warned that redrawing borders along ethnic lines may open old wounds and cause ripple-effects across the Western Balkans and the EU itself. Ethnic tensions are not solely a Balkan issue. Underlying the rise of far-right nationalism in Europe today is fear, anger and hatred of a particularly ethnic character: grounded in xenophobia and a belief that ethnically different groups cannot coexist in peace. Despite efforts to foster diverse and multi-ethnic identities across the European Union, large ethnic minorities continue to be perceived as threats to the nation-state.

Even the more moderate of views tend to consider mono-ethnic groups as politically and culturally homogeneous, as if in a natural and inherent manner. Ethnic homogeneity, thus, is believed to ensure higher levels of social and political trust and thereby easier to govern within the framework of a nation-state.

Preached in this belief, tangible solutions to disentangle Kosovo’s ethnic apartheid system have been sparse and uncreative. Establishing concrete benchmarks and demonstrating tangible progress on minority rights is a precondition for EU membership. However, proposals for Kosovo’s Serbian minority have fallen little short of segregation. Addressing the internal biases that may be leading all parties into a stalemate on this issue is indispensable, as lack of progress in this field has been the major cause of dialogue impasse.

Despite efforts to promote civic identities that embrace ethnic diversity, the EU has tended to accept that ethnicity has clear borders and boundaries.

The EU’s approach in the Western Balkans tends to see ethnic identities as inherently problematic. This is consistent with theories of ethnic nationalism that characterise ethnic identities as intolerant, irrational and xenophobic.

The EU’s Enlargement process attempts to make ethnic identities less salient, for instance by encouraging ethnically inclusive national symbols: a multi-ethnic flag asserting its EU-future and a national anthem called “Europa” without any lyrics – so as to respect Kosovo’s multiethnic nature. Across Europe and its neighbourhood, the EU has sought to promote civic national identities, considered liberal and inclusive, based on solidarity, democracy and political legitimacy.

Concurrently, ethnic identities are protected and empowered under universal values that lay the foundations for minority rights, as set forth in the EU’s accession criteria. While civic identities, in theory, should be permissive of ethnic identities, the result is an, at times, confused and contradictory approach: striving simultaneously for multiethnic coexistence that promotes and preserves ethnic identities, and for a unified civic national identity that attempts to make ethnic identities less salient.

Prospects for progress are not helped by the EU’s chronic lack of enthusiasm for the Western Balkans. Despite efforts to promote civic identities that embrace ethnic diversity, the EU has tended to accept that ethnicity has clear borders and boundaries. From this view, the conclusion is that ethnic relations need to be managed in a way that assumes the permanence of ethnic identities. A reading of Kosovo’s history, as presented by historian Noel Malcolm (who explores myths and facts of both Kosovo Albanian and Serbian histories), demonstrates that culture has been in constant flux since records began.

Instead of building resilient structures to protect against government neglect and mismanagement; instead of empowering civil society to come up with sustainable solutions permissive of multiple and transcendent identities and the evolution of these over time- such as desegregating the school system, facilitating multiethnic history exchanges, or to question how minority communities may have come to shape their own distinct culture- institutionalizing a framework for minority rights has failed to surpass ethnic segregation.

Transforming the process

The EU holds a key responsibility in supporting Kosovo to develop an approach to minority rights that avoids entrenching ethnic divides into its political system. Abandoning the all-stakes, high level, trickle-down approach of the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue in place of a transformative multi-level and bottom-up approach that makes governing officials accountable to their citizens- would make Kosovo more resilient against circumstantial political disruption and vigilant against officials using their positions to ensure their own impunity over people’s interests.

If the EU remains uninterested and inactive, it may end up with an unprecedented problem on its borders and, if a land swap is agreed to, risk endorsing a precedent with dire consequences.

Commissioning an expert group of local and international academics, researchers, EU officials, politicians and policy-makers, students and civil society groups to develop a comprehensive, sustainable, and resilient framework for minority rights that holds governments accountable to the protection of rights and interests, and ensures minority representation in political institutions – could pave the way for sustainable peace and resilient, democratic institutions. The EU can do this by also opening up its own preconceptions of ethnic difference for debate.When it looked as if the US would take over the dialogue and negotiate a final settlement, it was a wake-up call for the EU. Now that the EU is back in the driver seat, it can use the opportunity of the talks to transform the dialogue’s format and put agency back in the hands of citizens, as well as to begin the process of putting options on the table that are centred on citizens’ interests. This is even more important given the risk of rapid political shifts spurred on by emergency measures enacted under the guise of the Pandemic. The EU needs to ensure that the dialogue is accountable to citizen interest by complimenting the high-level talks with formal and informal dialogues with mid-level leaders and civil society. The EU needs to establish guidelines and evaluate emergency measures on a case-by-case basis, and keep in mind its history in the Western Balkans. If the EU remains uninterested and inactive, it may end up with an unprecedented problem on its borders and, if a land swap is agreed to, risk endorsing a precedent with dire consequences.

