The intergovernmental Council of Europe is due to make a final decision this month on whether to admit the Republic of Kosovo to the pan-European human rights body. The Council’s Parliamentary Assembly voted by an overwhelming majority of 131-29 on April 16 to support the Balkan nation’s bid for membership. Remarkably, of the 131 delegates who voted for the motion, 13 came from countries that presently do not recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty.

Yet despite that unequivocal message from the Assembly, it is not yet clear whether Kosovo can overcome the final hurdle in the Council of Ministers, which will make the ultimate decision. Ironically, some of the capitals that do recognize Kosovo appear to have decided to play politics with the decision.

Specifically, in recent days, France and Italy have sent signals that they are conditioning their support for Kosovo on the country’s implementation of the so-called “Association of Serb Majority Municipalities” (ASM). The ASM is a provision of the 2013 Brussels Agreement signed between Serbia and Kosovo, under pressure from the European Union and the United States to entice Belgrade to accept Kosovo’s sovereignty in exchange for greater autonomy for the country’s Serb community. The accord envisions that leaders in the Kosovo capital Prishtina will, as part of a broader normalization process between the two sides, devolve certain authorities to a collection of (non-contiguous) Serb-majority municipalities in the country, allowing them a degree of self-government.

Since the agreement’s signing more than a decade ago, however, relations between the two sides have deteriorated sharply, especially after a deadly paramilitary attack in September 2023 by a group of Serb nationalist militants with close ties to the government of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić.

And in the interim, a status quo that strongly favors Serbia has persisted. Serbia is a fully recognized State with representation in all leading intergovernmental bodies, from the United Nations to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to INTERPOL. Kosovo, despite being recognized by more than 100 U.N. member states, has a seat in none of those bodies, while Serbia lobbies against its admission even to cultural organizations like UNESCO. This unjust isolation of Kosovo has fueled the country’s emigration crisis, and convinced Serbian hardliners that they will, in time, reassert their dominion over Kosovo.

Legal and Political Concerns Over Serb Autonomy Demand

Kosovo’s government, headed by Prime Minister Albin Kurti – a former political prisoner under the Milošević regime who sat as an opposition Member of Parliament during the signing of the original agreement – has staked its opposition to the ASM on two primary arguments, one legal, the other political.

Legally, the Kosovo side believes that the original agreement afforded far too much power to the ASM by ensuring, for instance, that the association could only be dissolved by “a decision of participating municipalities,” which arguably placed the association in a peculiar extra-constitutional position. That is, the government in Prishtina could only provide the ASM greater authorities, but it could not rescind them. Moreover, Western opposition to Kosovo’s requests for sequencing amendments — i.e., that the ASM only be implemented after Serbia demonstrates willingness to abide by any aspect of its commitments to Kosovo, such as not obstructing the country’s entry into international organizations such as the Council of Europe — have also raised red flags in Prishtina.

The Kurti government’s concerns in this regard appeared to somewhat alleviated by the EU during the 2023 Ohrid summit of the two leaders in North Macedonia, during which they came to a verbal agreement that “Kosovo will commit to ensure an appropriate level of self-management for the ethnic Serbian community in Kosovo.” This phrasing was considerably more open and allowed the Kosovo side to accept a degree of devolution without the creation of a wholly parallel legal regime on its territory.

Presently, the Kurti government, as well as large segments of the Kosovo public, are concerned that the ASM will become another Republika Srpska (RS), the Serb-majority entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina that was established officially at the conclusion of the Bosnian War. Its wide degree of autonomy has both kept Bosnia on the brink of renewed conflict and engendered perennial demands for secession by its Serb nationalist authorities.

Dangerous Precedent

American and European diplomats have assured Kosovo that the ASM will not be another RS entity, but their promises ring hollow to the Kosovars, who are able to see the reality of Bosnia’s dysfunctional politics for themselves in their Western Balkan neighborhood.

During the Bosnian War that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, the RS entity was a self-declared, breakaway satellite regime of the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević. Like its sister “republic” in Croatia, the Republika Srpska Krajina (RSK), the RS regime in Bosnia was meant to obscure Serbia’s direct involvement in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia — that is, to mask the reality that Serbia had invaded and was, for the time, occupying large swathes of territory in both Bosnia and Croatia. The RSK collapsed in the summer of 1995 under the force of the reconstituted Croatian army, but its Bosnian counterpart was saved from a similar fate by U.S. peace negotiators. They had been convinced by Milošević that the collapse of the RS and the influx of a million or more Serb refugees to Serbia would destabilize his regime. As a result, as part of the of the American-brokered 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the Bosnian War, the RS was folded into postwar Bosnia as one of the country’s two “entities.”

During the first decade after the war, the RS leadership was pushed into a degree of integration into Bosnia by the international community. But since 2006, the RS government of ultranationalist Milorad Dodik has stepped widely outside of the contours of the Dayton Agreement and the post-war Bosnian Constitution. Dodik speaks openly of his intent to secede, he refers to Bosnia as a fatally flawed construct, he blocks the implementation of even the most banal government decisions in Sarajevo purely to foment chaos and dysfunction, he denies the basic facts of the Bosnian War and the genocide that occurred during the 1990s, and he publicly cavorts with the likes of Vučić, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Hungary’s hardline Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who share Dodik’s clearly stated aim to break up Bosnia.

