Kosovo: between a ‘political club’ and a ‘divided house'

Gëzim Krasniqi
A motive from Pristina

This is an extended summary of a longer paper that was originally published in the CITSEE Working Paper Series  and is available for download here.

Citizenship has been a central issue in Kosovo’s state-building agenda, which aims to serve as a link between a war-torn community of people and a new polity based on principles of equality and all inclusiveness, and as a tool of political integration within the new political entity, which aims at replacing ethnic, religious and social divisions. In the case of Kosovo, a country facing an acute problem in trying to balance the need to protect minority rights (such as cultural and political autonomy) with the political homogeneity and functionality of the new state, the complex issue of citizenship can best be analysed using Christian Joppke’s identification of three aspects of citizenship: citizenship as status, citizenship as rights, and citizenship as identity. ‘Status’ denotes formal state membership and rules to access this; ‘rights’ is both about ‘classical’ civic, political and social rights, as well as about the new generation of rights, namely multicultural recognition; ‘identity’ refers to the behavioural dimension of individuals at a time when state membership and identity often diverge.

Up until independence in 2008, Kosovo had a long and often interrupted history of the transformation of citizenship from one regime to another. Throughout the twentieth century, Kosovo experienced different phases of political development and different citizenship regimes: the imperial Ottoman citizenship regime until 1912, the unitary citizenship of the royal Yugoslavia, the federal citizenship in the socialist Yugoslavia coupled with Serbian republican citizenship (during which there was a quasi-citizenship regime in Kosovo between 1974 and 1989), the new federal citizenship arrangement in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1992 – 1999), and finally the UN-administered quasi-citizenship regime until 2008.

Politics and Citizenship in the New State

After 15 rounds of negotiations over the future status of Kosovo (mediated by Martti Ahtisaari in the capacity of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General of the United Nations) there was no compromise in sight, which did not stop the elected deputies of the Kosovo parliament declaring independence on 17 February 2008, based on the Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement (known as the Ahtisaari Plan). The UN Security Council, however, never endorsed the proposal. This resulted in limited international recognition – as of March 2011, only 75 UN Member States have recognised Kosovo’s independence. Kosovo was declared “to be a democratic, secular and multi-ethnic republic, guided by the principles of non-discrimination and protection under the law.” Shortly thereafter, the Kosovar Assembly adopted a whole package of basic statehood laws, including the Law on Citizenship, in this way setting up the contours of an autonomous citizenship regime, the first in Kosovar history.

Citizenship as status

Multi-ethnicity is the keyword of the Ahtisaari Plan, Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence and the Kosovar Constitution, which is why Kosovo, despite being 90% Albanian, is not defined as the national state of its titular nation, but a multi-ethnic state of all citizens, guided by principles of non-discrimination and equal protection under the law of all communities. Its citizens are tied to the new country based on a common citizenship, rather than on their national belonging or descent. Based on its legislation, Kosovo is imagined, using Michael Walzer’s typology, as a ‘French political club’ rather than a ‘German family home’. In this case, citizenship aims at replacing divisions of ethnicity, religion or social status, therefore serving as a mechanism of ensuring equality before the law. As far as the new law on citizenship is concerned, its defining characteristics are application of the ‘new state’ model and the principle of de-ethnicisation. Unlike in other post-socialist states, the international community that has been supervising Kosovo since 1999 has had a major say in the tone and the content of the new citizenship regime.

In the absence of a previous autonomous citizenship regime on which it could be legally based, Kosovo’s only viable solution was to opt for what Rogers Brubaker calls the ‘new state’ model, used by some post-Soviet states, which constructs the citizenry of a new state mainly on the residency criteria. All residents thus become citizens automatically. For Kosovo, residency on its territory on 1 January 1998 is the major criteria for acquisition of its citizenship. The principle of dual citizenship is especially important in the case of Kosovo and was introduced mainly to accommodate the needs of the Serb minority in Kosovo (but also many Albanians living in diaspora).