Turkey and the quest for limited autonomy from the West

By over-projecting its power potential, Ankara finds itself on a conflictual trajectory, on a case-by-case basis, with the interests of other major or regional powers such as the US, Russia, France, Italy, Israel, Egypt, and Germany.

The summer of 2020 has been unlike any summer in recent history. Usually, during the long summer months, a sort of informal moratorium appears between Greece and Turkey so that there would be no particular spike in tensions between them, as the inflow of ever-growing number of tourists with their greenbacks on both sides of the Aegean was deemed too important for the economies of both countries. This summer, when the coronavirus has been wreaking havoc and tourist revenues have been negligible, the action has shifted to gunboat diplomacy and the search for leverage in an increasingly complex and unsteady European security architecture. Yet there is no novelty here, as this has been the state of relations between the two countries – both NATO members since 1952 while Turkey is still formally negotiating its accession to the European Union since 2003 – for a long time. It reflects the surreal pragmatism in both Turkey’s relationship with the West, to which it still belongs but doubts whether it does, as well as the transactional reflexes of both Greece and Turkey regarding their relations with each other, given the ambiguous positions of their partners and allies. Should there have been no NATO or EU, a good argument could be made that relations between the two countries would mirror Turkey’s relations with some of its other neighbours, such as Iraq or Syria, or even Iran and Armenia. 

Yet apart from this surreal state of play between Greece and Turkey, which most of their western allies do not understand or do not want to understand or pretend does not exist, this summer has been different because a number of other paradoxes are coming to the fore. Most stem from ideological imperatives and domestic cleavages within Turkey proper that have rapidly acquired an external or foreign policy dimension. Here the broader implications of the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque come into play, although barely six weeks after the 10 July decision to do so, the issue no longer seems to dominate the headlines anymore. 

‘It’s the domestic politics, stupid’

The decision to reconvert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque was primarily motivated by domestic considerations and the deep dividing lines within Turkish society, which undoubtedly have political characteristics. The current Turkish government and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, seem to favour the implementation of a civilisational discourse into a civilisational state reality, primarily for reasons of political expediency. This is particularly relevant in the perennial battle between Kemalists and Islamists that has shaped Turkish politics for decades. This does not imply that the emergence of a ‘clash of civilisation’ discourse does not have deep seated roots within both the governing party and its electorate, in particular as a revindication of the Kemalist turn toward modernisation, Westernisation and secularism upon the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, away from the virtues of Islam as the dominant ideology of the Empire. Nevertheless, a level of political expediency is very much in evidence, especially since the 2010s when the synthesis between the instrumentalisation of religion, nationalism, and anti-western Kemalism or Eurasianism has been shaping the direction of Erdoğan’s Turkey today. According to political scientist Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, the decision represents an example of the assumption of moral superiority over Kemalism without necessarily impacting upon the nature of the relationship between the state and religion since Turkish secularism or “laicism, as the continuation of a Byzantine-era practice, is inherently dependent upon the state’s control and guidance of religion in line with the state’s interests and objectives.” As to the effect on Turkish multiculturalism, its practice is already problematic, as the inherent and privileged correlation between Turkishness and Sunni Islam has been a way of life throughout the 97 years of the existence of the Turkish Republic. The troubled history of the country’s Greek orthodox minority, as well as that of its Armenian, Kurdish, and Alevi populations, among others, are a testament to this sad state of affairs. Though successive polls since the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia do no show that it has had a significant impact in the government’s sagging poll numbers, the mitigated reaction by the Kemalist opposition reflects an acceptance that its ability to influence the country’s ideological direction has been further limited. What emerges is a very real existential dilemma for the country’s secular population as to what this gradual, overt promotion of political Islam means for their way of life. 

The synthesis between the instrumentalisation of religion, nationalism, and anti-western Kemalism or Eurasianism has been shaping the direction of Erdoğan’s Turkey since the 2010s.

For the Greek Orthodox minority and Bartholomew I, the embattled Ecumenical Patriarchate and spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christian worldwide, the reaction of the Patriarch encapsulates the reality: “What can I say as a Christian clergyman and the Greek patriarch in Istanbul? Instead of uniting, a 1500-year-old heritage is dividing us. I am saddened and shaken.” As his close associates have told me, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has survived 567 years without the Hagia Sophia, which was converted into a mosque in 1453 and then into a museum in 1935, and can continue to do so.

