Kosovo: The International Presence No One Wants

For those unfamiliar with the great significance Kosovo holds to the Serbian people, it is best summed up by Serbian bishop Amfilohije: “Kosovo [is]our holy city of Jerusalem,” which Serbs cannot relinquish “in this worldly life nor in God’s eternal one, any more than we can renounce our own soul.” The conflict is much more existential in nature than a simple border dispute, making the issue deeply personal and therefore much more complex to resolve. 

Since the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ensuing war, governance over Kosovo has remained a contentious topic in global affairs, with international oversight providing much of its legal infrastructure alongside local power brokers. Many of these local leaders have direct ties to the nominally dissolved Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a group designated as a terrorist organization in multiple countries. Among these leaders is Kosovo’s first elected prime minister Hashim Thaçi, one of the founders of the KLA who is currently awaiting trial for war crimes in The Hague.

Cooperation between international actors and local leaders to orchestrate a peaceful transfer of power has required carefully redefining the relationship with the KLA “from ‘terrorists’ to ‘partners.’” As of now, the UN is gingerly withdrawing from Kosovo one agency at a time while balancing international and domestic issues. Establishing Kosovo’s legitimacy will require restructuring of economic and political institutions, international cooperation and long-term conflict mitigation plans. Through sustainable, mutually beneficial and calculated policy implementation that strengthens Kosovo internally, we will see an end to, in the words of international relations professor at the University of Southern California Dr. Douglas Becker, the “international presence [in Kosovo]no one wants.” 

The KLA is a nationalist Kosovar-Albanian militia founded in 1993 as a response to Serbian state-backed violence against students protesting for Kosovar independence. Starting as a small, disorganized group of around 150 men, the KLA quickly became “one of the most successful military organizations in history,” as well as one of the most brutal. As Kosovar nationalism rose, more and more people joined the KLA in taking up arms against Serbia. 

During the following years of conflict, the KLA were not only perpetrators of war crimes—including systemic torture, rape and forced expulsion—but also an organized crime ring. Much of the KLA’s funding came from human trafficking, organ trafficking, sex slavery, money laundering, illegal weapon smuggling, counterfeit currency, migrant smuggling, fraud and drug trade, with an estimated 80% of all heroin headed into Europe passing through the hands of the KLA in 1999. 

When the conflict between Kosovo and Serbia officially ended in June 1999, the KLA filled the subsequent power vacuum. However, they were quickly replaced after the 1999 Security Council resolution 1244 gave jurisdiction of Kosovo to the UN, creating the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and establishing United Nations Administered Kosovo, a time period in which the UN was essentially the Kosovar government. The UNMIK took charge of virtually all government functions in Kosovo, facilitating elections, issuing legal identification documents, adjudicating criminal cases, policing and overseeing immigration. 

By 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence, developed a constitution and elected its first prime minister, Hashim Thaçi, ultimately ending UN Administered Kosovo and creating the Republic of Kosovo. As part of their agreement to recognize Kosovo’s independence, the U.S. and EU required oversight by international presences; thus, UNMIK remains a supportive actor in ensuring peace, normalcy and community-building in collaboration with 16 other UN agencies and partners. 

Locally, most political figures are former members of the disbanded KLA, including current prime minister Albin Kurti. Some claim to have abandoned their criminal past while others have faced charges of war crimes, such as Kosovar prime ministers Hashim Thaçi, Agim Çeku and Ramush Haradinaj. An investigation conducted by the Council of Europe found that even while acting as prime minister, Thaçi still controlled much of organized transnational crime, relying upon illegal activities for government expenditures. Although the KLA is officially dissolved, its members have reassembled in one of the main political parties, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK). Prime Minister Kurti has openly declared that “the Kosovo Police is a continuation of the liberation army.” KLA dominance presents a massive issue for the prospect of complete UN withdrawal due to its unsustainable nature and criminal history. While decreasing, organized crime remains intertwined in Kosovar politics, with the U.S. Department of the Treasury blacklisting multiple Kosovar politicians and security officials linked to transnational organized crime as recently as 2021.

