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Assessing the effectiveness of EU sanctions against Kosovo

Kosovo-Serbia dialogue witnessed breakthroughs and tensions throughout 2023. Apart from reaching the second Agreement on the path to normalization of relations and its Annex in March, affairs between Belgrade and Pristina were all but good.

Following the Kosovo Serb’s boycott of and placement of barricades in December 2022, Kosovo entered 2023 with simmering tensions. These tensions escalated further after snap local elections were organized in the north of Kosovo, which were largely boycotted by local Serbs, with a voter turnout of less than 4%, questioning the legitimacy of election results.

This boiled up in May when the protests in the north became violent, prompting the deployment of Kosovo special police units. At the same time, calls for de-escalation by the international community were ignored, leading to even more tensions.

In July, the Serbian Gendarmerie arrested three Kosovo Police officers at the border, which exacerbated tensions further.

Finally, the Banjska incident, ultimately pushed tensions to a critical juncture, bringing the countries to the brink of military conflict. In order to overcome the impasse, the EU proposed a de-escalation plan which included the full withdrawal of special police units from the north of Kosovo, the organization of new local elections, and the creation of the Association/Community of Serb Majority Municipalities (ASM).

However, Kosovo rejected the EU’s de-escalation plan and instead presented its own plan for de-escalation, which was considerably different from what the EU proposed.

In its five-point Plan, Kurti proposed the following measures: Identification and persecution of criminal groups in the north; withdrawal of criminal groups from Kosovo to Serbia; joint security evaluation of Kosovo Police, EULEX and KFOR; and early local elections in the northern municipalities.

In the sea of problems and tensions, in June 2023, the EU decided to adopt sanctions (restrictive measures) against the Kosovo government for the first time in history. The measures adopted unanimously by the EU included the suspension of high-level visits, contacts and events and financial cooperation.

EU’s spokesperson, Peter Stano, highlighted that these measures are temporary and reversible, depending on the Kosovo government’s decision to de-escalate in the north of Kosovo.

In 2024, the restrictive measures against Kosovo are still in place, while tensions are still smoldering. However, these sanctions are not being applied properly by the EU and its member states, raising questions about the efficiency and success of its arm-twisting EU policy and the credibility of the EU.

Violations of High-Level Visit Restrictions

Starting from the restrictions on high-level visits, events and contacts, a closer examination reveals multiple violations by heads of state and governments of EU member states.

For instance, Kosovo’s President Vjosa Osmani met with the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in June and visited the President of Croatia Zoran Milanovic in October 2023. Additionally, President Osmani hosted the President of Bulgaria Ruman Radev in Pristina and was invited to the EU-Western Balkans summit.

Furthermore, Prime Minister Albin Kurti participated in meetings organized by Greece in August and in the EU-Western Balkans summit hosted by Albania in October 2023. He also met with Chancellor Scholz in December 2023.

The only instance when the EU enforced its measures regarding high-level meetings was when it came to the Kosovo Serb politician Nenad Rasic. Rasic became the first victim of restrictive measures when the EU canceled several meetings with him in Brussels in June 2023.

Biased implementation of sanctions and rules is discriminatory and undemocratic, especially when they are applied selectively against minority representatives.

Limited Impact of Financial Cooperation Restrictions

The EU’s financial cooperation restrictions focus on haltering funding for specific green projects in Kosovo, such as wastewater treatment and solar and thermal power plant projects intended to help Kosovo’s decarbonization efforts.

The EU’s decision to freeze financial support for environmental protection is counterproductive, slows down the green transition and directly affects the citizens of Kosovo. Moreover, this is completely unrelated to the tensions in the north and dialogue.

Apart from these, there is no information that the EU has blocked or halted any other financial support, neither from its Economic and Investment Plan nor from the Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA). Quite the contrary, the Commission has announced the Growth Plan for the Western Balkans including Kosovo.

Going deeper into the financial measures, it can be seen that the amount of frozen funds for Kosovo is 24 million EUR, which makes it only a fraction of what Kosovo gets from IPA. For comparison, within the IPA II program (2014-2020), Kosovo received more than 600 million EUR.

Counterproductive Outcomes and Loss of Credibility

The introduction of restrictive measures on Kosovo not only resulted in the government of Kosovo completely disregarding them but also proved counter-productive.

It’s not that the Kosovo side failed to comply with the de-escalation plan; rather, the Serbian side exacerbated tensions (Banjska incident) because it probably perceived no consequences for non-compliance. Consequently, the EU ended up losing more credibility in the negotiations and normalization process, contributing to increased instability.

This happened because the EU policy of arm-twisting and sanctioning was wrong in the first place. The EU was forced to pursue this policy as it was unable to grant any benefits in terms of the credible accession and membership process for Serbia and Kosovo.

The EU will continue to be unsuccessful as long as the prospects for EU membership becomes credible and attainable for both parties.

Mixed Signals

By breaching the restrictive measures against Kosovo, EU member states have sent several important messages to Kosovo’s political leadership: a) these measures are not serious; b) member states do not fully support them; c) there are no serious consequences for breaching the measures.

Consequently, the Kosovo government was reluctant to cooperate with the EU, failing to implement the EU de-escalation plan (e.g. organization of new local elections and removal of special police units), and the Agreement on the path to normalization, particularly the establishment of the ASM.

Another significant development was the entry into force of visa liberalization for Kosovo, which became effective on 1 January 2024 and further contributed to mixed messaging.

It remains to be seen whether the EU restrictions for Kosovo will be implemented in 2024 and whether the Kosovo government will change course.

Lexoni Gjithashtu


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