28 April 2019

20 years after the international intervention in Kosovo, Gezim Visoka discusses the NATO-led campaign and the statebuilding efforts which followed.

Q. The 1999 NATO led intervention in Kosovo is still seen as controversial because the campaign did not have Security Council support. The Independent International Commission on Kosovo called the campaign “illegal but legitimate”. As someone who was present in Kosovo at the time, was there a solid case for intervention and how was the campaign received in Kosovo?

NATO’s intervention in Kosovo has become a controversial event which is used and abused by different dominant powers for their foreign policy interests. NATO’s justification for intervention was to protect civilian population from ethnic cleansing and well-anticipated tendencies for genocidal acts. The case for intervention was solid as preventive and coercive diplomacy failed to resolve the crisis and the scale of human rights abuses in Kosovo and the threat to international peace and security was imminent.

The international intervention was an attempt to halt Serbia’s state-sponsored violence against Kosovo Albanians, which consisted of ethnic policing to maintain control over the territory, ethnic cleansing in regions where local insurgence was challenging the judicial authority, and then full-scale depopulation of Kosovo by driving Kosovo Albanians out of the territory in response to NATO’s humanitarian intervention.

In Kosovo, NATO’s intervention was received as turning point in country’s collective survival and seen as a crucial action to liberate the country from Milosevic’s brutal rule and open the space for a more prosperous and dignified future. Nowadays, Serbia together with Russia has started a campaign to delegitimise NATO’s intervention considering it an act of aggression in an attempt to displace Serbia’s responsibility for the wars of Yugoslavia and justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea. NATO's intervention and the subsequent deployment of UN-authorised peacekeeping force in Kosovo has demonstrated that NATO in Kosovo was not and it is not an aggressive actor. On the contrary, it has become a crucial factor for the protection of all communities in Kosovo. In this regard, NATO’s intervention in Kosovo is unique and has not created the negative impact that we often see with other cases, such as Afghanistan.   

Q. The crisis which prompted the intervention stemmed from the Kosovan war. What were the key drivers behind that conflict?

The conflict in Kosovo was for the self-determination of the majority of Kosovo Albanians who opposed rule by various foreign rulers, including the Ottoman Empire, Serbian Kingdom, and later Yugoslavia. The key drivers of the conflict in the modern times include the suppression of Kosovo Albanians demands for greater autonomy and self-determination. This suppression took place through institutional discrimination, political violence, and systematic human rights abuses. Other contributing factors involve the failure of the international community to resolve Kosovo crisis as part of the overall Yugoslavia’s dissolution settlement. The international community by considering Kosovo crisis as a human rights issue and not one of self-determination came complicit in permitting Serbia to abuse the civilian population in Kosovo. The reactive armed resistance in Kosovo then fuelled further the tensions, which demonstrated that the internationalisation of the Kosovo issue was possible only through assertive methods. In this sense, international diplomacy by failing to act early and by default, encouraged violent conflicts.

Q. Following the 1999 intervention, several phases of interventionism followed in Kosovo. The first was an administrative intervention involving a loose network of international organisations and powerful states governing in Kosovo. What was the rationale behind this, and how did it impact on the peacebuilding and statebuilding agenda in Kosovo?

When the conflict in Kosovo ended in 1999, no peace agreement was reached between Kosovo Albanians and the Serbian regime. As I have argued in Peace Figuration After International Intervention, NATO’s campaign ended the violent phase of the conflict but did not resolve the problem of peace in the Kosovo. The UN imposed their own version of peace by placing Kosovo under international administration for an undefined period of time. Administrative interventionism in Kosovo is synonymous with the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), which remains one of the most assertive international missions in governing war-torn societies. What administering Kosovo directly meant was building a democratic polity aimed at increasing the likelihood of a self-sustaining peace; promoting electoral democracy that would produce democratic practices; establishing the rule of law that would promote effective governance; developing power-sharing mechanisms that would promote ethnic reconciliation; establishing a neo-liberal economy that would develop a free-market and economic growth; and supporting civil society that would promote human rights and social inclusion.

The placement of Kosovo under UN administration compensated for the absence of a state, but did not resolve the problem of statehood. Initially, the international community utilized peacebuilding to pacify Serbia’s dissatisfaction with NATO’s intervention and the UN’s administration of Kosovo. Peacebuilding took the shape of accommodating the rights and interests of Serbian community through decentralisation of power, special political status and reserved seats in the parliament and government, and the collective return of refugees. On the other hand, an agenda for statebuilding was devised to satisfy the Kosovo Albanians’ quest for independent statehood. Statebuilding and the entire power-sharing arrangements were designed to moderate political conflict between pacifist and armed factions of Albanian resistance in Kosovo. While in other cases peacebuilding and statebuilding might go hand in hand, in Kosovo they became conflated with negative repercussions for durable peace in this conflict-affected society. Multiple subsequent international missions attempted to build peace and establish state institutions, yet struggled with how to accommodate and transform ethnic cleavages and resolve claims for statehood.

Q. Following the declaration of independence in 2008, how and why did international intervention in Kosovo continue? 

While the coordinated declaration of independence after the failure of parties to reach a settlement was portrayed as being about transferring sovereignty from international missions to Kosovo institutions, it actually ended up shifting one mode of interventionism to another. In the book Shaping Peace in Kosovo, I have widely examined how the rationale behind supervised independence by a group of states and overlapping international organisations was to convince the neutral states and opponents of Kosovo’s independence that the fledgling country had agreed to temporarily share its sovereignty with an international entity and immediately offered special institutional arrangements to accommodate the rights and interests of the Serb community. After independence, statebuilding became increasingly concerned with institutional reform, Europeanisation, and membership in international society. During supervisory interventionism the international community lost interest in building peace and promoting reconciliation in Kosovo. They were more preoccupied with policing the consequences of their disseverments, namely corruption, elite predation, and instability, than addressing the root causes and drivers of conflict.

