The Kosovo case: Punishing friends, rewarding enemies

Despite Ambassador Levy’s warmly received presence, Israel stands with many of its own enemies in not recognizing Kosovo.

June 19, 2013 21:36
4 minute read.
demonstration in Bonn during the Kosovo bombing

Kosovo 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The monument is of the most perfect simplicity. A plain, upright marble slab.

In Albanian, Serbian, Hebrew and English it records the site as the ground where the last synagogue in Pristina stood. In Kosovo, the Jewish presence is small, but has been constant since the fateful day in 1492 when the Catholic monarchs of Spain ordered the expulsion of Jews. Many settled in the Balkans, living quietly as second class citizens under Ottoman rule until the rise of anti-Jewish ideology as organized politics in Europe.

Yugoslavia’s pre-1939 Jews suffered not just from the arrival of the Nazis in 1941 but from the openly anti-Semitic Ustashe Croats. In Serbia, the local Gestapo boss in Belgrade reported to Berlin in August” 1942: “Serbien ist judenfrei” – the first of the conquered lands in the Nazi imperium to rid itself of Jews.

The one temporary haven was in Kosovo, which had been occupied by Italy under a deal between Hitler and Mussolini. Kosovan- Albanians continued the Ottoman tradition of shelter, including for Jews. It was a small and only temporary respite in the Holocaust’s gathering fury. As the Germans moved south through the Balkans into Greece they brought with them all the exterminationist apparatus, and Jews living in Kosovo also perished.

Today there is a tiny Jewish community of a few dozen in Kosovo, but their presence as part of Kosovan history is remembered. In an impressive ceremony in Pristina. Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci, spoke of the need to learn from the Jewish emphasis on reconciliation. A senior Israeli diplomat, Ambassador Yossef Levy laid a wreath along with Kosovo’s president.

Pristina’s tiny synagogue stood until 1963 when it was bulldozed by local communist rulers to make way for the social-realism architectural brutalities of Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Now there are plans to build a museum to the history of Kosovo Jewry and the Anglo- Israeli architect, Ron Arad, has been commissioned to draw up plans.

Today Kosovo is a small, independent nation searching for reconciliation and recognition like other small nations that emerged from Yugoslavia, such as Croatia, Montenegro or Macedonia. It is poor and its politics is dominated by the personalities of the liberation war of 1998-1999.

Kosovo has established diplomatic relations with about 100 other nations despite a counter-diplomatic offensive by Serbia and Russia, which has never forgiven the West for the military attacks on the Kremlin’s Balkan protégé, Slobodan Milosevic. All the major democracies in Europe and North America have recognized Kosovo. The most recent to recognize Kosovo include Tanziania and Yemen. There are hold-outs like Cyprus or Greece, which have close links to the Serb Orthodox church. But the most curious and illogical recognition refusenik is Israel.

In a startling reversal of normal diplomacy, Israel’s approach to Kosovo is to punish its friends and reward its enemies. Despite Ambassador Levy’s warmly received presence, Israel stands with many of its own enemies in not recognizing Kosovo.

For years, Western diplomats have urged Arab countries to establish normal diplomatic relations with Israel. Even at the height of Franco-German enmity, when Germany occupied and annexed the Alsace-Lorraine region of eastern France, Berlin and Paris maintained diplomatic ties. So why does Israel irritate its friends by refusing to recognize Kosovo? The formal reason is that to recognize Kosovo might encourage the recognition of the Palestinian state. Yet the very countries in the forefront of pushing for diplomatic recognition of Palestine – Brazil or South Africa for example – are those that refuse to recognize Kosovo.

Unlike Palestine, Kosovo exercises authority over a defined geographical area with clear frontiers. Under pressure from the European Union, Belgrade now accepts there will be no revision of Kosovo’s frontiers, even if there are disputes over the extent of autonomy in the Serb-populated region in north Kosovo. The Orthodox church has dioceses and monasteries in Kosovo and while there is no love between the Kosovan Albanian and Kosovan Serb communities there is a sullen co-existence akin to the rubbing along between Catholic nationalist and protestant unionist communities in Northern Ireland.

There are many other contested or occupied territories from northern Cyprus to Spanish enclaves in Morocco, Kashmir, Ngorno Karabak or Abkahzia, to name just some. If Israel refused diplomatic recognition to countries whose borders were in question it would have to close many embassies.

Kosovo needs to develop its economy, access international credit, become open to outside investors to exploit its mineral resources and develop tourism in the delightful verdant valleys of Europe’s most unspoiled region. To do this it needs to play a full part in international bodies from the World Bank to the Council of Europe. The petulant refusal of Russia to allow Kosovo to enter the UN may make Moscow diplomats feel strong but it is as silly as American refusal to recognize communist China until Nixon’s visit in 1973, or even the delay until 1950 and the retirement of the anti-Zionist foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, before Britain opened diplomatic relations with Israel.

The Serb-Russian bitterness over Kosovo’s independence is counter-productive diplomacy.

One can understand why anti-Western governments endorse it but Israel’s nonrecognition of Kosovo makes no sense. Kosovo is a natural friend of Israel and Israeli diplomacy should recognize the fact.

The writer is a former UK foreign minister and author of Globalising hatred: the New Antisemitism (2008) and Why Kosovo Still Matters (2011).

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