The negative outcome of the UNESCO bid has sparked a discussion on Kosovo's international recognition strategy

10/11/2015 -  Violeta Hyseni Kelmendi

Kosovo’s failure in the bid to gain the UNESCO membership has disappointed its leadership, who vowed to continue with its efforts to be an equal member of international organizations. Most nations that participated in the vote at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris favoured Kosovo's membership. 92 backed the motion, 50 voted against and 29 abstained, meaning that Kosovo was only three votes short of the two/thirds majority required. The vote was opposed by Russia and Serbia, warning that allowing Kosovo in UNESCO would legitimize what they called Kosovo's self-proclaimed state and hurt an EU-brokered dialogue aimed at normalizing ties between the former foes.

Since the declaration of independence in February 2008, the youngest country in Europe was recognized by 111 states, but not from Serbia nor from two UN Security Council permanent members, Russia and China. Surprisingly, not all states that had recognized Kosovo supported its membership in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Instead, a number of these states abstained, including Japan, South Korea and Poland.


In his first reaction following the vote in Paris on Monday, the deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hashim Thaci said that Kosovo’s path is unstoppable. “The vast majority of the countries in the world have voted for Kosovo. Unfortunately, for only three votes we did not win the needed majority. During our public and confidential campaign, that lasted 10 months, we made all efforts, together with the Kosovo people and our allies, who also gave a lot. Kosovo’s road is unstoppable, and we will apply and join other organizations, including UNESCO once again," he said.

Kosovo's Prime Minister, Isa Mustafa, had earlier on Monday pledged to protect Serbian Orthodox Christian sites in a bid to allay the fears of countries opposed to its membership bid. Serbs consider Kosovo the cradle of their Orthodox Christian faith, and Serbia had warned that Orthodox monuments would have been at risk had Kosovo taken over their management.

According to Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić, Kosovo’s failure to become a member of UNESCO is a diplomatic victory. "This is a just and moral victory in almost impossible conditions, when what is right cannot count on the support of the majority," Nikolić said in a statement.

Father Sava Janjić, a Serb Orthodox monk at the UNESCO-listed Decani monastery in Kosovo - who opposed country’s membership in UNESCO - said the outcome was not directed against anyone. "For anyone who asks me who has won, I answer clearly - a chance for a fair dialogue and confidence building has won and not political pressures," he added.

Lessons learned

UNESCO's executive board recommended last month that the agency accepts Kosovo as a member, despite not being a UN member state. Authorities in Pristina were quite optimistic that Kosovo would win the membership in the UN cultural body. But what are the lessons learned from this unsuccessful bid? Dr Gëzim Visoka, a Lecturer of Peace and Conflict Studies at Dublin City University and an expert on post-conflict state building and foreign policy of small states, explains for OBC:

“Although Kosovo did not manage to secure membership in UNESCO short of three votes, the process and outcome reveals some important lessons. Kosovo’s campaign was well organised and admittedly managed to mobilise all societal sectors in Kosovo, and to attract wide international sympathy. However, the voting patterns in multilateral bodies differ from one organisation to another, and such patterns can change unexpectedly. Kosovo reaffirmed that it continues to enjoy extensive support from the democratic international community, whereas the majority of states that backed Serbia belong to different orientations in world politics”, Visoka said.

“Beyond Serbia’s rigorous campaign, the changing geopolitical constellations show that displaced events and processes have a direct impact on the struggle to join the international society. For example, it might be reasonable to speculate that Russia’s increased involvement in the Middle East significantly influenced the negative vote and abstention among some countries that have already recognised Kosovo. It is also important not to confuse diplomatic recognition with permanent support in multilateral forums. States vote in accordance with their own immediate interests. Therefore, Kosovo’s success in securing membership in international bodies can succeed only through cultivating and expanding the bilateral relations with other states on a continuous basis, not just on ad hoc campaigns”, he added.

On the other hand, the opposition MP Ilir Deda estimates that the failure of Kosovo to gain membership in UNESCO is also a failure of the Brussels process to normalize the relations between Kosovo and Serbia. “Kosovo should immediately stop the dialogue with Serbia and the implementation of the agreement on the Association of Serb-majority municipalities. Also, Kosovo should make clear to Serbia that without recognizing it as an independent state there is no sense to continue the dialogue”, Deda said.

But Gëzim Visoka argues that Kosovo would not achieve any benefits by interrupting the dialogue with Serbia. “The EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia has contributed to Kosovo’s campaign of diplomatic recognition and membership in regional and international organisations. In the past few years, some of the countries that have recognised Kosovo have explicitly mentioned the dialogue with Serbia as one of the justifications for recognising Kosovo. In lieu of this, withdrawing from the dialogue with Serbia would not be a good solution, because such a move could only undermine Kosovo’s domestic peace and Euro-Atlantic future, both equally important for securing full membership in the international society”, he said.

“However, what Kosovo can do is try to shape the present and future agenda of dialogue with Serbia in such a direction that Serbia would not impede Kosovo’s quest for recognition and membership of international organisations. Kosovo should insist that future agreements contain such provisions that would sanction Serbia’s ability to impede Kosovo’s membership in international bodies. That would open the doors for UN and other memberships, as well as further normalise bilateral relations between Kosovo and Serbia”, concludes Visoka.

Although this week Kosovo has failed to achieve UNESCO membership, it has so far managed to gain membership in the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Olympic Committee.

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