Europe’s newest country, Kosovo, is also still one of its poorest. Yet nearly 15 years after declaring independence, this landlocked little republic in the Balkans is making slow but steady progress.
Earlier this year, Transparency International reported that Kosovo had jumped 17 places from the previous year to rank 87th out of 180 countries on its 2021 Corruption Perception Index. Kosovo now has 39 out of 100 possible points, three more than its score in 2020.
Notably, “its parliament was the only one in the Western Balkans—and one of only five in all of Europe—that did not transfer decision-making powers to the executive when the COVID pandemic hit,” reports PrishtinaInsight. “The country showed a genuine will to fight corruption by investigating potentially corrupt leaders and adopting a strategy on rule of law.”
Meanwhile, Kosovo now ranks 61st in the latest World Press Freedom Index, soaring by 17 places compared to last year, according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. Best of all, Kosovo’s GDP grew by 9.5% last year, outranked in Europe only by Ireland, Montenegro and Croatia.
All this is music to the ears of Ilir Dugolli, Kosovo’s new ambassador to the United States.
“Tremendous progress has been achieved. When it comes to elections, I think we excel in the region,” he said. “There’s growing authoritarianism around the world, and many countries are backsliding on democracy. But in our case, that’s not happening. There’s nothing controversial about elections in Kosovo. They are as mundane as you can imagine.”
Dugolli, 46, spoke to The Washington Diplomat recently from his embassy, which is housed in the same K Street office building as the European Union mission. On the job only a few months, he replaces Vlora Çitaku, who was Kosovo’s top envoy to the United States from 2015 until March 2021. In the interim, Valdet Sadiku ran the tiny mission as chargé d’affaires.
Kosovo’s controversial 2008 declaration
A career foreign service officer, Dugolli was among the first diplomats to establish Kosovo’s missions abroad following the country’s declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008.
Dugolli said he deeply resents the term “unilateral”—which journalists and political observers frequently use to describe Prishtinë’s historic declaration.
“Serbia uses that term constantly to say it was non-consensual. But the legality of our declaration of independence was confirmed by the International Court of Justice,” he explained. “There was a process that went on and on. It was facilitated by the UN envoy, with the widest possible consensus. Then Serbia at the last moment thought they should not sign it. Of course, you cannot make everybody happy. But I think this is the most consensual you can be.”
A graduate of the University of Prishtinë, Dugolli studied at Yale. From 2002 to 2004, he advised the prime minister in Kosovo’s first democratically elected government. In addition, he served as a legal expert during the 2007-08 negotiations on Kosovo’s political status.
Upon independence in 2008, Dugolli was named to head Kosovo’s mission in Brussels as envoy to Belgium, NATO and the EU. From 2013 to 2016, he was posted to Stockholm as ambassador to Sweden, and non-resident ambassador to Norway, Finland, Iceland and the Baltic states.
Dugolli also directed NATO and security policies at Kosovo’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2017-19). He’s participated in various civil society initiatives including the Project on Ethnic Relations, the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development (KIPRED), Democracy for Development (D4D) and the Kosovo-American Education Fund.
Serbian opposition limits global recognition of Kosovo
So far, 117 countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, though 20 or so have since withdrawn that recognition due to political pressure from Serbia and its allies.
The most recent to join the club was Israel, which formalized ties with its new ally on Feb. 3, 2021. In a diplomatic first, the signing ceremony was conducted via Zoom due to the pandemic lockdown; perhaps even more significantly, Kosovo established its embassy in Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv, becoming only the third country in the world to do so after the United States and Guatemala.
Nevertheless, half a dozen of the world’s biggest nations have held back—Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Russia—along with five EU member states: Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain.
“We’re proud that the overwhelming majority of the democratic world has formally recognized our right to exist. We have all the elements that are required: territory, population and a government,” Dugolli said. “On top of that, for anyone who has doubts or tries to question the legality of our independence, it was the International Court of Justice that made very clear that our declaration of independence was in full accordance with international law.”
Yet Serbia still considers Kosovo an integral part of its territory, and most Serbs are vehemently opposed to international recognition of what they consider to be a breakaway province of Serbia.
