Successful stalemate: How Serbia’s derecognition campaign stymied Kosovo’s march toward universal recognition

26.03.2021 Luke Foley

Kosovo’s independence has proven to be a highly polarizing geopolitical issue for the last two decades. The country’s supporters believe it deserves statehood because it possesses the characteristics of a state as outlined by the Montevideo Convention: A permanent population, defined boundaries, self-governance, and the ability to interact with other states. Opponents argue that Kosovo has attempted to secede from Serbia unilaterally and illegally.

Serbia is far from alone in opposing Kosovo’s independence. A number of other countries, though less vocal than Serbia, remain steadfast in their refusal to recognize Kosovo, so long as no mutually agreed settlement exists. Most prominent among them are Russia and China, who, as permanent members of the UNSC, wield veto power over any substantive UNSC resolutions. They are joined by five EU member states, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania, and Slovakia, each of whom avoids recognizing Kosovo for fear of lending credence to the latent secessionist movements within their own borders. While these countries have long opposed Kosovo’s recognition, there has been a wave of derecognitions over the past few years. As of November 2019, Belgrade claims that seventeen countries have derecognized Kosovo, a reversal of a trend that had previously favored Pristina.

In the years following Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, an exhaustive diplomatic campaign waged by Kosovo and supported by the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France succeeded in securing over 100 recognitions from UN member states. Flush with momentum from an encouraging ICJ ruling in 2010 and buoyed by support from its influential Western allies, universal recognition of Kosovo’s statehood appeared inevitable. Within a few years, however, Serbia launched a competing campaign aimed at convincing smaller, more persuadable countries to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo. This campaign appears to have swung the momentum in Belgrade’s direction – Israel’s agreement to recognize Kosovo, announced in September 2020, ended a more than two-year drought dating back to Barbados’ recognition in February 2018. Though Serbia and Kosovo dispute the numbers, at least 98 countries maintain their recognition of Kosovo.

This paper discusses state recognition in the context of Kosovo and Serbia’s rival campaigns, analyzing the theoretical underpinnings of both campaigns before examining their respective strategies and resulting effectiveness. The discussion begins with an overview of the legal background to the dispute, and then turns to the issue of recognition. Next is a section on derecognition, followed by an analysis of Serbia’s derecognition campaign and its impact on Kosovo’s prospects for universal recognition.