Despite his evident violations of the Dayton Agreement and even Bosnia’s own constitution, Dodik has faced little pushback from the international community. The authorities in Sarajevo are largely prevented from reaction by Dodik’s own malign influence within the governing apparatus. The United States placed Dodik under a succession of sanctions beginning in January 2017, but has only in the past two months forced Bosnian financial institutions to close his accounts and those of his associates. The EU has not done even that, largely due to Hungary’s opposition.

As a result, Bosnians have watched for two decades as a man who openly and systematically seeks to destroy their country has suffered little from the same international community that empowered those like him in the first place through the Dayton Agreement’s Byzantine ethnic power-sharing provisions. Kosovars, too, have watched the divisions and dysfunction in Bosnia, which is why they are overwhelmingly opposed to the creation of the ASM. A February-March 2023 survey of Kosovars by the Washington-based International Republican Institute, for instance, found that only 5 percent of respondents favored the creation of the ASM.

Standards of Democracy and Human Rights

For France and Italy to condition the admission of Kosovo to the Council of Europe on the creation of the ASM while neither country has even deployed sanctions against Dodik is absurd. And for all of the Western claims of the near-term possibilities of normalization, Vučić remains categorical that he will never recognize Kosovo’s independence, no matter what deal is made.

Furthermore, the Franco-Italian position is also at odds with the Council of Europe’s own admission criteria. The 46-member organization, which includes the European Court of Human Rights, is charged with promoting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. And its Statute states that every member of the bloc “must accept the principles of the rule of law and of the enjoyment by all persons within its jurisdiction of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and collaborate sincerely and effectively in the realisation of the aim of the Council.” Recent reports from Freedom House and V-Dem show that Kosovo’s democratic credentials are improving, while Serbia’s are declining. . In its most recent “Nations in Transit” report, Freedom House scored Serbia slightly higher than Kosovo but found that Serbia is on its way to becoming a “Semi-Consolidated Authoritarian Regime.” While Kosovo’s government is “promoting a reform agenda based on the rule of law,” Serbia responded to mass protests with “rigged snap elections in December,” the report also noted. For its part, V-Dem considers Kosovo an “electoral democracy” vs. Serbia’s “electoral autocracy.”

Furthermore, as the U.S. Department of State itself acknowledged in 2021 “Ethnic minorities’ representation in the [Kosovo] Assembly [is] more than proportionate to their share of the population” and “parties representing ethnic minority groups generally reported better cooperation and partnership with the [Kurti] government than with its predecessors.”

Kosovo opposes the creation of the ASM not because it is opposed to the idea of minority rights, but because it fears the ASM will become an institutional framework for attacks on the country’s governance and sovereignty, precisely what has happened with the RS entity in Bosnia. After all, Bosniaks are the third-largest ethnic group in Kosovo (numbering some 27,500 (down from more than 66,000 in 1991) vs. an estimated 100,000 Serbs), yet they possess only a fraction of the guaranteed representation that the Serb community already enjoys, and this has not been a major issue. Why? It is not a religious-sectarian issue. While the Bosniak community are Muslim like the majority of the Kosovo Albanian community, the latter also has significant Catholic minorities. And in neighboring Albania, almost 7 percent of the Albanian population are Orthodox Christians, like the Serbs. The Bosniak community has secured representation and accommodation of its interests within Kosovo through integration, not ethnic separatism.

Forcing Kosovo to pursue a structure that has both clearly failed in BiH and been struck down repeatedly by the European Court of Human Rights – is nonsensical. Paris and Rome are asking Kosovo to implement something neither Serbia nor they themselves have ever done for their significant ethnic minorities, and which every credible observer agrees will not even lead to normalization with Belgrade. Quite the opposite, it is likely to further embolden the Vučić regime to push for still more institutional avenues and concessions from Prishtina and even Sarajevo to undermine their sovereign governance.

If France, Italy, and other countries of the informal “Quint” group (it also includes the United States, Germany, and the U.K.) that is trying to resolve the Serbia-Kosovo impasse are truly concerned about minority representation in Kosovo, they should ensure that their demands of the Kosovo government are in line with the European Convention on Human Rights. And they should then also hold Serbia to the same standard by insisting it afford greater rights to representation or self-government to the country’s Albanian, Bosniak, and Hungarian minorities. Anything less merely provides ideological powder for a revanchist, increasingly authoritarian regime in Belgrade.

There is no logical, legal, or political argument for keeping Kosovo out of the Council of Europe. And in May, the continent’s democracies should follow the lead of the Parliamentary Assembly and vote to admit Kosovo.

IMAGE: Kosovo electoral commission staff sit at a polling station in the town of Zvecan on April 21, 2024. Four towns in the Serb-majority region of North Kosovo were holding an extraordinary local election on whether to oust their ethnic Albanian mayors in a territory rife with deadly tensions. (Photo by ARMEND NIMANI/AFP via Getty Images)