Unification through the backdoor?
Albanians no longer need a residence permit to live and work in Kosovo. Analysts say the move brings Kosovo closer to joining the Western Balkans Mini-Schengen Initiative.
Albanians, if they wish, are now free to live, study and work in Kosovo after the government in Pristina approved an agreement reached earlier this month with the administration in Tirana.
Kosovars can also live and study in Albania, although those looking to work in the country will still need a permit.
The move comes at a time when the issue of the possible unification of Kosovo and the unification of Albania is once again in the limelight, mainly due to statements made by Kosovar officials and leading politicians. plan.
In January, a former prime minister and head of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj, said he would call for a referendum on unification if Kosovo did not make progress in its campaign to join the EU.
Albin Kurti, the current Prime Minister, said in February after winning parliamentary elections that he would vote “yes” in a referendum to unify Kosovo and Albania.
Not that a referendum is likely anytime soon: it would require a modification of the constitution of Kosovo which does not currently allow the attachment of the country to another.
Popular support for unification
Unification, or as many in both countries call it, reunification, enjoys broad popular support in both Albania and Kosovo.
A 2019 poll found that 75% of Albanians and 64% of Kosovars were in favor.
Until Kurti and Haradinaj made their statements earlier this year, however, the issue had not been on the agenda in both countries for some time.
Both countries held parliamentary elections this year, but the issue was almost completely ignored by mainstream parties on both sides of the border.
The real calls for unification would be delicate in the current atmosphere of the Balkans. Several so-called “non-papers” have circulated in the region in recent months, resurfacing the idea of border changes.
The EU and the US have made it clear that they vehemently oppose any proposal to redraw the region’s borders.
As such, Vladimir Gligorov, senior research associate at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw), says he doesn’t think removing temporary permits is a step towards unification.
“There is no doubt that Kurti is determined for Kosovo to integrate with Albania, but he has realized in the past that Kosovo’s constitution stands in the way. There is also no doubt that [Albanian PM Edi] Rama also supports Albanian unification, but this would run counter to Albania’s European ambitions. So unification is not in the cards, ”Gligorov explains.
The latest agreement, however, could be a sign that the two countries are becoming increasingly interdependent in social and economic terms.
“The point is that Kosovo would naturally turn to the Serbian market for geographic reasons and for comparative advantages. But these relationships are strained – and will remain so. Consequently, it is towards Albania that he will turn, in particular because of the access to the sea. And there is now a good road connection ”, declared Gligorov. Emerging Europe.
Dr Zijad Bećirović of the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, says the recent decision must be seen in the context of the Mini-Schengen initiative, a planned economic space and a common travel area including Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia, as well as – possibly – Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“The [Mini-Schengen] The declaration involves the removal of border controls and other obstacles for increased mobility in the region, which would allow citizens to travel with just a state ID card and find employment anywhere s ‘they have a qualification certificate,’ he explains.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Rama signed the declaration in October 2019. Since then, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro have expressed interest.
“The abolition of residence permits for Albanian citizens in Kosovo is a step towards Kosovo’s official accession to the Mini-Schengen initiative, as it is obliged to do under the  Washington Accord, ”said Bećirović Emerging Europe.
Until the signing of the Washington accord in September 2020 by Vučić and then Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti, Kosovo had previously refused to endorse the idea of Mini-Schengen for fear that it would fail. becomes an alternative to full membership of the EU.
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