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Kosovo*: Its Footnote Is Both A Blessing And A Curse

An ethnic Albanian protester objects to the asterisk at a demonstration in Pristina in February 2012.
An ethnic Albanian protester objects to the asterisk at a demonstration in Pristina in February 2012.

For years, a simple asterisk affixed to the word Kosovo on official international documents and reports has eased diplomatic life for the fledgling country and former Serbian region.

That asterisk, which leads to a footnote stating that Kosovo's status still remains to be resolved under tenets of UN Security Council Resolution 1244, was described in 2012 by top Kosovar diplomat Edita Tahiri as a snowflake, but a snowflake that was about to melt.

But even today, 12 years later, this little piece of bureaucratic annotation stubbornly remains, adorning documents and press releases on Kosovo. It is a reminder that Kosovo's final status remains unresolved largely due to talks that have dragged on for years on normalizing ties with Serbia, which has never recognized Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence.

The declaration came after a bloody war in 1998 and 1999 between ethnic Albanians and Serbs and then a UN administration that lasted until the independence declaration in 2008.

More than 100 UN members have recognized Kosovo's independence, but others have not, including several EU states, plus Russia and, of course, Serbia, which has worked actively to block Kosovo from joining any international organizations. Widespread acceptance by the UN is no guarantee of statehood. Palestine has been recognized by more than 130 states at the UN but is not formally recognized as such.

People celebrate the 16th anniversary of Kosovo's independence in Pristina on February 16.
People celebrate the 16th anniversary of Kosovo's independence in Pristina on February 16.

After 2012, the practice of adding the asterisk was soon adopted by other international organizations. According to analysts, the annotation has allowed states and organizations, even ones that don't recognize Kosovo's independence, to engage and cooperate with Pristina.

"Since the status of Kosovo is the most sensitive issue in this conflict between Belgrade and Pristina, if [that] is left aside with a footnote, then the UN can work on other things, from the state building of Kosovo to the peace-building process between Kosovo and Serbia," said Pol Bargues, senior researcher at the Barcelona Center for International Relations, in comments to RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

This seemingly simple stroke also enabled Kosovo to cooperate with countries that did not recognize its independence, explained political analyst Donika Emini, and actually facilitated the signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the European Union.

That key pact, widely regarded as the first step toward eventual EU membership, was signed by Pristina and Brussels in 2015.

The Vote In The Council Of Europe

The use of the "snowflake" came up again recently when the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted on April 16 to recommend membership for Kosovo, a potential move deemed a major milestone in the young country's international integration.

That came after a recommendation from Council of Europe rapporteur Dora Bakoyannis, who drafted the "statutory opinion" recommending Kosovo's accession.

In that document, Bakoyannis, whose own country, Greece, is one of five members of the EU not to recognize Kosovo as independent, actually makes mention of the asterisk, or footnote, as "obsolete."

"The organization can no longer follow its neutral policy toward [Kosovo's] status once Kosovo is accepted as a member. As a result, the use of the footnote would not be necessary, thus rendering the current practice obsolete," it read.

There were hopes among Kosovars that the asterisk would only be a temporary measure.
There were hopes among Kosovars that the asterisk would only be a temporary measure.

PACE voted 131 to 29 in favor of Kosovo's accession, with 11 abstentions. Before the April 16 vote took place, the representative from Kosovo's parliament, Enis Kervan, urged PACE members to vote in favor of the report's recommendation.

"Membership of Kosovo in the Council of Europe is…a tangible step toward ensuring access to justice for all our citizens," said Kervan, a Kosovar parliamentary deputy from the Turkish Democratic Party of Kosovo.

The head of Serbia's delegation to the Council of Europe, Biljana Pantic Pilja, sharply opposed the report, pointing out that the establishment of a community of Serb municipalities -- a key sticking point -- is still an unfulfilled obligation on the part of Kosovo.

"If you allow so-called Kosovo to join the Council of Europe without prior establishment of the Community of Serb Majority Municipalities -- the Community of Serb Majority Municipalities will never be established," said Pilja from the ruling Serbian Progressive Party.

A final decision on whether Kosovo is admitted to the Council of Europe will be made by the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers, a vote that is expected next month.

Kosovo applied to join the council in May 2022, after Russia was expelled following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Kosovo's chances improved in March when the government of Prime Minister Albin Kurti granted 24 hectares of disputed land in western Kosovo to a Serbian Orthodox monastery, ending an eight-year stalemate that had harmed the country's reputation for protecting minority rights.

The Council of Europe has 46 member states, including all of the EU's own 27 members.

What Is The Footnote Agreement?

On February 24, 2012, within the dialogue for the normalization of relations, Kosovo and Serbia reached an agreement on regional representation, which later became known as the "footnote agreement."

Based on that, the asterisk would be added to any mention of Kosovo in official documents. Doing so would allow Kosovo to be represented on the regional and international stages.

Asterisk-designated Kosovo appeared on documents from the UN, EU, and other international institutions in the first years after Belgrade and Pristina reached agreement on it in 2012.

Kosovar passports lie on a check-in counter at Pristina airport as visa-free travel to the Schengen zone started for Kosovar citizens on January 1.
Kosovar passports lie on a check-in counter at Pristina airport as visa-free travel to the Schengen zone started for Kosovar citizens on January 1.

However, that usage has slipped somewhat in recent years, with the asterisk, for example, not visible on resolutions of the European Parliament, or in the documents of the Ohrid Agreement, a 2023 deal on normalizing ties between Serbia and Kosovo.

EU spokesman Peter Stano told RFE/RL that the asterisk is used in "all EU documents that reflect the official policies and positions of the EU" but not in the body's various statements to the media.

The annotation is sometimes forgotten and sometimes left out of documents on purpose, said researcher Bargues, but "EU member states that do not recognize Kosovo, like Spain, always use it."

Why Does It Matter?

While the asterisk may be on its way out, Emini said it will only vanish completely once Serbia and Kosovo come to an agreement on normalizing their ties. "Until there is another agreement, it will remain, because it also reflects the status of Kosovo in the international system as a state without a seat in the UN," said Emini.

Ker-Lindsay, who in 2012 wrote an article about the meaning of the footnote, said that it still matters -- both to Kosovo and Serbia. "Kosovo is not fully recognized on the world stage. But, at the same time, for Serbia, it represents a sign that Kosovo is not Serbia," said Ker-Lindsay.

Bargues, meanwhile, argues that the degree to which foreign states and institutions have cooperated with Kosovo has made the footnote only a "formality." "The interaction with Kosovo reveals that these states that have not yet recognized Kosovo are gradually taking steps toward accepting Kosovo, even if they still use the footnote. The fact that Spain allowed visa liberalization is another step," he explained.

Spain is one of the five EU countries -- along with Romania, Cyprus, Slovakia, and Greece -- that do not recognize Kosovo's independence.

Earlier, Spain did not recognize Kosovar passports but changed its stance after the liberalization of visas for Kosovo on January 1 of this year, thus enabling Kosovars to travel to Spain.

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