Kosovo: Six years of independence

Where does Kosovo stand in international arena? The Key Mechanisms and Factors behind Diplomatic Recognition

International Recognition in the scope of the UN

Kosovo, one of the world’s newest states finally declared its independence on the 17th of February 2008, becoming the seventh state to emerge from the former Soviet republic of Yugoslavia. A small country situated in the Western Balkan region, Kosovo has about 2 million inhabitants, of whom 90% are ethnic Albanians.

For a newly independent state like Kosovo, gaining diplomatic recognition is not easy. There are a seemingly infinite number of variables that lie behind achieving such recognition, from political, geopolitical and economic ideologies to social and religious beliefs, and many more besides.

As a pure political and interest based decision, diplomatic recognition is the reason why new entities run a rough competitive process of lobbying to receive and increase the number of recognitions. But perhaps the most crucial criteria in diplomatic recognition is the potential interests and benefits that a recognizing state will face afterwards.

The current international order is quite consolidated; the existing states set their diplomatic ties and cooperate based on their interests. Similarly, when dealing with a country with an unsettled political status such as Kosovo, the international community also takes into consideration common and individual interests. As such, recognizing a new state that could potentially jeopardize the system can be very costly for the recognizer.

On top of this, every UN member state signs the UN Charter, a part of which requires that respect be given for every other member state’s sovereignty. Thus any state that recognizing a new entity that has broken from or emerged out of an existing sovereign state runs the risk of being in potential breach of the charter.

There are, however, numerous factors and mechanisms that can alter according to the case and status of an issue as determined by international law to help a recognizing state to grant diplomatic recognition.

In Kosovo’s case, the international community has been divided and the number of recognitions granted to Kosovo so far is not sufficient for a UN membership. As a result, so far as the international community is concerned, Kosovo does not possess the status of a sovereign nation.

The key mechanisms and factors behind diplomatic recognition in case of Kosovo

From early 1998 to mid-1999, Kosovo endured a brutal war fought between the Serbia which controlled Kosovo before the war, with air support from NATO. On the 11th of June 1999, the Kumanovo Treaty brought the war to an end but Kosovo’s battle for independence and diplomatic recognition did not begin immediately after the ceasefire.

Indeed, even the idea of independence had yet to take hold. First it began to seek support and form allies; it was only during this period when the actual idea of independence from Serbia began to take shape.

Nearly a decade after the end of the war, Kosovo declared its independence on the 17th of February 2008 and began to establish its government and institutions, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as the main body responsible for establishing international diplomatic relations.

Kosovo’s independence declaration was expected to bring peace in the Balkan region, but in fact did the exact opposite and created turmoil in international affairs.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) did not manage to have a common position on whether or not to approve or disapprove Kosovo’s claims of becoming independent and a sovereign state member of international bodies. Without a common decision, each state within the international community had to decide how to respond unilaterally to the Kosovo declaration. This political attitude created more positioning and disputes in international relations rather than settling the problem. As a result, the political and diplomatic status of Kosovo still remains disputed and receives no unilateral international recognition nor an international status.

To make matters worse, Serbia still claims sovereignty over the territory of Kosovo which has the effect of making the diplomatic battle for recognition move in two different directions. Kosovo on the one hand struggles for more international recognition and to maintain its current diplomatic ties, while Serbia on the other hand, constantly develops campaigns against Kosovo’s independence by lobbying to gain more support from the sceptical nations by calling for non-recognition of Kosovo’s “illegal” secession.

To date, Kosovo’s Declaration of independence has been formally recognized by 106 UN member states while the main supporters are from Western Europe and the USA. However, it has been rejected by Russia and China, while the rest of the international community has remained silent and undecided. This group of undecided states is the main target of the Serbian and Kosovar governments in their recognition battle.

The case of Kosovo: the legal dispute and domino effect

The case of Kosovo has been a laudable and complicated issue in international law; many would agree that the international community has failed to solve the case. The main problem is that the rules and principles set by a number of international covenants on self-determination and secession leave room for discussions and interpretations from different points of view. On top of this there was no clarity whether these principles could be used for the case of Kosovo, so the issue was treated as a unique or unprecedented case in international law (Ober & Williams, 2006, pp. 110-111). This legal confusion left room for the third party, in this instance the other states, to reproduce and interpret international law in the case of Kosovo based on their interests and positions in the international arena.

According to liberalist theory, how states act in the international arena depends on domestic conditions and interest. Therefore, every decision in foreign politics has to be in parallel with the national interest (Slaughter, 2000, p. 241). In the case of diplomatic recognition of Kosovo, the recognizing state must also take into consideration the so-called domino effect and whether such an action would cause domestic implications.

Facts have shown that the states most likely to reject Kosovo are those with similar domestic problems; Spain, for example, having the unsolved case of the Basque and Catalan regions (Summers, 2004, p. 428). Hence, statistics show that countries with domestic unresolved political and separatist disputes (e.g. Spain, Russia and China) strongly oppose Kosovo’s declaration with the fear that it would set a precedent and lead to the domino effect – i.e. the eventual recognition of their own internal separatist groups (Researcher, 2011, pp. 32-33).

