By Timothy Less*
“We’ll hold a referendum on unification with Albania. Remember that’. So said, Ramush Haradinaj, the veteran politician and candidate for Kosovan president. With elections pending, that could be dismissed as rhetorical bluster were it not for the fact that a merger of some kind with Albania is Kosovo’s only remaining geopolitical option.
This situation has arisen from Kosovo’s failure after thirteen years to gain recognition of its independence from Serbia. Its demand has faced constant resistance from Belgrade which is opposed to formally ceding Kosovo because of the Serbs’ emotional attachment to the place and their belief it was illegally confiscated by the West. To complicate matters, the Kosovo Albanians have opposed making any meaningful concessions to Serbia in return for recognition because they believe Serbia is morally obliged to accept Kosovo’s independence following its attempt to cleanse the territory back in 1999; many western governments agree.
In 2011, the EU opened a dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina which aimed to normalise their relations but this initiative ground to a halt mid-decade as Serbia maintained its opposition to recognising Kosovo. European leaders tried to entice Serbia with the prospect of EU membership if they ceded the territory – and the threat of non-membership if it did not – but this incentive proved inadequate. For as long as Serbs refused to accept Kosovo’s independence as an outcome, the Albanians refused to negotiate seriously with the Serbs about anything else.
In the US, politicians observed the EU’s failure to deliver Kosovo’s independence with frustration. Not only was the stasis in talks blocking Washington’s goal of integrating Serbia and Kosovo into the Western alliance; but the open question over Kosovo’s status also provided an entry point in the Balkans for Russia and China, which backed Serbia’s position on Kosovo at the UN.
‘We’ll hold a referendum on unification with Albania. Remember that’.
As a consequence, in late-2017, the Trump Administration launched secret talks between the two countries’ presidents, Aleksandar Vučić and Hashim Thaçi, which focused on the question of what Vučić needed to sell an agreement on independence to the Serb people. In August 2018, reports emerged that Vučić had asked for a Serb-populated enclave in northern Kosovo and a clear EU perspective for Serbia.
That was sufficient for Thaçi who accepted the loss of the northern enclave, which Pristina did not fully control anyway, in return for recognition. As a consequence, Kosovo would be able to legalise its independence, end the uncertainty over its future, join international institutions such as the UN, the EU and NATO, and begin to develop politically and economically. When the two presidents agreed to proceed on this basis, the Trump Administration also agreed.
However, the idea of partition collapsed on contact with the outside world. In Kosovo, a majority of voters rejected the idea of sacrificing territory in return for something Serbia should grant unconditionally. So too did most of Kosovo’s politicians, leading to Thaçi’s marginalisation and the government, under Haradinaj, taking control of Kosovo’s relations with Belgrade by imposing punishing tariffs on Serbian imports.
At the international level, Germany also rejected the idea of partition for fear of setting a destabilising precedent for the fragile states of Bosnia and North Macedonia given its basic dislike of redrawing borders along ethnic lines. This had two main effects: to tell the Kosovo Albanians there was no international consensus on the issue of partition; and to leave Vučić without territorial compensation and just an EU perspective to offer the Serbian public in return for ceding Kosovo.
That in itself was probably enough to end any chance of a deal. However, in 2019, France and others imposed an effective moratorium on any future enlargement of the EU and, with it, the effective end of Serbia’s chances of joining the union. In July, Emmanuel Macron took the message to Belgrade that the EU could not expand without a prior process of institutional reform and in December, he suspended the opening of any new negotiating chapters with Serbia, asking, ‘does it improve life in Serbia? I would say – no’.
In March last year, with presidential elections looming, the US decided to make a final push at an agreement by toppling the government in Kosovo, installing a more pliant partner and restarting the stalled dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. However, with partition now off the table, the EU enlargement process in abeyance and Serbia lacking any obvious reason to recognise Kosovo, the opportunity for a deal on its independence had passed.
That became clear when Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement at the White House in September which, while big on presentation, was devoid of any real content, comprising just a few provisions on cross-border transportation, far short of the original objective of an agreement on Kosovo’s independence. Subsequently, Vučić said he would not recognise Kosovo for as long as he remained president, a position which suits most Serbs who want to freeze the Kosovo question.
Kosovo’s narrowing options
This has major implications for Kosovo where the option of independence is now closed for the foreseeable future, thereby narrowing Pristina’s strategic choices to just two. One is to maintain the status quo in the hope that something eventually shifts Serbia’s position, such as massive political sanctions on Belgrade by the Americans. However, this option is complicated because there is no realistic prospect of the US applying any such pressure; and, for as long as Kosovo’s status remains unclear, it will fail to develop politically and economically.
The second option is unification of some kind with neighbouring Albania, which offers an alternative route out of Kosovo’s current predicament. Not only would it consolidate Kosovo’s separation from Serbia and secure Albania’s protection; but unification would also give Kosovo access to the outside world. Kosovans could travel on Albanian passports; trade internationally on Albanian terms; and represent Albania abroad, whether at the UN or in sports contests. In short, Kosovo could more or less normalise its international position without, as Haradinaj emphasised, ‘the approval of Serbia’.
This is not a new idea. The goal of national unification is widely discussed and has strong support among the people living in Albania and Kosovo who see themselves as part of a single Albanian nation. One poll from 2019 found 64% of Albanians in Kosovo and 75% of Albanians in Albania would vote in favour of national unification in any referendum on the matter.
The idea also has support among political leaders in both Albania and Kosovo who have made various public statements in support of national unification over the last decade: for Albania’s prime minister, Edi Rama, a common state is ‘inevitable and unquestionable’. Albania and Kosovo have also signed various agreements aimed at integrating the two, including plans for a customs union, a common foreign policy and shared embassies.
