the dilemma of legitimacy of the European engagement in Kosovo

Prishtina building mirroring in a glass facade
Photo: Christian Diemer
Prishtina, a city of contrasts: a historical minaret and a Soviet-style block of flats mirrored in a glass facade.

Prishtina, a rainy October day. A small conference room in the Eulex headquarters. EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (Eulex), Europe's largest civilian mission ever launched is supposed to solve the country's most urgent problems: corruption, organised crime, maladministration. A judge at the Kosovo Supreme Court meets a group of visitors. He is a brisk, sarky German who seems to have got over most of the ill-will linked with his job.

A Judge and A young Kosovarian

But then, out of the blue, there is a young Kosovarian in the audience, yelling at the judge: "You and your 2,000 European colleagues, why don't you help us, why don't you do anything, why don't you do your job, it's your job, you're well paid for it!" The Eulex judge does not like the argument nor the way the young Kosovarian puts it forward, one can see that at once. And he seems even less amused as this is not the first time has heard such a thing. But the young man is angered, his voice shakes with emotion. And also the judge is sensitive, his attitude hardened. Cutting the air with sweeping gestures, he replies with an alarmingly raised voice: "No, my friend, it's your country, you had the independence party, you throw the garbage on the street, you don't give a shit! And corruption is a sort of garbage as well! It drives me mad when I hear that bullshit: I do not have to pick up your garbage! Never has a Kosovarian asked me 'how could I help you fight organised crime in my country?' No, they ask me 'when will we become part of the EU?' – if it's a cab driver I don’t dare, but to anyone else I say, 'what the hell do you want with the EU!'"

The price for security and stability in Kosovo is high. The price is rule of law.

This conflict is typical for the country's muddled situation. A decade after the war with Serbia that led to the setup of the international administration in 1999 and to the declaration of independence in 2008, the country is still far from what one could call normality. While in the headquarters of Eulex, ICO, Kfor and OSCE, those in authority are reluctant to be tied down to a date of their withdrawal, there is a groundswell of criticism towards their work and towards the legitimacy of their presence at all.

Kosovo, also Kosova/Kosovë (Albanian), Kosovo/Косово (Serbo-Croat). A landlocked area on the West Balkan of about the size of Cyprus or a quarter of Switzerland, with a population of about 1.8 million people.
Capital: Prishtina, 550,000 inhabitants. Language: Albanian and Serbian.
Currency: Euro (not part of the currency union).
National anthem: Evropa (Europe), Ode to Joy.

17.2.2008: Unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo. Recognised by 22 of 27 EU countries and 69 of 172 UN members. Following a Serbian initiative the declaration's legitimacy is in disputation at the International Court of Justice.

UNMIK: United Nations Mission in Kosovo. In 1999 NATO decided to invade the then Serbian autonomous province of Kosovo to build a UN protectorate, after brutal oppression by the Serbian Milošević regime and by militant separatist movements had escalated in 1996. www.unmikonline.org

EULEX: European Union Rule Of Law Mission. In 2008 EULEX took over most of UNMIK's tasks, maintaining a neutral position concerning Kosovo's independence. 1,950 international and 1,250 local co-workers employed under a budget of 265 million Euro. www.eulex-kosovo.eu/en/front/

KFOR: Kosovo Force, NATO-led peace-keeping force in Kosovo since 1999. Troops have been reduced from 60,000 below 10,000. www.nato.int/kfor/

OSCE: Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe. Has its largest field operation in Kosovo since 1999 promoting human rights and rule of law. www.osce.org/kosovo/

ICO: International Civilian Office. Invited by Kosovo with declaration of independence providing „international support for a European future for Kosovo“ (www.ico-kos.org/). Assists the work of the…

…ICR: International Civilian Representative for Kosovo. Currently the Dutch diplomat Pieter Feith. He is at the same time „double-hatted“ as…

…EUSR: European Union Special Representative in Kosovo.

The question of legitimacy

Legitimacy seems to be the crucial point from the beginning. The United Nations resolution on which the international administration's commitment is legally based explicitly does not specify the legal status of Kosovo. Out of 192 UN members, only 65 are willing to acknowledge Kosovo as a state of its own. Russia and China are the mightiest opponents to the country’s independence. Within Europe it is Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia that still consider Kosovo to be Serbian, most likely fearing separatist tendencies in their own backyard. The case is before the UN's court in Den Haag.

A problem of social structures

And that's not the only problem. The social structures in Kosovo constitute an even more profound obstacle to a working rule of law as foreseen by the Europeans. "That people live in clan structures here, that does not mean they are all dumb", the Eulex judge explains. The problem is different, they must rely on others: "How else can they live on a 40 euro income? But this also means that you have a relatively low individuality rate. Imagine there is someone who has witnessed everything. We ask him in court, 'did you witness this and that?‘ – 'No.' – 'How do you know it then?' – 'Everyone knows.' – We walk against a wall of silence."

Witness protection programs are stillborn in a country with 1.8 million inhabitants and extended family connections, where everyone knows everyone. And no European government, of course, would want to explain to its citizens that it is necessary to host and protect Kosovarian witnesses from the milieu of organised crime abroad. "When you mention that in Brussels, they all look at the ground and no one says a word." Though this is exactly when the mission becomes untrustworthy: fostering democracy in post-war Kosovo, yes of course – but obviously no one wants to deal too closely with the tricky details.

