Ethnic violence in Kosovo plays into the Kremlin’s hands

Kenneth R. Rosen

 

In this edition, a fragile peace is being tested in the Balkans.

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THE STORY

Last week, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy was the star of a European summit in the Moldovan capital Chisinau, praising the “powerful support” he had received from Ukraine’s allies. Elsewhere on the sidelines of the same conference, a rather more fraught conversation was taking place between the presidents of Kosovo and Serbia, under the concerned supervision of the leaders of France and Germany.

On May 26, ethnic tensions in northern Kosovo flared into days of violence, leading to 30 NATO peacekeepers being injured. NATO has now said it will send 700 more troops to add to its already 4,000-strong force in Kosovo. And Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic moved soldiers closer to the border and put the Serbian army on combat alert.

Russia weighed in almost as soon as the Kosovo police clashed with ethnic Serbian protesters on May 26. It blamed the Kosovan government’s “provocative steps, which have brought the situation close to the hot phase and directly threaten the security of the whole Balkans region.” But the Kremlin also added that, in its view, “the responsibility lies fully with the United States and the European Union” for not preventing Kosovo from inflaming an already sensitive situation. A Chinese spokesperson also emphasized Beijing’s support for “Serbia’s effort to safeguard sovereignty and territorial integrity.” 

Neither Russia nor China has recognized Kosovo as a sovereign state in the 15 years since it declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. Russia, a close ally of Serbia, has vetoed Kosovo’s bid to become a member of the United Nations. The U.S. and most of the EU, except for five of its members, have backed Kosovo. 

This most recent tension escalated in April when the ethnically-Serbian majority in northern Kosovo refused to participate in local elections. A historically low turnout, with just a handful of Serbs voting, resulted in ethnic Albanians being elected as mayors in Serb-dominated areas. The Serbs in these areas rejected the results and refused to let the mayors take office. Both the U.S. and the EU have said that, because Kosovo’s government chose to enforce the results, it was responsible for “escalating” the unrest.

Now, progress made in February and March to implement a mutually agreeable plan to normalize ties between Serbia and Kosovo lies in tatters.

WHY IT MATTERS

Serbia is one of the handful of European countries that offer visa-free entry to Russians. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than 200,000 Russians have decamped to Serbia. In December 2022, Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had a role in inflaming tensions between Serbia and Kosovo. At the time, ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo had set up barriers, effectively partitioning Kosovo and stopping Kosovan authorities from having unhindered access to certain regions. Kurti noted that Russia’s setbacks in Ukraine meant they had a renewed “interest in spillover.” They had, Kurti added, “interest in outsourcing their war-mongering drive to the Balkans where they have a client who’s in Belgrade.” 

Misa Vacic, the leader of the pro-Kremlin Serbia Right party, has been arguing that victory for Vladimir Putin in Ukraine would result in Serbia retaking Kosovo. In March, he told Politico that his supporters “must be patient and must wait to finish in Ukraine” before turning their attention to Kosovo.

During the violent protests in northern Kosovo last week, reports indicated that the letter “Z,” a Russian pro-war symbol, and Wagner Group logos, were widely evident. “Z” was even spray painted by protesters onto NATO vehicles.

“The war in Ukraine has set off alarms about the threat that Russia poses to the EU and the influence that Russia has in the EU neighborhood,” said Berta López Domènech​, a program assistant at the European Policy Centre. “And Vucic has managed to capitalize on this fear when sitting at the table with the EU, presenting Serbia as the guarantor of stability and security in the region to get concessions.”

Nearly four years ago, Ana Brnabic, the prime minister of Serbia, told an audience at Chatham House, an independent policy institute in London, that her country has, “traditionally, a good and close relationship with Russia based in the language and religion and culture.” But she didn’t think that closeness, or Serbia’s reliance on Russian energy, “interferes with our E.U. integration.” She recognized, however, that not finding a way to normalize relations with Kosovo meant putting “a leverage on who’s a friend of Pristina and who’s a friend of Belgrade.” 

The recent violence, even if the U.S. and the EU have rebuked Kosovo, pushes Serbia closer to its steadfastly uncritical Russian ally.

THE FALLOUT

Since 2022, Kosovo has been working toward becoming a member of the Council of Europe, an institution chiefly responsible for monitoring human rights across the continent. Serbia joined the Council in 2003. Kosovo submitted its bid for membership not long after Russia was expelled from the Council following its invasion of Ukraine. With Russia a primary obstacle to Kosovo’s attempt to join international organizations, it would presumably have been easier to join the Council of Europe in Russia’s absence.

Kosovo might have also expected Serbia, as part of a European-brokered agreement to normalize relations, to not stand in the way. But as ethnic tensions rise again, Serbia’s response to Kosovo’s bid to join the Council has been sour-tempered and churlish. In April, Kosovo took a significant step toward joining the Council. “This day,” thundered the Serbian foreign minister, “will remain as a day of shame for the Council of Europe.”

Ukraine was one of five countries to abstain from the vote, while seven countries voted against and 33 countries voted for the motion to pass Kosovo’s application on, to the Council’s parliamentary assembly. The Serbian foreign minister said he was “unpleasantly surprised” by Ukraine’s abstention. When “it comes to our territorial integrity, they abstain,” he told a Serbian news outlet. “This will definitely affect our position in the future.”

All this can only be music to the Kremlin’s ears. It was against the backdrop of the contentious proceedings at the Council of Europe that the elections in northern Kosovo took place, followed by violence just weeks later. 

Russia took the opportunity to double down on its support of Belgrade and the Serbs. In the face of Western sanctions, Moscow has been seeking to strengthen and deepen its ties to the nations where it still exerts some pull, whether economic, political or sentimental. And Serbia is the latest country to return Russia’s covetous gaze. 

It doesn’t take an alarmist to see that a war in the Balkans could fracture Europe and distract its politicians from a joint effort to resist Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “We have too much violence already in Europe today,” said Josep Borrell, the EU foreign affairs chief. “We cannot afford another conflict.”

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