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UNMIKstakably Complicated

illustration by Madison Tom

Resolving ethnic conflict in Kosovo requires prioritizing both political and economic institution-building

Few things symbolize the country of Kosovo better than the Ibar River in the city of Mitrovica. On the south side of the river live ethnic Albanians, most of whom feel strong pride for their young country, which gained independence less than two decades ago. North of the river live ethnic Serbs, many of whom don’t even recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Until 2013, when the European Union-mediated Brussels Agreement between Serbia and Kosovo was crafted, most of the country’s Serbs refused to take part in Kosovo’s court system, hospitals, or schools, instead participating in illegal parallel structures funded by Serbia. While they eventually agreed to dismantle such institutions—and have indeed started to do so—Kosovar officials complain that some remain intact. Serbs’ continued participation in parallel structures means that many of them remain disengaged from Kosovar society, posing a hurdle to multiethnic inclusion in the young country.

While ethnic relations in Kosovo remain tense, they are not the only barrier to inclusion. Kosovo’s low standard of living and meager public services are also responsible. Had the Western state-building process in Kosovo in the 2000s used some of its political capital to develop strong economic institutions, particularly through combating corruption—rather than spending most of it on developing political institutions—then there would be greater willingness among Serbs to participate in Kosovar society.

illustration by Madison Tom

Strife between Serbs and Albanians has characterized Kosovo since the beginning of the 20th century, as the two ethnic groups have continuously struggled over the rugged, rural territory in the middle of the Balkans. For almost the entire century, the region—predominantly populated by ethnic Albanian Muslims—was controlled by Yugoslavia, leading to a long-term repression of Albanian identity. While other ethnically defined territories in Yugoslavia—including Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Bosnia—were recognized as independent republics and earned greater control over their internal affairs, Kosovo remained part of the Serbian Republic. Persistent agitation by the Albanian majority in Kosovo resulted in the region becoming an autonomous province in 1974. This development granted the country nearly the same rights as a republic, but the ethnic détente was short-lived. Former President Slobodan Milošević’s ascent to power in Yugoslavia in the late 1980s was driven by Serbian nationalism, ethnic and religious bigotry, and a strong belief that Kosovo belonged to Serbia. Tensions quickly flared once again.

After the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, and the subsequent independence of the Yugoslav republics, Kosovar Albanians saw an opportunity to gain full autonomy from Serbia once and for all. Throughout the 1990s, there was mutual persecution between the two ethnic groups—the ethnonationalist Serbia repressed Albanians while Kosovar Albanians marginalized Serbs in their new, autonomous institutions. A brutal conflict, marked by copious human rights abuses and war crimes, broke out in 1998 and led to the infamous NATO bombing of Belgrade. Hostilities ended shortly after, but the central question of the war remained unresolved: Who would have sovereignty over Kosovo?

Despite Kosovar Serbs and Albanians’ conflicting eagerness to be designated as sovereign, the UN forestalled answering this question in 1999 when it established the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). One of the most ambitious state-building operations to date, UNMIK assumed near-complete control over Kosovo’s government functions and aimed to transform its bureaucracy in a liberal, Western image. The mantra of the international administration of Kosovo was “standards before status”—that is, Kosovo would be required to adopt democratic institutions before the sovereignty question could be resolved. Ensuring multiethnic inclusion in Kosovo’s government became a prerequisite for independence, and, in turn, the republic’s Albanian elite succumbed to pressure from the UN and the EU to create institutions that accommodated the Serbian minority. Kosovo’s constitution, written with significant input from UN advisors, created a decentralized political system and guaranteed Serbs the right to educate their children in their native language. The constitution also slightly overrepresented minority groups in parliament, reserving 10 out of 120 seats for ethnic Serbs who comprise only about 5 percent of the population. Thus, when Kosovo declared independence in 2008, it became, on paper, one of the most ethnically inclusive states in the world. However, Kosovo’s experience since then has shown that even strong constitutional protections for minorities might not be enough to build a resilient, inclusive state.

