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Time for Greece to Lead on Kosovo

Can the new EU foreign affairs chief, Frederica Mogherini, move forward on the semi-frozen conflicts of the Western Balkans?

November 9, 2014

Credit: Gil C -

As the new European Commission begins work, what can it achieve? All attention is on Jean-Claude Juncker and his new team of Commissioners. Europe needs to get moving on as many fronts as possible. This includes foreign policy.

And here Greece, instead of being a passive recipient of EU policy, can make a critical contribution. Fifteen years ago, Greece transformed its global image by reversing decades of frozen relations with Turkey.

Greece reached out to Ankara following Turkey’s 1974 invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus. The Greek initiative helped open the way to Turkey being seen as a major partner of Europe, even as a potential EU member state.

The question today is this: Can Greece look north and help the new EU foreign affairs chief, Frederica Mogherini, move forward on the semi-frozen conflicts of the Western Balkans?

Enter, Kosovo

The newest European nation is Kosovo. Like other nations that emerged from the debris of Yugoslavia, Kosovo organized a passive resistance to Serb domination in the 1980s and 1990s.

When Slobodan Milosevic unleashed his militia warlords to try and keep Kosovo as a province under Serb control, a short sharp war of independence took place from 1998-99, which resulted in the Serbs finally giving up control.

In 2008, Kosovo declared itself an independent nation-state and was recognized as such by most world democracies but not Russia, where Putin led a global diplomatic campaign for his friends in Serbia to refuse recognition.

It didn’t work and Kosovo now has diplomatic relations with 110 UN member states – though Moscow still vetoes full UN membership.

Last month, however, the International Olympics Committee decided that Kosovo can take part in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games. With a population of fewer than 2 million, Kosovan athletes may not win many gold medals save perhaps in weight-lifting.

Nevertheless, the honor of participating in the Olympics will spur a new movement of sport in Kosovo which will give to many young people hope and something to train and strive for.

At the same time, the Serbian government hosted a visit by the Kosovo Foreign Minister, Enver Hoxhai – the first ever visit by a Kosovo foreign minister to Belgrade. The Belgrade foreign policy expert, Dragan Popovic, hailed Hoxhai’s visit as a breakthrough.

The highly important symbolic visit by the Kosovo foreign minister and the announcement that the IOC would admit Kosovo to the Olympic family is a major step forward in the long, hard process of reconciliation in the western Balkans.

It has been nearly 30 years since Slobodan Milosevic made his famous speeches near Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. It heralded the start of the long Yugoslavia conflict. A major collateral victim was Greece, as it lay helpless at the far end of a European region engulfed in war, violence, ethnic cleansing and refugee flows.

But as the rest of the EU and NATO backed Kosovo by recognizing its right to exist, Greece went into a diplomatic sulk.

Athens was already furious that Macedonia had taken the name of the northern region of Greece and the polarized nature of Greek politics meant that any politician who sided with Kosovo (and the United States, Kosovo’s main sponsor) would be accused of betraying Orthodox co-religionists in Serbia.

So while 110 nations have now established diplomatic relations with Kosovo, Greece is not one of them. Along with four other EU member states – Spain, Romania, Slovakia and Cyprus, Greece rejected the EU decision that Kosovo should be treated as a sovereign nation state.

Each country had its own reasons. Spain worried about Catalonia. Cyprus wondered if there was a precedent for the northern third of the island occupied by the Turkish army since 1974.

Romania and Slovakia were concerned about irredentist Hungarian nationalist politics which lays claim to Hungarian-speaking regions in both countries.

EU nations must stand united

But today it is the EU’s global foreign policy profile that looks weak and without credibility. Around the world the EU wants to be taken seriously as a global player but people ask how serious that claim can be when Europe cannot sustain a united line on something as relatively minor as recognizing a new European nation.

To be fair, Greece has positive relations with Kosovo. Greek businesses are present helping the Kosovan economy grow. Greek diplomats at a representation office in Pristina do effective and respected work.

But Athens can take a further step and give important encouragement to Frederica Mogherini by joining with fellow EU member states and offering full diplomatic recognition to Kosovo.

Cyprus can do likewise. The island state is under pressure from Turkey over its territorial water rights. Cyprus needs all the EU support it can obtain and the best way to achieve this would be to show unity with the major EU foreign policy players by recognizing Kosovo.

Diplomatic recognition is not a cure-call for problems in the Western Balkans. But non-recognition is self-defeating. The Greeks are more Serb than the Serbs who are now coming to terms with Kosovo’s existence.

The United States refused to open an embassy in Soviet Russia and communist China for years, until reality kicked in.

Greece should quietly shelve its non-recognition of Kosovo and invite Frederic Mogherini and Jean-Claude Juncker to open the Greek embassy in Pristina. It would demonstrate that Greece was now contributing a solution to the EU’s many problems.


Greece can contribute to the EU by being active in policy areas where there is no direct financial cost.

Can Greece help Frederica Mogherini move forward on semi-frozen conflicts of the Western Balkans?

Greece should quietly shelve its non-recognition of Kosovo.