New Democracies Amid “Ancient Hatreds”
There are moments when Albin Kurti, Kosovo’s prime minister, feels like the leader many Armenians hoped for after the Velvet Revolution: a strident defender of a small nation’s rights and a dedicated democratic reformer unafraid of radical rhetoric and action. A well-educated, fluent English speaker, Kurti was briefly imprisoned by the Milošević regime in the dying days of Yugoslavian rule in Kosovo. As a student activist, opposition leader, and now prime minister, Kurti has fought against territorial concessions to neighboring countries, the overmighty influence of great powers, and the political and economic power of a corrupt elite of fighters from the 1990s known as the Commanders.
The past two years of rule by Kurti’s Vetëvendosje (Albanian: Self Determination, also called LVV) Party has seen Kosovo’s rise on every good-government metric. Today, however, Kosovo is undergoing its most serious crisis since the country’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, all for reasons that appear inexplicable to many outside experts.
Over the past 30 years, Kosovo and Armenia, as well as Nagorno-Karabakh, have followed remarkably similar trajectories. In many respects, recent Albanian history and politics can serve as a mirror for the others: political violence, displacement, repression, war, foreign meddling, and aid from great powers and international development organizations. What’s most interesting, however, is what Armenians can learn from Kosovo’s current crisis by analyzing the broader issues of the region. How does a young democracy function when powerful neighbors are singularly hostile? What are the limitations of peacekeepers and aid organizations? What kinds of compromises must the leaders of besieged nations make?
Comparisons between the Balkans and Caucasus are something of a past-time among journalists and researchers who work on conflict-prone post-communist regions, to the extent that humor and memes on the subject are commonplace. This comparative analysis has a more serious side, as evidenced by the work of Sossi Tatikyan, and a lecture and interview for CivilNet by journalist and political analyst Tim Judah. An in-depth comparative analysis of both regions and their respective conflicts sheds light on both conflicts, while also allowing the study of the Caucasus to draw from key developments in Balkan studies.
Like the Caucasus, ethnic conflicts in the Balkans are characterized by outsized arguments over the origin of the respective peoples: who arrived where, when, and which medieval monument or historical figure belongs to whom. This is not a coincidence. With the decay of the Leninist system, long-dormant nationalist myths were revived and new ones were invented. As a result, people who were members of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia a decade before found themselves making competing, grandiose nationalist historical claims. Comrades found themselves arguing over medieval monasteries. “The Albanians are nomads from the Caucasus,” Serbs would say. Albanian, like Armenian, occupies its own unique branch of the Indo-European language family, and the idiosyncratic nature of the language led to speculation, later enshrined in Serbian nationalist myth, that Albanians’ origins were in the Caucasus.
The reality is that Albanians and Serbs have both been indigenous to Kosovo since the 7th century. The Serbian or otherwise Slavic presence reached its peak during the 14th century, when Kosovo was the heartland of the Serbian Empire, the most powerful state in the Balkans at the time. Various rulers of the Serbian Nemanjići dynasty built major religious structures, such as the monasteries of Visoki Dečani and Gračanica. Today, both structures are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and house some of the finest examples of frescoes of the Palaeologan Renaissance. However, the chaos of the Ottoman conquest led to substantial depopulation, and the increasingly chaotic Ottoman administration of the Balkans resulted in several successive major migrations of Serbs out of Kosovo to the north.
Starting in the mid-19th century, various iterations of the Serbian state have been invested in Kosovo for several reasons. Kosovo was essential because it was home to the greatest Serbian churches and monasteries, was part of the internationally recognized borders of Serbia, and was the core of the Serbian Empire. Additionally, Kosovo was essential to Belgrade because it was the legendary site of the Battle of Kosovo, the subject of a large corpus of poetry and song, where Prince Lazar died fighting Ottoman Sultan Murad I on the Blackbird’s Field, or Kosovo Polje in Serbian, the origin of the name Kosovo.