The UN, European Union and United States are desperate to withdraw: Kosovo presents a major liability for the international actors involved due to the criminal background of the local actors with whom they are collaborating. The United States views UNMIK as having fulfilled its purpose, and states that “a peacekeeping mission [is]no longer necessary.” International involvement is unfavorable for the people of Kosovo as well, inhibiting their desire for international recognition and sovereignty. Serbia also dislikes the international presence and does not recognize the majority of the agencies in Kosovo as legitimate, instead viewing them as an imposition upon their own sovereignty. Logistically, the oversight has simply drawn on much too long and cannot be maintained in the long term. 

Thus, the UN is working to strengthen local political, legal and economic institutions to wean Kosovo off international support. Additionally, efforts are underway to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia, including promoting Serbian and Albanian language learning, assisting families of missing persons and providing free legal aid and language interpretation to allow for a smoother transition of power and a peaceful future for the region. According to the UN, a facilitated, gradual withdrawal from Kosovo is the best approach to end this deeply undesired international presence. 

However, tensions have risen within the last few months, amounting to “the worst escalation of violence in years,” with Serbia deploying tanks and artillery to the Kosovar border, prompting the U.K. to send 200 troops to support the current NATO presence. This uptick is the result of a dispute over license plates, with Kosovo demanding Serbian license plates turned over in favor of Kosovar plates to demonstrate a sovereign, united Kosovar state. Ethnic Serb mayors in northern Kosovo resigned in protest of this demand, further contributing to unrest and lawlessness and reinvigorating Serbs’ desires to establish autonomous Serb-majority municipalities within Kosovo. This move and the reaction to it proves nationalism and ethnic identity disputes remain unresolved issues.   

Seeing as the status quo is undesired by all parties involved, any potential resolution would necessitate the complete withdrawal of international forces. However, given the recent developments in conflict, such a withdrawal must be orchestrated in a gradual and calculated manner. A sustainable, mutually beneficial plan should be executed through three main tenets: economic and institutional restructuring, international cooperation and long-term conflict management plans. 

A major hurdle to Kosovar legitimacy is government corruption. The UN must incentivize legal economic activities to dissuade organized criminal activity. Kosovo is well-endowed in natural resources including fertile farmland. The UN should provide agricultural training, subsidies and supplies to reinvigorate this sector and help establish multilateral trade agreements as well as a conducive market environment, which would allow Kosovar goods to be competitive on a global scale. Additionally, farming was a major part of Kosovo’s medieval identity and revitalizing this industry could appeal to Kosovar nationalists. Opportunities for professional development, such as job training, higher education and English lessons should also be installed. 

Politically, legal and lucrative economic opportunities should automatically lessen corruption. Through education, the general public should become more aware of their human rights and therefore more likely to elect transparent officials who better protect these rights. However, the UN should also lead crackdowns on political criminals and help restructure political institutions to eliminate opportunities for future corruption. 

International recognition could also be enhanced if Kosovo were to abandon transnational crime and join the global economy. Countries are more likely to support relationships from which they benefit economically, and if Kosovo can become an international bread basket, especially during a time when the agriculturally crucial country of Ukraine is under attack, they can establish themselves as a critical ally and trade partner. 

Additionally, the UN should advocate for Kosovar recognition within the general assembly. Although the chances of gaining Russian approval are extremely slim, other nations such as Argentina, India and Greece may be more likely to change their views. With increased recognition, Kosovo can operate as a strong de facto state or even an internationally recognized country—Taiwan, for instance, is unrecognized by UNSC member China, yet is still internationally recognized as a sovereign nation. 

A long-term conflict mitigation plan is crucial in preserving an auspicious future for Kosovo. In establishing political institutions, the UN should coordinate between Kosovar Serbs and Albanians to create a joint association to guarantee cooperation. If this matter is not addressed, Kosovo will remain vulnerable to issues like the license plate dispute, where something as seemingly mundane as license plates led to a violent conflict due to a lack of resolution regarding underlying disagreements regarding ethnic identity. The UN must work in conjunction with both ethnic communities to establish institutions and promote long-term collaboration. 

Rather than staying idle in the present, the UN must start actively pursuing a sustainable future by implementing mechanisms that will provide Kosovo strength for decades to come. By redirecting Kosovar interests towards lucrative economic pursuits, the Kosovar government can become more legitimate and capable, garner revenue to strengthen internal political institutions, secure trade partners to embed them into the global economy and establish international allies to validate their sovereignty. If the parties restructure economic and political institutions, pursue international recognition and set long-term conflict mitigation strategies in place, the international community can finally withdraw from Kosovo and put an end to an international presence no one wants.