The Emerging Cracks in Kosovo's Euro-Atlantic Consensus - Erratic geopolitics and the future of liberal-democratic norms

Context: The Euro-Atlantic consensus is tested

• Public opinion polls have consistently shown that Kosovars have the highest rate of support for NATO and EU accession in the Western Balkans, making this one of the rare issues that enjoys broad social and political consensus.

• By anchoring its agenda fully towards EuroAtlantic integration and subjecting itself to the transformative power of Western conditionality, Kosovo has been able to consolidate both its statehood and its democracy.

• In addition to its vital state building contributions and diffusion of liberal democratic norms, the international presence in Kosovo has created conditions that facilitate corruption and undermine democratic norms, including accountability and local ownership.

• Further cracks have emerged in the Euro-Atlantic consensus due to Kosovo’s international limbo and frustrations with the obstacles in accessing EU and NATO membership, making Kosovo’s geopolitical orientations more erratic.

• Kosovo’s turn towards a more sovereigntist posture may be a sign of state maturity and a normal response to objective challenges, yet emerging cracks in the Euro-Atlantic consensus risk an increase in erratic geopolitics and threaten liberal-democratic norms at home.

• Troubling signs have become visible over the past few years. Kosovo has effectively stopped absorbing the EU’s normative framework and elite discourse increasingly treats liberaldemocratic norms as contradictory to democracy (popular will).

• With the external driver of reforms weakened the question now for Kosovo is: how much of Kosovo’s Euro-Atlantic sentiment reflects domestic support for the liberal democratic values that are intrinsic to them?

Key dynamics: Unpacking the Euro-Atlantic Consensus

• Like most of Eastern Europe, Kosovo experienced a degree of backlash against Western conditionality, in part due to its high dependence, feeding resentment and leading to questions about the values and interests underpinning the Euro-Atlantic consensus.

• While the transformative power of Kosovo’s Euro-Atlantic consensus and its Western conditionality is acknowledged, the emerging cracks in the consensus result from the lack of an earlier organic debate of what it means in practice, and the lack of genuine consent.

• Kosovo’s increasingly confrontational relations with its Western partners are, therefore, a result of both a drive to regain agency in an asymmetric power relation, and of established elites feeling threatened by Western-sponsored reforms.

• Disagreements within the Euro-Atlantic community on a range of strategic issues, including the Western Balkans, have, in the past few years reflected locally and overlapped with domestic polarization, causing a momentary split into pro-EU and pro-US camps.

• While the U.S continues to be seen as an honest supporter, the image and credibility of the EU in Kosovo has deteriorated significantly due to its formal neutrality on Kosovo’s status and perceived lack of membership potential, particularly after delayed visa liberalization.

• The current thaw in relations with the EU is one of the main reasons why the Euro-Atlantic consensus in Kosovo is showing cracks, as it pushes Kosovo to find new avenues in its foreign policy while domestically reducing the power and sway of EU conditionality.

• While the dominance of Euro-Atlantic integration and a strong sense of realism constrains Kosovo’s geopolitical options, to the point that most see no alternate path to EU and NATO membership, some believe Kosovo should refocus its foreign affairs and consider alternative options.

• The most resonant and most vocally articulated geopolitical alternative at the regional level is the potential unification with Albania, which polls suggest has nominal public support, yet the debate over this prospect is nuanced and will depend primarily on external factors.

• The growing frustration among Kosovars with the slow pace of Euro-Atlantic integrations is providing fertile ground for exploitation by nonWestern actors who seek to change ethnic and religious loyalties and nurture illiberal agendas.

• The Euro-Atlantic consensus faces a challenge stemming from a decline in the moral authority of the political and intellectual elite that built and sustained it for the past three decades – an idea loses power when there is no trust in the salesman.

• Within the domestic power struggles, political elites have increasingly embraced a discourse that undermines Kosovo’s Euro-Atlantic path by externalizing responsibility, failing to explain or defend decisions, and building unrealistic expectations.

• Kosovo’s politics have increasingly been characterized by a zero-sum understanding of political competition, resulting with the use of  scorched earth tactics. This high polarization over time has undermined consensus on topics of strategic interest for the Euro-Atlantic agenda.

• Serbia and Russia have a vested interest in undermining Kosovo’s Euro-Atlantic path and actively use various tools at their disposal to further amplify an already high level of organic domestic polarization and to paralyze decisionmaking, especially at strategic moments.

• Instead of nurturing a climate of consensus, media and civil society have played an increasing role in amplifying polarization by embracing populist discourse and divisive narratives.

Key narratives and actors in the information environment

• There is an increasingly widespread and resonating narrative within mainstream media, commentators, and one part of the political scene in Kosovo, that the EU is, to some degree, unreliable, untrustworthy, biased against or even anti-Kosovo.

• While the negative perception of the U.S was  largely limited to concern within one section of Kosovo’s political spectrum regarding the Trump Administration, the debates around “antiAmericanism” extend beyond those specific concerns.

• Media outlets close to the Serbian government have been observed to be engaging in sporadic disinformation and the utilization of strategic moments and psychological warfare, stoking domestic polarization or complicating Kosovo’s relations with Western partners.

• Russia’s strategic messaging towards Kosovo Albanians seems to focus on projecting Russia’s strength and veto power over Kosovo’s future, amplifying calls by leaders for Kosovo’s unification with Albania and – indirectly –promoting Russian-Turkish cooperation.

• Turkey supports Kosovo’s Euro-Atlantic path but Turkish-affiliated media is limited to actively promoting Turkey’s own geopolitical pursuits, transmitting anti-Western discourse indirectly. Yet Kosovo’s recent warm ties with Israel have opened a new cleavage.

• While criticism of the model of state secularism by more religious parts of society as well as complaints of Islamophobia continue to feed the broader debate over identity and the place of religion in society, these debates are increasingly less common.

• The social media ecosystem (especially on Facebook) has turned into a jungle of anonymous pages, many spreading polarizing content and fake news, often in seemingly organized campaigns. The popularity of Covid-19 conspiracies, in particular, showed latent suspicions of Western agendas.

Conclusions: Three Key Takeaways

• The Euro-Atlantic consensus in Kosovo is showing signs of fragility due to public disillusionment, but also shows potential for reinvigoration from a reclaimed sense of agency

– a sovereigntist attitude which, if taken to the extreme, carries its own risks.

• The key cause in the emerging cracks in Kosovo’s  Euro-Atlantic consensus is the lack of a NATO and EU accession perspective – particularly the EU’s failure to speak with one voice on the subject of Kosovo, and to deliver on key commitments, weakening its normative power.

• Kosovo’s Euro-Atlantic consensus has been inadvertently undermined by the highly polarizing discourse shaped by populist politics, as well as the failure of civil society and the media to nurture a consensus on strategic issue.