The people of Kosovo, though, were not essential. By the 1870s, the population was 70% Albanian-speaking Muslims with Orthodox Serb and Catholic Albanian minorities. In the late 19th century, ethnic tensions flared due to a repressive Ottoman Empire under Sultan Abdulhamid II, which attempted to stifle rising Albanian nationalism, Albanian raids on Serbian villages, and Serbian nationalist activities in the region.
Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, Serbian songs about the Battle of Kosovo gradually developed a much more explicitly anti-Ottoman flavor—an easy shift, as they were about the destruction of medieval Serbia and the assassination of Sultan Murad I. By the time the Balkan Alliance invaded the Ottoman Empire, Serbian nationalists held an almost frenzied regard for Kosovo. In their seminal chapter, “Kosovo as Serbia’s Sacred Space: Governmentality, Pastoral Power, and Sacralization of Territories,” Filip Ejdus and Jelena Subotić, describe Serbian troops hallucinating the sight of Serbian knights charging across the fateful Kosovo field.
The victors may have had hallucinations, but the corpses were very real. In 1912, Serbian and Montenegrin troops entered Kosovo to riotous violence. A young Leon Trotsky, working for the newspaper Kievskaya Misl, witnessed irregular Serbian forces massacring entire villages during their conquest of North Macedonia and Kosovo. A regular Serbian army officer defended himself to Trotsky by stating that as an army man, he wasn’t allowed to kill any boy under 12, but that he could not vouch for the irregulars.
Communist Yugoslavia attempted to find a solution that would satisfy the Albanian population of Kosovo, who made up 90% of the total population at that point, by granting them an autonomous structure in line with the communist nationalities policy that was also implemented in the Caucasus. At the same time, they aimed to address Serbian nationalist goals in the region by giving Kosovo the status of an autonomous province within the Socialist Republic of Serbia. This was almost identical to Nagorno-Karabakh’s status within Soviet Azerbaijan.
War, Victory and the Internationals
Throughout the history of communist Yugoslavia, multiple strains of Albanian resistance to Yugoslavian authority emerged. Many intellectuals, such as Ibrahim Rugova, peacefully criticized Milošević’s increasingly unhinged rule on democratic grounds. Dissident Albanian leftists, such as Ukshin Hoti, criticized Serbian rule in Kosovo as a form of colonialism. Many fighters, such as Adem Jashari, were non-ideological figures simply interested in fighting Serbs. The killing of Jashari and almost all of his extended family in 1998 galvanized popular resistance and led to the strengthening of the emerging Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosovës, or UÇK or Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Yugoslavian authorities engaged in a brutal counterinsurgency campaign, which resulted in around 850,000 Kosovo Albanians fleeing the conflict. Major Albanian intellectuals, such as Hoti, were disappeared by Yugoslavian police.
Eventually, NATO launched a bombing campaign against Yugoslavian forces in the region. This led to the eventual triumph of NATO and KLA forces and the expulsion of around 200,000 people, mostly Serbs, but also Roma, Balkan Egyptians, and Circassians. Despite this, several Serbian communities and monuments remained spread across Kosovo, including major churches and monasteries.
Amid the ruins of half a decade of war, a newborn country emerged: Kosovo.
A word that comes up frequently in conversations around Kosovo is “Internationals”. UNMIK, the UN Mission in Kosovo, assumed wide-ranging authority in the region, while KFOR, the NATO-led military mission in the country, protected the country’s borders and areas of major interest to the Serb community, such as Visoki Dečani.
While some Serbs returned to their homes after 1999 and others never left, in 2004, a large-scale attack occurred on both Serb communities and the remaining Serbian cultural heritage in the region, including numerous churches and monasteries. An enclave in the northwest along the new Kosovar-Yugoslavian (after 2003, Serbian) border developed, with a little under half of Kosovo’s Serb community living in this sliver above the river Ibar/Ibër.
The joy of victory in a hard-fought guerilla war gradually led to stagnation under the shared leadership of international organizations and victorious guerillas. Sossi Tatikyan, an Armenian expert now working as a policy consultant, was in Kosovo’s capital, Prishtina, at the time of the declaration of independence. She witnessed many of the crucial events leading up to the declaration of independence, such as the selection of a flag. The flag was not allowed to have either Serbian or Albanian elements, resulting in the current design, which awkwardly falls between that of Bosnia and the EU.