Promoting an Islamic agenda

A second dimension has to do with the perception within the Muslim world as to which leader is defending or promoting an Islamic agenda. Although many predominantly Muslim states, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, are at odds with Turkey’s perceived infringement upon the global Islamic discourse (and their geopolitical interests), the battle is actually for the hearts and minds of Sunnis around the world. Erdoğan’s reference on 10 July that the “resurrection of the Hagia Sophia heralds the liberation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque” in Jerusalem is a case in point.

An increasingly coercive posture

The third facet linked to the conversion of Hagia Sophia is the wider geopolitical and geo-economic context which capitals around the world have been grappling with, given the consensus that the regional and global security architecture, and as a consequence the international liberal multilateral order in place since the end of the Second World War, has been faltering. With the United States – the crucial link holding the order in place – doubting both its role in the world as well as what its priorities should be, regional states have been scrambling to reconsider their priorities. While for the European Union and its member states, this implies a painful conceptual and material transition into a more geopolitical union, Turkey’s methodology has involved the promotion and implementation of a more transactional approach where assertive and coercive diplomacy predominates. Here the attempt is both to rationalise the vacuum that a less strategic United States leaves both within the wider European space and in the Mediterranean, and to ensure that consensual national strategies – such as the country’s place as a regional energy transit hub, and, by extension, as a regional power with global reach – do not get sidetracked. While for the European Union and its member states, some form of multilateralism and its normative framework are a sine qua non for addressing regional and global challenges, for Turkey the militarisation of foreign policy instruments as evidenced in the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as the challenge to international forums and institutions and their norms and rules to which Turkey is a party to, will be an acceptable means of conduct if these limit its ability to extend its Lebensraum and its ability to manifest itself as an indispensable regional actor. For example, the Hagia Sophia reconversion is a case in point, as Turkey went through the process without prior consultation, for example with UNESCO, as it was bound to do given the monument’s World Heritage Site status. 

The instrumentalisation of religion as a foreign policy tool, in this case, promotes the simplistic perception of a ‘Neo-Ottomanist’ turn in Turkish foreign policy where Ankara leads the fight against the West. In other words, as Nicholas Danforth notes, “[w]hen it serves their purposes, Turkey’s leaders will undoubtedly continue to dress their foreign policies in neo-Ottoman garb.”

More of a disruptor rather than a pole of stability 

Despite the aforementioned instrumentalisation of religion and the militarisation of foreign policy, Ankara has not made a move to either withdraw from the Atlantic Alliance or to break totally with the European Union. Yet the tell-tale signs are many, starting in particular with the overt attempt to couple greater strategic autonomy from the West with its growing relationship with the Russian Federation since 2016. Alarm bells were raised by the 2019 purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile system and its implications for Ankara’s relations with Washington as well as NATO as a whole. Its recent and ongoing strong-arm tactics against Greece and France, among others, have led many to suggest willy-nilly that Turkey has become the Alliance’s ‘elephant in the room’ with a proliferation of strategic divides on a variety of fronts, with implications regarding NATO’s already problematic reach in the Black Sea region and the Middle East. 

An argument could be made that Turkish actions imply the implementation of a security doctrine based on the concepts of forward defence and self help, given its assessment of the regional security concept as well as the synthesis domestically of political Islam, nationalism, and anti-Westernism. Yet the contradictions of Turkish foreign policy, and its possible self-entrapment due to an overestimation of its influence or an acceptance of the manner in which it tries to enforce it, make it more of a disruptor rather than a pole of stability in the wider European, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Eurasian spaces. In other words, by over-projecting its power potential, Ankara finds itself heading for a conflictual trajectory, on a case-by-case basis, with the interests of other major or regional powers such as the US, Russia, France, Italy, Israel, Egypt, and Germany.

With the United States – the crucial link holding the order in place – doubting both its role in the world as well as what its priorities should be, regional states have been scrambling to reconsider their priorities.

As long as Turkey’s break with the West does not become more permanent and the transition away from Kemalist tenets is slow and contained, the wider European regional context implies one of balancing and rebalancing, action and reaction between the region’s powers. The US’s ambivalence and ambiguities have led regional states to seek different ways to augment their security, many (especially the European countries) within the confines of international law and multilateral institutions, while others test the system’s limits. The pace of change is rapid, with the verdict still out as to whether the frayed relationship between Turkey and its partners and allies does remain a Gordian knot. The options on the table now are between limited strategic autonomy for Ankara or strategic independence. Both of these choices or developments can be managed, provided the methodology Ankara uses to promote either choice does not become excessively heavy-handed, putting at risk the interests, sovereignty and sovereign rights of EU and NATO member states, and by extension, the organisations they belong to. Although there is not much room for optimism at this point in time, a more permanent, long-lasting, value-laden binding agreement with Turkey is necessary. There is a need to move beyond the stopgap triptych of ‘solidarity, de-escalation, and dialogue’ as Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, suggested after the video conference meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the EU Member States on 14 August. Whether this is possible remains to be seen.

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