Albin Kurti promised to make ‘innovative’ foreign policy a priority; his government’s ineffective performance so far reveals the need for a new approach.

When Albin Kurti’s Vetevendosje party came to power in March 2021, it promised a new approach to foreign policy, one unlike that of previous governments. “We pledge to pursue an active, innovative and principled foreign policy” the program of the party said.

Since then, however, the institutions representing Kosovo’s interests abroad, the Office of the Prime Minister and the Foreign and Diaspora Ministry mainly, have made poor decisions and harmed their reputation. This all reveals the lack of strategy to deal with Kosovo’s most pressing challenges in the international arena.

Kosovo’s foreign policy priorities can be summarized as “in progress,” which is the only phrase seen on the official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Diaspora.

No sign of new memberships or recognitions

Prime Minister Kurti has stated often that one of his key priorities is to strengthen Kosovo’s international legitimacy by gaining membership in international organisations and new state recognitions.

A moratorium on seeking new membership in international organisations imposed on Kosovo as a result of the so-called “Washington Agreement,” signed under Donald Trump’s auspices, ended in September 2021.

However, the Kurti government has not shown any sign of preparing to apply afresh for memberships of international organisations.

When it comes to cooperation with countries that have not recognised Kosovo, the government has been engaging with Greece through meetings and conference participation. There are promising signs of a rapprochement between the two countries; however, there are still no signals that recognition is to be expected.

The progress made thus far also risks losing momentum, as Foreign Minister Donika Gervalla-Schwarz has made numerous mistakes.

In an interview for a Greek newspaper, for example, she said that Kosovo was “not begging for recognition from Greece.” When Gervalla attempted to explain why she used that phrase in an domestic interview for RTK, she repeated: “We are not begging [Greece] like beggars.”

Such comments risk jeopardizing Kosovo’s relationship with Greece and the progress made in trying to obtain Greek recognition. Kosovo’s recognition by the five non-recognising EU member states is of utmost importance; Gervalla’s comments showed her inability to engage in proper diplomacy.

This is not the first time Gervalla’s credibility has come into question. In the past, she has confused the flags of international organizations and countries. For instance, she posted a picture of her and NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg with the United Nations flag. Her ministry once posted about Andorra on Twitter – with the flag of Moldova.

Errors like these display lack of knowledge and proper planning when engaging in Twitter diplomacy. Her ministry needs to have a system in place that carefully vets each public statement in order to minimize such mistakes.

One can only imagine the quality of exchanges between Kosovo’s Foreign Ministry and its counterparts if basic errors are made in two-line Twitter posts.

When Prindon Sadriu, a diplomat in North Macedonia and husband of President Vjosa Osmani, labeled the Kosovo media a “joint criminal enterprise,” Gervalla took no disciplinary action, and even came to his defence, excusing his language by stating that Sadriu “did not say that [insult] in his capacity as a diplomat.”

But Kosovo diplomats cannot just strip away their diplomatic credentials and state opinions in public when they please. Their statements carry a certain weight, and such mistakes or baseless accusations should be sanctioned according to the rules.

Mass sackings of diplomats created a vacuum

Gervalla’s main focus during her first year as foreign minister was to reorganize Kosovo’s foreign service. She proposed to dismiss and withdraw all politically appointed ambassadors, and 12 ambassadors were effectively dismissed, leaving vacant diplomatic posts around the world for at least six months.

This mass sacking and the lack of any transition between one ambassador to the next harmed Kosovo’s bilateral relations and its aspirations to build new avenues for cooperation to ensure a path to membership of international organisations as well as new state recognitions.

The Prime Minister’s Office has also had its share of scandals. First Deputy Prime Minister Besnik Bislimi, in charge of European integration, development and dialogue, accused EU High Representative Josep Borell of being biased against Kosovo during an interview.

This should not be the tone of the person in charge of the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue. Accusing the EU diplomat in charge of facilitating the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue of being biased is undiplomatic, and only damaged Kosovo’s position in the negotiations.

Bislimi’s most recent error was a tweet about his meeting with Bjorn Berge, Deputy Secretary-General of the Council of Europe in which he tweeted that Berge “welcomed Kosovo’s initiative to apply for membership on the CoE.” Berge stated later that this was not a correct description of the meeting.

Bislimi later apologized. But his misinterpretation and failure to follow protocol is yet another example of the Kurti government’s ineffective foreign policy.

Clumsy clashes with EU’s foreign policy chief

Bislimi’s boss, Kurti, also clashed with the EU High Representative Borrell at a press conference in Brussels. “This Association of Serb Majority Municipalities (ASM) is rather in the service of Belgrade than of ordinary citizens of Kosovo,” said Kurti.

Kurti in effect accused Borrell of serving Serbian interests at a press conference. He neglected the fact that Kosovo consented to establish the Association in the Brussels Agreement in 2013.

Kurti also failed to note that Kosovo has a legal obligation to implement the ASM. Its own Constitutional Court ruled in 2015 that, “the Association/Community of the Serb majority municipalities is to be established as provided by the First Agreement, ratified by the Assembly of the Republic of Kosovo and promulgated by the President of the Republic of Kosovo.”

Instead of accusing Borrell, Kurti should be implementing rulings made by Kosovo courts. Ultimately, it’s in Kosovo’s interest to resolve its dispute with Serbia and then join the EU, not vice versa.

In diplomacy, words matter. Kosovo’s leaders should choose their words more carefully when talking about international affairs. Engaging in undiplomatic language, failing to follow protocol and causing numerous scandals has shown the weakness and lack of professionalism of Kurti’s government. Its failure to follow the most basic ground rules of diplomacy is troubling.

It is never too late to reflect and look for ways to improve. If Kurti and his government want to achieve their foreign policy objectives, they should take a step back and recalibrate their foreign policy approach.

Visar Xhambazi is a researcher and consultant focusing on Euro-Atlantic integration, US foreign policy in Southeast Europe, authoritarian influences in the Western Balkans, regional cooperation and the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue. He holds a master’s degree in International Studies from Old Dominion University and a bachelor’s degree in Management and Public Policy from Rochester Institute of Technology.

The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.