The unilateral declaration of independence in 2008 from Serbia brought a prolonged period of near-euphoria for Kosovo’s Albanian population. However, ex-KLA men such as Ramush Haradinaj and Hashim Thaçi simply graduated from “diverting UNMIK resources for their own ends” to “diverting Kosovo’s resources to their own ends”. This task was made easier by two trends: the dependence of Kosovo’s economic development on outside aid and the formation of what political scientist Florian Bieber and scholar Marko Kmezić call “stabilocracies”.
Stabilocracies and Instabilocrats
Over the past 15 years, autocratic conservative populists have dominated Southeastern Europe. They claim to pursue EU integration, while maintaining their form of governance. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić is a different man in different rooms — the ideal stabilocrat. As the guiding light behind the conservative populist Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), a breakoff of the Serbian Radical Party, Vučić has made himself indispensable to Brussels and DC. He controls the radical right while mobilizing their linked networks as well as those of organized crime when needed. Belgrade simultaneously pursues a policy of integration with Europe, dangling the prospect of peace on a regional level while also stirring up tensions in Kosovo or Bosnia to distract from domestic issues. Despite little progress, Vučić presents himself as the master of stability in the region.
From 2014 to 2020, both Kosovo and Serbia independently adopted the stabilocrat model, with internal consolidation of a corrupt, increasingly illiberal regime that also promises integration with the EU but never delivers. Kosovo’s former President Hashim Thaçi, former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, and Vučić all have roots in the wars of the 1990s, probable links to organized crime, and definite links to regional corruption. Although limited development had taken place, catastrophic levels of emigration had matched it.
What changed this dynamic was Kosovo’s consistently cleaner elections, less economic development, and greater press and civil society freedoms than Serbia under the SNS. The resulting freedom ultimately made the Kosovo elections of 2020 possible. After a Byzantine series of events designed to keep Kurti out of power, a new government headed by LVV was established.
Both Kurti and Pashinyan are described as populists. However, Kurti’s background is in student activism rather than journalism, and as a left-wing idealogue, he stands in stark contrast to Pashinyan. Since LVV came to power, Kosovo’s position on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index jumped 20 places, and its ranking on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index rose by 14 points. However, LVV’s economic record is mixed. Kosovo has emphasized its democratic and secular character, particularly in a region where near-universal democratic backsliding is occurring. The new government in Prishtina curbed its Greater Albania rhetoric, partly in recognition of strained relations with the stabilocrat Albanian PM Edi Rama, and partly due to the government’s increased focus on EU relations. Many Balkan analysts hoped Kurti had taken a pragmatic turn due to these measures taken by the LVV government.
To many Kosovar Albanians, Kurti represents an opportunity for dignity. LVV’s anti-corruption campaign has led to numerous trials against major ex-KLA figures and the “Pronto Clan”, the name given to the Commanders and their system of patron-client relations. Even before rising to the office of prime minister, Kurti was at the front line of demonstrations, and would light flares on the floor of Assembly of the Republic of Kosovo, possibly inspiring future Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan to do the same on the floor of the National Assembly in the runup to the Velvet Revolution. Kurti’s character, however, has a definite way of making and keeping, enemies. Vučić recently said of Kurti, “I’m sick of listening to stories about Lenin, Marx, etc. every time I meet him.” In a recent piece for Balkan Insight, a Balkan equivalent to OC Media, Marcus Tanner said about Kurti, “Like many ex-student protesters, he remains obsessed with abstract ideas devoid of context.” Kurti’s strident Albanian nationalism has also led many to question his commitment to the avowedly multiethnic character of the Kosovar state.
The focus on Kosovo’s democratic character is at odds with the crisis that began in April and has been escalating for a month and a half. Although municipal elections that had been postponed since December were held, Serbs in the north largely refused to vote. As a result, of the potential 45,000 voters, only 13 Serbs participated, compared to 1,300 Albanians. The outcome was absurd, with overwhelmingly Serb municipalities electing left-wing Albanian pan-nationalists, an outcome even Kurti admitted was “hollow.”
