Kosovo Captured By Old Political Elites: The Reason of EU Membership Process Stagnation

The Balkans have been in the focus of the European Union for many years. After the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, six republics were established in the region. Even though Kosovo became an autonomous part of Serbia, it did not lose contact with the European Union. To ensure state-building in the war-damaged country, the EU established the rule of law and stabilization missions in Kosovo. By achieving the Stabilisation and Association Agreement in 2015, Kosovo sent a signal it wants to become a member state. However, four years later, Kosovo is still neither a member of the EU nor considered a candidacy state. The 2019 European Commission’s report on Kosovo confirmed the Kosovo’s membership is remote (European Commission, 2019). In particular, the report stresses the low quality of Kosovo’s democracy as one of the main reasons. Therefore, the question is why Kosovo still hasn’t reached the EU membership criteria relating to the democratic quality of the system? It is because the EU political conditionality is not able to counter the Kosovo politicians. They have captured the state and caused Kosovo’s low level of democracy.

Kosovo’s way toward the EU

After the declaration of independence in 2008, Kosovo started to seek European Union membership by a dialogue with the EU. In 2015, the Council of the European Union reached the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) between the European Union and Kosovo, entering into force in April 2016. In November 2016, the European Reform Agenda (ERA) was launched to overlook reforms application in Kosovo. The SAA helps Kosovo to adjust laws and political standards to those of the European Union. The SAA is focused on overcoming the issues that restrict Kosovo from becoming the EU member state (European Union Office in Kosovo, 2016). Essential EU – Kosovo Agreement’s objectives are: (a) to support the efforts of Kosovo to strengthen democracy and the rule of law; (b) to contribute to political, economic and institutional stability in Kosovo, as well as to the stabilisation of the region; (c) to provide an appropriate framework for political dialogue, allowing the development of close political relations among the Parties; (d) to support the efforts of Kosovo to develop its economic and international cooperation, should objective circumstances so permit, including through the approximation of its legislation to that of the EU; (e) to support the efforts of Kosovo to complete the transition into a functioning market economy; (f) to promote harmonious economic relations and gradually develop a free trade area between the EU and Kosovo; (g) to foster regional cooperation in all the fields covered by this Agreement (Council of the European Union, 2015). Despite the fact the EU – Kosovo Stabilisation and Association Agreement requires the strengthening of democracy, its level is far from being optimal. The next part provides theoretical sight on the issues of EU conditionality and its failure in Kosovo.

Theory and Methodology 

For a better understanding of the EU–Kosovo Stabilisation and Association Agreement’s (SAA) inability to improve Kosovo’s level of democracy, it is essential to explain the theory of European Union conditionality. That is because any bilateral agreement between the EU and a potential member state requiring improvement of political standards is considered a practical tool of EU conditionality (Anastasakis, 2008). Epstein and Sedelmeier, in their work Beyond conditionality: international institutions in the post-communist Europe after enlargement, explain that the EU uses conditionality to require from potential members compliance with its fundamental rules, laws and standards (Epstein & Sedelmeier, 2008). It is considered a useful tool for improvement of the non–EU member states‘ political standards during the EU accession process. The most preferred model of conditionality is the External Incentives Model, also called the carrot and stick conditionality approach (Epstein & Sedelmeier, 2008). According to this sub-model, if states fulfil particular conditions, the EU provides them with rewards in the form of the membership. The success of the EU conditionality depends on the EU’s ability to set precise requirements and rewards for the aspiring states. That is because countries seeking the EU members are willing to undertake political transformation only if the reward for compliance is clear (Epstein & Sedelmeier, 2008). Kosovo was provided with specific conditions of rewarding the accordance with the Stabilisation and Association Agreement. However, Kosovo is not an exemplary story of the successful application of the EU conditionality. The country has not reached an adequate level of democracy that the Association Agreement requires.

The reasons why this is so could be found in Richter’s and Wunsch’s theory of state capture developed in the work Money, power, glory: the linkages between EU conditionality and state capture in the Western Balkans (Richter & Wunsch, 2019). Their theory explains how Western Balkans officials have misused the EU accession process to capture the state. Authors claim a lack of progress in democratization stems from the EU accession efforts misused by Western Balkans politicians. Their theory claims that improved levels of formal compliance do not necessarily result in positive democratic performance. Authors claim that the EU conditionality is not able to counter state capture, and thus, the EU has involuntarily allowed informal networks in the Western Balkans to strengthen their grasp of resources and power (Richter & Wunsch, 2019). The whole concept builds on three terms: money – representing capturing of market reforms, power – capturing of political power, and glory – the capture of contacts with the EU. Richter and Wunsch applied their theory to the explanation of state capturing in Serbia. By elaborating on them, this research explains the phenomena of state capture in Kosovo, which causes a low level of democracy and inability to meet the EU accession criteria. The next part of the research paper explains the application and observation of the EU conditionality through the EU–Kosovo Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) in Kosovo.