However, there has been little practical integration until now, for two reasons. In Kosovo, the Albanian population has been focused overwhelmingly on trying to establish full independence from Serbia which has been their core political goal since 1990. That does not exclude unification of some kind with Albania in the longer term, but this has been seen as a secondary goal, once Kosovo has finally broken free.
Meanwhile, Albania has been focused overwhelmingly on trying to join the EU, which does not accept the idea of Albanian national unification, meaning Tirana has not pushed the issue. Instead, it has pursued the idea of Albanian unification within an internally borderless EU, which is a safer and less complicated option, on the assumption both Albania and Kosovo eventually join the union.
In this context, speculation by political leaders about the unification of Albania and Kosovo until now has tended to be contingent: ‘if we can’t unite within the EU, we will have to unite outside of it’. Even Haradinaj’s recent statement made clear his preference for a ‘Euro-Atlantic Kosovo, a part of the EU and NATO’ and that a referendum would follow if this failed to happen.
However, these factors no longer apply. Kosovo cannot gain recognition from Serbia, foreclosing the option of independence, and Albania’s plan of joining the EU is practically over for as long as France and others block any further enlargement. Accordingly, whoever ends up ruling Kosovo after the upcoming elections, will have little choice but to work towards Kosovo’s integration with Albania as the only way to end the territory’s state of limbo.
Significantly, Albin Kurti, the leader of the Vetëvendosje party, which is likely to win the upcoming parliamentary elections and a possible prime minister, responded to Haradinaj’s pledge by stating, ‘we will accept the results of the referendum’.
Meanwhile, Albania will have little to lose from the Europeans from pursuing a merger with Kosovo. Instead, it will see that Kosovo needs a way out of its malaise, that independence is impossible and that, to uphold the welfare of its compatriots across the border, Albania will have to press ahead and integrate Kosovo. In short, events have now conspired to unblock the dormant unification process.
In short, events have now conspired to unblock the dormant unification process.
Greater Albania, negotiated
So, does this mean next stop Greater Albania? Not quite, because there is an obstacle in the way, namely Serbia, which opposes Kosovo’s unification with Albania as much as it opposes Kosovo’s independence, and worries in particular about the well-being of Kosovo’s Serb population inside an Albanian national state.
If Kosovo makes practical moves towards unification with Albania, the government in Belgrade will come under strong domestic pressure to stop the process. And if it cannot achieve this by leveraging US and EU influence, which have shown relatively little interest in the issue until now, it will come under pressure to stop the matter unilaterally: tellingly, a recent poll found that half of Serbs are willing to take up arms to retain Kosovo.
However, events are unlikely to get to this point. The Serbian leadership does not want to clash with Albania in Kosovo, especially given the risk that any conflict draws in the US on the Albanian side. Nor does Albania want to clash militarily with Serbia, a larger and more powerful opponent.
Instead, the common interest of both governments is to work together towards some kind of negotiated outcome in Kosovo which avoids the risk of conflict, building on the relationship established by Vučić and Rama. The two meet frequently and, as leaders with the same basic problem – namely how to integrate their regional diasporas into an expanded mother state without triggering a military conflict – they appear to have an understanding.
Where all this leads is a matter of speculation, but the outcome to the Kosovo story will inevitably be defined by the political realities on the ground. One is that, outside the north, the population of Kosovo is predominantly Albanian and wants to unite with Albania if Kosovo cannot be independent.
The second reality is that, outside the northern enclave, Serbia cannot stop Kosovo’s unification with Albania, if the two are determined to unite. Serbia may threaten various reprisals but if Albania and Kosovo decide to take a step towards this goal, for example, by removing the physical infrastructure on their common border, there is little that Serbia can practically do.
That means Kosovo will probably integrate steadily with Albania in the economic and political sphere over the next few years, and Serbia will be forced into a position of trying to salvage as much as possible from a bad situation – in effect, a revival of Vučić’s strategy from the Trump era.
This leads to a third reality which is that the northern enclave is populated by Serbs and only partially integrated into the rest of Kosovo. As a consequence, Serbia will try to retain this, and Albania’s interests will be to accept. Indeed, reports suggest that this is the position which Rama took back in 2018. Kosovo Albanians will not like it, but they will need Albania’s help and Rama’s view will be that this is a reasonable price to pay for Kosovo to break away from Serbia while avoiding a war.
And the fourth is that Serbia will want more than northern Kosovo in return for recognition since the reward of EU membership is probably now off. As a consequence, Serbia will insist that any deal over Kosovo also includes Albanian support for a new regional entity which gives Serbia a chance to integrate its diaspora in Bosnia and Montenegro.
That will be an easy sell, since Albania shares this objective – hence its involvement in Serbia’s project for a ‘mini-Schengen’ which aims to replicate some of the conditions of the EU’s single market and customs union in the western Balkans. Not only will the establishment of a regional entity make the Kosovo issue easier to resolve but Albania can also draw closer to its diaspora in North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
After that, Serbia will probably see its strategic interest in acquiescing to Kosovo’s integration with Albania, letting the Albanians take the pushback from outsiders for regional irredentism, and trying – somehow – to leverage the new situation to integrate its regional diaspora into Serbia, most significantly Republika Srpska. Having gained what Serb voters will see as due compensation, Belgrade can then cede Kosovo.
That would bring the Kosovo story to an end in the establishment of a Greater Albania. However, if Serbia has its way, the final precondition for this will be the parallel establishment of a Greater Serbia.
*Timothy Less is leading the Disintegration in Europe research project at the Centre for Geopolitics and Grand Strategy at the University of Cambridge. Prior to this, he served as a diplomat in Bosnia and Macedonia. He is working on a book about postwar Bosnia. This piece was originally published by OpenDemocracy and is available by clicking here. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.