In addition, the Serb community faces several major political problems, including corrupt rule by the Serb List, the only Serb political party in Kosovo. This has facilitated the devolution of the northern enclave into an anarchic space run by local “big men”, many of whom have connections to Belgrade’s network of radical right and criminal actors. When government authorities attempted to escort new ethnic Albanian mayors to their offices, they were met with widespread protest, leading to intervention by KFOR peacekeepers, several of whom were wounded in subsequent physical assaults.
Meanwhile, Vučić is facing the most sustained protests Belgrade has seen since the 2000 Otpor Revolution against Milošević. Inspired by a series of school shootings, the “Serbia Against Violence” movement has motivated tens of thousands to take to the streets. Vučić was likely looking for a way to distract the Serbian populace from the protest movement, and Kurti appears to have obliged.
The crisis has escalated dramatically over the summer, with sanctions repeatedly threatened, but only against Kosovo. Western officials at every level, from the U.S. to the UN, EU and NATO, have voiced their displeasure. While Serbia’s largely SNS-controlled press has attempted to whip the public into a frenzy, Kosovo’s traditionally freer press is witnessing major problems, such as the closure of the television channel Klan Kosova on shaky grounds. In another parallel with Armenia, Ramush Haradinaj, an ex-prime minister, a close ally of Washington and Commander par excellence, has accused Kurti of being a “Serbian spy” for threatening Kosovo’s alliance with the U.S. and NATO, similar to the rhetoric used by Ramush’s equivalent in Armenia, Robert Kocharyan, after 2020. On June 14, Serbian soldiers detained three Kosovar police officers, whom Belgrade claimed were “special operatives” despite their comfortable middle-aged paunch.
On June 28, the nearly-unthinkable happened: the EU imposed sanctions on Prishtina, which included an end to funding and the cancellation of all high-level bilateral visits. Although the three Kosovo police officers have been returned, the crisis appears to continue to be escalating. Kosovo police have attempted to take control of the north through a series of police crackdowns, which uncovered several caches of weapons. However, according to the Twitter account of Visoki Dečani, run by the monastery’s archimandrite Sava Janjić, the Serbian community is making serious claims of police brutality committed by the almost entirely Albanian Kosovar police force. Some Albanians, including journalist Elis Gjevori, are proposing the formation of a Kosovo military force that is independent of the NATO-led KFOR mission.
The West’s Reliable and Trusted Partners
Why does Kurti appear to have so few allies during this crisis? According to political scientist Florian Bieber, it’s due to “pragmatism and false geopolitical perceptions, and the deeper distrust of Kurti. […] Serbia might turn to Russia, so the lack of Western criticism of Vučić has a lot to do with this… [Vučić] doesn’t really want to align with Russia; it’s a game for him to maximize his wiggle room.”
While many, including Kosovo’s Albanians, are happy to emphasize the relationship between Belgrade and Moscow, and by extension, the parallels between Kosovo and Ukraine, the arguments are unfounded. Russia and Serbia’s ties are ethnic, linguistic and religious, rather than political or economic. The vast majority of Serbia’s trade goes north to the EU and Vučić’s most important relationships are with its wealthier neighbors. Vučić has also skillfully leveraged Serbia’s position by portraying it as an unsure partner that could shift toward Moscow.
“Stabilocracy” has been a buzzword in Balkan studies for some time. However, the concept has some degree of explanatory power in the Caucasus as well. In Tbilisi, the eccentric Georgian Dream government has gone on a predictable stabilocratic trajectory. It began as a Europhile conservative party and has now embodied a combatively reactionary populism that mocks the EU and its values, while maintaining a formal commitment to integration.
