Balkan Insight: Kosovo’s Tough-Guy Tactics Won’t Get it Far

Foto: EPA-EFE/Valdrin Xhemaj

By the editor of Balkan Insight, Marcus Tanner

Kosovo’s government is in fighting mood, taxing Serbian goods and vowing to form its own ‘army’ – but it is going for the wrong targets.

“Revenge is a dish best served cold,” says an old English proverb. It clearly hasn’t reached Kosovo. Within hours of Serbia blocking Kosovo’s attempt to join Interpol, Kosovo had slapped a 100-per-cent tax on Serbian goods, up from 10 per cent previously. Touché!

Only it isn’t touché. Kosovo’s sword is blunt and rusty, its gun unloaded.

Kosovo cannot “weaponise” its imports from Serbia.

Serbia earns less than 500 million euros a year from selling goods to Kosovo, out of a total export value of just over 13 billion euros a year.

About one in every 26 euros Serbia earns in exports comes from Kosovo, in other words.

Italy and Germany together take over a quarter of Serbian exports, followed by Bosnia, Russia, Romania, Montenegro and Slovenia. Kosovo comes in at a lowly tenth place.

The loss of the Kosovo market is significant for Serbia, but not significant enough to make it abandon one of its key policies – non-recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

The fact that Serbia remains the biggest exporter to Kosovo merely underlines how tiny the Kosovo economy remains. [Its total exports per year are worth about 300 million euros.]

Meanwhile, Serbia’s refusal to recognise Kosovo is an ace it is determined to hold on to. It might play it in exchange for the golden prize of EU membership. It is not going to throw it away at this stage, just to help a few Serbian manufacturers.

In the meantime, Serbia gets to pose as the injured party. The EU is chastising Kosovo, not Serbia, for breaking the terms of its membership of the regional free-trade area, CEFTA.

The customs tax is not the Kosovo government’s only badly thought-out move. Its other big plan, to upgrade the current security force, the KSF, into a regular army is far crazier.

It has angered Serbia, the Serbs in Kosovo and NATO as well. The alliance has condemned this move unequivocally.

A country as friendless as Kosovo needs to be sure that the price of alienating the EU and NATO at the same time is worth paying.

Is having an army worth it? It is debatable whether a state the size of Kosovo either needs or can afford an army.

Many smaller states in Europe have virtually abandoned their armed forces, except for decorative purposes.

Luxembourg, which is far smaller than Kosovo but much, much richer, could easily afford a decent-sized army if it wanted one. It could hire one, like the small Italian states did in the Renaissance.

Instead, it maintains a symbolic force of about 340 at the last count – just about enough to mount a ceremonial guard outside the ducal palace.

The idea that a small, underfunded Kosovo “army” would be of any real use in repelling an invasion is fanciful.

Such an invasion could only come from Serbia, as all the other neighbours are friendly, but won’t happen from there, either.

With NATO physically present in Kosovo, Serbia would be mad to risk a physical confrontation with it, or a second protracted guerrilla war in hostile terrain.

What the Kosovo army’s nominal existence will do, however, is create fresh opportunities for friction with Serbia, which Belgrade might well exploit, and annoy NATO – which clearly will not fund or equip it.

A Kosovo deputy Minister for the Kosovo Security Force, Agim Ceku, spoke casually to BIRN of possible “donations” of arms and equipment.

He should clarify who those donors might be. Even friendly Turkey is likely to think twice about donating arms to Kosovo against the express advice of NATO – to which it belongs.

Of course, Kosovo is anxious to take some kind of revenge against Serbia for its unscrupulous use of the CEFTA agreement to dump goods in Kosovo and for its blocking tactics in general.

But a more effective form of revenge would be for Kosovo consumers to buy elsewhere, from their own producers, or from other CEFTA countries.

Slapping a huge tax on Serbian goods just makes Kosovo look like a rule-breaker that can’t be trusted to behave responsibly.

It gets Serbia off the hook completely, which is why Belgrade has not taken reciprocal action – that and the fact that Serbia buys almost nothing from Kosovo anyway.

The basic mistake of the government in Kosovo – not that the opposition parties are any different – is an obsession with obtaining the trappings of statehood rather than the substance.

Like a king who worries about not having a crown – when the real problem is not having a kingdom – it runs after second-rank goals.

It sets great store on getting “recognized” by tiny states in the Pacific or Central America whose favours are – surprise! – for sale, and can easily be purchased by Serbia, or Russia.

Trying to outbid Serbia or Russia for their attention is a pure luxury and one that Kosovo cannot afford.

What would really get back at Serbia would be the creation of a better functioning economy and education system – so that the young did not automatically flee the country – and so that some foreign companies outsourced production there.

Today, the big companies of Europe are busy shifting operations from the labour-costly West to the East, to countries like Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania.

When Jaguar Land Rover announced it was moving its entire production from the UK to Slovakia this year, it barely made headlines; so many other companies have taken the same route.

When did anyone hear of any major company moving part of its operations to Kosovo? If not manufacturing, start-ups, IT, or tourism, what sector there is showing real signs of growth?

The answer is: nothing much. What’s even more worrying is that the political parties in Kosovo don’t seem bothered.

It was typical of Kosovo’s politics that the opposition Vetevendosje party seemed less interested in the [non-existent] economy last year than the [possible] loss of some meadows to Montenegro as part of a border settlement.

Kosovo needs to get real, and stop making gestures that impress nobody and just irritate its partners.

If it wants to tax Serbian goods, it should leave the CEFTA. If it is bent on forming an “army” – in opposition to NATO plus Serbia – it had better make sure it can source and equip it.

In the meantime, it might ask itself why Serbia – with a population four times the size of Kosovo’s – earns 45 times more from its exports than Kosovo does.

That might be a more useful subject to concentrate on than on forming an army.

Balkan Insight

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