A Kosovarian judge earns between 320 and 350 euros. The Eulex judge's salary is 15 times higher. "Come on, we can’t earn less here than we would at home. And there are too few people anyway that are idiotic enough to come here instead of every morning driving to a nice court office in Münster [a small German town] by bike!" But even he cannot deny that the wage difference is indeed a problem. "What else should the Kosovarian judge do if not become corrupt?" The price for security and stability in Kosovo is high. The price is rule of law." The judge tells us that his only motivation for this job is to exercise an exemplary function. For whom remains unclear.

The rebel against Eulex

Prishtina, another October day, but a different world. A tree-shaded backyard, no security control, no barrier, no visitor’s pass. The man waiting there is a sporty, youthful figure in jeans and a pullover, a trained electro-mechanic of slight build who says he learned his English from watching movies. "Albin Kurti, just call me Albin." he says. You would hardly guess that this inconspicuous person is the spearhead of an increasing movement of criticism, maybe the most incalculable and unpleasant activist against the international administration's commitment in Kosovo. Kurti is the leader of the extra-parliamentary opposition organization "Vetëvendosje". "Vetëvendosje" means "self-determination", and you can hear and see at once that he is serious about that.

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A rebel's work

"In 1999, UNMIK and KFOR were met by the people of Kosova as saviours and liberators. Today, people are realising more and more that the continued international rule over us is blocking our economic and political development and is not preserving the rights of the population"

- Albin Kurti, activist

"The majority of the population is grateful for the presence of KFOR and enjoys getting into conversation with the soldiers."

- Uwe Schmelzeis, KFOR Prizren

On virtually every second house in Prishtina, even on police stations, there is graffiti from his partisans: "UNMIK/EUMIK" (UN / EU Mission In Kosovo) crossed out, or "Eulex – made in Serbia." Kurti is behind this, Kurti is behind other protests. "It's not an easy job to organise for hundreds of eggs – and they all have to be rotten! – to be thrown at some international who is passing by, at exactly the right moment", he confesses. "Once we had seventy bottles of paint for the parliament building, hidden in the car of a Kosovarian MP. He was then dismissed."

Kurti's speaking has the hectic, agitating nervousness of someone who sees himself surrounded by an inscrutable spoils system of liars and cheaters. The man is driven by the idea that the EU invests 265 million euros, the Eulex budget, in order to appease Serbia by cementing a miserable status quo in Kosovo. Instead of regulating Kosovo to death without changing anything, so he claims, the international administration ought to use their potential to foster economic and social development, send professors and doctors instead of diplomats and power brokers. "An investor likes no government. But there are four governments in Kosovo: the Kosovarian government, the EU Special Representative, the International Civilian Office and Eulex. The boarders are unclear and invite smuggling, and the country’s crisis is managed, not solved, and 'managed' means just kept from exploding: they don't touch any higher corrupt person, due to the paradigm of stability. I would not invest in a country with four governments, smuggling and a danger of exploding!"

no_eulex written on a wall in kosovo
Photo: Christian Diemer
Anti-EULEX-graffiti in Prishtina by "Vetëvendosje", Albin Kurti's partisan organisation. "Positive change in Kosova will not come from above or from unaccountable international rulers – change will come from the people through determined, non-violent realisation of our right to self-determination", he says.

The internationals' relation to Kosovo

The internationals don’t take Kurti for much more than Kosovo's enfant terrible, a necessary evil to be ignored at best. Still, even the German ambassador in Kosovo can't convincingly explain why taxation policy in favour of Serbia puts up with the result that Kosovarian products can't match the Serbian ones, or why alleged "technical problems" with the boarder security – one of the tasks of Eulex – expel Kosovo from a European visa liberation from which Serbia and Macedonia, no less or more corrupt than Kosovo, have recently benefited.

What is Europe's legitimation, when it sends out people who will bring democracy, rule of law, stability to others? And what if they simply don’t work there? What if the people there don’t want them? What if, for example, in a country it is not the state that has the protector’s role, but the family? What if clan solidarity is more valuable to its people than respect for international human right agreements and democratic structures imposed on it from the outside?

One might sometimes sense arrogance in the way the internationals talk about the Kosovarians throwing their garbage on the street, unwilling to take over ownership of the country. On the other hand, the condemnation of the international’s work often seems unfair and ungrateful: only a decade ago there was war here. Nowadays, Prishtina is safer than most European capitals. There are bars everywhere, young people stroll along the long, though somehow rural pedestrian precinct. Up ahead are the mountains that enclose Prishtina; gable houses with flower-boxes sharply contrast with the muezzin calls from the basin in which the city is situated. A vivid town, anonymous and familiar at the same time.

More or less Eulex

The answers to the question of legitimacy are mostly unheard in Europe, they sound bitter, and moreover, they are controversial. Some, like the young Kosovarian in the Eulex head-quarters, cry for help, for more Eulex. Others, like Albin Kurti, cry for freedom, for less Eulex; they want to embark on the risky experiment of autonomy, true autonomy. "When they put me in prison", he says, "they let me choose which bed I wanted to sleep in. I said I wanted to get out of prison. 'No, no, no. But which bed do you want to sleep in?' – That's how you Europeans treat Kosovo. We are contained and suffocated in the same way, we are dying." Kurti was last imprisoned two weeks ago.

The Eulex judge says: "What grinds, but runs, can run for the time being, like an old car. It won't become a Mercedes, but it won’t help either if you put aluminium wheels on it."

He is the only one of the three who could afford them.


The UN's court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), ruled on 22nd of July that Kosovo's declaration of independence did not violate international law. You can find the full decision here.

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