Citizenship as rights

Despite the fact that constitutionally Kosovo is defined as ‘a state of its citizens’ (Article 1.2), meaning a civic state, ‘multi-ethnicity’ is the keyword in both the Ahtisaari Plan and the Kosovar Constitution itself. This approach is visible in the flag and symbols of the new state, designed also by the international community: the geographical shape of Kosovo suggests its territorial and civic nature and 6 stars above it, the equality of 6 constitutive ethnic groups. The dominating blue and yellow colours, joined by the white stars, as in the case of Bosnia’s post-Dayton symbols, are supposed to signal the country’s ‘European future’.

If equality is established legally among all citizens, politically every citizen is defined as a member of a community. The term community in this case refers to ‘inhabitants belonging to the same national or ethnic, linguistic, or religious group traditionally present on the territory of the Republic of Kosovo’ (Article 57.1 of the Constitution). By refusing to recognise exclusions, loyalties or claims of ancestral rights, the new Kosovar Constitution defends the universalist values of civic republicanism and individual liberalism and also speaks out for group rights (communities) and defends their exclusivity and group differentiated rights. Certainly, in the case of Kosovo we have de-ethnicisation of state institutions on the one hand, but on the other a multi-ethnic composition of the society that is reflected in its politics i.e. ethnicisation of citizens’ political and social status. As a result, we have at the same time neutral civic state institutions, and yet the very functioning of the state is based on multi-ethnicity (the neutral state being there to ensure that no group will dominate or be discriminated against).

Kosovo’s enhanced legislative framework grants a vast array of rights and protection to its non-dominant communities. These rights were enshrined in the Ahtisaari Plan (Annex II), the Constitution of Kosovo (Chapter II and III), Law on Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Interests of Communities and their Members in the Republic of Kosovo and other laws, which derive from the Ahtisaari Plan and are of “vital interest” to communities. Throughout the first months after February 2008, the protection of the rights and interests of minority communities was of central concern to the Kosovar institutions. To that end, Kosovo has provided for a wide network of institutions and mechanisms dealing with human and minority rights.

Citizenship as identity

In many respects, Kosovo is a ‘post-national state’ where state membership and identity are decoupled, with the state being unable to impose a particular identity on its citizens. Certainly, this affects other essential issues such as state cohesion, because a state that provides for liberalised citizenship and extensive minority rights often faces problems of unity and post-conflict integration. In a situation where recognition of group rights seems to perpetuate group differences, the state of Kosovo obviously lacks a necessary integrative ideology.

As far as ordinary people are concerned in Kosovo, they seem to be divided based on ethno-national belonging and pledge loyalty to their ethnic nations or their kin-states. The paradox resides in the fact that many Kosovar Albanians do not consider Kosovo (including its legal framework and state iconography) to reflect its overwhelming Albanian majority whereas most of the Serbs consider it to be ‘an Albanian state’. This is why both Albanians and Serbs continue to prefer their respective national symbols (Albania’s and Serbia’s respective iconography) over the new Kosovar ones. Kosovar Albanians are divided between a minority who promote the idea of a Kosovar nation and those who think that Kosovar Albanians are simultaneously an indivisible part of the Albanian nation in the Balkans and also Kosovar citizens. Indeed, the term ‘Kosovar’ has acquired many meanings in everyday use.

Contested statehood and mobility

One of the biggest problems in relation to Kosovo is its contested statehood, both internally and externally. As regards the international aspect, Kosovo’s declared independence in February 2008 has been fiercely opposed by Serbia, Russia and Spain. This opposition and the very unilateral character of its declaration of independence (without approval from either Serbia or the UN Security Council) have resulted in limited recognition of Kosovo’s sovereignty and independence thus far. Although Kosovo has succeeded in becoming a member of the World Bank and of the International Monetary Fund, it needs broader recognition to apply for membership in major international political organisations such as the UN, OSCE and the Council of Europe. Internally, many Kosovo’s Serbs, backed by the Serbian state, have opposed the new state. Consequently, Kosovo’s sovereignty is limited in some areas of the country, especially in northern Kosovo around the town of Mitrovica, which is under the de facto control of Serbia.

