In Pristina, lawmakers discuss Kosovo’s reforms, the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine on the Western Balkans and the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration prospects

18 October 2022

Photos of the visit

The impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine on the security situation in the Western Balkans cannot be underestimated given political fragility and persistent tensions in parts of the region. Despite difficult circumstances, however, Kosovo has made progress in building an open, democratic and free market society and has done so with an eye towards deepening links to the Euro-Atlantic community of nations. This was a central theme of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s (NATO PA) 102nd Rose-Roth Seminar, held in Pristina on 8-10 October 2022. The seminar brought together 45 parliamentarians from NATO and partner countries to discuss the security, political and economic situation in Kosovo, Euro-Atlantic integration and ongoing security and political challenges for the Western Balkans. 

The war in Ukraine has encouraged NATO allies to refocus attention on the Western Balkans and to communicate to the region that its future lies in the Euro-Atlantic community, at least for the countries dedicated to moving in this direction. That said, continued reforms are needed to galvanise this process. In a video message to the gathered delegations, NATO PA President Gerald E. Connolly (United States), precisely stressed this point: “Our security is intricately intertwined”, he said, “that’s why the Western Balkans and European-Atlantic nations must work together toward overcoming the challenges facing the region as well as countering the destabilising influence of autocratic powers such as Russia and China.”

In her remarks, Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu acknowledged the threats posed by Russia to the security and stability of the region. As for the situation in Kosovo itself, she indicated that the NATO-led KFOR mission remains indispensable to Kosovo’s security and noted that 80% of the public support the presence of NATO troops in the country 23 years after NATO deployed there.

Both Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Speaker of the Assembly Glauk Konjufca outlined Kosovo’s ultimate intention to join Euro-Atlantic structures and stressed that from Pristina’s perspective this is the only viable direction. “We have no alternative but to integrate into NATO and the European Union”, Prime Minister Kurti said. As part of the Western orientation, Kosovar leadership is strongly advocating EU visa liberalisation, membership in the Council of Europe and joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace, he added. Prime Minister Kurti told the delegates that his government aims to increase defence spending from its current level of 1.4% of GDP to the NATO target of 2% of GDP. Kosovo now sees itself as a security provider, he remarked, noting that the government, for example, has provided supported to Ukraine. He pointed out that NATO not only works to prevent violence in his country but also to promote democratic values and consolidate societal achievements that are threatened by an expansionist Russia and other autocratic forces.

In discussions with Kosovo’s Minister of Defence, Armend Mehaj, and in a visit to the Kosovo Security Forces Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) in Ferizaj, NATO PA lawmakers learned about ongoing reforms of the Kosovo Security Forces which aim to bring these forces up to NATO standards, to increase readiness and to enhance interoperability with NATO. NATO allies work closely with the KSF and have supported both training and structural reforms that better align it with NATO countries, while ensuring that responsibilities remain clearly delineated between the KSF and NATO’s KFOR, which is responsible for maintaining a safe and secure environment throughout Kosovo based on United Nations Security Council resolution 1244 (1999). Major General Irfete Spahiu, Inspector General of the Kosovo Security Force, detailed efforts to raise the number of women in the KSF, which currently stands at 11.3%.

Renewed European political focus on the Western Balkans has reinvigorated the EU integration process. During discussions on the next steps for the EU enlargement, AnnaCarin Platon, Head of the EU Pristina mission’s Political, European Integration, and Press and Information Section, argued that the European Union is not complete without the Western Balkans. But candidates and prospective candidate countries have much work to do. Essential political, economic and judiciary reforms must be undertaken if this process is to move forward, Platon suggested.

For its part, Kosovo is making progress in addressing structural problems which, besides status issues, had previously impeded its Euro-Atlantic ambitions. It is telling that in 2021 Pristina moved up 17 places in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, suggested Besnik Bislimi, First Deputy Prime Minister of Kosovo for European Integration, Development and Dialogue. Participants learned that reforms have been implemented across a range of policy areas including justice, security, economic, environmental and education policy. While these reforms move the country closer to its goal of Euro-Atlantic integration, they also have great value in themselves, AnnaCarin Platon noted.

The broader region needs to enhance its resilience in the face of rising energy prices linked in part to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Even if most of the region, outside of Serbia, is not directly dependent on Russia for energy, it remains far too reliant on carbon-based fuels and ageing infrastructure, which leaves it vulnerable as the winter months approach. The challenge lies in managing this energy transition at a moment of deep crisis in energy supplies arising out of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Dimitar Bechev, a Lecturer at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies suggested. 

Several speakers described persistent political challenges to advancing the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue. Tensions between the two have only mounted since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There is a sense in Pristina that the Serbian government has tied itself more tightly to the Putin regime, which has an interest in destabilising the region to distract attention from its war of aggression against Ukraine. Mark Galeotti, Director of Mayak Intelligence, noted that Russia still has numerous options for further horizontal escalation and will continue to follow a policy of the “weaponisation of everything”. “Both NATO and the EU should accordingly respond with urgency and recalibrate their own approach to the region”, he concluded.

Dimitar Bechev, noted, however, that Russia is now on the back foot because of serious setbacks in its military campaign but this has not mitigated its destabilising propaganda campaign in the Western Balkans. Russia, he said, is working to exploit weak spots and cleavages to foster uncertainty and instability where it can. He stressed that both the EU and NATO have particularly important roles to play, not simply in providing a fact-based counter narrative to Russian disinformation, but also in offering a more compelling institutional, economic and security alternative to Russia’s bleak ethno-nationalist, anti-Western vision. 

Marko Prelec, a Consulting Senior Analyst at the International Crisis Group, stressed the need to revitalise political and societal dialogue throughout the Western Balkans and argued European integration ultimately hinges on reconciliation between Pristina and Belgrade as well as among communities in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He argued that Russia cannot have a veto on Kosovo’s Euro-Atlantic integration, adding, however, that part of the decision will lie with the five EU countries that have not recognised Kosovo’s independence. 

During this three-day seminar government officials as well as local and international experts also discussed the rule of law and the fight against corruption, the contribution of women and young people to building regional peace and security, and the evolving economic situation in the Western Balkans in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This seminar was organised in cooperation with the Assembly of Kosovo and with the generous support of the Swiss Government and the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance. The primary objectives of Rose-Roth seminars are to promote exchange and mutual understanding among legislators from Allied and partner nations and to assist partner parliaments in developing tools for effective and democratic parliamentary roles in defence and security policymaking.

Read also