EU–Kosovo Stabilization and Association Agreement – application of the EU conditionality and its observation in Kosovo 

In Kosovo, the European Union conditionality is practised through the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA). The EU has put specific importance to overlooking of democratic development (Gerguri & Hoti, 2017). In measuring democratic progress, the EU analyses elections, the functioning of the legislature, operation of the executive, civil society, public administration reform, functioning of the judiciary and other criteria (European Commission, 2019). To evaluate the development of democracy in Kosovo, the European Commission publishes the Kosovo Progress Report annually. The 2019 Kosovo Report claims that the country has made progress in democratization. However, the report stresses continuous violations of democracy in the form of clientelism, corruption, the weak electoral framework, avoiding investigation of minorities harassment, unfair political parties‘ financing and privatization of state resources (European Commission, 2019). How is it possible that Kosovo, even though EU conditionality is practised through the SAA there, is not able to meet democratic criteria for membership?

Money, power and glory in Kosovo

Despite the fact the EU – Kosovo Stabilisation Agreement application is controlled by the EU, Kosovar officials misuse the EU accession efforts to facade their corrupted nature. Kosovo confirms partial compliance with democratic membership requirements. Yet, profound reform that would support democracy remains remote. This fact makes it unlikely for Kosovo to meet accession requirements soon (Hehir, 2018). Based on Richter’s and Wunsch’s theory, this research portraits how Kosovo elites misused meeting the EU standards, causing a reduced democracy level. The following part uses Richter’s and Wunsch’s theory of Money, power and glory for the final explanation.


The liberalization of the market is one of the core aims of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the EU and Kosovo. In most of the countries seeking EU membership, the market liberalization required the implementation of market reforms (Ilzkovitz, Dierx, Kovacs, Sousa, 2007). In Kosovo, the lack of developed regulatory frameworks in the market liberalization allowed a distinct group of elites to privatize financial resources, establish political influence and build clientelist networks. The fragility of Kosovar political transition and the EU pressure on privatization “facilitated the emergence of informal networks with political clout” (Richter & Wunsch, 2019, p.8). Kosovo’s leading political parties shape the laws that legalize the exploitation of the economic resources. The survey by Kosovo Local Government Institute reveals politicians in Kosovo control financial means (Cvejič, 2016). What is more, employment positions depend on rules of clientelism. If a Kosovar citizen does not have connections to politicians, the possibility of getting a job is low. Clientelism is likewise heavily rooted in regional ties represented by clan hierarchy. Disparities within the Albanian community replaced the communist era inequalities between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo. The whole structure of clientelism in today’s Kosovo extends from high political elites to local bosses who manage areas under their control, all with the agreement of the government (European Commission, 2019, Cvejič, 2016).


“Strong top-down EU conditionality also reduces the space for political competition and empowers executive actors to impose their preferences by referring to external constraints” (Richter & Wunsch, 2019, p.8). Countries that are seeking the EU membership prioritize boosting democratic principles by implementing various laws and solving undemocratic issues. However, Kosovo political parties justify not–acting in some fields by more important EU accession issues. The European Union accession process was misused by Kosovo leading parties to make the legislative agenda overloaded with strict EU deadlines and criteria (Richter & Wunsch, 2019). Even if some parliamentary sessions concerning domestic agenda were planned, “a number of plenary sessions have not been concluded, resulting in a large backlog of agenda items” (European Commission, 2019).

Additionally, Kosovo’s politicians hold power to shape the laws that conduct the financing of political parties. The 2019 European Commission Kosovo Report stresses that Kosovo’s legal framework on political party financing is still not in line with the Venice Commission recommendations. The report also mentions long-standing weaknesses in the Kosovo electoral cycle. The suggestions of the EU electoral observation missions in 2014 and 2017 have not been addressed until today, as only a little progress has been made in this area.

Last but not least, Kosovo authorities have not adequately addressed the cases of intimidation in Kosovo – Serb municipalities during the 2017 elections (European Commission, 2019). Even though Kosovo has increased the level of meeting the EU requirements, politicians hold power to shape the laws and decisions. According to the former western diplomats who do not want to be named, the Kosovo leaders are so firmly settled in their positions that they previously “effectively plied their influence to prevent Kosovo’s parliament from passing a legislative package, including constitutional amendments, that would allow for the special court’s establishment” (Sudetic, 2015).


