Europe keeps anxious eye on Kosovo and Serbia – POLITICO
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PRISTINA, Kosovo — The panic has died down — for now, at least — after a border dispute last week stoked fears that Kosovo and Serbia were headed for another war on European soil.
On the ground here, people have played down those possibilities, pushing back against the wild speculation — and misinformation — circulating on social media. For locals, these intermittent outbreaks are a regular occurrence and not necessarily a harbinger of a return to the fighting and bloodshed that dominated the Balkans in the 1990s.
Yet with Russia’s full-scale war raging in eastern Ukraine, Europe is on edge.
The underlying tensions that sparked last week’s dispute are not going away. And leaders on both sides are still exchanging heated speeches. Meanwhile, the new rules that sparked protests last week have simply been delayed for a month, leaving the issue unresolved.
NATO and the EU are also deeply tied to local peacekeeping efforts, giving the institutions another potential flashpoint as they already struggle to retain their unity toward Ukraine.
“There have been discussions around the world about the next war that will break out in Kosovo,” said Donika Emini, an expert on Kosovo-Serbia dynamics who leads a network of civil society groups. “This had never happened before – we had crises much worse than the one [last week] and the global public barely paid them any attention.
“But,” she added, “because of the war in Ukraine, everyone is on high alert.”
POLITICO breaks down exactly what happened last weekend and what to expect in the weeks to come.
What caused the latest disagreement?
The row, which has been going on since at least September last year, boils down to Kosovo wanting to exert greater influence over the ethnic Serb majority concentrated in the north of the country. Serbia, a neighbor of Kosovo, does not recognize Kosovo’s independence and has opposed these measures.
Last weekend, Kosovo Serbs were reacting specifically to a new measure that would require them to use Kosovo-issued license plates and people entering the country via Serbia to receive special entry documents.
Protesters blocked roads near the border. Barricades were erected. Speculation spread of rioters firing shots at Kosovo police – but it was later confirmed that there were no injuries.
Almost a week later on Saturday, shots were fired in the direction of a boat carrying Kosovar police as it attempted to launch a border patrol formed along what Serbs call Gazivode or Lake Ujman, according to Kosovo authorities. The lake is also part of an ongoing dispute between the two countries and was briefly renamed Trump Lake in 2020 when the former US president became involved.
The situation was tense enough that the local NATO-led peacekeeping mission, known as the Kosovo Force, or KFOR, issued a statement saying it was “ready to intervene if the stability is threatened”.
Yet on the ground, the protests weren’t necessarily so dire. Just an hour from the barricades, a huge open-air concert in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, went on as usual.
After a late night meeting Last Sunday between Kosovo’s president, prime minister and foreign minister with the US ambassador to the country, Kosovo authorities postponed the implementation of the disputed measures by a month until September 1.
The main cause of these incidents is widely considered to be the steady deterioration of the EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, which was launched in 2011 precisely to resolve unresolved technical issues – such as license plates or the mutual recognition of university degrees.
“Since September last year, the two sides have been trying to work out the details of the license plate agreement within the Brussels dialogue and have been unsuccessful,” Emini said.
What’s the larger story?
The Western Balkan region saw much fighting and bloodshed during the 1990s as Yugoslavia disintegrated, triggering successive wars between its former republics.
Nationalist politicians and inter-ethnic tensions regularly cause outbreaks even today, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. But since 1999, nothing has reached the scale of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
In 2008, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. Over the past two decades, the country has seen more NATO, UN and EU involvement than any other European country in order to avoid possible bloodshed.
“There are incidents in northern Kosovo almost every six months and unfortunately this is not new for Kosovo,” Emini said. “It shows how much we have normalized incidents – which is very bad. You are playing with fire, because one day these incidents may well get worse than we think.
Who commands now in Kosovo and Serbia?
In Kosovo, Prime Minister Albin Kurti took office in 2021, winning the elections by a historic majority at the head of the Vetëvendosje party, known for criticizing the disproportionate influence of international groups on the country’s internal affairs.
Since taking office, Kurti has taken a more confrontational approach than many of his predecessors in both the EU and Serbia.
“The current government campaigned on the idea that dialogue was inherently asymmetrical, that more was always expected from Kosovo than from Serbia,” said Ramadan Ilazi, research director at the Kosovo Center for Security Studies.
Kurti has also been more assertive towards the country’s Serbian ethnic minority, which is concentrated in the northern enclaves, where time has more or less stood still since 1999. The Serbian dinar is still widely used in these areas and Belgrade continues to fund their health and education systems. . Many residents have only Serbian nationality, even though they live on the territory of Kosovo.
For years, Kosovo’s governments have chosen to treat these northern territories with caution, even though the country’s constitution technically gives it the right to exercise sovereignty over the region. Kurti has gone in a different direction, regularly sending special police units up north to deal with issues ranging from illegal smuggling to protests.
On the Serbian side, President Aleksandar Vučić also did not hesitate to clash, accusing Kosovo of provoking the expulsion of Kosovo Serbs with his recent measures. He warned: “If they dare to start persecuting Serbs”, then “there will be no surrender and Serbia will win”.
Many interpreted the remarks to mean that Serbia would react militarily.
What role do NATO and the EU play?
Should fighting break out, Kosovo and Serbia are bound by an agreement in which NATO has the final say.
The pact gives Kosovo something akin to NATO’s Article 5 protections – which deems an attack on one member of the military alliance to be an attack on all members – even if Kosovo is not not a member of NATO. In addition to NATO-led troops on the ground, NATO can immediately deploy an over-the-horizon force or a relief force in-country if needed.
The EU also plays a role in crisis management. While the Kosovo police are the first to respond to an incident in the country – as they were last Sunday – the local EU mission is next. An EU-funded international police force has been given special capabilities, particularly in the north, to help with “operational crowd and riot control”.
NATO is the last option, a fail-safe if the situation escalates into serious violence.
“They can take full control of the situation if they believe the developments compromise or harm safety and security,” Ilazi said.
What happens next?
For now, the barricades have been lifted. But the measures that brought them up were only pushed back to September 1 in the hope that a solution could be found.
EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borell has confirmed that the two sides will meet in Brussels on August 18.
Still, the prospect of the issue being resolved within a month seems slim.
Tuesday, Vučić, the Serbian president, said he was ready to travel to Brussels to meet Kurti in search of an agreement. But, he added, he “expects nothing from the meeting”.
“Anyone who thinks it is possible to keep peace with Albin Kurti is wrong,” Vučić told Serbian public broadcaster RTS.
Russia has also been drawn into the conflict because of its close relationship with Serbia, leading people to blame Kremlin propaganda for fueling tensions. Kurti even urged citizens not to “fall prey to Moscow’s propaganda” after Sunday’s events.
But the Kosovar leader must distinguish between warning of deceptive Kremlin overtures and not making Kosovo Serbs feel alienated.
“The North has been portrayed as the boogeyman, so they don’t inherently believe that the Kosovo government really cares about their well-being,” Ilazi said.
According to Ilazi, the best way for Kosovo to make progress is to advance the EU-led dialogue and make it more attractive for local Serbs to shift their loyalties, at least formally, from Belgrade to Pristina.
“The two possible outcomes of the recent incidents are either a further push to finally resolve outstanding issues, or a regression of the situation and the progress made so far being entirely undone,” Ilazi said.