[Opinion] : Instability in Kosovo – from the end of history to the end of hope?


“Vetëvendosje’s fate will have significant implications for future peace and stability in Kosovo and the region generally. Failure to learn the lessons of the past could see the international community generate the very instability it is striving to avoid.”

By Aidan Hehir @FarCanals ,

19 September 2023, / London School of Economic (LSE) –  Following the end of the Cold War, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously declared that we were witnessing the “end of history”. But this failed to materialise. Some three decades later, democracy is in retreat, atrocities are on the rise and inter-state war has returned. Indeed, far from the end of history, we may now be witnessing the end of hope.

Hope – long recognised as a powerful catalyst for political action – has been under-researched within international relations. Previous philosophical and medical research has demonstrated hope’s potential to impel mass mobilisation. For millennia, democrats and demagogues alike have sought to persuade their constituents that they alone can realise their hopes.

History demonstrates, however, that raising people’s hopes and subsequently failing to realise them can lead to a backlash. Those who inspire people to hope must, therefore, ensure they do not create unachievable expectations as dashed hopes can be a destructive force. The recent history of Kosovo offers an apt illustration of this.

During the world’s “unipolar moment” between 1989 and 2008, many western leaders actively encouraged people across the world to hope for progress. While much of this remained rhetorical, in 1999 NATO took military action to protect the Albanian population in Kosovo – then a province of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – from further repression. The President of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milošević, eventually capitulated and missions led by the United Nations and NATO were deployed to undertake arguably the most ambitious exercise in state-building in modern history.

Hope rose exponentially among Albanians as western leaders promised Kosovo freedom, peace and prosperity. During a visit in 1999, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair promised Kosovo “a future with the family of nations in Europe with the security that comes and the prosperity that comes with being part of Europe”. In 2008, when powerful western states – particularly the US – supported Kosovo’s declaration of independence, hope soared again. Yet few of those in Kosovo who celebrated this moment could have envisaged the problems that would quickly materialise.

Hope diminishes

In the aftermath of 2008, unemployment and migration rose sharply and despite massive external investment, Kosovo remained blighted by poor infrastructure, failing schools and inadequate healthcare. Despite the presence of an unprecedented array of international organisations mandated to build a functioning state, corruption soared. By 2017, the World Bank described Kosovo as an archetypal case of state capture.

Internationally, many states – including five within the EU, four within NATO and two permanent members of the UN Security Council – still refuse to recognise Kosovo due to their aversion to unilateral secessionism. This has prevented Kosovo from joining each organisation and Kosovo has yet to be granted EU candidate status. Attempts to join other international organisations – such as Interpol and UNESCO – have led to embarrassing failures. Kosovo’s prospects of international integration are essentially contingent on reaching a status agreement with Serbia. This remains highly unlikely not least because the Serbian government has become significantly more authoritarian and nationalist under the Serbian Progressive Party, which came to power in 2012.

Added to the above, a court – the Kosovo Specialist Chambers – was established in 2015 to prosecute members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) for crimes committed during and after the war in the late 1990s. For many Albanians, these proceedings have caused alarm and anger given Serbia’s lack of cooperation with investigations into crimes committed by its forces and refusal to reveal the fate of nearly 1,600 missing Albanians.

Anger and radical change

At Kosovo’s 2017 election, voters unsurprisingly opted for a new direction. Vetëvendosje, a party promising to tackle corruption, limit international interference and confront Serbia emerged as the largest single party. It later entered a governing coalition after the 2019 election and was returned to government after the 2021 election with over 50% of the popular vote.

The dashed hopes of the Albanian community in Kosovo thus led to anger and a desire for radical change. Yet, unlike other countries across the region – and indeed the West – this anger did not lead to support for authoritarian populists espousing sectarian agendas. While Vetëvendosje has undertaken controversial protests and is oriented primarily towards Albanians, it is committed to democracy, is openly pro-EU/NATO and has never engaged in violence against Kosovo’s minority communities.

There are nevertheless some ominous signs that this may not last. As western global power has declined, a new more transactional, less ambitious and increasingly insular foreign policy has come to the fore. There has also been a dramatic reappraisal of alliances in the Balkans, with increasing western support for Serbia. During the EU-brokered Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, there has been a perception of Serbian appeasement and criticism of Kosovo, despite the latter showing willingness to sign agreements that Serbia had rejected.

A return to instability?

This perceived pro-Belgrade stance arguably reached its nadir earlier this year when the EU and US penalised Kosovo for unrest that injured NATO peacekeepers in May. Recently, France’s President Macron threatened to veto long-awaited visa liberalisation for Kosovo’s citizens if the government does not accommodate Serbia. Those within the West pursuing this strategy may believe that appeasing Serbia – thereby moving it away from Russia – will bring order to the region, even if this pushes Kosovo into a state of permanent stasis. This is likely to be terribly short-sighted.

The sanctions and tougher rhetoric directed towards Kosovo are widely perceived as unfair by Kosovo Albanians. The presumption that they will meekly accede to the shattering of their hopes is misguided. Should the Vetëvendosje-led government continue to prove unable to progress Kosovo’s international integration, many of its supporters will doubtlessly conclude that channelling their anger through Vetëvendosje is futile. This means the anger and pervading sense of hopelessness will be untethered and could become manifest in unrest and violence.

To date, violence has been avoided and support for extremist groups remains negligible, but recent history provides an illustration of what can happen if demands are ignored. In March 2004, riots suddenly erupted across Kosovo as anger at high unemployment and a lack of progress on Kosovo’s status boiled over.

Few predicted the riots, but in retrospect it was clear that the disjoint between the hope among Albanians when the war ended and their despair at the subsequent inertia had laid the foundations for the anger that would inevitably erupt. This episode should have demonstrated the perils of dashed hopes, but this lesson appears to have been forgotten.

Ultimately, Vetëvendosje’s fate will have significant implications for future peace and stability in Kosovo and the region generally. Failure to learn the lessons of the past could see the international community generate the very instability it is striving to avoid.

For more information, see the author’s accompanying paper in East European Politics


Aidan Hehir is a Reader in International Relations at the University of Westminster. His research interests include transitional justice, humanitarian intervention and statebuilding in Kosovo. He is the author/editor of eleven books and has published over fifty academic book chapters and journal articles. He is co-editor of the Routledge Studies in Intervention and Statebuilding book series.

This opinion of his was first published at London School of Economics (LSE) blog

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of . 

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