Kosovo-Ukraine: Differences and similarities of a war
Interviewed by: Belgzim Kamberi
– The war in Ukraine has brought back discussions on possible parallels between Ukraine and Kosovo. What are the similarities and differences?
Visar Ymeri: There are some essential differences. First, NATO’s intervention in Kosovo came after a liberation war organized by the Kosovo Liberation Army. We came to this war after a long period of oppression and segregation that happened to the Albanians in Kosovo by the Milosevic regime. All Albanians were excluded from any public activity, from working in social enterprises, from the state administration, from schools and the University, etc. While free speech was suppressed, Albanians were forced to flee Kosovo in order to survive. During the war, the army, police and paramilitary forces of Serbia engaged in a campaign of killings and massacres, resulting in approximately 10,000 civilian casualties, and the expulsion of approximately 1 million Kosovo Albanians, thus causing a humanitarian catastrophe. This attracted the attention of the democratic world and the intervention of NATO, which brought about the liberation of Kosovo from Serbia. Such an action has not been undertaken by Ukraine. There are no reports of mass persecution of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine. Kosovo was a federal unit in Yugoslavia, while neither Donbas nor Crimea and Donetsk were. The International Court of Justice, in its decision on Kosovo, sees the latter’s independence as a case arising from the dissolution of Yugoslavia and not as a case of secession from Serbia. During the entire time until the military intervention, there was diplomatic intervention to provide a political solution to the problem in Kosovo. The last attempt was the Rambouillet Conference, which resulted in Serbia’s rejection of a political solution. Serbia did not accept any solution that would guarantee Albanians equality as citizens in the remaining Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, Russia, with Putin in power, never gave a chance for a political solution. There were even continuous interventions to ensure pro-Russian governance in Ukraine. Russia, according to its leader, calls into question the very existence of Ukraine as a state and as a nation. NATO, nor the Kosovo Liberation Army, have never discussed such an issue, that is, the denial of Serbia’s right to exist. In fact, at no time did the NATO bombings aim at the occupation of Serbia, nor was there a demand for regime change there. The war had only one goal: to stop the attacks on the civilian population in Kosovo, to create space for return and living for the refugees expelled from Kosovo and to open the way and create the possibility of talks for a political solution to the issue.
– Since the Russian occupation of Ukraine, the institutions of Kosovo have supported the “territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine”. Unlike the issue of sanctions against Russia, at this point, Kosovo is in the same position as Serbia. This same attitude from Kosovo and Serbia regarding the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine is often not understood by external observers. Can you explain what this position of Kosovo means?
VY: Serbia’s position is formalist: that is, it has a formal understanding of sovereign right and integrity over the territory to maintain its position against the independence of Kosovo. Through this attitude, Serbia will question and attack NATO’s intervention in 1999. But here it does not take into account the circumstances that led to this intervention. Meanwhile, Kosovo’s stance against Ukraine’s sovereignty is related to geopolitical circumstances and the universal principles of the right of peoples to organize themselves into state formations. Here too, it is important to keep in mind that crimes against humanity were initiated by Serbia, while in the case of Ukraine, they were initiated by Russia.
– Since the Russian occupation of Crimea, President Putin has repeatedly raised parallels between the Ukrainian separatist regions and Kosovo, stating that “while Kosovo received sovereignty from the Parliament, for Crimea and Sevastopol the decision was made by popular referendum”. This attitude of the strong man of the Kremlin has been treated as a “stab in the back” by the government in Serbia because it has been commented as a de facto acceptance of Kosovo’s right to independence from Belgrade. This argument has been unanimously disputed in Kosovo. Can you explain the reasons why official Kosovo does not support these arguments for independence and sovereignty, especially taking into account that the absolute power in Kosovo is exercised today by the Vetëvendosje Movement where you were the leader and since this political entity was founded on the principle of ” the right of peoples to self-determination?