While the first decade and a half of İlham Aliyev’s rule of Azerbaijan followed a similar path, Baku has clearly moved beyond the pretense of democracy and EU integration. However, many of the structural features that lead the West to appease, or even support, Aliyev are familiar. Aliyev markets himself as the rational, long-term leader of Azerbaijan. He is seen as a moderating force of the hotheads in his government and constantly draws on his long-standing relationships with assorted diplomats, bureaucrats and leaders.
Fear of an “Armenian Kurti”
An urgent solution to the crisis in Kosovo is needed as it is the worst instability the country and the broader Western Balkans have faced in many years. Albanian Prime Minister Rama has proposed granting the Serb community formal autonomous status in the form of the Community of Serb Municipalities, modeled after the one in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Still, many regional experts are hesitant to look to the crisis-ridden government in Sarajevo as a model. As political scientist Jasmin Mujanović puts it, “In short, you want to look at Bosnia and do pretty much exactly the opposite, whereas the U.S. clearly wants to take the Dayton model and riff on it.” While some caution is warranted about establishing Kosovo’s Republika Srpska given the ever-present secessionist rhetoric of President Milorad Dodik in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, there is no obvious, just solution at the moment. The Serb enclave north of the Ibar/Ibër has justifiable concerns, particularly in light of the attempted emplacement of Albanian nationalist mayors in Serb villages and the violence in 1999 and 2004.
Despite Kurti’s skills as a politician and the righteousness of LVV’s stated cause, the current crisis in the Balkans raises questions about whether Armenians, both in the homeland and diaspora, should pursue more combative politics. It would be difficult to imagine a situation in which Kurti would put himself in a situation similar to Pashinyan attending Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inauguration in Ankara. Albania and Kosovo have a large diaspora including popular figures such as Dua Lipa and Ismail Kadare, who support Kurti. LVV’s politics are premised, in part, on hostility to the state’s own security guarantors, while depending on them at the same time. This situation is familiar, at least on the surface, to a liberal Armenian wary of Russia’s embrace. However, Armenia faces a much more dire situation than Kosovo as it is bordered by Azerbaijan, a possible equivalent to Serbia, and Turkey, a country spiraling toward increased instability and nationalism. Kurti’s appeal lies, in part, in rebellion: his rebellion against Kosovo’s enemies, corruption, and the Kosovar state’s own limitations. Armenia, sadly, cannot afford such rebellions.
The unfortunate reality is that Armenia’s security and political situation after 2020 more closely resembles that of Kosovo than it did in the past. Armenia has lost some of its ability to compete with Azerbaijan as a rival, in scholar Laurence Broers’s terminology, and must instead rely on some of the same organizations that Kosovo depends on. This reliance will continue until the Armenian armed forces are suitably reformed and rearmed.
Kosovo’s problems with Serbia, which sponsors a broad range of political projects hostile to Kosovo’s sovereignty, from re-annexation and partition to more creative solutions, offer lessons for Armenia. The current Western Azerbaijan Community project is likely to link up with the concept of the Göyçe-Zengezur Turkish Republic at some point, with Baku calling for an ethnic Azeri equivalent to Kosovo’s proposed Community of Serb Municipalities. Like Serbia with Kosovo, Azerbaijan seeks to permanently subjugate or outright destroy Armenia. As in the Balkans, Baku uses ethnic conflict to maintain its own nationalist and autocratic order.
Like Armenia, Kosovo is undergoing major democratic and economic reforms while dealing with an existential foreign policy threat. Similarly, like Kosovo, Armenia’s dependence on foreign aid and peacekeepers poses its own problems.
Kosovo’s struggle, however, is not Armenia’s. Albanians and Armenians are different peoples with different histories. However, there is value in analyzing the conflict comparatively, both through engaging with scholarship on the region and, on a practical level, Kosovo’s experience. Kosovo’s efforts to move past the corrupt rule of military veterans in a hostile environment marked by democratic decline can be compared to Armenia’s attempt to move past rule by the Republican Party. However, the current crisis over the ethnic Serb enclave in the north was at least partly the fault of Kurti and the LVV. It’s difficult to imagine the catastrophic consequences that could result if an Armenian government played a role in instigating a similar crisis.
(c) 2023, EVN Report