Since the UNMIK mission was a de facto international occupation of Kosovo, it had limited political capital to achieve its goals. The fundamental dilemma facing UNMIK was that, on the one hand, it was compelling Kosovo to become a democracy. On the other, it was an outside occupier and offered few outlets for democratic accountability. Indeed, throughout the 2000s, the Kosovar public became increasingly frustrated with the lack of its self-determination and slow pace at which UNMIK devolved power to local authorities. This frustration reached a fever pitch when ethnic riots and anti-UNMIK agitation broke out in 2004. Any expansion of the mission’s authorities could have stoked the ire of the Kosovar public once again, and the UN likely understood this. Thus, the emphasis the UN placed on codifying multiethnic institutions in Kosovo—which was already a hard sell given fresh memories of ethnic conflict—probably came at the expense of a more intrusive rejiggering of economic structures.

A notable indicator of failed economic institution-building in Kosovo is the rampant corruption plaguing the country. Bureaucrats and elected officials have maintained intricate client-patron relationships with their constituents, transferring state resources in exchange for political loyalty. The large-scale privatization of Kosovo’s state-owned enterprises, for example, did not proceed fairly; instead, the Kosovo Trust, in charge of selling off state-owned enterprise assets, favored political allies in the business community. Public procurement operates similarly: Surveys of Kosovar business owners have revealed widespread tenderomania, an Albanian word referring to the favoritism, nepotism, and bribery dominating the government contracting process. Public employment is also far from meritocratic: A common refrain in Kosovo is that, “If you do not have a connection, you can forget about a job.” By hampering fair competition, inefficiently allocating resources, and discouraging international investment, corruption has proved a serious obstacle to Kosovo’s economic development. Sclerotic growth has resulted in poorly funded schools and hospitals as well as meager job prospects, thereby incentivizing Kosovo’s Serbs to further withdraw from Kosovar institutions and cozy up to Belgrade.

Preventing corruption, unfortunately, would have been a tall order for the international community. Corruption is a defining factor of state-society relations in Kosovo, so constitutional provisions would not be enough to truly eradicate it. Instead, eliminating corruption would require the international community to conduct intrusive oversight of local officials’ activities, especially their business dealings. Such micromanagement of elite behavior, even in the name of democracy, could then exacerbate the democratic legitimacy crisis that the international occupation faced in Kosovo. Likewise, corruption serves the material self-interest of the country’s political and business elite. Getting them to agree to multiethnic democracy was ultimately successful only after negotiation, but convincing them to voluntarily dismantle the very systems that enrich them would have been a gargantuan task. Furthermore, it could have jeopardized the cooperative relationship between Kosovo’s elites and the international state-builders. Thus, given diminishing popular support for the international mission over time, the hands-off approach to corruption was likely intentional. The impotence of the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX), which began in 1999 and operates to this day, embodies the international community’s permissiveness. Even armed with a court system to fight corruption, EULEX has been notoriously ineffective, in part because it has refused to pursue cases that threaten the “leading faction of the political elite.”

Perhaps the international community would have been less reluctant to alter the rules of Kosovo’s economy if it had granted locals more political autonomy at the outset of the mission, rather than creating what opponents called an “UNMIKistan.” That way, even if anti-corruption measures were unpopular among the elite, having substantial political self-determination could temper their discontent with the international occupation.

Striking the right balance between political and economic institution-building is undoubtedly tricky, especially when questions of ethnic inclusion are on the table. Paying too much attention to the economy while crafting insufficiently multiethnic political arrangements could raise the overall standard of living but risk marginalizing the Serbian minority. The international mission in Kosovo, therefore, does not provide a perfect guide for how to execute a state-building project, yet at the very least, it is a case study in the tradeoff between political and economic development. If the UN pursues another state-building project in the future, even in an ethnically divided country like Kosovo, it must recognize that material well-being is often necessary for multiethnic harmony.