The glory pattern suggests that elites exploit contacts with EU figures and member states‘ officials to keep their legitimacy and promote public support for ruling (Richter & Wunsch, 2019). “At the same time, the EU’s interest instability in the Western Balkans has led it to knowingly pursue negotiations with governments that have been infiltrated by clientelist networks. Any formal progress towards accession as well as high-level interactions with the EU or member state officials can be construed by government representatives as endorsements of their actions towards the local population” (Richter & Wunsch, 2019, p.8–9). The European Union has conducted several negotiations and EU accession talks with the Kosovar elites, led by the president Hashim Thaci. He openly supports his country’s effort to be an EU member state. Based on the fact the Kosovo population is the keenest to join the EU in the Balkans, Thaci misused his involvement in the process as the argument of his political importance (Eder & Grey, 2018). However, Western Intelligence Report from 2011 recognizes Thaci a war criminal running organ trafficking even after the conflict in Yugoslavia. Many western diplomats called this fact a sacrifice of Kosovo’s good political future, as Thaci did not resign from his position despite the report’s findings (Marty, 2011, Sudetic, 2015). Another politician, former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj, is a supporter of the membership. Haradinaj’s party Alliance for the Future of Kosovo is pro–European and a politician himself has claimed Kosovo’s future is in Europe (MacKenzie, 2018). Haradinaj previously negotiated with EU officials. Notably, he was welcomed by Nataliya Apostolova, Head of the EU Office in Kosovo/EU Special Representative, in 2017. Apostolova expressed “the continued EU support to Kosovo Government” (European Union Office in Kosovo, 2017). Haradinaj resigned from the PM position in July 2019. He is expected to be heard in front of the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in the Hague. Former PM will be tried concerning his involvement in killings, sexual violence, illegal detentions and abductions during the conflict in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. He has already been tried twice by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague (Fazliu & Begisholli, 2019). What is more, Haradinaj is responsible for the careless spending of public resources. Haradinaj agreed higher salaries of the prime minister, deputy ministers and other civil servants despite the fact The Anti–Corruption Agency considered it a sign of corruption (Demi, 2018).

Even though Thaci and Haradinaj are corrupted figures and face criminal allegations, they were able to “defend” domestic political positions. Their political parties grasp power. Therefore, until they are in control, it is unlikely for Kosovo to achieve democratic development. Some experts argue that the EU is to be blamed for this situation. They claim the European Union tolerated corruption in Kosovo’s leadership for too long (Hehir, 2018). Our research sees the problem in the EU also, but the main guilt bear Kosovo politicians themselves. Blaming the EU is not feasible, as its main desire is to develop Kosovo, not to corrupt it.


For now, Kosovo remains an unfortunate case of the EU conditionality application. Therefore, the question remains why Kosovo still haven’t reached the EU membership criteria relating to the democratic quality of the system? It is because the EU conditionality is not able to grapple with a high level of corruption in the Kosovo political leadership. Corrupted leaders have used the EU accession process to capture financial resources, institutions and decision power, causing a low democracy level. Significant remedies must be done to heal the rotten democratic system in Kosovo. Richter’s and Wunsch’s theory blames the EU for indirect approval of the corrupted elites in power. Polemics about how the EU could do more in overlooking these reforms are visible in the works of various experts and scholars. However, this research claims that corrupted elites have misused the EU. To tackle unfair political party financing, clientelism and unfair mechanisms of accountability, deeper domestic reforms are necessary. However, the change must come from inside. The 2019 parliamentary elections in Kosovo confirmed the state capture is real. It is proven by the fact that corrupted elites‘ political parties lost the parliamentary elections, showing that Kosovars are not willing to tolerate corruption anymore. The left-wing Vetevendosje political party victory is a success celebrated all over the state. It gives hope for a better future. The Vetevendosje leader called the victory “an intervention from the people in our political scene to prevent the drama of our state having a tragic end” (Zivanovic & Isufi, 2019). Previous leadership misused the EU accession process and buried democracy. However, with the new leaders, Kosovo has a chance to change a democratic level in the country and come closer to the EU membership. A recipe for success is evident. The new leaders should use money, power and glory to seek the progress of the EU democratic standards in Kosovo. Hopefully, the 2020 European Commission Report on Kosovo will confirm development in this effort.

Author: Ivan Iliev

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