How the Kosovo case was viewed by countries in the international community varied. A number of decided to consider the case of Kosovo as a precedent while others viewed it as a unique oddity in international law. Another group made up of UN members [1], consider that the legal aspect of the declaration breaches the main principle of the UN Charter as the territorial integrity of Serbia was breached (Castle, 2008). A further group [2] call for further negotiations and discussions over the situation with the purpose of reaching the final decision (Summers, 2004, p. 296).

It is clear that one of the main factors that every potential recognizing state takes into consideration before any diplomatic recognition is what domestic repercussions recognizing a new state will have. In the case of Kosovo this is especially true due to the fear of causing a domino effect combined with the country’s disputed legal status.

Democratic Solidarity and Human Rights

In the case of Kosovo, the democratic solidarity and human rights factors have consistently been seen as the most common factors behind diplomatic recognition. Democratic solidarity refers to the first group of states that recognized Kosovo immediately after its declaration of independence in 2008 (Harris & Kuperman, 2007). While most countries stressed that their decisions on diplomatic recognition were made for political reasons, the “democratic solidarity” group [3] stressed the importance of peace and security in the Balkan region. Many of these recognizing countries, including Albania (Kaufman, 2013, p. 139) and the UK (Thakur & Schnabel, 2000, p. 136), also noted that the Kosovo situation put an end to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the series of conflicts seen during this period in the Balkans.

By far the most common reasons given for countries giving diplomatic recognition to Kosovo have been human rights, democracy and peace and security in the Balkan region. Very often the declaration has been considered to be an exceptional case in international law, not comparable with other existing cases. Many countries also pointed out that the case of Kosovo cannot be fully explained by current international law.

Religious and geopolitical factor behind recognition

Besides human rights and peace and security, there are two other important factors in Kosovo’s struggle to gain diplomatic recognition: religion and geopolitics. Both are intentionally incorporated alongside each other in the list of key mechanisms behind Kosovo’s recognition but are also considered double-edged swords, giving Kosovo both favourable and unfavourable results.

In terms of religion, a secular country with two main religious groups, Islamic and Christian (Government, 2008, p. Art 1) located in eastern Europe provides the opportunity to lobby for recognition in two directions, to the western world that has provided Kosovo with much support and to the middle east, a region that has promising opportunities such as the Arab League.

However, despite all the efforts, lobbying and expectations in receiving recognition based on its Islamic population, only 11 out of 22 member of Arab League recognized Kosovo (Ker-Lindsay, 2012, pp. 144-145).  Most Islamic States already had a position towards Kosovo and the religious factor was not mentioned or included as a determining factor in the process of developing diplomatic relations.

The Balkan region that Kosovo is a part of is a territory that was historically known for being under Soviet power. However, with the support of the US, Kosovo has helped define a new and different geopolitical landscape in the Balkan region (Abazi, 2008, p. 2). Kosovo’s independence had a significant impact on diplomatic relations between the US and Russia after the Cold War Era by setting new diplomatic and security relations between the US, EU and Russia. Nevertheless, in terms of gaining diplomatic support and recognition, the situation has been quite different; as previously mentioned, Kosovo has received diplomatic recognition and strong support from the western world while the rest of the world has been sceptical.

This issue can be explained primarily by the fact that most of the countries that make up the rest of the world were not part of the conflict and the dispute settlement. For them, the issue of Kosovo will not affect or produce a specific and personal political outcome. As a result many states decided to prioritize their own domestic problems and issues rather than helping to solve the diplomatic issues of other states, in this case of a state most likely located on the other side of the world, that will not produce any noticeable benefit for itself.

Six years after the independence, where does Kosovo stand?

Only a couple weeks ago from the time of writing, Kosovo celebrated its sixth anniversary as an independent country. However, six years after the declaration, Kosovo remains in a diplomatic limbo; it still does not have a seat in the United Nations and is unable to be represented in the international arena as a fully independent state. The UN “Big Five” remain staunch in their positions on the issue and despite the fact that Kosovo received a number of recognitions from smaller states, most of them are small and carry little weight in the international arena.

Some of the most important UN members have withheld recognition, either by silence or explicit rejection. While countries like Brazil, China and India have refused to recognize the new country, Russia as the most laudable opponent vowed to veto any kind of resolution that would help clarify Kosovo’s status or a potential seat at the UN.

While Kosovo is fighting an ultimate battle for international legitimacy, issues such as European Integration and membership of the major international organizations is being kept on hold. Six years after the act of independence Kosovo is still struggling to get an international status and aiming the ultimate goal – a seat at the UN.

*Cover Image Panorama of Newborn (Independence) Sculpture – Pristina – Kosovo by Adam Jones


[1]Argentina, Belarus, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Cyprus and Greece

[2]Argentina, Brazil, Comoros, Chile, China, Georgia, India, Iran, Jordan, Laos, Vietnam, Kuwait, Mexico, Philippines, Singapore and South Africa

[3]Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Montenegro, Macedonia, Lithuania, France and Turkey. All the recognition texts from these states are published in the following website: http://www.kosovothanksyou.com/ (Retrieved on June 2013.

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