In an April 2021 interview, Serbia’s ambassador in Washington, Marko Đurić, dismissed suggestions that Kosovo will eventually prevail and win the backing of countries that have still withheld diplomatic recognition.
Economic priorities for 2022
“For Serbs, Kosovo is the cradle of our identity. It is the place where our medieval kings and saints are buried. It is also a place where very resilient Serbian communities still survive as a minority. Serbs consider Kosovo part of our territory,” he said. “At the same time, Serbia is very much aware of the realities we face. We are open for discussion on a compromise to resolve the Kosovo issue and bring lasting peace and stability to the region.”
Đurić added that “Kosovo needs a solution to this conflict even more than we do. We have a growing economy, while in Kosovo the unemployment rate is 30%. Unfortunately, [Kosovo’s] government has set their red lines at an impossibly high level. They just want to have it all.”
According to a country assessment report by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the following are key priorities for Kosovo in 2022:
- Further improvements in the business environment and public governance are needed. The private sector would benefit from the government cutting red tape, reforming business inspections and fighting corruption.
- More progress toward a green transformation of the energy sector is critical. Further efforts are needed in implementing the auctions systems in renewables, introducing a competitive market-based system to award new licenses and exploring the potential of gas as a transition fuel instead of the old lignite power plants, which should be
- Financial stability should be monitored carefully. The financial sector withstood
the recession well but non-performing loans (NPLs) could rise with the phasing out of regulatory measures and government support.
Dugolli concedes that unemployment in Kosovo is high, but he blames external factors for that.
“Freedom of movement still remains an issue,” he said. “Students and businesspeople are still limited in their ability to travel to the Schengen area [comprising 26 European countries that have abolished all borders among themselves], despite Kosovo having fulfilled all the criteria. This is because of the lack of political will on the part of the EU.”
Bilateral support for Kosovo in Washington
He also blames Serbia for many of Kosovo’s most basic problems, starting with the 1998-99 war fought between Yugoslavia (by then consisting only of Serbia and Montenegro) and a rebel group known as the Kosovo Liberation Army. NATO air strikes in March 1999 ended the war, which left 13,500 people killed or missing, and turned an estimated 1.2 million Albanian-speaking Kosovars and 200,000 Serbs, Romani and other non-Albanians into refugees.
“Our people were overexploited and repressed for decades. This brutal war destroyed everything,” he said. “Despite all this, Kosovo is functioning, and tries to deliver as much as possible. Obviously there are many needs, but it’s impossible to meet them all at once. But when you look at how much we’ve achieve—when you look at our vibrant democracy and the way it functions—everybody recognizes a huge leap in progress.”
Dugolli said he’s encouraged by the “long history of bipartisan support for Kosovo” by lawmakers in Congress.
“Both sides of the aisle, whether Democrats or Republicans, have always been engaged—before the war, during the war when they let the NATO coalition end the genocide, and after the war, helping us rebuild the country in our struggle for independence,” he said. “We have always had significant engagement by the US, and during the brutal repression of the ‘90s, it was the United States who paid attention and tried to help us under very dire circumstances.”
In late July, tensions flared anew when protestors parked trucks filled with gravel on the roads leading to two border crossings after Kosovo’s government approved a regulation obliging ethnic Serbs in the north of the country to apply for Kosovo-issued license plates.
At present, some 50,000 Serbs use license plates and documents issued by Serbian authorities because they refuse to recognize official Kosovar institutions. The crisis was defused only after Prishtinë postponed implementation of the new law.
“There hasn’t been much progress or significant shift in Serbia’s attitude toward Kosovo and other neighbors,” he said. “The hegemonic attitudes are still there. And that makes it difficult to have normal relations with them.”
Nevertheless, on Aug. 27, Serbia and Kosovo resolved the immediate dispute through a dialogue facilitated by the EU, under which Serbia agreed to abolish entry/exit documents for Kosovo ID holders, and Kosovo agreed to not introduce them for Serbian ID holders.
“Citizens of our republic may now travel to Serbia freely as equals,” Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said in a tweet. Yet Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić made clear that there would be a disclaimer posted on all border crossings stating that the acceptance of Kosovo ID cards would be done “exclusively for practical reasons, to make it easier for individuals and to enable the freedom of movement.”