Kosovo, an opportunity or a threat to Spain?

Ten years have passed since the Spanish troops completed their mission in Kosovo. After a decade there is no relationship with a territory of almost two million inhabitants that can be seen as a threat to Spain due to the influence of Catalan or Basque nationalism. Spain’s position differs from most of its european partners: only Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania do not recognize the sovereignty of the Kosovo state and nothing suggests that their position will change unless Serbia and Kosovo normalize their relationship.

Time is passing by and the relationship between Belgrade and Pristina remains stuck in a dead end since the unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) of 2008. The European Union is perceive as the only opportunity for a solution if a future community integration were to happen. But that prize would only be possible if both countries normalize relations with an agreement that satisfies both. This should be one of the objectives of Brussels in its newly initiated legislature, in which the Spanish minister Josep Borrell will be key as the next High Representative of Common Foreign and Security Policy.

The European Union (EU) should not delay a constructive dialogue between Serbian and Kosovo leaders. Spain could be seen as a bridge between the two to  help achieve a milestone for Europe in a historically destabilized region. The idea of a full integration for all the western Balkan countries is presented as a real possibility. It will not be easy considering Russia has been occupying the void left these years by the EU and significantly influencing Serbia and Bosnia.

Brussels is not enthusiastic about the possibility of an “exchange of territories” (North of Kosovo and Presevo Valley) since it has always advocated respect for the multiethnic reality of Kosovo and the protection of minorities. An ethnic agreement could easily become a threat in the region, mainly in the Republika Srpska. If the EU is able to provide a solution for such a deep problem, the result would be encouraging.

Given that Spain has a minister in charge of European Foreign Action and the British exit of the EU, it could play an important role in this challenge. The main risk that Spain has been perceived would be related with its domestic politics regarding the use that separatist parties could make of the recognition of the Kosovo UDI, an analogy that Kosovo has always denied highlighting the exceptional nature of their case and that their Government would never recognize an independent Catalonia. However, beyond the partisan use of the UDI it is worth asking what the main threats would be for Europe, and therefore for Spain, of an isolated Kosovo sine die.

Organized crime and corruption have been the greatest threats to the stability of Kosovo and to the sustainability of its institutions. Its territory has been marked as a route for drug trafficking to Western Europe and the news about the return of jihadists who have fought in Syria and Iraq have put it back in the spotlight. Kosovo is the European country from which more fighters were enrolled in the ranks of Daesh in proportion to its population; 330 men and women according to data provided by Kosovo’s intelligence. Whilst the repatriation of relatives of Islamist fighters is being discussed in Spain and other states Kosovo already repatriated 110 of its citizens last April from Syria, mostly wives or children of combatants. This measure was seen as a threat to the European security. However, the Pristina Executive – which is part of the anti-ISIS coalition – has responded with the recent condemnation of jihadists for planning terrorist attacks in the Balkans and attempting to found a nominated group “Followers of the Islamic State in the Country of the Eagles”.

The situation in Kosovo has raised doubts but its work for all these years has also received favorable opinions. Last year, the European Commission confirmed that it already meets all the requirements required to achieve one of its main requests: visa liberalization in the EU. One of the requirements was precisely to demonstrate a solid track record of fighting organized crime and corruption. On the other hand, Kosovo’s economy seems to be slowly improving; although unemployment rates as high as 30% it has begun to reduce.  

An isolated Kosovo in an eternal dead end could ruin all these advances, taking into account the possible contagion effect in the region. The tension between populisms, globalization, identity nationalisms and secessionist tendencies will be a constant in the political narrative that will test the future of the European project. In order to gain credibility a geostrategic actor must achieve lasting stability in its respective areas of influence therefore what happens in the Balkans definitively affects the EU.

Sergio Lizana

Responsibility for the information and views set out in this publication lies entirely with the author.

English version: Valeria Nadal

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