The Kosovo 2021 country report was not a big surprise for the citizens of Kosovo. However, this does not seem to be the case with the current political elite which seemingly expected a more positive outcome following the change of the government in March 2021. Evidently, the pace of reforms was rather slow, and no concrete results were expected within the first year of the new government. But this did not prevent debates and clashes between the EU and Kosovo over the findings of the report.
Given the fact that the report covers year 2020 and half of 2021, reading it gives the impression that time has frozen and so did the progress on delivering on reforms. The biggest obstacles to reform were political instability in Kosovo combined with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the following economic devastation. Both elements have had a detrimental effect on the work of the Assembly and the pace of adopting new laws. The challenging circumstances created by political instability, of course, limited the ability of Kosovo to ensure effective continuation of the EU-related reforms. However, on a more positive note, the snap elections held during the first trimester of 2021 following the fall of the Hoti Government, were considered free and democratic. The elections produced a government which is expected to be stable, thus finally breaking the cycle of political instability and polarization.
On the most important area, judicial reform, the report does not mark any substantial and structural improvement. The judicial sector remains slow and inefficient. Once again, political interference in the judicial system has been flagged. This, of course, has a domino effect on the ability to further strengthen the rule of law.
Concerns were raised in relation to the fight against corruption and organized crime which continued to be considered a field showing limited progress. Once again the EU called for strengthening the prosecution. A stronger prosecution one would assume comes because of a thorough vetting process. However, it is exactly the vetting process which highlights the differences between the EU and the Government of Kosovo. The EU called for the vetting process to take place in full accordance with European and international standards. While in principle the EU has supported the vetting process, methods should be seriously considered. The concerns have been raised about the possibility of conducting a full vetting process for each prosecutor and judge (one-off). This method has been criticised, and therefore only suggested to be used as a last resort.
Standing behind the positive assessment on visa liberalization, the Commission has – once again – called on the EU Council to grant Kosovo visa liberalization after seemingly failing to reach compromise among member states to take this decision. This has been highlighted despite concerns raised over the situations with the rule of law and the two remaining benchmarks – the fight against corruption and organized crime.
In addition to the overall progress assessment on the main areas, the good neighbourly relations component was given a large portion of focus. The report mentioned the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia as a success story – citing meetings both on high political level and on the chief negotiators/expert level. The EU used this platform to urge the Government of Kosovo to implement the agreements reached between Kosovo and Serbia while jointly striving to reach a final comprehensive and legally binding agreement. The final agreement has been hailed as the key to advancing Kosovo and Serbia on their EU integration path. However, this sounds more like the dialogue of the deaf as the EU is gradually losing leverage in the region, thus heavily impacting the way the role of the EU is perceived in the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia.
In general, the report does flag similar problems to those of the previous year, creating the perception that the clocks have stopped. While the problems remain the same, the report highlighted the worryingly strained relations between the EU and Kosovo. The lack of proper communication and cooperation was noted at the press conference.
The resistance of the Kosovo institutions, especially the President of Kosovo who vocally challenged and questioned the findings during the release of the report garnered more attention than the findings of the report itself. The events around the release of the report raised the following question: Is Kosovo showing increased resistance toward the EU report findings a sign that the leverage of the EU is decreasing? Possibly even to the point of being considered inappropriate interference in assessing the actions and decisions of the political leaders in Kosovo?