Q. How have the international missions in Kosovo and the peacebuilding and statebuilding process been received by the majority of the Kosovan population?

The protracted international missions in Kosovo and the fluid policy of peacebuilding and statebuilding did not satisfy the expectations of the majority of the Kosovan population. Local dissatisfaction with international missions grew as clarification of Kosovo’ s statehood was delayed. They considered statebuilding and peacebuilding as tools for disciplining local actors and imposing external standards without recognising the democratic rights of the local population and their desire for freedom and self-determination. As argued recently in my co-edited volume Unravelling Liberal Interventionism, some groups in Kosovo considered international missions as neo-colonial interventions preventing local self-determination. The lack of accountability among the international missions has undermined the local legitimacy and credibility of international organisations in Kosovo. International missions are criticised their undemocratic governance due to the fact that local people and institutions could not challenge their decisions. For a while, executive, legislative, and judicial authorities were vested in a handful of international administrators, whose decisions could not be challenged by the local population, whose actions were not always transparent, and who could not be removed from power by the community in whose interests they ostensibly exercised authority. Local populations wanted international assistance that would support the local economy, encouraging production and self-sufficiency, rather than external assistance that would deepen dependency on foreign markets.

Parallel to an internationally led peacebuilding and statebuilding process, the local state formation and contestation process took place within and outside newly built state institutions which profoundly shaped peace in Kosovo. Ethnic elites in Kosovo did not serve in their expected roles of local peace-makers and peace-builders. Rather, they promoted divergent perspectives regarding how to achieve a sustainable peace in Kosovo. For many Kosovars, primary responsibility for failed peacebuilding in Kosovo lies with the international community for tolerating the formation of a corrupted and sabotaged political elite and for constantly imposing external peacebuilding agendas, which were incongruent with the local reality and unacceptable for the majority population in Kosovo. Promoting peace also had a negative impact on the popularity of politicians.

Those who promoted reconciliation and peace lost political support as the broader political constituency and popular opinion continues to remain still hostile towards other ethnic groups. Nationalist leaders on all sides deplored through naming and shaming campaigns those who spoke the truth and promoted reconciliation and moderation. Seen from this perspective, the efforts of international missions to build state institutions and to transform parapolitical structures into legitimate political entities have not managed to produce a sustainable, emancipatory social contract in Kosovo, where the people’ s needs and will are at the centre and the democratic principles of socio-economic and ethnic equality are incorporated within state practices. What has emerged is a negative hybrid peace, semi-democratic governance structures with a weak economy, and fragile state-society relations.

Q. Kosovo is often held up as a success story of liberal internationalism and interventionism. How accurate is that depiction?

Last year Kosovo marked the tenth anniversary of its independent statehood. Despite many challenges and shortcomings, within two decades, Kosovo has transitioned from war to peace, from an authoritarian regime to democracy, from socialist to market economy, from international administration to supervised statehood, and Kosovo is now gradually integrating itself into the European and international community. Seen from this perspective, as I have argued in one of my most recent books Acting Like a State, Kosovo is considered a success story of western liberal interventionism, especially in creating a state from scratch whose hard-won statehood was a remedy of last resort following Serbia’s grave human rights violations and whose wide diplomatic recognition was granted to promote democracy, multi-ethnicity and regional peace.

Yet, independent statehood has not delivered Kosovo’s citizens with the well-deserved political space and infrastructure for self-determination, democratic governance, and economic prosperity. This is evidenced by Kosovo’s ongoing poverty, under-development, and limited access to global markets. Kosovo citizens continue to remain most isolated people in Europe. Ten years since independence, many in Kosovo now feel that its international partners have left the country in limbo by failing to fulfil their promise to help Kosovo gain its rightful place within the international democratic community. The increased rivalry between Kosovo’s allies and their opponents has entangled the emerging state into complex processes, which can further stagnate Kosovo’s process of seeking recognition and membership in international bodies, or even undermine Kosovo’s achievements during its first decade of independent statehood. Overall, Kosovo’s political fate continues to be exposed to political uncertainties and is far from being permanently settled.

 Image credit: AgronBeqiri/Wikimedia Commons. 

About the interviewee

Dr Gëzim Visoka is Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Dublin City University (Ireland). Dr Visoka’s research focuses on post-conflict peacebuilding, state recognition, and critical international theory. He is author and editor of numerous books, including: The Oxford Handbook of Peacebuilding, Statebuilding, and Peace Formation (with Oliver P. Richmond, Oxford University Press, 2020); Routledge Handbook of State Recognition (with John Doyle and Edward Newman, Routledge 2019), Normalisation in World Politics (with Nicolas Lemay-Hébert, The University of Michigan Press, 2020), Acting Like a State: Kosovo and the Everyday Making of Statehood (Routledge, 2018); Shaping Peace in Kosovo: The Politics of Peacebuilding and Statehood (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017); and Peace Figuration after International Intervention (Routledge, 2016). Dr Visoka has published his work in the Journal of Common Market Studies, Review of International Studies, Foreign Policy Analysis, International Studies Review, International Peacekeeping, Civil Wars, and Journal of Human Rights Practice, among others.