On March 4 the SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations hosted a panel entitled “Kosovo After the Elections: The Challenges Ahead”, inviting Kosovar deputy prime minister Edita Tahiri and foreign minister Enver Hoxhaj (both a mere five days into their new positions) as well as Daniel Serwer, senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, to comment on the challenges facing Kosovo following the most recent elections of December 12, 2010.
Vedran Dzihic, moderating the panel, gave a brief introduction to the current situation on the ground in Kosovo, highlighting its nationhood in purgatory—while 76 countries recognize Kosovo as an independent nation, major holdouts include five EU member countries, Russia and China. Ethnic identity still fuels tension within Kosovo, particularly between the north and the rest of the country. Most recently, the Marty Report (accusing Kosovo prime minister Hashim Thaçi of corruption and organ trafficking) damaged the government’s reputation in the region, despite largely rehashing allegations of which Mr Thaçi was previously cleared. Following brief introductions of the three panellists, Mr Dzihic turned to floor over to Ms Tahiri.
Ms Tahiri began her remarks by addressing I. William Zartman, Professor Emeritus in the SAIS Conflict Management department, for his help in guiding her Ph.D. studies. Following this brief aside, Ms Tahiri highlighted Kosovo’s achievements in the three years since 2008, when Kosovo “opened a new chapter [as] an independent state.” Of primary importance in Kosovo’s democratic development has been the role of the United States as ally, stressed the deputy prime minister, and she expressed the Kosovar government’s desire to show the US a positive return on its investment in an independent Kosovo.
The last three years, according to Ms Tahiri, have been largely a process of statebuilding—crafting democratic multi-ethnic institutions. Ms Tahiri particularly emphasized the inclusion of Serbs in this process. Looking toward the goals of EU and NATO integration, the deputy prime minister spoke of four priorities for Kosovo in the short- and medium-term: furthering economic development, strengthening rule of law, ensuring social well-being, and fostering healthy international relations. The future is bright, according to Ms Tahiri; the last three years have shown Kosovo to be a source of stability in the region. She then closed her remarks with the hope that relations with Serbia might be normalised.
Mr Hoxhaj, the new foreign minister, picked up where Ms Tahiri left off, speaking largely from the perspective of education minister (a post he left three weeks prior). Having spoken with students and families across the country over the previous three years, Mr Hoxhaj cited themes in their responses as a basis for what independence means to Kosovars: predictability (clarity about the future); stability (including security); and improved quality of living. These community discussions went to great lengths, according to the foreign minister, to include ethnic Serbs. Mr Hoxhaj particularly emphasized government efforts focused on “trying to create a public space for the Serb community at both the central and local level.”
Mr Hoxhaj then went on to detail a five-year plan of sorts, laying out goals with the explicit aims of effective government and state-building. One particularly interesting point of emphasis was the need for economic growth to fuel job creation—60% of Kosovo’s population is under 25 years of age. Creating employment opportunities for the country’s young population is an important step, according to the foreign minister, toward convincing people of the meaning of independence. Looking toward to next year, Mr Hoxhaj stated a major goal is access to the EU visa roadmap, giving Kosovars the same rights to visa-free travel enjoyed by Serbian, Albanian and Macedonian citizens. Mr Hoxhaj concluded his remarks by echoing Ms Tahiri’s closing statements over the hope for normalisation of relations with Serbia.
Mr Dzihic then handed the floor to Mr Serwer, who commended the Kosovo officials for the content and tenor of their remarks—by highlighting best practices in state-building and respect for minority rights, both Ms Tahiri and Mr Hoxhaj gave the kinds of speeches that Americans love to hear.
But Mr Serwer raised questions for each of the speakers. For Ms Tahiri, Mr Serwer wondered whether Kosovo was truly ready for negotiations with Serbia, both politically (would a broader negotiating team be formed in order to reduce the likelihood of sniping from the large parliamentary opposition?) and technically (have the necessary data on technical issues been assembled, and do the negotiators understand the Serb position as well as their own?). For Mr Hoxhaj, Mr Serwer wondered whether the government had any grand strategy for recognitions, especially with regard to the five EU member states yet to acknowledge Kosovo, as well as the likely impact of the recent Marty Report, which Mr Serwer described as a “PR nightmare” that has damaged Kosovo’s position vis-à-vis other European countries. Finally, Mr Serwer wondered at the failure to run free and fair elections in December 2010 and what this says the government’s commitment to democracy and reform.
Both Ms Tahiri and Mr Hoxhaj were swift to reassure Mr Serwer. In response to the question of readiness for negotiation with Serbia, Ms Tahiri cited Kosovo’s successes over the last ten years in being involved with constructive negotiations. From the Kosovar perspective, this round of negotiations marks the first time the two parties sit down as two independent states. Ms Tahiri believes this will restrict negotiations to purely technical matters, i.e. border tariffs. The deputy prime minister further pointed to the thin government majority as a source of strength, rather than weakness—strong opposition will not allow the government to slip during negotiations, ensuring that outcomes are good for all Kosovar citizens.
The foreign minister was quick to point out the nuances of the discussion—all countries have their own political agendas, and this complicates the recognitions process. Untangling those agendas can be a long process. Mr Hoxhaj then went on to summarize the ongoing investigation into election fraud allegations and noted his country’s embarrassment over the situation.
With that, the floor was opened for discussion. Questions from the audience varied from concerns over terms of trade with Serbia to possibilities of territorial and population exchanges near borders. The panelists fielded the questions by largely reiterating talking points from previous statements, but as Mr Serwer stated in his closing remarks, both Ms Tahiri and Mr Hoxhaj face greater challeges in the road ahead. Will Kosovo continue to show, Mr Serwer wondered aloud, the kind of wisdom demonstrated by not walking away from the Ahtisaari plan? Only time will tell.
Mr Dzihic closed the proceedings with four main points. First, the Balkans are not a priority of the US, but the US is committed to the region. Second, the EU is struggling internally with enlargement fatigue, so the visa roadmap remains elusive. Third, EU membership must be contingent upon modus vivendi between Serbia and Kosovo. And fourth, the burden remains on Kosovar civil society and political institutions to not rest on their accomplishments, but rather to continue seeking improvement.