How the West Built a Failed State in Kosovo

How the West Built a Failed State in Kosovo

Liberal internationalism was after its own prestige, not Kosovars’ well-being.

Since NATO’s intervention in 1999, Kosovo has been the subject of an unprecedented degree of international supervision. UNMIK, EULEX and K-FOR were afforded extensive, and essentially unaccountable, powers to maintain law and order and regulate Kosovo’s economy, judiciary and political system. In per capita terms, Kosovo has received the largest flow of aid ever distributed to a developing country: the international community put twenty-five times more money and fifty times more troops on a per capita basis into post-conflict Kosovo than into post-conflict Afghanistan.

Regularly heralded as a success story, Kosovo is championed by some as proof that not all projects launched under the banner of liberal internationalism fail. Indicatively, Victoria Nuland, U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, recently lauded Kosovo’s “considerable progress” and “political stability,” and expressed her expectation that Kosovo would become “a multi-ethnic country where Kosovo Serbs, Kosovo Albanians, all ethnicities can live in peace, because not only does the region need that but the planet needs it and Kosovo has an opportunity to set that example.”

Yet, despite the hyperbole and the extraordinary scale of the state-building project, Kosovo currently suffers from a crippling array of problems, and bears the hallmarks of a failed state. This could be verified by consulting the Failed State Index but for the fact that—illustrative of its contemporary predicament—Kosovo is not considered a “ recognized sovereign state .”

As a consequence of the massive investment of economic and political capital, perpetuating an image of Kosovo as “multiethnic,” “democratic” and “peaceful” has become vital to liberal internationalism’s image. Preserving this image, however, has led to the imposition of a national identity which simply does not equate with the reality on the ground in Kosovo. More damagingly, the determination to artificially contrive a facade of peace and stability within Kosovo has led external actors to tolerate, and at times support, corruption and intimidation perpetrated by Kosovo’s powerful criminal network. Paradoxically, therefore, Kosovo’s people have been forced to endure profoundly illiberal practices orchestrated by the various “internationals” who micromanage the country so as to maintain its image as their success.

Widespread Dissatisfaction


Between October 2014 and March 2015, up to seventy thousand Kosovars—including the prime minister’s own brother—applied for asylum in the EU. The vast majority of cases were rejected, as the cause of the exodus was a desire to escape rampant unemployment rather than persecution. Unemployment amongst fifteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds in Kosovo is a staggering 60.2 percent , a global low according to the World Bank . Average unemployment in the EU is 10.1 percent , yet in Kosovo overall unemployment stands at 35.1 percent, worse than in Yemen and Palestine . Prospects of economic growth are not helped by the fact that foreign direct investment in Kosovo is declining; without the €600 million annually sent back to Kosovo by its overseas diaspora—a figure that represents half of the country's gross domestic product—the situation would be considerably worse.

On top of its economic woes, over the past two years a succession of controversies has contrived to plunge Kosovo into crisis. Following the 2014 general election, the two largest parties formed a grand coalition; while one might expect this to have provided a degree of stability, the opposite has occurred. The government has used its large majority in the parliament to push through a series of deeply unpopular measures, such as the agreement with Serbia on an association of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo and a new border demarcation agreement with Montenegro. Powerless to effect change through parliamentary means, the opposition has taken to routinely letting off tear gas in the chamber. Street protests have regularly descended into riots.

Unsurprisingly, the public mood in Kosovo has suffered. The latest UNDP-Kosovo survey noted that only 7 percent of Kosovars were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with Kosovo’s current political direction, while 70 percent were “dissatisfied.” Public satisfaction with each of Kosovo’s key executive, legislative and judicial institutions is today lower than before independence was declared in 2008.

“A Multi-Ethnic Society”?

Visitors to Kosovo will soon notice that while the Albanian flag is ubiquitous, Kosovo’s official flag is something of a rarity. The official flag has failed to resonate with much of the population—hardly a surprise, given that it was imposed by external actors keen to manage Kosovo’s image. Comprising a blue background with a gold map of Kosovo surmounted by six white stars, the flag is designed to convey two messages: Kosovo is European, and Kosovo is multiethnic. Describing the flag as something that “could easily have passed for a towel in a hotel in Turkey,” veteran Kosovar journalist Veton Surroi notes it is “lacking any aesthetic criteria” and “was selected because of its bureaucratic vocabulary.” The color scheme and stars are clearly an attempt to echo the EU’s flag. Likewise, Kosovo’s national anthem is titled “Europa” and has no lyrics, owing to a determination to avoid nationalistic language disputes.