VY: The issue of Kosovo and its solution has a complexity of formal-legal, geopolitical and humanitarian factors, which makes it difficult to treat it in a one-dimensional way, as Putin is doing. In this regard, Putin’s position is not principled. On the one hand, he says that ‘if Kosovo has the right, why not Donbass and Crimea’, but on the other hand, he has never recognized this right for Kosovo. Not even today when he tries to use it as a precedent. The right to self-determination in the case of Kosovo is a compensatory right due to segregation, persecution and crimes against humanity committed against the civilian population. However, the independence of Kosovo and the realization of its full international subjectivity comes as a result of a long process of negotiations and talks with Serbia. These talks continue today to complete the process of international affirmation of the Republic of Kosovo.
– Sif Russia leaves, even Ukraine does not recognize Kosovo’s independence. However, the institutions of Kosovo and the Albanian-speaking society are strongly aligned with Ukraine. Isn’t there a contradiction here?
VY: Ukraine has not recognized Kosovo for the same reasons why Spain does not recognize Kosovo: because of the fear they had and have that the case of Kosovo will be used as a precedent in their state affairs and relations with the non-majority community there. There is a paradox, however, in this whole story: Ukraine’s narrative in relation to territorial integrity is similar to Serbia’s, but Serbia often finds itself in support of Putin’s policies against Ukraine. This rudely exposes the lack of principled attitudes towards geopolitical situations.
– Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, President Osmani and Prime Minister Kurti have constantly emphasized the ‘pro-Westernization of Kosovo’, advancing the image of the great supporters of Ukraine, in accordance with Euro-Atlantic foreign policies. At the same time, Albin Kurti and Vjosa Osmani have repeatedly drawn parallels between Russia and Serbia, presenting Serbia as a small Russia in the Balkans, until they described the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, as a “little Putin”. How many results has this policy had?
VY: The alignment of Kosovo and the institutional leaders of Kosovo with Western foreign policy has been and remains the right alignment. But there is an additional dimension to the event in general. Sanctions against Russia, support for Ukraine, opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, are appropriate decisions of our state. But Kosovo has another ‘task’ in the meantime: our contribution to peace in the region, for which the Western countries that have supported Kosovo expect us to cultivate it through the agreement with Serbia and cooperation in regional integrations. These are homework that Kosovo should do and thus contribute to the fight against Russian expansionism. As State Department officials said when they were in Pristina, “The Status Quo only serves the interests of Russia.” And here we are limping.
– Can the war in Ukraine, namely the “West-Russia” clash, dynamize Kosovo’s integration into international organizations, such as the Council of Europe, or even NATO and the EU. At the moment, it does not seem concrete?
VY: Despite the support we have received from several important NATO countries, such a thing cannot be done without receiving recognition from the 4 non-recognizing countries that are also members of NATO. Among them is Spain. In order to reach this recognition, we have been informed several times that the road leads to dialogue with Serbia. So even Kosovo’s progress in these aspects of foreign policy and the advancement of state interests are dependent on the dialogue process.
– At the last summit of the European Union, Ukraine and Moldova have received the status of candidate for membership, while Brussels has not been very “generous” with the 6 countries of the Western Balkans. Visas were not even liberalized for Kosovo, remaining almost the farthest country in the region in the Euro-integration processes. This has increased frustration and Euroscepticism in Kosovo, where local voices are increasing that assert that the West is not rewarding the most pro-Western country in the region?
VY: It is very clear that the frustration with the EU in Kosovo is growing. And unfortunately not only in Kosovo. The same growing frustration is found in Albania, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. And this presents a major problem. Not only because of the fact of delays and the violation of the immediate and direct political and economic interest that the countries of the region have from the relationship with the EU. But more as a risk of a suspicious perception of the European values themselves, as well as in the geopolitical vacuum that such a withdrawal of the EU creates in the region. The process of integration into the EU was intended to be a process of transformation of the societies of the region, and not only a process of legislative approximation and, much less, economic neoliberalization. Losing the transformative aspect for societies, the integration process is paradoxically placed in function of nationalist and populist policies, which are always corrupt. Therefore, here I see the danger and essential problem. It is very important that visas are liberalized for Kosovo, and it is very important that all the countries of the region have a perspective and a clear path towards the EU. But much more than that, it is important how we are entering and what kind of EU we are entering – the EU of equal and solidary peoples, of fundamental values? Or in the EU of geopolitical bargains and transactional financial balances.
(This interview was published on the francophone portal for the Balkans: Courrier des Balkans)