Another aspect of Kosovo’s limited international sovereignty is related to the issue of mobility. Due to the fact that Kosovo’s passports are not recognised universally, its holders face various travel restrictions. Visas are needed for almost every country; many countries do not even recognise the Kosovar travel documents, even within the region. Though Kosovars can travel freely to Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro, they cannot even enter Serbia or Bosnia. Consequently, Kosovo remains one of the most isolated countries on earth. Though the other countries in the Western Balkans now have free visa travel with the EU, Kosovo still does not even have even a roadmap for visa liberalisation. Moreover, in the case of the visa liberalisation with Serbia, according to the Commission’s proposal and the EU decision, residents of Kosovo holding a Serbian passport issued by the Coordination Directorate in Belgrade will still need a visa to enter the Schengen zone. This includes both Serbs and Albanians from Kosovo who have Serbian passports. Since Serbia considers all Kosovar residents to be Serbian citizens, exclusion of Kosovar residents from the visa free regime is a clear case of discrimination on behalf of Serbia against one part of what it considers to be its citizenry.

After declaring independence, Kosovo invited the EU to deploy a rule of law mission in Kosovo, but because of the lack of consensus at the UN and the EU (Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia refuse to recognise Kosovo’s independence), EULEX (European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo) was deployed in Kosovo ‘under the general framework of the United Nations Security Council’. Despite the fact that Kosovo hosts the biggest ever EU Mission abroad, its relations with the EU are highly complicated. The EU’s ‘status neutral’ approach prevents Kosovo from establishing the types of contractual relations with the EU that the other states in the Western Balkans possess. Though one of the main aims of the EU presence in Kosovo is to ‘support Kosovo's European integration,’ Kosovo lacks far behind other countries of the region in the process of integration. Arguably, it has not even started yet. It is unclear when it will start negotiating the long road towards the EU.

A Rocky Path to Statehood and EU?

Citizenship, understood as status, rights and identity, has been central to the negotiation process and the overall political and constitutional settlement in Kosovo. Unlike some other successor states of Yugoslavia, Kosovo could not and did not use citizenship as a tool of ‘ethnic engineering’ in the context of the state-building process. Rather, it has tried to use citizenship as a tool of integration that replaces pre-existing ethnic divisions and provides a mechanism for ensuring equality before the law. This is the first time in Kosovo’s history that the legal foundation of the state has provided for equality before the law for its entire people without discrimination. In this context, it is easy to see the continued impact of the international actors – be it in the form of direct intervention under UNMIK or of direct supervision under the EULEX and International Civilian Mission —upon citizenship and other related matters.

In the context of the citizenship regime, Kosovar institutions face a double challenge for they have to both build an autonomous regime (as part of a broader state-building process) and harmonise it with international norms. Despite the fact that the legal regime put in place in Kosovo following the declaration of independence in 2008 is in full compliance with most international norms governing citizenship and human rights issues, the current political situation in Kosovo and the overall regional environment imposes various limitations in terms of the application of these laws. Kosovo’s statehood continues to be contested, both internally through the existence of parallel structures in the northern part of the country funded by Serbia, and externally, as a result of the attempts of Serbia and its political allies to undermine Kosovo’s statehood and to block its membership in international organisations. The present situation of overlapping citizenship regimes between Kosovo and Serbia poses additional challenges in relations between the two countries and causes various travel related obstacles and uncertainties for Kosovar citizens.

The EU’s support is vital in Kosovo’s efforts to democratise and integrate with Europe, but as long as the EU remains internally divided when it comes to its relations with Kosovo, and turns a blind eye to Serbia’s interventions and presence in northern Kosovo, the status quo in Kosovo will remain unchallenged for a long time. The state of Kosovo is not only a project of its people; it is also an international project. The failure to make Kosovo a functional state, based on civic principles of equality and non-discrimination, means failure for Kosovo’s leaders, and most importantly, failure of the European Union’s institutional engineering in the Western Balkans.


Gëzim Krasniqi, works at the University of Edinburgh as a Research Assistant on the CITSEE project. He is undertaking his PhD in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh.

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