New Telegraph

Kosovo, Taiwan Sought Alliance Of Outsiders

Nowhere is Washington held in higher esteem than in the small Balkan nation of Kosovo. On Bill Clinton Boulevard in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, a statue of the former U.S. president waves cheerily to passersby.

Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright who in 1999 pushed for U.S. intervention against Serbia in the Kosovo War is honoured with a small plaza and bust near Pristina’s city center.

But the love is faltering. On April 23, Kosovo held elections in four majority-Serb municipalities in the north of the country.

Pristina’s refusal to address calls for greater autonomy in these districts led to a Serb boycott of the elections, leaving turnout at around 3.5 per cent.

Unopposed, the Albanian candidates were voted in. Violent protests ensued in late May when those candidates assumed the mayorships of the municipalities.

Serb protesters attacked Kosovar police and NATO peacekeepers, and dozens were injured on each side.

Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti branded the protesters a “fascist militia” and blamed Serbia and its populist President Aleksandar Vucic for orchestrating the boycott and unrest.

As a result of its displeasure with Kurti’s handling of the situation, Washington took a series of punitive measures, including excluding Kosovo from Defender 23, NATO’s largest-ever air drill, which ran for two months from the eve of the elections. A temporary freeze by Washington on diplomacy was reported, and the U.S. ambassador in Pristina, Jeffrey Hovenier, warned that enthusiasm for supporting Kosovo’s ascension to NATO and the United Nations had waned.

Watching with concern is Taiwan, whose exchanges with Kosovo in recent years have been facilitated by Washington a champion of these two small, internationally marginalised countries. Taiwan’s trade officials and experts view the Central and Eastern European countries (CEECs) as a gateway to the European Union, and they hope to cultivate deeper ties with the region.

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Although Kosovo is recognized by more than half of the United Nations’ 193 members and Taiwan enjoys full diplomatic relations with only 13 sovereign states, both countries have seen access to the U.N. and other international organisations blocked by hostile, more powerful neighbours.

These two larger countries—Serbia and China—deny the de facto independence of their smaller neighbours. Serbia’s statements on Kosovo might be a notch down from China’s bellicosity on Taiwan, but adjectives such as “inalienable” and “integral” routinely precede claims of sovereignty in the rhetoric issued from Beijing and Belgrade.

Support for Taiwan has grown among the CEECs in recent years, with the Czech Republic and Lithuania particularly outspoken in Taipei’s favour, and the latter country subjected to Chinese economic coercion for its troubles. The Western Balkans might seem peripheral to Taiwan’s ambitions, but growing discontent with China’s presence there has created a sense of opportunity that, with Washington’s backing, Taipei will hope to leverage.

“The CEECs showed an interest at the right moment,” said Marc Cheng, the executive director of the EU Centre in Taiwan—part of an international network of university-based institutions funded by the European Commission.

Cheng cities ”Taiwan mask diplomacy”—which saw Taipei’s donation of millions of masks to Europe reciprocated with tens of thousands of vaccines from Lithuania and Slovakia—as having driven engagement. There is also the sense of the Balkans as the last frontier in Europe.

“Emerging markets are always an opportunity,” Cheng told Foreign Policy. “So it makes sense that Taiwan has started to shift its focus east to the Balkans after some years of engagement with more central European countries.”

Albanian President Edi Rama captured the prevailing mood among the CEECs in February when he spoke of “zero” benefits to his country from the cooperative bloc between China and the CEECs. Previously dubbed the 17+1, the initiative was ostensibly Beijing’s attempt to promote cooperation on infrastructure, trade, and investment under its broader Belt and Road Initiative. Lithuania withdrew from the 17+1 in May 2021, with its fellow Baltic states Latvia and Estonia following suit a year later, reducing the initiative to 14+1.

All three countries cited respect for human rights and “the international rules-based order” as driving the decision.

Following a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in May, during which U.S. concerns about Chinese influence in the CEECs were discussed, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky dismissed the 14+1 as having “neither substance nor future.”

He emphasized Prague’s commitment to a “European framework” and close ties with Washington, a recurring theme among CEECs when discussing the initiative. The 14+1 is now widely viewed as part of a “divide-and-rule” strategy intended to drive a wedge between the CEECs and the West.

In the Balkans, frustrations with public infrastructure projects under the 14+1 include missed deadlines, spiralling costs (and, thus, debts from Chinese loans), and shoddy workmanship. China’s reticence to use local labour or to grant access to Chinese markets has also caused issues.

Unfulfilled pledges, a lack of transparency, and scant tangible benefits have led many leaders in the region to conclude that the initiative is little more than an attempt by Beijing to exert soft power influence.

Such concerns were manifest in the decision of most Balkan nations to join the Clean Network initiative launched by the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2020.

This program targets “intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party” by preventing the involvement of companies such as Huawei and ZTE in 5G networks.

“Originally, there was a big commitment from China, so the CEECs expected they could gain infrastructure, economic growth, and expanded market access to China,” Cheng said.

“But the result was empty words. And now it’s easy to see China’s image in the region is no longer one of a benign power.”

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