The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Europe’s youngest democracy is a new front in the U.S.-Russia battle of ideas

European Council President Charles Michel, left, looks on before a meeting with Kosovo's prime minister, Albin Kurti, during a visit to Kosovo on June 15. (Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images)
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Russia’s war on Ukraine is forcing all European countries to reconsider their strategic and military relationships. For Kosovo, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression confirms the belief that it needs a more robust partnership with the United States and its allies.

Last month, on the day that Sweden and Finland simultaneously submitted their requests to join NATO, Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti was in Washington to make his case for increased cooperation.

For a country of fewer than 2 million inhabitants that declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, the stakes couldn’t be higher. With 48 Serbian military installations staring across Kosovo’s borders, according to Kurti, it’s little wonder that he sees the fate of his country as a defining front in the ideological confrontation of our times. He considers his region an active but sometimes overlooked battleground in the developing tensions between the United States and Russia.

“There are these two poles in the world. It’s the U.S. and Russia,” Kurti told me. “Putin’s attack on Ukraine is an attempt to sit down with President Biden for a Yalta 2 kind of conference. This is my impression. Let’s divide the world, because if we do not divide the world, we will keep fighting. … This is how he wants to, I believe, frame it.”

The seven nations that comprise the Western Balkans are an integral part of that discussion, both because of their geographic location and the contemporary regional conflicts following the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1992. With large populations of ethnic Serbs living within Kosovo’s borders and vice versa, the potential for civil strife is always present.

Kurti told me he continues to make good-faith attempts at de-escalation with Serbia, but those have led nowhere so far. At the heart of the tension is Serbia’s continued unwillingness to recognize Kosovo as an independent sovereign state.

“I cannot recognize a Serbia which does not recognize me. So there is needed mutual recognition, and we are ready to engage in this dialogue,” Kurti explained.

Kurti said that a peace and non-aggression declaration proposed by Kosovo in 2021 was rejected by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, as was a plan to reciprocally protect minority rights within each other’s borders. Instead, Serbian authorities reportedly began removing Albanians in southern Serbia from voter lists, citing residency claims.

“President Vucic said that, in contrast to Kosovo, Serbia is an example of how minorities should be treated,” Kurti told me. He added, somewhat sarcastically: “I said, ‘Then let’s see how Serbia treats minorities, and I can replicate the model in Kosovo.’ And then he got very angry because I said, ‘Let’s do this reciprocity thing.’ ”

The Kremlin’s support for Serbia is a powerful incentive to Vucic to maintain the status quo. Kosovo is fertile ground for online disinformation campaigns because of weak regulation and nearly nonexistent libel laws, and reports suggest Russian disinformation has attempted to undermine Kosovo’s engagement with the West and boost Serbian narratives about the government.

“Russia is absolutely a threat, doing everything in its power to harm Kosovo,” Reuf Bajrovic, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and former minister of energy for Bosnia and Herzegovina, told me. “It has been slowed because of the heroic Ukrainian efforts to defend itself. … As long as Ukraine is standing, we don’t need to worry about this in the near term, but the threat remains.”

In the new battle over models of civilizations, Kosovo sees itself as a lonely example of successful American intervention in recent times. It is trying to live up to expectations: Elections are held, and democracy watchdogs say they are generally fair. Kosovo has pledged to accept 5,000 Ukrainian refugees. Kosovo also has a fairly open media landscape and made a dramatic leap of 17 places in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.

After some incidents of Kosovo citizens joining Muslim extremist movements in Syria and elsewhere, it has taken action. According to Kurti, some of those fighters were killed in the war, while others are imprisoned in Kosovo, with their wives and children being reintegrated into society through government-funded programs.

“President Putin wants to turn Kosovo into a failed state. … After [what Putin considers] the failure of Afghanistan and Iraq as expressions of U.S. and NATO interventions, only Kosovo has been left, Kurti said. “He wants to consider Kosovo a temporary success. So defending Kosovo is very important.”

What would that look like for Kosovo? A permanent American military presence. Entry into the European Union and recognition from remaining countries of its legitimacy as a nation.

As both the E.U. and NATO see some of their members backslide on democratic commitments — think Hungary, Poland and Turkey — the United States and its European partners should make every possible investment in fostering liberal ideals. Supporting these values in Kosovo, Europe’s youngest democracy, would go a long way toward securing the continent’s democratic future.

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